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Democratising Culture


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What are the forces that contribute to cultural innovation and change, and how should cultural policies and institutions approach it, given their various (purist, modernist, nationalist, economic) agendas? In this exploration, I try and argue for the role played by "ordinary people" through their diffused but pervasive "everyday actions and practices", suggesting that this is a vital and democratic force that must be championed at all costs as it is essential to building social capital. In our increasingly globalized and corporatized society, the role of the ordinary person is gradually transforming from an active agent-creator to a passive recipient-consumer, leaving less and less scope for individual creativity and innovation. While this triggers a subversive and tactical re-appropriation of cultural goods as shown by de Certeau, I ask why artistry and culture cannot remain a common, affordable and easily-accessible praxis as it still does in Indian and other "poor & under-developed" societies, rather than turning into a premium and exclusive commodity.

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Democratising Culture

  1. 1. democratising culture a designer‐curator’s view
  2. 2. cultural change • individuals, institutions, the environment and chance—all  participate in and contribute to the transformation of culture • it is not always organic, benign or inclusive  – colonization, globalization, ‘knowledge economics’, etc. • the state, institutions and industry & commerce are the  empowered authors & engineers of (cultural) change…  – leaving very little room for the public except as subjects/recipients
  3. 3. massive & pervasive subversion • there is less and less that the public (the non‐producers of  culture, the marginalised majority) can actively do, except try  to resist and re‐appropriate the dominant, imposed culture  via “everyday acts of subversion” – reading, talking/narrating, playing, using, walking, wearing, dwelling,  cooking… • we should not underestimate its contribution to cultural  transformation • however, we must ask if this strengthens society on the whole  or not…  • …and if it is truly democratic or not DE CERTEAU, 1988
  4. 4. what is ‘social capital’? • that in life which tends to… count for most in the daily lives of  people… goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social  intercourse (HANIFAN, 1913) • connections among individuals… and the norms of reciprocity  and trustworthiness that arise from them (PUTNAM, 2000)
  5. 5. the state and social capital • modernists believed that informal systems (of organization  and management) need to be replaced with formal ones. – rational bureaucracy constitutes the essence of modernity (WEBER) • however, informal coordination persists—and has become  even more important as economic activity becomes more  complex and technologically sophisticated. • social capital (an aggregate of informal coordinations) is a  byproduct of (many) factors outside the control of  governments. – like religion, shared histories, social systems, tradition, etc.  • unlike economic policies & institutions, social capital cannot  be easily created or shaped by public policy. FUKUYAMA, 2000
  6. 6. how can states nurture social capital? • governments best produce social capital via education. • they can indirectly nurture it by providing vital public goods  and ensuring property rights and public safety. • they can have a serious negative impact on social capital  when they start to undertake activities better left to private  sector or civil society. FUKUYAMA, 2000
  7. 7. ideas for enhancing social capital • family ties • (socialisation through) education • community participation & volunteering • urban & housing design • community facilities/assets (galleries, museums, libraries,  history/heritage, sports) • internet & telecom • csr • citizen participation in governance PRODUCTIVITY COMMISSION OF AUSTRALIA, 2003
  8. 8. • where is culture? where are the arts? – the arts offer a unique means of connecting us to our common humanity.  (HAVEL) • we need better explorations and understandings of the  dynamics between arts & culture and social capital
  9. 9. culture = institutions & artefacts • January 16, 2010 • Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed as ‘unfortunate’ the failure of four premier cultural institutions in Kolkata to fully utilise a special allocation of Rs.90 crore (=SEK 150 million) given for modernisation. – “Each of these institutions is a cultural icon in the country. Unfortunately, these institutions have not been able to fully utilise this grant in the first year…” – “I do hope that these four institutions will work harder to use the allocated funds to introduce state-of-the-art systems of preservation, display and storage of their priceless antiquities, paintings and manuscripts…”
  10. 10. • where is the public? – in enshrining art within ... ‘temples of culture’ … we may have lost touch with  the spirit of art: its direct relevance to our lives … art became something that  we watch other people do … rather than something we do ourselves. (NEA,  1997) • …alternatively, are we (the ‘high priests’) failing to notice,  appreciate and celebrate the ‘art’ of ordinary people? • …what are we doing?
  11. 11. Regime Culture and Instrumentalized Art • in the age of globalization, leaders of the state produce a specific kind of culture, called “regime culture”—which reinforces the power of the existing regime • it features – patriotism – values financial success – a narrow definition of family values – a culture of fear limiting civil liberties – reinterprets the past – legitimates the status quo, and – tolerates racism • culture has been increasingly used in a specific direction: instrumentalized culture • a contributor to economic development, fostering the growth of an economically productive “creative class” • its critical and transcendent potential has been eviscerated • instrumentalization may help artists in the short run, it poses a danger to the ultimate social role of the arts • policies generated around the of a “creative class”, and the use of the arts as a tool of economic development, are becoming the norm • globalization accentuates each of these tendencies MARCUSE, 2007
