From democratization of culture to cultural democracy: a reflection on the management of culture

Yasmin Abdalla
18 Feb 2021, 4:50 pm

Cultural policies in Brazil are going through a period of enormous instability, marked by moments such as the end of the Ministry of Culture (whose area of action was subjugated to other Ministries in the current Government), the censorship of cultural products in public notices and the end of incentive mechanisms, as we have experienced in the State of São Paulo, after the recent end of PROAC ICMS. Therefore, in this context of dismantling, it is essential that we resume a deeper discussion about how cultural public policies emerged and what their main purposes are.

France is the birth-place of public cultural policies as we know them today, with the creation of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1959, under the command of André Malraux, French writer and intellectual who dedicated himself to reflect on political and cultural philosophy throughout his life. The foundation of this office represents one of the first initiatives in the process of institutionalizing culture in the world, and particularly in Europe, at a time when the countries of the continent were consolidating their post-war policies. France, in a pioneering way, realized that culture and its manifestations should be important allies in this process of national reconstruction and renewed influence in the international context.

At least according to Philippe Urfalino, in A invenção da política cultural [The invention of cultural politics] (Edições Sesc, 2015).

André Malraux seleciona imagens para o livro “Le musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale” (Foto: Maurice Jarnoux / Paris Match)

André Malraux selects images for the book "Le musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale" (Source: Maurice Jarnoux / Paris Match)

André Malraux em visita ao Brasil (Foto: Arquivo Público do Distrito Federal)
André Malraux e o presidente Juscelino Kubitschek (Foto: Arquivo Público do Distrito Federal)

André Malraux in visit to Brazil (Photo: Federal District Public Archive)

André Malraux and Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek (Photo: Federal District Public Archive)

Although the democratization strategy seems right at first, it carries with it certain controversial assumptions. As researcher Isaura Botelho reflects, this policy, in addition to placing only one type of culture – in general, the erudite – as deserving of encouragement and diffusion, also assumes that the mere encounter between the work and the public – also considered as one unit – is enough for the development of full artistic enjoyment. The model of cultural democratization carries with it a colonial view that it is the mission of certain classes to “bring culture” to the popular classes as a way of including them in the social fold.

Research after the French example, says Botelho, shows that this conduct only privileges those who already consume these more erudite practices, and that, given state incentives, they start to frequent these spaces even more. “The point is that this policy has not solved its main objective: to incorporate new social sectors in the world of learned practices”.

Dimensões da cultura: políticas culturais e seus desafios, Edições Sesc, 2016, pg. 33.

Ibid., pg. 45.

The love for art

Going back to 1960s France, the introduction of these policies also created the need for a way to measure their impact, in an attempt to situate cultural development in the country’s economic and social context. For this reason, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs funded part of the research by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, carried out in partnership with also sociologist Alain Darbel, on the cultural habits of museum-goers in five countries on the European continent: Spain, France, Greece, Holland and Poland. The central idea was to understand the social dynamics that are placed in the context of public access to works of art. Compiled in the book “The love of art: European art museums and their public” (1966) and worked on by Bourdieu along with other studies on taste and distinction, some findings that emerged in this investigation will define a new paradigm for cultural policy formulation.

Capa de “L'Amour de l'art” [O amor pela arte], de Pierre Bourdieu e Alain Darbel (Foto: Reprodução)

Cover of "L'Amour de l'art", by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel

One of the conclusions from their research is that, in their specific context, there was a clear correlation between the public’s level of education and their frequency of attendance at museums. The authors observed that children from families in which visiting an institution was a recurring habit acquired a greater “disposition” for such practice. In other words, the desire for culture is not “natural” and should be stimulated, according to Bourdieu and Darbel, since childhood. Is it possible for an adult who has never been to an exhibition as a child to be moved by a painting or a sculpture? Of course! After all, the perception of a work of art is far from a strictly social relationship, but it will be much more difficult for them to include in their cultural habits the recurring visitation to a museum or cultural institution, since they have not been accustomed to this practice throughout their life.

