‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ – Upcoming report, and launch event

The principal public output of the Get Creative Research Project is the report, Towards Cultural Democracy: Promoting Cultural Capabilities for Everyone, to be published in June 2017 as a King’s College London Cultural Enquiry. This series of reports, published by the King’s Cultural Institute, is designed to communicate academic research to a readership across academia, the cultural sector and interested members of the public.

Towards Cultural Democracy takes the Get Creative campaign as a window through which to better understand fundamental questions about cultural and creative opportunity in the UK. The detailed evaluation of Get Creative resulted in two internal reports. This Cultural Enquiry goes beyond a focus on one particular initiative, and instead draws on our Get Creative fieldwork to lay the conceptual foundations for a new approach to understanding – and developing – cultural opportunities for all.

At the centre of the report is a specific account of cultural democracy. The idea and possibility of cultural democracy has been discussed by a variety of writers, policy makers and community artists since the first decades of the twentieth century, and particularly during the post-war period. In this report, we show that there are emerging possibilities for the realisation of cultural democracy in the UK – and we propose new ways to understand what it is, and could be.

In doing so, we introduce the idea of cultural capability as a specific way to understand cultural democracy. By cultural capability we mean the conditions in which people have the substantive freedom to make culture. Drawing on the empirical findings of our research with Get Creative Champions and other ‘creative citizens’ around the UK, we introduce this new way of understanding cultural opportunity by engaging with the ideas of economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. 

Sen and Nussbaum have been central to the formulation and dissemination of the capabilities approach to development economics. This began with Sen’s critique of an approach that relied on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an indicator and measure of the ‘development’ of a country. Sen showed this to be a deeply problematic for at least two reasons. Firstly, because an overall increase in a country’s GDP is often very unevenly shared amongst its population, such that an increased GDP can in many cases result in little benefit for the majority of a country’s population. Secondly, even if people have more money in their pockets, this does not in itself mean that their lives improve. More money does not mean, in and of itself, that people are in a better position to lead lives they have reason to value. Instead, this is also very much dependent on conditions such as political and civil rights, shared goods – such as a safe and healthy environment – and access to key public services.

The work of Sen and Nussbaum demonstrates the need to attend to the conditions that give people real, meaningful choices over their lives. At the centre of the human development and capabilities approach are the question, what is a person able to do and to be? The answers that can be given to this question are the real indicator of a country’s ‘development’. 

As their work shows, expanding people’s substantive freedoms – real possibilities for shaping their lives in ways they have reason to value – involves a not only economic freedoms and opportunities, but political and civil freedoms; with each of these freedoms nourishing one another. However, the capabilities approach has yet to develop a sustained account of the substantive freedom to make culture. 

This is where our report comes in. Building on the insights of our Get Creative fieldwork, we introduce the idea of cultural capability. In addition to laying out the conceptual foundations for understanding cultural democracy as the condition of cultural capability for all, we make a series of recommendations as to how these conditions can be more fully realized in the UK.

The high-level findings we present, illustrated through a series of detailed case studies, are as follows

1. Beyond the professional arts and profitable creative industries, there are many versions of culture being created together around the UK – often in ways that go unnoticed. This is an ecological process: visible and hidden versions of culture from across the arts, creative industries and everyday creativity, are deeply interconnected and interdependent.

2. The substantial social freedom – what we call cultural capability – to create versions of culture is enabled and constrained by people’s environments. There is huge potential for going further to ensure that each neighbourhood of the UK is one in which varied and sustained opportunities to create versions of culture exist, for everyone.

3. Recognizing the full diversity of cultural creativity in society – and its ecological nature – is an essential step in addressing an intractable problem of democratic legitimacy facing cultural policy and practice: that only a small proportion of the UK population makes regular use of publicly funded cultural organizations and activities

Our findings establish the foundations for a new approach to cultural policy and practice in the UK that builds on the riches of the funded sector, in combination with the creative industries and everyday creativity, to promote the opportunity for everyone not only to see and hear wonderful things, but also to create versions of culture. This is cultural democracy. 

We will be holding a launch event for the report, at King’s College London, during the week commencing 18th June. We’d be delighted for you to join us! And warmly invite you to contribute to the conversation as to what cultural democracy looks like – and how we can ensure it flourishes in the years ahead. To be added to the mailing list for the launch event, or to receive a copy of the report, please email jonathan.gross@kcl.ac.uk .

– Dr. Jonathan Gross & Dr. Nick Wilson, May 2017


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