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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cultural Policy Around the World

The challenges to democratic cultural development outlined above are global, but they manifest in different ways from place to place, depending upon local social and political conditions.

For developing societies, the crucial question has been how to preserve and extend indigenous traditions, which root them strongly in the past and provide their deepest sources of energy and inspiration; and at the same time, to take what's best from the industrialized world without being inundated by it. Most developing societies have been struggling to overcome a long history of cultural colonization -- the fact that their theaters, libraries, and airwaves are dominated by the cultures which colonized them centuries ago. But they want to avoid retreating to mere nostalgia, creating an equally artificial culture which has nothing to say to the real conditions of contemporary life. They want to find the best ways to shape modernization when it comes. For instance, in the developing world, it's often not a question of how to reshape existing broadcasting systems, but how to develop mass media in the first place.

For industrialized societies, the challenges are at once similar and different. For instance, when cultural policy-makers in Europe first began their post-War program of "democratizing high culture," they tried many different approaches: blockbuster museum shows were promoted like movies, to draw big crowds; ticket-subsidy programs were designed to lure less affluent people into the concert halls; or artists were bused out to perform for captive audiences in schools and hospitals; to name a few examples. But no matter what was tried, the segment of the population which voluntarily participated in prestige arts activities remained the same: a very small percentage of the public, highly educated, financially well-off, and middle-aged or older (just as in the United States).
Facing the indifference and hostility of the vast majority of their populations -- sometimes referred to as "non-publics," to indicate their disinterest in establishment culture -- European policy-makers reinterpreted their own roles. They began to see themselves as needing to address the many cultures within their societies, not simply promoting the traditional "high art" culture favored by wealthy patrons in the past. Instead of focusing on how to lure people into established arts institutions, these cultural ministers turned to a set of much broader social questions:

  • How can we begin to overcome the already-entrenched alienation of modernization?
  • How can we retrieve and preserve relevant traditions?
  • How might we facilitate cross-cultural communication, even cooperation?
  • How can we help animate community life?
It was at this stage that cultural democracy emerged as the leading edge of cultural policy in Europe, at least in policy-makers' rhetoric. From the mid- to late-'70s, it looked as if cultural democracy would become the primary strain in European cultural development. But with Thatcherism in Britain and other strong right-wing voices affecting the cultural policy dialogue, there's been a lot of retrenchment since. These trends accelerated through the Nineties, with governments throughout Europe and around the world "privatizing " functions formerly considered essential aspects of the public cultural commonwealth.

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