The Council of Europe and UNESCO in the 1970s : cultural democratization at the heart of a joint mission?

by Laurent Martin, History professor, Université Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle


The title of this discussion is a direct reference to a book published in 1998, under the supervision of Rod Fisher and the Council of Europe, entitled La culture au coeur: contribution au débat sur la culture et le développement en Europe (In From The Margins: A Contribution to the Debate on Culture and Development in Europe). This book was meant to emphasize the links between culture and development in Europe, while encouraging the Council of Europe and its member states to rethink culture with regard to EU integration. In this presentation, Martin puts into question the actual place granted to cultural democratization in the Council of Europe and UNESCO. As such, Martin attempts to widen the discussion on cultural democratization to an international scale, as this public policy concept appears often neglected within these supra-national institutions. Martin associates this neglect to three juxtapositions: 1) between norms and practices ; 2) between national and regional governments, and prescriptions ascribed on an international level ; 3) between the desire to render culture more democratic and the actual evolution of this mission.

From the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s, the Council of Europe and UNESCO – seemingly antagonistic institutions – organized a series of international conferences, pertaining to cultural democratization and the themes of identity, cultural diversity, cultural industries and cultural action funding. The Venice conference in 1970 allowed nations to compare cultural policies and come to agree on pressing cultural problems that required international solutions. Augustin Girard drafted the second commission report, emphasizing the need to bridge the gap between ordinary citizens and contemporary art, to grant equal access to culture, and to further civic participation in the creative process. This final point highlights a new conception of cultural democratization, in stark contrast with passive cultural consumption. This notion is further examined in Nairobi in 1976 during a conference organized by UNESCO: a policy recommendation is born which draws the distinction between access to culture (to inform and create oneself) and participation in cultural life (to express oneself in civil society).

During yet another conference in Oslo during the same year, it is agreed that all cultures should be protected and valued equally; in addition, further resources should be allotted so that all citizens can liberally express themselves and create. A modern conception of cultural policy thus entails a socio-cultural understanding of democratization. Subsequently, the concept of culture is broadened, as all cultural productions – high brow and low brow – are valued. During a conference in Athens, this definition is further elaborated: culture is meant to encourage Man to answer to his/her moral and emotional aspirations. In Mexico in 1982, culture is understood as the set of distinctive traits – spiritual and material, intellectual and emotional – that define society or a social group, including life styles, economic and symbolic goods, value systems, beliefs, and opinions. Culture is at the vital foundation of all societies and is at the heart of their constant regeneration. As such, during the international conferences held in the 1970s, creativity, participation, and democracy are put at the forefront of the discussions.

The concept of cultural development is also at the heart of Martin’s presentation: along with the expansion of cultural democratization and of the definition of culture, must come the enhanced involvement of governmental institutions (through funding and the recognition of all cultures). Only the concerted and organized efforts of policy initiatives will ensure the sustained expansion of cultural development. In 1972, during the Helsinki conference, Augustin Girard advances a new conception of cultural action, more attentive to the involvement of underrepresented populations, as ensured by public policies. The definition of culture thus also includes the notion of “cultural democracy”: the inclusion of all cultures and the active participation of every citizen in the creation of a new society. Such a definition fights for the preservation of cultural identity and the emergence of a better life in developing nations: culture for everyone, by everyone.

Girard puts forth this new understanding of culture in light of the apparent failure of cultural democratization: culture exceeds the mere need to allow equal access to all great cultural productions, past and present. Instead, culture is the active participation of all citizens, granting everyone the right to create and to communicate. During the Arc-et-Senans conference in 1972, John Simpson claims that sociocultural policies should target the ordinary Man and should enrich social happiness, through the development of cultural diversity. Simpson portrays culture as a mosaic of multifarious personal quests and explorations. These new policies should be as decentralized as possible, targeting in particular underprivileged regions. Community action and volunteer work would also be encouraged. Finally, a distinct case is made for innovation and experimentation in cultural practices.

However, cultural democracy, similarly to cultural democratization remains an unsuccessful initiative, as declared by Augustin Girard in the 1980s. Pursued inequalities and a lack of civic participation are the main reasons attributed to this failure. In the 1990s, Girard notes that the technological revolution has further thwarted any hope for cultural democracy.