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Accounting for Culture

Caroline Andrew
Monica Gattinger
M. Sharon Jeannotte
et al.

Conclusion. Reflections on the Cultural and Political Implications of Cultural Citizenship

M. Sharon Jeannotte et Will Straw

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Reflections on the Socio-cultural and Socio-political Implications of Cultural Citizenship—Paradoxes and Contradictions

1The introduction to this volume outlined the shifting rationales and contexts for public policy in the cultural realm. It did so, in part, by charting the dilemmas facing policy analysts as they grapple with questions of governance, accountability and the indicators on which policy rests. Our concern in this concluding chapter is with the more elusive (and hotly debated) ways in which the cultural realm itself has been transformed in recent years. During this period, we would suggest, longstanding assumptions about the organization of cultural life or the direction of its development have been cast into doubt. This doubt often appears as a set of paradoxes—as puzzles or contradictions whose resolution sometimes seems beyond us. Some of these paradoxes have been raised in the contributions to this volume by Sherman, Murray, and others. Others are developed here in schematic form so as to highlight possible directions for future thinking and research.

2In the first of these paradoxes, it seems clear that the steady implantation of global communications networks within the worlds of work and leisure has led to an explosion of cultural activity we might consider “artisanal.” This activity includes the writing of blogs, the posting of family genealogies, the setting up of MP3 music exchange sites and innumerable other examples of small-scale, hobby-like activity. Interestingly, such activity runs both behind and ahead of the “innovation” agendas which increasingly underpin government investment in culture (as described by Cunningham in this volume). These communication networks have ensured the survival of traditional forms of expression (such as the diary or family tree) just as forcefully as they have produced new, experimental forms of cultural or entrepreneurial engagement. This new artisanal activity strengthens the lines of interconnection on which social capital depends. It turns longstanding connections (such as family ties) into the pretext for new acts of communication and community-building. At the same time, however, this explosion of micro communities compels people to organize much of their life around the commitment to highly specialized interests. Devotion to such interests, arguably, risks furthering their social disconnection, their retreat from other forms of collective civic engagement.

  • 1 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (London: Verso, 1995).

3All definitions of citizenship presume some sort of balance between public engagement and privatized self-fulfillment. New cultural practices—most notably those involving the Internet, but including, as well, text messaging and the malting of digital video “films"—will reorder this balance in ways we are not yet able to grasp. When individuals piece together their family histories through the use of a global communications system, are they retreating from collective public life, into traditionally circumscribed forms of belonging, or are they acknowledging that all belonging now takes place on a shared and mediated public stage? When people spend their mornings reading highly personal blogs rather than newspapers, is this a form of cultural participation or a withdrawal from it? It remains unclear whether what Sarah Thornton1 called “subcultural capital”—the insider’s attachment to the codes and habits of particular specialized interest groups—is a building block for social capital in its broader sense or a force which blocks its further development.

4At the same time, while some cultural creators (like the makers of low-budget political films) pursue ever greater access to public attention, some avant-gardes (like certain electronic music communities) seek just as forcefully to become invisible. The search for public attention and the quest to be left alone stand as competing claims on governments and public policy; each represents a distinct version of cultural citizenship. To be understood and counted by the state is, for the first set of actors, the sign of successful intervention. For the second, the state’s drive to comprehend and count exemplifies a symbolic violence at the heart of governance. The dilemma here, for those working to develop cultural indicators, should be clear. The state’s desire to shine an intrusive light upon wilfully marginalized corners of cultural activity risks undermining an avant-garde’s efforts to develop new forms of community and belonging. If, however, the state turns away from that activity (or fails to look for it), policy development will be built upon incomplete images of the cultural sphere. As micro-communities of cultural interest proliferate, the state’s move to observe and count them risks appearing like an exercise of control. When those communities seek no subsidy or require no regulatory approval, the legitimacy of oversight or measurement by the cultural policy apparatus becomes unclear.

