A Citizens’ Assembly on Culture

[Everyone] has something to say about how they experience culture and what they now expect of it. There is an urgent need for this issue to become everyone’s business.

Pour une convention citoyenne pour la culture, Libération 15/07/2020

A few days ago, Libération published an open letter to the new French Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, proposing a citizens’ assembly on culture. The signatories (of whom I’m one) argue that the Covid-19 crisis has simultaneously revealed the importance of culture in our lives, and accelerated changes in its models of production, distribution and engagement. The present insecurity of cultural institutions and workers, critical as it is, should also be understood as symptomatic of an inequitable and unsustainable system. Inspired by the recent citizens’ assembly on climate change – whose conclusions President Macron has largely promised to implement – the letter proposes a similar initiative to unblock debates dominated for decades by professional interests. 

Citizens assemblies have received increasing attention from politicians faced by paralysing divisions about vital questions now facing their societies (even if they have themselves often stoked and exploited those divisions). Such initiatives are clearly not a panacea to all our weaknesses: treated as modern democracy’s equivalent of show trials they can descend into distracting political theatre. But the example of Ireland shows their potential for thoughtfulness, reason and reconciliation. Done well, and with the commitment of elected politicians, deliberative assemblies can ask questions and reach conclusions that elude those most closely involved. It is unlikely, for example, that ordinary citizens would find it normal that the Royal Opera House should spend 17% of its grant aid rewarding 26 people: it would certainly be good to hear those involved explain their reasoning.

Roselyne Bachelot says that a citizens convention on culture is ‘not a bad idea – I’ll think about’. I hope she does. I hope she sees the chance to consider some fundamental issues that concern not only cultural professionals but everyone, as we work to rebuild a better social contract for new circumstances. As our open letter says, a convention would be:   

An opportunity to ask afresh questions about the meaning of our systems of [cultural] production and consumption, our ecology and our practices, and to implement a policy that works towards real diversity, demanding engagement and sensitivity towards all audiences, especially the most vulnerable.

Pour une convention citoyenne pour la culture, Libération 15/07/2020

Four months ago ,I wrote that

‘In moments of crisis – like the one that confronts us now – our imagined realities are tested. […] Perhaps this crisis will prove to be the opportunity to rethink our mutual responsibilities, so that, when we are on the other side, we will start working towards better, kinder societies.’

This Changes Everything, 14/03/2020

A citizens assembly seems like a good way to rethink those mutual responsibilities for culture. All we need to make it possible is political imagination.

The photo was taken on Friday, at the first concert in my community since before the lockdown. Performed by music students who come each year for a week of intensive study of the flute, it was another tentative step towards a revival of cultural practice. We all wore masks.