Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community and the Public Purpose

reviewed by William Charland - 2006

coverTitle: Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community and the Public Purpose
Author(s): James Bau Graves
Publisher: University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign
ISBN: 0252029658, Pages: 256, Year: 2005
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The idea that a society's most powerful members define its cultural record is a widely acknowledged reality. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that only members of the dominant society have access to the resources necessary to promote cultural expression. Fortunately, James Bau Graves’ Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community & the Public Purpose provides object lessons in cultural facilitation.

Ranging comfortably between scholarly, didactic, and conversational tones, as an author, musician, musicologist, and cultural facilitator, Graves provides a primer on the role and responsibilities of democracy in a diverse society. Drawing from his own extensive background of successes and (bravely) failures, the author skillfully weaves theoretical and practical knowledge together to reveal the complex, sometimes contradictory, world of cultural work. His chapter titles, “Tradition and Innovation,” “Conservation and Commercialization,” “Donation and Deduction,” and “Globalization and Localization,” allude to the thorny nature of the issues faced by cultural workers and the societies that they serve. Living cultures, after all, are constantly spinning new versions of themselves, blending the identities and traditions of the past with new knowledge and resources in an effort to adapt to ever-changing social, environmental, and technological contexts. The author’s choice of the connective “and” in his chapter titles, rather than the dichotomous “versus,” immediately captures the reality that the dynamics of these opposing forces continually ebb and flow. Returning often to this point, Graves illustrates the intricacy of such ongoing processes by sorting through the internesting historical, social, political, and financial domains of cultural promotion in a democratic system. In the process, he exposes the difficulties inherent in cultural facilitation and the risk of complicity in the social reproduction of power:

Cultural mediators, then, must grapple with several intrinsic political and ethical dilemmas in the course of their work. Usually political progressives, they find that their work often focuses on preservation of extraordinarily conservative cultural traditions. Their work celebrates the vitality of traditional folkways in the face of a mainstream political culture that devalues them at every turn. Communities often receive their efforts with suspicion or hostility, especially within the context of contemporary multicultural society. In the end, despite having cast their lot with the working people of the world, they are still representative of an educated elite who use their power to effect change in directions that fit their own agendas. The political power equation substantially favors the folklorist over the folk. (p. 154)

The author covers familiar ground when defining terms. His discussions of culture, tradition, and folklore, for example, although necessary and detailed, provide no truly new insights. The strengths of Grave’s book, instead, are in the author’s ability to take these primary discussions to higher levels and in his willingness to expose his own missteps so that others might learn through his example. The reader gets a feel for the long and difficult journey that Graves has taken in order to facilitate participatory democracy at its most effective level.

Throughout the book, Graves is mindful to temper normative segments regarding how a democracy “should” function with lessons on the underlying sea of power and politics within which organizations of cultural promotion float or sink. Perhaps most vital in the education of the cultural facilitator are lessons concerning the motivations and machinations of funding agencies and the volatility of the cultural landscape due to sociopolitical change. Graves provides an informed review of the former and sobering insight into the later. Foundations, a major source of revenue in the not-for-profit realm, are “usually set up with a single donor’s funds, with a mission of supporting whatever activities the benefactor might choose” (p. 112). Thus, foundations, the largess of an elite, are distinctive for their idiosyncratic goals. Sharing a desire to effect society at the macrosystem level, prominent foundations direct the lion’s share of their support to well-established institutions, such as museums and symphonies, while grass-roots communities go begging. Even governmental agencies, such as the NEA and NEH, while using images of traditional community art activities in their self-promotional material, still award the vast majority of their funds to institutions of “high” art. In response, the author calls upon us to consider the idea of a National Endowment for Community Culture (p. 119), which would be dedicated to equitable resource allocation at the federal level by recognizing and supporting creative culture at the community level.

Regarding the rapidly transforming cultural climate, Graves addresses globalization, consumerism, the rise of conservatism, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, and the increasing imbalance between the "haves" and "have nots," all of which threaten diversity. Fortunately, for every barrier delineated he provides constructive perspectives. Well aware of the enormity of the undertaking, Graves nonetheless offers a guide to sustaining cultures. First, “every community needs routine and predictable access to masters of its traditional heritage,” in order to keep from losing altogether the cultural traditions that provide identity and community (p. 207). Second, “communities and artists need a prominent and public platform for demonstrating and celebrating the vitality of their heritage,” thus mitigating the distance between culture bearers and their audience (p. 209). Third, “artists and communities require continual exposure to the stimulation and cross-fertilization of encounters with other cultures,” as a way to ensure the synthesis that inspires further creativity (p. 210). And finally, “community cultural support needs to be both comprehensive and secured long-term” through increased public funding, independent of the popularity, or lack thereof, of an individual artist or art form (p. 211).

Appropriate for educators working in culturally diverse settings, those interested in the realities of not-for-profit work in the arts, as well as a text in college courses from art to anthropology, sociology, education, or public sector administration, “Cultural Democracy” manages to reveal the realities of cultural facilitation without resorting to platitudes, cynicism, or ideological one-sidedness. Noting in his introduction that numerous services exist to facilitate the assimilation of cultures, including ESL classes and standardized public education, the author poses a question to community leaders that he believes will enable them to avoid the disintegration of their cultural values and traditions and subsequent loss of identity, and which may well be asked of a democratic nation as a whole, “What does your community need to keep its culture vital and meaningful?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 899-902 ID Number: 12181, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:55:52 AM

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