Cultural Democracy & Arts for Labour Reborn

Robert Rae talks to Lorraine Leeson, Karen Merkel and David Stevenson.

At The  World Transformed 2017, Alan Tomkins – once Senior Cultural Policy advisor to Livingstone’s radical GLC – urged attenders to seize the moment, agitate for the kind of radical cultural change the GLC had made and re-launch Arts For Labour as an agent of that change. Sadly Alan died  but in the best socialist tradition friends gathered and decided the best way to mourn was to organise, Arts For Labour was reborn and its stewardship passed to Lorraine Leeson, artists, academic and author.

This is the first time in several decades that socialism has returned to the popular agenda, and where the Labour Party is proposing that culture should be at the heart of its policies. It is also a moment where people are seeing that there are alternative ways of conducting the way our society is run. Artists are increasingly interested in how their work relates to people beyond the art world and its influence on the wider society.  Lorraine Leeson

Arts For Labour sees its new role as being more than a vehicle for “celebrity” artists to show support at election time, but as an effective lobby that uses the opportunity created by Corbyn to open up communication between the Party and grass roots (socially engaged) artists and cultural policy makers. Lorraine Leeson, “This offers opportunity for a re-thinking of cultural policy, which has become moribund over recent decades, with increasingly top-down, target-based approaches to policy and funding”. 

The approach of the last Labour’s administration to cultural policy was rooted in Social Inclusion, top down interventions requiring those in receipt of state funding to address the wide spread discrimination in the cultural sector. In practice little changed,  the institutions become adapt at  describing what they were doing in a way that secured them  funding, while there were some marginal gains as the Equalities agenda gathered pace and Lottery focused grants on the poorer communities who disproportionately “played their games”, there is little evidence of the fundamental changes hoped for in the engagement of working class communities. Even those gains were short lived as an increasing proportion of Lottery funding is being used to mediate the impact of austerity on the institutions.

Grass roots artists wrestling with the widening gap between the reality and the rhetoric of “social inclusion” ,  asked fundamental questions such as  into whose culture were  people being “included”, and for what purpose, ideas such as Cultural Democracy were revisited. In 1985 Karen Merkel was part of the co-creation of  A Manifesto for Cultural Democracy.

We were doing it on behalf of what was known as the Community Arts movement in the UK (although we were not especially comfortable with this labelling as it felt marginalising and somehow anti-art in how it became to be understood and used against us).  We first discovered the concept of Cultural Democracy from cultural organisers in the USA who had an organisation called, the Alliance for Cultural Democracy. It was inspirational yet seemed to us, somewhat Utopian. On reflection, we felt that we could have access to local power more meaningfully – it was more easily accessible to us and/but with that came decision-making and responsibilities – out of range for our comrades across the pond.

The Manifesto offered  this definition

The ideas that constitute Cultural Democracy both enable and depend upon direct participation, and take as their aim the building and sustenance of a society in which people are free to come together to produce, distribute and receive the cultures they choose.

In 2004 the Cultural Policy Collective in Scotland  included an explicit critique of the links between the then Labour Government’s social inclusion policy and its neo-liberal economic policies.

Cultural democracy refers to a set of political arguments addressing inequalities in cultural provision and challenging the destructive influence of the marketplace. It has informed grassroots arts projects and radical approaches to cultural policy. By contrast, present government initiatives are premised on the top-down ‘democratisation’ of culture, a process aimed at engaging members of ‘excluded’ groups in historically privileged cultural arenas. Such a policy neither reforms the existing institutional framework of culture, or reverses a process of damaging privatisation.

Having accepted that there was no economic alternative the best Labour could offer were tributaries (like Social Inclusion) down which some of the world’s wealth might trickle. Labour’s policy of turning over responsibility for the public sphere (including housing and health) to the private sector, has been adopted with renewed vigour by subsequent administrations, less profitable spaces (such as pubs, clubs, parks, arts and community centres and even football grounds) continue to decline being replaced by more profitable but often unaffordable and so exclusive alternatives.

Academic David Stevenson comments,

Although there are ever greater ways in which some can express themselves culturally, social inequity means that such possibilities are denied to others, leading to a culture-gap between those who can express themselves freely and those whose cultural expression is mediated and controlled in the same way as their social and economic freedoms.

Corbyn’s break with the economic pessimism of New Labour and his stated ambition of placing culture at the heart of government offers new hope and space to imagine.  I asked David what Cultural Democracy might look like today

A cultural democracy is, for me, a society where all of the citizens have the time and economic security to explore and express their cultural values. It starts from an assumption that all humans are cultural and that having the freedom and security to make manifest those cultural instincts are the hallmarks of an equitable and civilised society. A cultural democracy does not seek to make value judgements about the form which anyone’s cultural expression may take, instead recognising that is the right to a cultural life that we all share, and that heterogeneity of this cultural life should be indicative of the society’s diversity.

The current shift in the Corbyn led Labour toward Cultural Democracy as an organising principle reflects the experience and  practice of many artists who position themselves outside the “mainstream” and who know from experience of the cultural capabilities that are in us all.  New Labour became ensnared in its own trap of having to prove the economic value of culture , socially engaged artists talk about culture  as being central to both our personal and our societies well being. Through it we express identity, share our hopes and aspirations, critique the state and build the empathy necessary to create a compassionate world – a world in which the many and not the few live with dignity.  Fundamentally we believe that the economy is here to serve culture, not culture to serve the economy, and that the right to a cultural life is the fundamental right of everyone.

Robert Rae was expressing his personal opinion about cultural policy as part of a wider discussion about Cultural Democracy in  Red Pepper

David Stevenson Head of Media, Communication and Performing Arts at Queen Margaret University. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and the Royal Society of Arts. David is Policy Reviews Editor of the international journal, Cultural Trends. He has served as a board member of a number of arts organisations, and is currently on the board of the Out of the Blue Arts Education Trust.

Loraine Leeson is a visual artist particularly known for her socially engaged work with East London communities. Her projects have won a Media Trust Inspiring Voices award and Olympic Inspire Mark, The Catch public artwork involving 300 children became a London 2012 Landmark while Active Energy received RegenSW’s Arts and Green Energy award. Loraine is director of the cSPACE Trust, chair of Four Corners centre for film and photography and runs an MA in Art and Social Practice at Middlesex University. 2017 saw her 1970s photomontage work in support of health campaigns exhibited at the ICA as well as publication of her book Art:Process:Change – inside a socially situated practice. In a current project Jal! she is working with environmental and social scientists using the arts to help address issues of water conservation in rural India.

Robert Rae A theatre and film director, worked with John McGrath’s 7:84 Theatre Company. As Artistic Director of Theatre Workshop Scotland he championed the employment of professional disabled actors. He has directed two co-created  feature films, THE HAPPY LANDS and TROUBLE SLEEPING, both screened by BBC,  as well as numerous professional and community shows. His preferred way of working  welcomes the people whose story is being told to the heart of the creative process. His large-scale theatre work pushes at the boundaries between political protest and theatre. A member of the Fair Access Committee of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire he is currently working  with Derry Playhouse on their Theatre of WItness Programme.

Karen Merkel has specialised for thirty years in media production, consultancy and training in development contexts. She produced programmes for BBC Radios 4 and 5Live, conceived and co-ran ‘Sound Radio’, one of the first five Community Radio Stations with a UK Licence to broadcast. Karen has been an arts and media consultant for the Arts Council England and the BFI. She worked for the BBC for 9 years; directing projects for World Service Education and as Director of Education for the former World Service Trust.