Old Words #6: Cultural policy in a post-political age (2021-22)

Today’s ‘Old Words’ is not so old, but it is a lot of words. This is a chapter from a longer paper on co-creation that was written as part of the TRACTION project that I’ve been working on since the beginning of 2022. It has challenged my thinking in several ways, not least in in asking me to review the context of cultural policy in which such co-creation projects happen. Before writing about co-creation itself, I needed to explain the two contrasting ideas that justify it. Cultural democratisation is still the dominant principle of most audience development, outreach and education work. Cultural democracy is its antithesis, but has not been much talked about since the 1980s, until the last five years when it seems to be becoming fashionable again. Thinking and reading again about both ideas meant rooting them where they belong (albeit under different names): in the 19th century and the emergence of the industrial city. That wasn’t new—I’ve written about it in more detail in A Restless Art—but thinking about how those ideas are being thought about (or, as I argue, forgotten) now let me to the tile of this piece.

This interpretation of recent developments in British cultural policy will strike some readers as controversial or unproven, and I accept that it’s only a first sketch of what might be happening. But I am concerned that neglecting the origins and principles of cultural policy is damaging because it will lead to confusion and/or illusion, both of which make democratic accountability more difficult. In that respect, these developments are in keeping with the powerful—and dangerous—practices of many politicians in democratic societies today. Cultural policy is not immune from this infection.