Re-reading the history of cultural democratization

by Philippe Poirrier, professor in History at the Université de Bourgogne

Since the creation of the French Ministry of cultural affairs at the inception of the 5thRépublique, public authorities have expressed the ambition to make culture accessible to all. The founding decree of the Ministry, articulated July 24th, 1959, sets this ambition in stone: “the Ministry’s mission is to grant the largest constituency possible access to all seminal works of humanity, and particularly of France’s cultural heritage, in addition to fostering the creation of works of art and literature that enrich this heritage”1. On January 19th of the following year, at a conference in Béthune, Gaëton Picon – managing director of Arts and Letters – highlighted the need to “transform a privilege into a common good”. “Cultural democratization” thus became one of the primary missions of cultural policy, as well as one of the main arguments for legitimizing culture in the political sphere.

Half a century later, the concept of “cultural democratization”, despite its ambiguities, remains a central talking point within public discourse. A brief glance into the past confirms this observation. During his visit to Avignon in July 2012, French president François Hollande defended the need for a law on cultural democratization. In March 2012, the report Culture and Media 2020: a new generation Ministry, developed by the Ministry of Culture Secretary General’s strategic commission, contends that cultural democratization is a “pivotal part of ensuring long term change in cultural policy”. Furthermore, this report presents cultural democratization as a pluridisciplinary topic encompassing internationalization, linguistic policy, and artistic property. The “Forum Culture 2011”, organized in February of the same year through the initiative of the Culture and Communication minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, focused on the following theme: “Culture for all, culture for each, a shared culture”. Dynamic debates were launched, and some participants denounced the lack of political commitment to defending cultural democratization as it was originally conceived.

Tracing the history of cultural democratization in the 21st century entails re-examining the history of cultural policy through a new lens, taking into account interdisciplinary connections. René Rizzardo and Bernard Faivre d’Arcier, former shapers of public policy and current advocates of cultural policy, as well as members of the Ministry’s Comité d’histoire, have decided to tackle this historical narrative. A research team, led by Pierre Moulinier and Jean-Claude Pompougnac, launched a call for external contributions, in hopes of broadening the project’s scope: cultural democratization as a political entity; a mission mandated and carried out with more or less vigor by public authorities dedicated to culture, under the aegis of the State and local authorities; a subject of public debate in the world of culture, and beyond; and finally, a study of the social and scientific uses of culture. This call had great resonance within the social science research community.

The definition of cultural democratization as proposed by Laurent Martin in a summary report presents the advantage of surpassing the initial chronological perspective, so as to allow the historical appropriation of a concept significantly colored by contemporary challenges: “a process that progressively increased the number of French citizens gaining access to, and participating in, cultural activities”. This history, already addressed by numerous works, demands certain methodological restrictions, if we wish to exceed a generic definition. Three guidelines appear pivotal:

  • This analysis must be anchored in a long-term perspective, commencing at the latest during the French Revolution, and must not remain confined to a narrative beginning in 1959, at the birth of the Ministry of cultural affairs

  • This study must be contextualized in order to surpass: anachronistic interpretations; solely contemporary interpretations; discourses reconstructed for the sake of legitimacy (though these will nonetheless be examined)

  • This endeavor must widen its scope beyond the Ministry of Culture’s normative framework by taking into account the numerous and varied players that strive to implement cultural democratization. In this sense, it would be beneficial to reopen the subject of educating the public during this colloquium, so as to put an end to the divide that deeply inhibits the reconstruction of France’s cultural history in the 21st century, namely the rift between cultural policy historians and historians of mass education.

Ten themed sessions, taking place between October 2012 and December 2013 at Sciences Po’s Centre d’histoire, with the support of the Fondation MSH, have allowed researchers and other participants to tackle this historical narrative through various pluridisciplinary, yet complementary, perspectives. The comparative dimension of this study, outlined during the encounter held February 9th, 2012, has already been developed. The texts published in the Cahier du Comité d’histoire of the Ministry have been discussed and amended. They are thus now accessible to a large readership, serving as an invitation to understand the status quo, in the goal – and the hope – of fostering further reflection and debate.

[Read the full paper in french]


1 All translations are my own.

Citer ce billet
Madeleine Planeix-Crocker (2014, 17 décembre). Re-reading the history of cultural democratization. Politiques de la culture. Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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