  12. 12. The future of art in postcultural democracy • Has the future of art fallen irredeemably into the grip of the ‘creative industries’ directed by a consortium of public and private cultural entrepreneurs? • Is democracy the natural guardian of artistic independence? • Or has the cultural policy agenda of neoliberal democracy solidified into a managerial instrumentalization of art geared to the functions of the market and the state? • The authors are independent curators operating from dissident research groups whose aim is to challenge the dominant neoliberal model of cultural enterprise and offer viable alternatives to it. APPIGNANESI, 2007
  13. 13. • state attitudes about arts and culture tend to be biased,  dogmatic and instrumentalist – elitist, modernist, nationalist, economic… • even when they are openly debated, the resulting policies are  rarely democratic – in the sense of being conceptualised  around people’s cultural needs, aspirations and practices
  14. 14. the economic pyramid purchasing power population
  15. 15. the culture pyramid states,  institutions,  industry &  commerce population power people
  16. 16. • we need a rich, vibrant and seamless ecosystem of arts &  culture entities, spaces and opportunities, that places people  at its centre (as producers) and also the periphery • remaining alert to:  – the hijacking of culture and cultural innovation by any elite and/or the  bureaucracy – an imposition of ‘regime culture’  – instrumentalization of the arts & culture for economic or other agenda – adoption of uncritical populism as the sole criterion, and rejecting other  perspectives on quality and value
  17. 17. towards a ‘cultural democracy’? • the right to culture for everyone – right to PRODUCE and PRACTICE, not just CONSUME or CONSERVE • active participation in cultural life – celebrating and respecting all forms (HIGH/LOW, etc.) – recognizing & valuing participation • participation in policy decisions – LISTENING to people • fair and equitable access to cultural resources and support – creating CONDITIONS and STRUCTURES for universal ACCESS (particularly  for the MARGINAL) • however, even these can easily turn into a patronage system if  culture were to be separated from other activity INSTITUTE FOR CULTURAL DEMOCRACY, 1995/98
  18. 18. • current progressive thinking almost exclusively targets the  internet as the new ‘public sphere’ and as the new site for  cultural creativity, citizenship and democracy – the values and intentions are indisputable, but the forms are dangerous • perhaps true and applicable to wealthy nations, it aggravates  the crisis of poorer nations  – pushes us harder on the prescribed vector of development and quality of life  (when we really need to pause, reflect and maybe even reverse forward) – accelerates the obsolescence of daily architectures of living (and their  replacement with global products, services and aesthetics – rather than their  validation and strengthening) and their repackaging as exotic (and premium)  cultural commodities
  19. 19. so… • let us never forget… – culture is not development – culture is not business – culture is not institutions – it is not a bounded field or area, nor even a vector – it is not a discipline or theory – it is above and beyond, it is our everyday practice • culture is our interface between inner/spiritual and  outer/material worlds • art is the technology of culture
  20. 20. • can we return artistry and culture to the people? • in forms by which it strengthens social capital… • …and prevent it from becoming a commodity?
  21. 21. visual thesis the case of india NOTE: all images used here are downloaded from the internet and are somebody  else’s creativity and property. i am indebted to them for sharing them online.
  22. 22. some possible principles… • people are cultural innovators – living culture is about people; not only some people but all people – it is what they can and want to do, not what we want them to do – we must create the best possible conditions for this – left to themselves, they do very well – and generate massive social capital • rules and laws – accept the defeat of modernist and globalist utopias – have rules & laws, but accept their limitations – intrinsic (organised around inner order) vs. extrinsic (organised around external order) • commerce and technology – can be highly empowering for culture, but also severely crippling – encourage them, but don’t accord them superior status – retain space for everyone, particularly the marginalised – retain free access to knowledge and cultural resources, discourage commodification and  ownership
  23. 23. a possible ecosystem… • we can direct art & design to serve and strengthen people’s creativity—and  thereby fuel cultural innovation at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ as well… – 1. propositions • art works and visions (i.e. expositions, publications) • products (i.e. business) – 2. services • architecture • masonry • carpentry • tailoring • surface decoration • … – 3. tools • inspirations and ideas (i.e. publications) • tool‐products (i.e. business) – 4. spaces • training (i.e. education) • infrastructures & systems • platforms & opportunities
  24. 24. many (im)possible ideas… • (most of these will not materialize) – playgrounds of culture – culture & identity curriculum – design serves craft – reverse ethnography – art@center (for the 2011 indian art summit) – future india report/conference on wheels – a.ha = architecture of happiness – ngo 2.0 – srishti center for contemporary arts – srishti regional arts & culture center – …
  25. 25. “culture is too precious to be left  in the hands of experts…”