Cultural action and developing brotherhood

by Isabelle Mathieu, researcher at the Université de Bourgogne

How does culture serve as the fulcrum for the construction of a Nation? Isabelle Mathieu, researcher at the Université de Bourgogne, tackles this question in her presentation on the fundamental relationship between culture and democracy in the French République. Indeed, France is at a time of great political turmoil. Rising nationalist and populist movements are threatening the core tenets of the nation’s République, encapsulated in the trivium Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité proclaimed two hundred and twenty five years ago by French revolutionaries, thereby marking the end of an absolutist monarchical regime. Freedom of expression and equal access to education became the basis for the construction of a cohesive French Nation. These shared values became the reflection of a shared culture, serving as the interface between French citizens and public authorities. Thereafter, Isabelle Mathieu presents the historical connotations and political implications of the term “cultural democratization”.

Mathieu proposes an inside-out approach to understanding this concept, key to the French Ministry of Culture and Communication mission. She contends that these founding principles of the Nation’s République, representative of French culture in its broad sense, lead to the fulfillment of the Nation’s democratic aspirations. By articulating ‘culture’ as an active player in the République, Mathieu argues that democracy is an acquired, rather than innate, characteristic of a State. These fundamental cultural values foster the establishment of democracy, a process that is in perpetual progress and transformation. As democracy is not a given, citizens must proactively, and collectively, assist in its creation. A shared culture is thus one that not only unites individuals, but also prompts them to act with a common purpose. In this manner, the cultural values at the core of the French République become the driving force of the Ministry’s “action culturelle” (cultural action).

In that spirit, the Ministry of cultural affairs directed by André Malraux sought to make culture accessible to as diverse an audience as possible since its inception in 1959. Culture is what constitutes a Nation, and thus must be within equal reach of those who partake in it. Cultural democratization thus becomes a concern of the French State. To defend culture is to defend the trivium representing the République’s values. Cultural action and cultural policy become joint endeavors. However, a delicate balance must be found in order to circumscribe State intervention in cultural matters. Though the respect of individual liberties as advanced by the French revolutionaries of 1789 is assured in the ensuing written Constitution of France, culture is considered a collective endeavor, overseen by the State. Moreover, the Constitution, amended with each new République, concretizes the ideal of culture as the foundation of the French Nation. Mathieu highlights the importance of the first article of the Constitution ratified October 4th, 1958 governing the current fifth République of France: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social republic”.

Hence, Mathieu shifts her interest from the guiding trivium to the regulated quadrivium stated above. The four qualifying adjectives employed to describe the French République embody the evolutions undergone by this political system over the course of the centuries. To begin, the République is indivisible, and as the values put forth during the French revolution are universally shared within the Nation, so should be the art produced and made accessible to the Nation. Then, France has been secular since 1905. The separation of Church and State legitimizes government intervention in certain sectors, including education and cultural practices. The State can and should assist in the development of artistic creation in France, promoting an understanding of culture that exceeds religious and spiritual connotations. Furthermore, France is a democratic State in the making, as purported by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Dutiful citizens carry out the process of democratization, motivated by a common purpose. Finally, this collective action is inherently social in its nature. To recognize and commit to such humanist values is to take part in a culturally relevant practice.

Rallying around France’s flag is thus a patriotic act, that Mathieu calls fraternization, fundamental to the construction of a Nation. The democratic momentum present in the establishment of the République is also that motivating the actions of the Ministry of Culture and Communication. This French Nation based on a shared culture is an end within itself; conversely, culture is an essential means to the establishment of democracy. The State must thus intervene in the process of cultural democratization, though its intervention does not go so far as to dictate artistic production. To open the discussion, Mathieu proposes that the French government focus its cultural initiatives on mass education. Cultural policy and cultural action can have combined impact if all members of French society are actually targeted and implicated in the democratization process. Granting cultural access to a wide audience is a worthwhile dream; imparting the importance of participation in the values of the République is a pressing reality.

[Read the full paper in french]


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