Cultural action and public education

by Pierre Moulinier, Correspondent for the Comité d’histoire


In the context of the conference on Cultural Democratization in contemporary history, two sessions (on January 20th and February 10th) were dedicated to the relationship between cultural action and public education, published after the Liberation of France in 1945.

These two concepts gained undeniable impetus under the IVth Republic, with the emergence of numerous youth and public education movements, as well as with the creation of a State administration dedicated to theses sectors on one hand, and to the decentralization of the dramatic arts on the other. During the birth of the Vth Republic, the establishment of a Ministry of Cultural Affairs and of a High-Commission for the Youth and Sports led to a division between these two sectors. During numerous years, the concepts of cultural action and public education developed, relying on different resources, administrators and facilitators trained in distinct locations, and consequentially carrying diverging missions. Virulent debates often opposed proponents of cultural entertainment and those of socio-cultural animation, of cultural democratization and cultural democracy, creation and creativity, high culture and low culture.

During the sessions dedicated to the relationship of these two concepts, Guy Saez made clear the fact that beyond the differences on an administrative level, the two sectors share similar lines of questioning and fundamentally similar goals: namely, constructing a nation, fostering citizenship, making culture and the aesthetic experience accessible to all – not only the elite –, reconciling high culture with popular culture. However, while cultural action encourages democratization, in essence widening the audience that receives access to “legitimate” culture, public education intends to be “democratic”, a mediator between art and life, high culture and industrial or rural culture, and vouches for an education of the masses. Public education is “sociocultural” in its nature.

Laurent Besse presented the emblematic case of the Fédération des maisons de jeunes et de la culture (FFMJC) that played an important role from 1965-1980 with regard to the training of arts specialists, especially in smaller cities. MJCs, which were housed in publicly funded buildings and which were headed by paid specialists, aspired to be places where the average citizen is trained, rather than where high culture is transmitted; their mission was to educate the youth. Nonetheless, they often represented locations where cultural action is developed, complementary to those of renowned cultural institutions. After 1968, many MJC abandoned their cultural action mission and became “homes for all”, entertainment hubs for local neighborhoods.

In the aftermath of May 1968, the relationship between cultural action and public education became a question of “cultural development” according to which culture should be put at the service of the development of society in every respect (economic, social, academic, etc.) thanks to global actions. Different consequences ensued from these changes, from the politicization of cultural action to the demand for greater power of the artist, as requested by national theater directors. As a result, the divide between cultural action and socio-cultural animation was further deepened, particularly the gap between “creators” and “arts specialists”. At the same time, local and regional cultures flourished, fueling hope for greater decentralization, which in turn informed the decentralization laws of 1982-1983. A cultural development branch was created under the ministry of Jack Lang in the 1980s. Its mission was to reconcile works of cultural excellence and sociocultural work, by emphasizing the concepts of “social transmission of culture” and “new audiences”. Lang increased considerably the Ministry’s reach and competences.

In the 1990s, the two sectors became close once again, thanks to the development of cultural “mediation”, the development of educational services in cultural institutions, and the rehabilitation of amateur practices. Cultural diversity becomes a priority. In 1999, Catherine Trautmann wrote to the Council of Ministers regarding the “new measures in favor of cultural democratization”, which were divided into four categories: artistic and cultural education; funding for amateur practices; the emergence of young talents; and professional development. On June 30th, 1999, the Minister of Culture signed a “Charte d’objectifs Culture-Education populaire” with eight coalitions on public education. This Charter re-launched the National Council on culture and education. These measures marked the beginning of reconciliation between the two sectors. Jean-Claude Richez highlights that an alliance with public education allowed cultural action to open onto important networks and constituted a lever for local, cultural development. However, Catherine Trautmann’s initiative was not exempt of contradictions, especially given the fact that public education carries a civic mission and cultural action an aesthetic one. Certain players in the artistic sector were firmly opposed to another Charter for public service initiatives launched by the Minister. Finally, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s government was not particularly enthusiastic about these initiatives.

In the sector of public education, Frédéric Chateigner notes that following a certain depreciation of the term “popular education” in the 1980s, the expression experienced nonetheless a favorable return at the end of the century in public discourse and journals – a positive comeback which he attributes to a stagnation of political advocacy and the cultural sector’s identity crisis. The Minister Marie-Georges Buffet launched a “public offer for reflection on public education”, which unfortunately gained little traction, lacking in government backing. Nevertheless, certain public education institutions also countered political discourse, such as the ATTAC organization or public university systems.

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