5This tension between public and privatized engagements with culture is slowly displacing another opposition which was long at the heart of cultural analysis: that between producers and receivers of cultural artefacts. The academic project of cultural studies built much of its populism on the claim that cultural consumers were active rather than passive. Reception, it was claimed was always an active process of interpreting cultural artefacts and rendering them meaningful. While controversial, these arguments allowed academics (and those policy-makers influenced by similar ideas) to pay closer attention to everyday forms of cultural participation, to seek the kernel of active engagement in the most seemingly passive of behaviours.

6Those who make claims about the empowering character of new media have had to surrender much of this argument. Old media, they suggest (at least implicitly) did in fact render audiences or consumers passive. New media, on the other hand, have transformed consumers, making them active users of tools for cultural creation (such as the CD-burner or Web authoring software). The strength of these arguments is that they acknowledge the growing irrelevance of the producer/receiver distinction; notions like “user community” or “creative network” better grasp the multiple forms of cultural involvement now made possible. The risk, however, is that the consumers of mainstream television or blockbuster art gallery exhibits become newly stigmatized as passive, powerless citizens, caught on the wrong side of a digital divide which devalues their less heroic forms of cultural participation.

7Understanding these “ordinary” forms of cultural participation has long been the great challenge for those active in the development or analysis of cultural policy. The consumers of network television and other “old” media (who are traditionally more elderly and rural than the population as a whole) might well be overlooked as a result of two significant developments in cultural policy. One, as suggested, comes with the emphasis on new technologies, and with a valorization of the active, even subcultural production of new media forms and content. Another has arrived with the new emphasis on culture’s role in urban regeneration and the nurturing of a creative work force. Richard Florida and others have offered influential claims about culture’s power to attract talented young professionals to inner city living. These claims usefully locate culture at the very heart of social texture and community values. They are focused, however, on an active and consumption-oriented engagement with small-scale, high-art cultural forms (such as galleries and live performance). From such forms—for reasons of education, location, linguistic ability, or income—most people are excluded. This analysis both opens up definitions of culture—by acknowledging its place within a broader ethos of urban life and citizenship—and closes it down, by expelling from such definitions the consumption of mass entertainment and information media. At the end of the day, the forms of cultural participation which prove most resistant to analysis may still be those old-fashioned activities (like television viewing) whose significance has always confounded analysts.

8Cultural policy’s recent focus on cities and urban life has transformed the policy debate in important ways. It has allowed analysts to avoid those messy questions of essential definition which long haunted policy-makers concerned with culture as principally a national phenomenon. In the new urban turn, cultural policy-makers are no longer required to judge the content of cultural works or to embrace certain themes, styles, or forms over others. This has enabled policy to focus on dynamism and creativity as social resources, without having to develop criteria for judging the quality or “Canadianness” of individual works. The risk, as Murray has noted in this volume, is that the specifically cultural dimensions of creative activity become forgotten, in approaches which see culture as simply one ingredient within social capital, or as the finery which dresses up new sorts of financial and human investment in urban locales.

Addressing the Paradoxes—The Way Forward

9We undertook the colloquium and this book to answer some fundamental questions about the bases for cultural policy and to examine the tools needed to respond to changes in the cultural policy environment. The contributions to this volume have provided a rich and varied set of perspectives on the general subject of cultural citizenship, as indicated above, and they have also highlighted the paradoxes and contradictions that policy-makers face when seeking to understand and address the social effects of culture.

10Is it possible to work through the contradictions and to arrive at a place where the needs of creators, citizens, and user communities can be accommodated through public policy?

11As Colin Mercer points out in his chapter, all modern governments must know not only bow to count, but what to count. Most of the contributors to this volume, even those with the most clearly articulated doubts about instrumental justifications for cultural support measures, acknowledged that a new approach to cultural indicators was one of the places where governments must start if they are to address the paradoxes outlined above.

12Why the need for better indicators? The contributions in this volume have eloquently presented a variety of reasons, but buried within each of them is one fundamental message: what governments count as “culture” may not necessarily be what cultural producers, user communities, or citizens consider “culture.” Some of this activity may have to continue to lie “below the radar” of cultural policy if it is to retain its vitality and integrity. However, other types of cultural activity appear to be so embedded in communities or so new as to be invisible through current policy lenses, even when they clamour for “voice.” In the latter two cases, at least, better indicators are a necessary precursor to better policy.

