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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Historical Roots of Cultural Policy

The ideas which have informed cultural policy come from many sources -- from traditional practices in diverse societies, from philosophers and theoreticians, from accounts of history and utopian speculations.

Courts, churches, legislatures, and patrons have for many centuries made decisions about whether, why and how to support work in the arts and cultural facilities; about the language and religion of a society; and about such issues as proper dress and behavior. Philosophers and historians have had a good deal to say about the conduct of a society with respect to culture. In every society and every period of history, people have made choices about the culture they would build, how to express their aspirations and fears, how to embody their values in rituals and celebrations. But the concept of a special socio-cultural responsibility for democratic governments is a relatively new invention. The idea of cultural policy as such came into currency after World War II.

In the discourse which has since ensued, the idea of cultural democracy has emerged as the major innovation in cultural policy. Cultural ministers throughout the world became interested in the idea because of their alarm over social trends that are being felt globally: the proliferation of electronic mass media, urbanization, "modernization," along with the individual alienation and deracination which accompany them. Taken together, these phenomena have come to be known internationally as the "Americanization" of culture. These factors coalesce to breed a pervasive social passivity dangerous to democracy, eroding traditional cultural activities, and replacing them with mind pap like I Love Lucy in forty-seven different languages, emanating primarily from U.S.-based cultural industries.

Of course, these same forces have been at work far longer within the United States than anywhere else -- for so long, some would say, that most of us are oblivious to the domestic cultural imperialism that dominates our national culture. It is therefore unfortunate that this discussion was conducted in terms of "Americanization," as it tended to obscure the deep domestic effects of this complex of cultural forces in the United States and, eventually, to excite U.S. opposition to Unesco altogether(as discussed in the Webster's World sections on U.S. policy and on International Organizations).

Whenever this topic is raised, you'll find people defending the U.S. against the charge of cultural invasion with the argument that nobody's forcing people into the cinemas -- everyone wants our art, clothes, food, and television quite simply because they're the best. Meanwhile, our own regional, local, and minority traditions are endangered by the same unfettered commercial culture. We stand to gain a great deal by involving ourselves in this global discussion, for the light it can shed on how to keep the multiplicity of our own cultural traditions alive.

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