Who has access to ‘culture’? Who gets to define it?

Last week, I wrote a response to a blog by Judith Dobrzynski in which she asked, “Are we, as a country, defining the arts down?”  I essentially challenged her question. Responses to my blog varied, with one person calling my views ‘nonsense’. A few days ago, I happened to read a provocative new pamphlet by Counterpoint, the British Council’s think tank, called “Culture and Class,” which goes straight to the crux of last week’s conversation. Author John Holden describes a culture war being waged on two fronts:  the first concerns who has access to ‘culture’ (as traditionally defined) and the second concerns who gets to decide what ‘culture’ is, in the first place.

The director of Counterpoint writes in the preface to the pamphlet:  “… at a time when we know that the gap between rich and poor is at its widest, worldwide, and likely to widen as the economic recession deepens, we are entirely failing to address the direct role played by culture in perpetuating these distinctions.” Using the UK as a case study, Holden argues for a more democratic definition of culture as the first step towards a more egalitarian society.  

To achieve a more democratic culture, he asserts that two things need to happen in parallel: a shift from cultural exclusion to cultural inclusion and a shift from culture defined by a narrow elite to culture created by everyone. He then describes three different groups that affect the ability of people to participate in culture, as follows:

  • The cultural snobs are a small but still influential group, typified not only by their allegiance to certain art forms and periods, but by their insistence that only the already educated should enjoy them.
  • The neo-mandarins are ‘cultivated’ and are cultural enthusiasts who wish to share their enthusiasms with others. They believe it is patronizing to assume that anyone is incapable of understanding and enjoying culture and are keen to educate them in ‘high’ culture.
  • The new cosmopolitans respect, enjoy, and are knowledgeable about Shakespeare, Berlioz, and Fra Bartolommeo and the rest [but also] find cultural quality (meaning emotive power, intellectual stimulation, inventiveness and skill) in popular music, folk art, product design, Youtube uploads – and even in new media and film. The fact that some of these are readily embraced by masses of people and are ‘popular culture’ does not bother them. 

I was glad to see all three of these perspectives (and others) represented in the volley of comments to last week’s blog.  The conversation about how ‘culture’ (or ‘art’) is defined and who gets to define these terms is an important one; and “Culture and Class” is a stimulating text on the topic.

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  1. says

    As an individual artist, I am finding this conversation very interesting. I have just read The Excellence Barrier, and found it really touches a nerve. I am not “high” art. I don’t even like much of what is touted as art. It is too cold and intellectual for me. And I struggle daily with the question “who is my art for?” and “What need does it meet?”, along with how do I reach them.

    Much of what you spoke of in this article is applicable, I think, to me as an individual artist. The concepts of “demystifying” my techniques, of educating my community, of reaching out in a way that lets members of my community participate in art with me–these concepts are finding a home in my soul. Thank You.

    Thank you also for contacting about your new post and for the link to the John Holden article. I have downloaded it and the one suggested by Tim DuRoche so that I can study them soon.

    I was looking for a way to subscribe to your blog so that I can find it again easily, as I am not active on twitter or facebook.

  2. says

    I just wanted to drop in and say thanks, Diane, as I had a great conversation yesterday with a friend at work on this very topic and the post had helped me think about my feelings on it. I’m decidedly for the democratization of culture and am going to have to read these pamphlets in detail soon to get a better sense for where I fall on the spectrum!

  3. Theresia G says

    I think the arts, if they want to survive and be meaningful within the context of our changing society do need to seriously reconsider how they interact with their audiences… for too long they have considered themselves royalty and it is time they came down from their pedestal and became ‘servants’ again… The way arts building are conceived does not help one bit in their endeavour to become more inclusive, as museums, arts centres and venues are really more like churches than vibrant interactive places; I see this all over the place: arts buildings are hallowed ground, where you have to speak in hushed voices and bow low in ‘respect’; there is a presumption of excellence which is questionable… and the ‘reverence syndrome’ is alienating. It keeps people out rather being inviting… the whole message is : you have to be worthy to enter this place. Culture and the arts are basically taking themselves far too seriously… the emphasis should be on inclusivity, conviviality and the human experience… not solemnity, starkness and anonymity


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