13Tom Sherman in his chapter outlines how the cultural landscape is evolving from one of scarcity to one of abundance, even overload, and how the “cultural production chain” is giving way to mutual engagement by creators and citizen/consumers in the construction of what he calls “recombinant aesthetic strategies.” Both Christian Poirier and Nancy Duxbury make the case for a more complete and robust set of cultural indicators to reflect the role that culture plays in the quality of life and social sustainability of communities. Will Straw, in tracing the pathways taken by cultural products and practices through societies, suggests that “artefacts are arguably less important than the patterns of interaction which are forged, reinforced, or broken in the process.”

14All this suggests that cultural indicators should focus on relationships and flows, and not simply on products, if cultural policy is to respond to the way that citizens, creators, and user communities really live their lives. Taking this even further, one might suggest that until indicators can trace the social effects of culture’s trajectories through communities, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to judge whether and to what extent public policy interventions are contributing to the well-being of citizens.

15The “road ahead” for cultural policy must certainly pass through a territory that is being reshaped by two somewhat contradictory trends—the globalization of producer/consumer networks and the localization of cultural quality of life. Governments, particularly national ones, have spent a great deal of energy since the 1980s on the first of these trends. John Foote’s chapter gives us an overview of the global challenges, which are not only economic and technological, but also social and demographic. However, in the end it can be argued, as Sharon Jeannotte does in her chapter, that social spaces are still largely negotiated at the local level through investments in economic, social, and cultural capital.

16Even such a seemingly benign policy outcome as cultural participation, as demonstrated by Catherine Murray and Rosaire Garon, may not achieve policy goals, especially as governments seem to be unclear about the conceptual approach that should underpin participatory policies—should they aim to attract new audiences to traditional art forms? Or should they aim to strengthen social capital, or diversity, or cultural rights, even if this means redirecting public support to different types of cultural expression? The pertinence of this difficult question is reinforced by Karim Karim’s observation that the effective exercise of citizenship rights and responsibilities depends as much on cultural participation as on economic and political participation. However, as he points out, the “sphericities” inhabited by different sub-cultures do not always intersect in ways that foster inclusion.

17Obviously, the way forward is not easy. Stuart Cunningham and his colleagues make a compelling case for integrating the cultural industries more closely with innovation policies, thus addressing at least two of the global challenges highlighted by Foote. But Allan Gregg makes an equally compelling case from the opposite perspective, arguing that it is culture’s ability to bring citizens together and create a sense of community that should be the proper focus of governments. Both their perspectives, however, are tempered by the cautionary advice offered by John Meisel and Gilles Paquet, who view with suspicion any attempt to quantify culture or tie it too closely to economic and social outcomes.

18All the contributors emphasize the need to come to grips with what Gilles Paquet has termed the new “ecology of governance”—a terrain where many different systems are intersecting and interacting with each other in unpredictable ways. Dick Stanley argues forcefully that culture is a key strategic good in this challenging environment as it provides the symbolic resources that citizens require to develop a consensus on their collective social lives. Viewed from this perspective, if social cohesion is the glue that holds societies together, culture is the tool kit from which that glue is created. Not only that, but a culture composed of many diverse elements makes for a more resilient bond. This perspective is reinforced by Monica Gattinger who suggests that states must shift their emphasis from “government” to “governance” through the engagement of multiple partners with a diversity of viewpoints. Only through this approach, in her view, can societies marshal the knowledge, resources, and power needed to achieve cultural policy objectives within the new “ecology of governance.” Echoing the message of contributors such as Paquet and Mercer, she reinforces the value of multiple horizontal connections within and between an array of public, private, and non-governmental players, while reinforcing the need for leadership from public players involved in the governance networks.