This leads us to another finding by the sociologists: barriers to accessing culture are not merely material, but symbolic. They realized that there is no point in guaranteeing free exhibitions, shows and other cultural goods if there is no sincere training and empowerment of the public in this regard. The individual needs, above all, to feel entitled to attend and consume certain goods so that he can, in fact, do so. How many people, for example, have been intimidated into not entering an art gallery because they think they do not belong in that space?

Finally, the sociologists realized that artistic languages, as well as cultural spaces, have their own codes. Sharing these codes is essential in fostering the desire for culture and in dissolving symbolic barriers. The more codes the individual has internalized, the more comfortable they will feel at frequenting and consuming certain goods. For eg., regarding a book, those codes can range from being familiar with the language in which the book was written to understanding the complex references made in the text. In an exhibition, it can be from understanding that the line on the floor in front of the works is the minimum distance that must be kept, to perceiving the materialization of the artwork as a theoretical-conceptual research conducted by a contemporary artist.

Gilberto Gil, Ministro da Cultura que estimulou políticas de democracia cultural (Foto: Garapa – Coletivo Multimídia)

Gilberto Gil, Brazilian Minister for Culture who stimulated policies of cultural democracy (Photo: Garapa – Coletivo Multimídia)

Cultural democracy

These findings, reinforced by further research on cultural habits, generated a new way of looking at the practices of individuals and, consequently, a new way of formulating public policies in the field of culture. Instead of stimulating cultural democratization, more effective policies began to focus on the concept of cultural democracy. “Cultural democracy presupposes the existence of several audiences, in the plural, with their needs, their own aspirations and their particular modes of consumption and enjoyment, both in local culture and in that which belongs to a wider universe, national or international. From this new perspective, the challenge is greater and, I believe, more legitimate. We exchanged a unidirectional field, full of certainties, which indicated which culture should be privileged, for the universe of cultural diversity, both in creating and receiving”, elaborates Botelho.

Dimensões da cultura: políticas culturais e seus desafios, Edições Sesc, 2016, pg. 45.

O Ponto de Cultura valoriza as múltiplas formas de fazer e consumir cultura (Fotos: Programa Cultura Viva)

The Ponto de Cultura [Culture Point] values multiple ways of creating and consuming culture (Photos: Programa Cultura Viva)


A successful case of cultural democracy policy is the Cultura Viva [Living Culture] program, created by the Ministry of Culture in 2004, under the command of Gilberto Gil, who instituted the so-called Points of Culture across the country. The promotion of local cultural equipment and projects, which develop the potential of each territory, considering the diversity not only of cultural production, but of the public and their interests, perfectly reflects the idea that we are all producers of culture or rather, of cultures. Properly instrumentalized with the specific codes of each language, it is up to each person to choose what they would like to produce and consume. The State, therefore, would be in charge of enabling these multiple productions and fruition, without there being such a vertical intervention.

Cultural democracy is an important concept in the management of culture that should guide not only the formulation of policies, but the development strategies of cultural institutions and spaces including commercial ones that have cultural assets as their main survival input. Understanding the existence of different audiences and what barriers are imposed on them, the importance of constantly fostering cultural desire and the need to share codes is essential for the development of more democratic and contemporary practices that, consequently, have a greater impact on society in general.

Regarding Culture Points as a model for cultural democracy and a less vertical intervention by the State, see article by Alice Pires Lacerda: Democratização da cultura x democracia cultural: os Pontos de Cultura enquanto política cultural de formação de público. Available on <https://bit.ly/2YGuz2q>. 

* The opinions expressed in articles by invited authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the institution.

WhatsApp Image 2020-03-19 at 13.54.38

Yasmin Abdalla holds a degree in Journalism and Social Sciences from the University of São Paulo (USP), with a specialization in Cultural Management (SESC-SP). She has worked for several journalistic media outlets and, since 2016, focuses on communication and production of cultural projects.

SP–Arte Profile

Join the SP–Arte community! We are the largest art and design fair in South America and we want you to be part of it. Create or update your profile to receive our newsletters and to have a personalized experience on our website and at our fairs.