Cultural democracy : another model for cultural policy

by Alice Chatzimanassis

What objectives should define cultural policy?

In France and Quebec, cultural policy initiated with the creation of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs was based on the principle of “democratization “: the state gave itself the mission to make available the greatest works to the greatest number of men1. Social categories which were the most apart from culture were wanted to participate in it.

Despite a better distribution of works of art trough the land, surveys quickly confirm that the public does not diversify, mostly because of symbolic obstacles instead of material2.

Given this situation, voices against the arbitrary nature of democratization rose up, because culture that was wanted to be spread corresponded only to areas of the upper classes, to classical culture (theater, opera, classical music, fine arts…). Difficulties in “imposing” democratization of a certain “cultivated” culture can lead to doubt the relevance of the democratization project itself 3. The contestation was also fueled by the crisis of values ​​and representations which then disrupts society (May 68). In this context, marked by a vast movement of economic and social restructuring4, a new concept emerged that could lead cultural public action: cultural democracy5, and, with it, a new conception of culture, less restrictive, less elitist and less hierarchical.

The term ” cultural democracy ” appears in the context of Eurocult, major conference in Helsinki organised by Unesco in 1972 to make ministers agree on a common cultural strategy : culture is not only an accumulation of works and knowledge produced, collected and stored by an elite to make them available to all […] it is not only an area that should be democratized, but it became a [hole] democracy to turn on6.

Cultural democracy begins with the rehabilitation of all cultures, against the hegemony of the “high” culture, which is just one of them. It denounces the superiority of one form of culture on others [since all] have their own value7. It therefore favors an anthropological definition of culture, which extends to lifestyles and their various forms of expression, including the most marginalized and those called minor. It also includes the traditions and customs, folk creativity and local practices. In the field, cultural action must ensure that each group has the possibilities to develop its own culture and benefit from social and institutional recognition. Cultural democracy, instead of broadcasting a selective offer, also encourages diversity of tastes and free choice in practicing cultural activities. It is therefore particularly favorable to the recognition of leisure and cultural practices “en amateur”. Culture becomes integral part of everyday life.

Such a policy requires a movement that doesn’t go from the top to the bottom anymore, but that starts from the individuals themselves. If citizens are not only recipients of a culture far to their existence, they become actors and creators of culture. Cultural policy gets a real social significance and culture can then contribute to a better integration of individuals, to the strengthening of cultural identity and to the revitalization of social ties.

Quebec’s cultural policy corresponds sometimes with the logic of democratization, sometimes with cultural democracy. The text emphasizes the access and participation of citizens in cultural life. This active involvement is reflected in the practice of cultural activities in amateur and voluntary participation in cultural organizations. The government values ​​and promotes such practices by approaching the Ministry in charge of leisure to support the action of municipalities in this area.

The government also recognizes the significant contribution of the many volunteers in the operation of cultural institutions and organizations. The last survey (2010) shows that 36,7 % of Quebecers work as volunteers. Voluntary work corresponds closely to the model of cultural democracy since it is not only participating actively and directly in the production of culture, but doing it according to his own choice. The government agrees to publicly acknowledge their contribution and support training activities for these volunteers.

To implement its cultural policy, Quebec government has understood the need to build partnerships with the community sector and municipalities, which are by nature closer to the population and therefore better able to coordinate cultural activities within daily life8. This program is designed basically to improve the quality of life through culture. Culture then becomes the living work of a whole society9.

One can wonder about the relative lack of term “cultural democracy” as defined here. Beyond the conclusions drawn at international conferences, it seems that the concept of cultural democracy has been little reflected both in political discourse and in the common language. While democratization still exists as a program and as the spearhead of public cultural action, one can wonder why cultural democracy never actually occupied minds.

If democratization is questionable in some apects, the concept of cultural democracy also presents limits. As it is a movement for the popularization of culture, cultural democracy allows the risks of hyper- relativism. Bellavance also characterized the logic of cultural democracy as populist – leftist approach which, starting from the premise that all tastes are legitimate, allows to say that anything has the same value and that no hierarchy can be established […] In summary, we have nothing to learn, nothing to develop or anything to share, since every individual already has its culture in which it remains confined10.

Valuing cultural objects and practices specific to certain groups, how can one avoid the « between us »? If cultural development is built primarily in continuity with the origins and usual environment of an individual, how to allow the meeting and exchange between different worlds?

These considerations underline the need to finally wonder about the values ​​that lead cultural policy: do the objectives of this policy match the needs but also the choices of the population in terms of culture?


1 « Hommage à la Grèce. Discours prononcé le 28 mai 1959 à Athènes » in : MALRAUX, A., La politique, la culture. Discours, articles, entretiens (1925-1975), Paris, Gallimard, 1957, p. 257. Translated by us.
2 Pierre, Bourdieu, Alain, Darbel, L’amour de l’art. Les musées d’art européens et leur public, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1969 ; Rosaire, Garon, Marie-Claire, Lapointe, Enquête sur les pratiques culturelles au Québec. 6ème édition, Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine, 2010.
3 Guy, Bellavance, « La démocratisation, et après ? » dans Guy, Bellavance (dir.), Démocratisation de la culture ou démocratie culturelle ? Deux logiques d’action publique, Laval, Éditions IQRC/Presses de l’Université Laval, 2000, p. 24. Translated by us.
4 Lise, Santerre, « De la démocratisation de la culture à la démocratie culturelle » dans Guy, Bellavance (dir.), Démocratisation de la culture ou démocratie culturelle ? Deux logiques d’action publique, Laval, Éditions IQRC/Presses de l’Université Laval, 2000, p. 49. Translated by us.
5 See Augustin, Girard, avec la collaboration de Geneviève Gentil, Développement culturel : expériences et politiques, Paris, Unesco, 1982.
6 Recommandation n.1, Eurocult, intergovernmental about cultural policies in Europe. Helsinki, 19-28 juin 1972, Rapport final, Unesco, 1972. Translated by us.
7 Lise, Santerre, op. cit., p. 48. Translated by us.
8 Ministère des Affaires culturelles, Direction des communications, La politique culturelle du Québec. Notre culture, notre avenir, juin 1992, p. 104. Translated by us.

9 Ministère des Affaires culturelles, op. cit., p. VIII. Word of the previous minister Liza Frulla-Hébert. Translated by us.
10 Guy, Bellavance, « Démocratisation culturelle et actions locales » dans Les arts et la Ville, Actes du 15ème colloque annuel, Sherbrooke, 2002, p. 62. Translated by us.

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chmc1 (2016, 23 mars). Cultural democracy : another model for cultural policy. Politiques de la culture. Consulté le 28 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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