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Why Democracy Needs Arts and Culture

by Jaroslav Andel

Is democracy in retreat? We see the rise of authoritarian regimes and the success of populist parties in Europe, trends that impact states, regions, and even local communities. There is growing inequality in the U.S. and Europe, ethnic violence in Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and Iraq, and to some extent ethnic intolerance in Central and Eastern Europe. These trends diminish social cohesion and undermine democratic governance. We have to make democratic governance resilient, and the arts community can contribute to achieving this goal.

In order to understand the vital role of arts and culture in democracy, we have to examine current developments in a broader historical context. They manifest themselves in ongoing transformations across the three institutional pillars of democratic society—the market economy, democratic governance, and the public sphere.

The end of the Cold War and the fall of communism ushered in the triumphalism of the West and the massive advances in the neoliberal policies of deregulation and privatization. These policies unleashed the forces of global capital, empowering the private sector and supranational corporations. As a result, globalization brought about the weakening of the autonomy of the nation-state. Deregulation, privatization, rapid industrialization, and urbanization have also accelerated climate change, the depletion of natural resources, and the mass extinction of species.

While deregulation and privatization diminished the public sphere, the Internet and digitization have created a new virtual public space and empowered individuals to produce and distribute their work without traditional gatekeepers. People have seen digital technology as powerful tools of democratization. However, Edward Snowden’s revelations of unprecedented government surveillance suggest that digitization can also serve efforts that run counter to democracy.

Our future depends on how we will tackle the unprecedented number of ecological, social, and economic challenges. Our track record in addressing them is pitiful. Our leaders and institutions appear to be ill-equipped to deal with the most pressing global challenges because of particular interests that make global governance institutions weak. There is a mismatch between the fragmentation of specialized institutions and the interconnectedness and complexity of today’s world.

Arts and culture have a direct bearing on our capacity to face today’s complex issues. Art safeguards a long-term view; not only does it provide a counterweight to the fast evolving world of technology, but it also helps to make sense of this world. Art invites participation and thus transcends the division between observation and activism. Art inspires insights that resonate across disciplines. Art helps to situate science and technology in public space by symbolically and reflexively representing their roles in society. Art fosters imagination and creativity, capacities that are crucial in its impact on the individual and the community.

When drawing parallels between the challenges that we face and the benefits provided by arts and culture, the following recommendations and solutions emerge.

The artistic community must foster endeavors that contribute to restoring the standing of the public sphere. In this effort, sharing and cooperation should be encouraged over competition. Participatory art practices that bridge the gap between creators and consumers are one example of such an effort. Peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, such as sharing software and music, is another. The field of digital technology, in which P2P originated, provides new tools for civic participation and strengthening the public sphere.

We have to promote these developments and lawmakers should protect them with an appropriate legal framework on national and international levels. Artists who explore and question the impact of new technologies should also be supported. Doing so will help balance technological innovation with its acculturation and critical reflection.

Grassroots activities that tackle both local and global issues, reaching across different disciplines and institutions, should also be promoted. New alliances can be created within and across different fields by sharing ideas and resources.

Implementing new procedures and methodologies, for instance creating access to data and making information visual, can create positive feedback loops between grass-roots initiatives and government policies, and between bottom-up and top-down approaches. Thanks to a greater freedom, artists and cultural institutions can act in multiple roles as catalysts, mediators, facilitators, and designers in developing such loops.

Greater synergy between the arts and education at all levels would emphasize imagination, critical thinking, and problem solving. Education is critical for the long-term sustainability of democracy and the arts play a pivotal role in educating the whole person.

It is necessary to open and sustain spaces in which innovation, creativity, art, and culture are not commodities—where we relate to them not as consumers, but as citizens and human beings.  Art can become a leader of culture again—a source of vital cognitive capacities in the future—only if it helps culture to innovate in ways that do not entail commodification. Democracy requires arts and culture most acutely for this very reason.


© Council of Europe. The paper is a shorter version of the eponymous text commissioned by the Council of Europe for the conference and originally appeared on the conference website.



Jaroslav Andel is an artist and independent curator who lives in Prague and New York. He served as a consultant to the Council of Europe on its conference and new platform “Smart Creativity, Smart Democracy”. 

[Photo courtesy of harry_nl]

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