19The introductory chapter of this volume began by examining the issue of governance, and there is perhaps a certain symmetry in ending on the same note. Our collective examination of the need for better indicators to measure the social effects of culture and of the possible parameters of a new cultural policy paradigm is rooted in the urgent necessity to adjust governance in the cultural field to the complexities of life in the twenty-first century.

20Every time the topic of governance was raised, both at the Colloquium and in the chapters of this volume, the idea of “engagement” was consistently invoked. The Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage, Judith A. LaRocque, in her remarks at the Colloquium summarized the importance of engagement with culture in this way:

Engagement with culture is hard to distinguish from community development and the growth of citizenship. When people engage with culture, they necessarily engage with each other, with people like them in some way, and inevitably with people who are different. Cultural policy has the potential therefore to reach out beyond the traditional realm of industry, artist, and museum to influence citizenship, values, tolerance, and the very construction of Canadian society.

21Such engagement can occur only if everyone feels that they have a stake in the cultural life of their community. The major lesson that we have drawn from the contributions to this volume is that in the turbulent field of cultural production and consumption that exists today, policy-makers cannot afford to focus solely on its industrial/economic aspects. The role of cultural policy as an enabler of citizen wellbeing and quality of life is also important. In this environment of complexity and overload, no one organization is equipped to do it all, and governments are therefore being forced to think and act more creatively in partnerships with others.

22We are convinced that cultural production and heritage preservation thrive best in an environment where citizens understand and appreciate their contribution, not only to the economy and to national identity, but also to the quality of their life and the sustainability of their communities. Much of the evidence and analysis presented in this book would seem to suggest that this appreciation must begin at the local level and that, rather than filtering outwards from the centre to the periphery, the seeds of any new cultural policy paradigm must spring from the soil of multiple localities (and multiple players within those localities) into the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by policy-makers. These localities, as we suggested earlier, encompass a wide variety of forms of cultural engagement. The local contexts of culture are not limited to the highly dynamic urban art scenes which have become so central to cultural policy over the last decade. Localities include multiple forms of cultural involvement, from the traditional to the emergent, from those seeking to engage governments to those eager to resist such engagement. They encompass those working to engage a broader public and others whose interests might appear unashamedly narrow or specialized. Policy must ground itself in the recognition of these multiple forms of cultural engagement.

23The greatest challenges but also, perhaps, the greatest opportunities for cultural policy in the twenty-first century will lie in mastering what Gilles Paquet so aptly terms “the dynamics of polycentric governance.” Whether we consider culture as capital or as diversity or as a right, we share the view, expressed by Colin Mercer, that “citizenship is what cultural policy is—or should be—about.”


1 Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (London: Verso, 1995).


Manager of the International Comparative Socio-Cultural Research unit in the Strategic Research and Analysis Directorate of the Department of Canadian Heritage. Since 1996, her primary research focus has been on social cohesion as a horizontal public policy issue affecting Canadian society as a whole. She has produced research reports on a variety of subjects, such as the impact of value change on Canadian society, international definitions of social cohesion, the points of intersection between cultural policy and social cohesion, the role of cultural participation and cultural capital in building sustainable communities, culture and volunteering, the use of gambling revenues to fund culture, the role of culture and heritage in everyday life, and youth “on-line” culture. During her long career in the Government of Canada she has been a corporate strategic planner in both the Department of Canadian Heritage and the former Department of Communications. She has held positions as a social policy analyst, a program officer providing grants for information technology applications in the cultural field, and a writer and editor in several other government departments

Associate professor within the Department of Art History and Communications Studies at McGill University. He is on the editorial boards of Screen, Cultural Studies, The Canadian Journal of Communications, Social Semiotics, Space and Culture and numerous other journals. He is the co-editor, with Simon Frith and John Street, of the Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, and, with Jody Berland and Dave Tomas, of Theory Rules: Art as Theory, Theory and Art (1996). His articles on music, film, and culture have appeared in several anthologies and journals. Currently, he is a member of a five-year research project on The Culture of Cities, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada under their Major Collaborative Research Initiatives Program. His current research focuses on the print culture of scandal and exposé in the 1920s and 1930s

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2005

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