Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What is a Democratic Culture?

"If art which is now sick is to live and not die, it must in the future be of the people, for the people, by the people; it must understand all and be understood by all" - William Morris


John Holden is an associate of the U.K. based think tank Demos. Holden's expertise is culture, and he has a new report out on the web I found interesting. If is offered freely as a PDF, and it's entitled Democratic Culture.

As I began reading, I realized something important...I already knew and used this word in discussions and short pieces of writing, but I had failed to grasp exactly what the word "culture" meant to me...or how I would define the term. Even the Wikipedia article on culture begins with this sentence:
Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning "to cultivate") is difficult to define.

So perhaps I'm not alone in my confusion and my inability to nail down a meaning of one of the most important ingredients of humanity?

Holden mentions three interrelated spheres of culture which I would like to touch on and try to define each one as I currently understand them.

  • Publicly funded culture

  • Commercial culture

  • Home-made culture

In my small acreage of the world, publicly funded culture would dismiss the roots culture excluding an occasional journey into our past as a way to share the historical arts...our heritage. Public funding sounds great at first, but at least in the southern part of the states, what it means is a select few in a hierarchical system choose what stays and what gets culled. With this type of culture, even the arts become a top-down structural enterprise which is well known for it's ability to turn the majority of the people into the powerless and the minority of the people into the elitist.

Commercial culture again falls into the top-down structure where marketing and mass media dictate the terms of culture, of which we are all expected to adhere. Mass production and mass consumption is a false culture in my opinion, and robs the people of the real culture of the people. Our artists suffer in this form of culture, and I agree with Holden that success or failure is completely market driven and access into the popular culture is controlled by a mandarin class. So many great artists and artisans never get an opportunity and the people, as well as our artists, suffer from this cultural desert.

Then finally there is what Holden calls home-grown culture. We all are familiar with folk culture, but I think Holden's idea of home-grown takes this much farther and relates how changes in awareness and connectedness come into play in a web driven society. Home-grown better describes the collaborative culture in my opinion, by expanding the spectrum of historical folk arts with the new independent arts of the here and now and the what will be. Creativity has exploded due to the available venues given us through the web. With the growth of independent artistry on the web, we see the decision of what is quality art is being placed more and more into the hands of those who actively collaborate and support these independent artists within the participatory communities that are growing and redefining value.

Now exactly how do we define "democratic culture"? UNLV operates a research and public service organization called Center for Democratic Culture According to their mission statement:
Civil society thrives in the culture which encourages trust, tolerance, prudence, compassion, humor, and withers away when overexposed to suspicion, hatred, vanity, cruelty, and sarcasm.
According to Jack Balkin, a democratic culture is a culture in which individuals have a fair opportunity to participate in the forms of meaning-making that constitute them as individuals. Democratic culture is about individual liberty as well as collective self-governance; it concerns each individual's ability to participate in the production and distribution of culture. Removing the political, economical, and cultural elitists from their thrones and allowing everyone a chance to participate in the production of culture, sounds like a wonderful idea in my opinion.

Holden goes on to say that arts are indeed "special", but they are also simultaneously, inextricably and healthily part of the everyday. As a supporter of Whole Wheat Radio and also of Folkstreams, I definitely believe art can be found readily in the everyday of our existences here on earth. Our people and their home-grown cultures add so much richness to our world, and they create an unparalleled source of art which should be given a rightful place among what I would consider a democratic culture. As Holden mentions however, defining art can be just as problematic as defining culture.

Holden mentions three gatekeepers who work towards keeping the public out of the creation of culture through their respective practices of exclusivism.

The first gatekeeper is professionalism. Holden notes that at it's worst, professionalism could become malign or antagonistic professionalism.

Just a personal note...I had a lifetime in the work force installing fire protection piping...and I always viewed my work as an example of personal art. An art that could only be appreciated by the few other professionals in the fire protection trade...but regardless, the completed system's symmetry and functionality could still be considered an art form within this small niche. Perhaps creating a culture of and by the people will be more about these niches and their cross collaboration between other niches...perhaps? No?

The next gatekeeper listed is the snob culture, which is elitist in nature but a group which can be diluted as more people acquire access to these arts. Arts such as opera, ballet, and drama are more readily accesible with the Internet and I would think this has the possibility of diluting the power within any elitist group. Although there is nothing which can be compared to attending a live performance, appreciation for the art can be spread via the web quite easily which tends shift all of the people into the horizontal world of cultural decisions.

The third gate-keeper mentioned is the avant-garde opposition to democratic culture. According to Holden, the avant-garde must either alienate or completely withdraw from the public in order to maintain it's own self-worth and status.

Holden holds that there is a way out of the opposition between authority and anarchy, between cultural exlusivism and a debased, diluted popular culture.
In culture, we will have to stop thinking of a dispute between high and popular culture, and enter into public debate about cultural quality wherever it is manifested across all three spheres of publicly funded, commercial and home-made culture...in opera, crime writing, ballet, salsa, art galleries, TV, MySpace and so on.

I see we have the opportunity to initiate needed change and build our own culture...one that we decide is best for all inhabitants and one which we decide has value. However, having the opportunity and actually utilizing that opportunity are still worlds apart in my humble opinion. As was pointed out yesterday by fellow collaborators, Google's resources are so highly under utilized, it is almost embarrassing to be a member of the human race.

I see a need for all of the people to work toward the development of more participation and better cooperation. I see a place where the educators are likely to become the student, and the student will likely take on the role of educator. We have drawn too many lines and hailed democracy as a true gift of humanity. I think it's time, now that we have the opportunity, we actually tried to collaborate and see if it truly is a gift! If it is a gift, I think it's time we unwrapped it and used it for the people!

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