Cultural mediators and cultural democratization at an age of doubt : a triple critical heritage

Nathalie Montoya, lecturer at the Université Paris Diderot, studies the work carried out by cultural mediators (médiateurs culturels) since their first initiatives of democratization of culture in the late 1980s. Montoya traces the origin of cultural mediation, as well as its development, to three major critical currents of French cultural policy: 1) a critique stemming from the social sciences, denouncing unequal access to culture ; 2) a critique in favor of cultural democracy and the promotion of culture for the masses ; 3) a critique expressing virulent skepticism of cultural democratization policy. Montoya’s presentation thus examines each of these critiques to outline how each informed the development of cultural mediation. Her research is based on a series of interviews with cultural mediators, in order to understand how cultural mediation has become a profession. The cited interviews are anonymous, and only state the mediator’s statute, age, and the type of organization for which s/he works.

The first line of critique is anchored in sociological discourse. Indeed, in 1966, sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel publish L’Amour de l’art, a study of French cultural practices. They conclude that a “cultural need” and taste for culture can be developed through education; cultural inequalities can be resolved through the proper introduction of art and culture to younger generations and lower socio-economic populations. Bourdieu and Darbel’s work sets the precedent for cultural mediation. In the 1990s, cultural institutions adopted this form of transmission so as to provide the necessary symbolic conditions to approaching art.

This sociological critique, as embodied by cultural mediators, comes at loggerheads with André Malraux’s conception of cultural democratization. Indeed, the first Minister of cultural affairs argues that the encounter with a work of art should be an aesthetic shock. Conversely, cultural mediators inspired by bourdieusian sociology, believe in granting the necessary “keys” to understanding artistic production. As an extension of this interpretation, the mediators emphasize the physicality of such encounters, what Bourdieu coins “habitus corporel”. A visitor/spectator must feel welcome and comfortable in a cultural institution. This sociological critique is actually born before cultural democratization is fully institutionalized. Its prescient criticism is also innovative as it tackles symbolic and corporal dimensions of the cultural encounter.

In the 1970s is articulated another line of criticism, more concerned with the state of cultural democracy. Advocates of this movement seek to give equal opportunities of expression to all cultures found in France. This critical current greatly influences cultural mediation, as its tenets are principally implemented via public education. Cultural democracy is placed in opposition to an elitist perspective of cultural democratization. This is how, two decades later, a more direct attack on cultural democratization efforts led by the Ministry of Culture is expressed. This critical perspective is adopted in a more relativist fashion by cultural mediators. Indeed, these specialists seek greater distance from “legitimate culture” and traditional modes of cultural consumption (artist name recognition, knowledge of art history, etc.).

The emergence and proliferation of these mediators in cultural institutions in the 1980s is in conjunction with the so called failure of democratization of culture, Cultural policy is considered at a standstill; cultural mediators thus provide their own version of cultural democratization, more circumscribed in its scope. Indeed, their hope is to touch one individual at a time, to “convert” a spectator with each aesthetic experience. This awakening sought by cultural mediators rejects the belief that the acquisition of culture is an innate process.

Thus, through this discussion, Montoya outlines the three different critical currents that influenced the profession of cultural mediation. The constructive criticism targeting cultural democratization in particular allowed for the development of cultural mediation. Today cultural mediators share a relativist attitude toward the ideal of cultural democratization, between disillusionment with the broad goal and faith in the meaning of their daily work with small groups of people.

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