Key players and challenges of cultural democratization: a case study on the French circus (1970 – 2010)

by Marine Cordier, specialist in Sociology and Lecturer at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre

Marine Cordier, lecturer at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, explains the evolution of the circus as a cultural practice in France. Traditionally perceived as an art for the people, the circus sought to adopt a democratic mission over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. As such, the perception of the circus in the world of arts and culture shifted: originally placed under the aegis of the French Ministry of Agriculture, the circus became a recognized art form by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1978. With this additional political recognition, and thus increased funding, the circus was able to rejuvenate its aesthetic identity and establish a movement called the “new circus”.

This aesthetic renewal began in the 1970s and was prompted by young acrobats, motivated by the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France. These professionals were inspired by theatrical conventions, namely by concepts of staging and plot development. Indeed, as of then, “new circus” acts were integrated into an overarching story, thus constituting a theatrical performance. Nevertheless, this generation of artists also diverged from traditional theater, which they deemed elitist: their circus was meant to touch lower-socio economic audiences.

As such, the circus appears as an art form on the margins of traditional cultural practices due to its deeply rooted ties to the people. Circus artists revel in their democratic mission, as they perceive their craft inherently made for the masses. Cordier explains that by “prioritizing physical prowess over text, circus art is a language accessible by all”1. Furthermore, the use of a circus tent facilitates this cultural agenda: it is a mobile performance space that can be set up in geographically and socially diverse regions of France.

In 1997, circus artists hope to better defend their mission by creating a professional organization, later to become a circus union in 2002. This union seeks contact with public authorities presenting its original position on cultural democratization, as embodied by the socially active circus troupes. Political recognition of the values of circus acts was a long time coming. In 1978, President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing emphasized the circus’ place in French cultural heritage. In 1981, through the development of cultural democracy, the circus was granted further legitimacy as it presented a diversified art form accessible to all.

Consequentially, State intervention in the evolution of the circus was articulated in a tripartite manner. To begin, the Ministry of Culture provided financial assistance in the creation of the Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque in 1985. This school offers professional training in circus arts, resulting in a nationally recognized diploma. Secondly, this institution facilitated the renewal of the circus profession, as well as the diffusion of French circus nationally and internationally. Finally, regional cultural institutions were granted larger budgets allowing for the emergence of local circus troupes. Aesthetic innovation lies at the heart of their creative endeavors. The circus world gained symbolic recognition when the Ministry of Culture organized the Year of circus arts in 2001.

Nevertheless, numerous impediments persist, threatening the further development of circus arts in its cultural democratization mission. Internal divides between professionals and amateurs led to the part-time worker crisis (crise des intermittents) in 2003. Circus artists also suffer from their nomadic state, rendering it difficult to gain audience loyalty and recognition. They call on the French State to support their work with greater conviction and assist in the diffusion of their creations. The Ministry attempts to respond to this demand by encouraging municipalities to host circus troupes and by institutionalizing a diffusion circuit with the aid of local authorities.

The State’s response results in the establishment of a fund for these nomadic circus companies, in 2001. The same year, a charter entitled “City rights for the circus”, prompts municipalities to dedicate urban space to the temporary settlement of circus troupes conveying the promise of cultural democratization. As such, cultural policy regarding the circus takes into account the challenges of urban policy. Cities must find the space to accommodate large circus shows and they often provide abandoned lots to the companies. Some cities decide to ensure the permanence of these troupes and assist in their financial stability. These circus companies can thus develop an elaborate cultural mediation agenda, establishing a continued dialogue with their local community. In this light, the Ministry’s cultural decentralization mission reaches fruition in certain French municipalities.

Some circus troupes decide to relinquish the traditional use of a tent in hopes of making themselves more mobile and thus attractive to municipalities. The Ministry supports this alternative endeavor by prompting cultural institutions to include these new circus troupes in their season; yet, for lack of financial incentives, few institutions do: in 2002, only 5% of performances on national stages are circus shows. Despite the creation of a diffusion network for circus arts, the decentralization and regular funding of these troupes remains low.

Cordier thus concludes on a bittersweet note. French circus has significantly evolved over the course of four decades. Indeed, “classical circus” has maintained its vow to attract lower socio-economic populations, while “new circus” companies embody a modern mission. These troupes appeal to a new audience – young, urban, and educated – that values new circus aesthetics and creativity. Cordier notes that though a more diversified audience attends circus performances, this public possesses a higher cultural capital. Due to lack of funding, circus troupes cannot compensate for this inequality or pursue their cultural democratization initiatives. Cordier suggests that more equal recognition of art forms by the State might allow continued progress in this field.

[Read the full paper in french]

1 All translations my own.


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