Cultural Democracy:

Introduction to an Idea

by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard

© Copyright Adams and Goldbard 1995

"Cultural democracy" stands for pluralism, participation, and equity in cultural life and cultural policy. "Cultural democracy" names the complex of values which ought to guide the evolution of cultural life. It is the animating philosophy behind community cultural development.

Cultural democracy is an idea with a fairly long but obscure history, at least in the United States. It was first espoused in the 1910's and 1920's by progressive thinkers such as Horace Kallen and W.E.B. DuBois. They advocated cultural pluralism in the face of widespread assertions of white superiority and nativist calls to delimit a single, true American culture, embodied most frighteningly in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other manifestations of xenophobic violence.

Cultural democracy has been a feature of this country's thematic universe (to use Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's phrase) ever since, always in dynamic interaction with contending ideologies. Racist articulations of monoculture and liberal ideas of the "melting pot" both work against cultural democracy's vision of a culture that accepts and respects diversity as a strength to be preserved rather than a problem to be resolved. As was the case in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, cultural democracy has always been an insurgent idea, pushing against dominant values, never gaining the ascendancy, but persisting because its essential truth resonates with the lived experience of people who refuse to be dismissed or "melted" down.

After World War II, the idea of cultural democracy attracted the attention and growing enthusiasm of certain people working in cultural ministries and development agencies in Europe and the emerging nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In this period of cultural rebuilding and reinvention, newly independent countries of the Third World strived to reanimate indigenous cultures as the weight of colonial domination was being lifted from their backs. They sought dynamic ways to bring themselves into the modern world without damaging their essence or sacrificing the cultural resilience which had sustained them through generations of European domination.

For the nations of Europe, recovering from the devastations of war, the task was not merely to restore a damaged patrimony. World war had changed the nature of society. Untold thousands of working-class and agrarian people had fought and died for their countries, earning a fuller form of citizenship than had been granted them in more stratified and static prewar societies. Now it was necessary to attempt to integrate into the heart of national cultural life a positive regard for the needs and aspirations of whole classes to whom cultural policymakers had been indifferent or hostile before the war broke out.

In both realms -- Europe and the developing world -- cultural democracy provided a capacious conceptual framework, because it posited a society in which particularity and difference could coexist with equity. Cultural differences could signify richness and variety rather than serve as rungs on a ladder of social attainment.

To fully understand and advance a commitment to cultural democracy requires what the spiritual teacher Ram Dass described as "the look up and look down simultaneously," to abide by economist Hazel Henderson's advice that we "think globally, act locally." Conceptually, cultural democracy offers a "big story," a way to comprehend and shape our "thematic universe." But practically, it calls for specific and concrete activities, ranging in scope from international (for example, cultural policies adopted through the United Nations enabling multinational agreements to preserve historic sites) to entirely local (for example, a group of neighbors undertaking the design and construction of an adventure playground as an alternative for their children to playing in unsafe streets). Such practical activities almost always involve a strong element of artistic creation or creative expression through the arts, because art forms -- film and video, posters and murals, creative writing, dance, drama, music, and others -- are the most powerful tools available for bringing cultural issues to consciousness and acting on them.

A leap in scale is entailed in moving from the conceptual arena of cultural democracy, which can help us understand the contending themes which shape the thematic universe of the late Twentieth Century, to the practical arena, where projects may be devised that can eventually alter that thematic universe one step at a time. But it is a necessary leap.

Postwar discourse on cultural democracy began in bureaucratic and academic circles, where officials attempting to envisage and affect their nations' futures found it handy. But in the Seventies and Eighties it burst free of those stuffy confines to be taken up by community artists and organizers searching for ways to define and express the larger purpose of their work. It was here, in the realm of cultural action, that the theory of cultural democracy flourished, because those who pioneered in the practice of cultural development were most in need of a conceptual matrix to help them plan, evaluate, and improve their work in light of its own essential goals and values.

In contrast, despite all the verbiage attached to the idea of cultural democracy in policymakers' discourse, public cultural agencies did very little to support its practical application, largely because doing so would have meant standing up to the political clout of the red-carpet institutions -- opera companies, symphony orchestras, marble-palace museums, and so on -- which had come to rely on generous government attention and subsidy. Despite the fickleness of officials, however, cultural democracy has been kept alive by grassroots activists, for whom it has provided a common language about goals and purposes that has been useful within countries and communities, and has also contributed to the development of international dialogue.

Looking up, it is easy to see that the idea of cultural democracy is a powerful conceptual tool. Thinkers and activists have made use of it whenever retrograde elements of our thematic universe required opposition, from the heyday of the Klan following the Civil War and waves of European immigration to the current period of post-Civil Rights Movement racism and reaction to immigration from the developing world. But despite its inherent power, cultural democracy as a conceptual framework has not yet achieved broad popular exposure or acceptance. It is an idea known primarily to cultural activists. Those who talk in terms of cultural democracy today are usually concerned with cultural action -- programs or activities undertaken to advance the development of a particular community's cultural life, such as continuing education programs or oral history projects -- or with cultural policy -- initiatives undertaken by government or other institutional forces to support, preserve, or extend certain elements of culture or cultural values.

But looking down, into the realm of cultural action -- of practice, as opposed to theory -- cultural democracy is well-developed, despite being financially undernourished. Cultural democracy is given expression through the initiatives of community organizations and individual artists and organizers. Browsing through "Webster's World of Cultural Action" will reward you with information on many examples of cultural action.

Arlene Goldbard and Don Adams are writers and consultants in organizational and cultural development. They established their consulting firm, Adams & Goldbard, in 1978, and have been based in Seattle, Washington since 1997.

This essay is adapted from a previously unpublished manuscript entitled Community Cultural Development: From Theory to Practice, written in large part during a 1994 residency at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Study and Conference Center, then revised in 1995.

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© copyright The Institute for Cultural Democracy 1995, 1998