Episode 004

A Prehistory of Cultural Democracy









Owen Kelly

Sophie Hope



November 23, 2018


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Sophie Hope and Owen Kelly look back at some of the thinking that led to the development of the idea of cultural democracy, and the ways in which the community arts movement nurtured these ideas.

In 1941, in ‘To Hell with Culture’, Herbert Read wrote that ‘our capitalist culture is one immense veneer’; and added that the latent sensibility of the worker will ‘only be awakened when meaning is restored to his daily work, and he is allowed to create his own culture’.

In the 1950s, Raymond Williams explored the Marxist notion of cultural materialism and what it meant to understand the social and material conditions of cultural production. In his 1958 essay, ‘Culture is Ordinary’ he stated how culture should be interpreted in relation to its underlying economic systems of production.

In the 1970s these formed some of the foundational texts upon which many community artists in Britain drew.

In 1981, Jean Battersby, in her report ‘The Arts Council Phenomenon’ remarked that there was a political purpose to the community arts movement aimed at realising cultural democracy: “…some community artists see their work as the spearhead of the cultural democracy attack, a somewhat politicised movement with a strong and trenchant intellectual thrust or with unjustifiable intellectual pretensions, according to your point of view. The cultural democrats’ aim is to undermine what they see as insidious attempts by the instrument of a state establishment (the arts council) to impose an alien culture on the working class, thereby indulging in cultural colonialism or cultural imperialism.”