Cultural Democracy at the Frontiers of Patronage: Public-Interest Art versus Promotional Culture

In Brave New World Revisited Aldous Huxley observed that ‘genius has been the servant of tyranny and art has advertised the merits of the local cult’ (Huxley 1958). Regarding the complex relationship between art and society, Huxley argued that democracies need to identify good art in the making rather than retrospectively. Drawing also on Raymond Williams’ analysis of the limits imposed on dialogue by representative democracy (Williams 1980), this article considers the data from our pilot ethnography on the prospects for cultural democracy in the arts. Private patronage and largely unaccountable interests presently influence the use of public money; spending is guided towards the logic of individual or organisational self-promotion and an overwhelmingly promotional culture which serves different types of governance, whether authoritarian or democratic. By incorporating private patronage and non-western gift-economics many critical dialogues springing from the arts are contoured by their origins in elite social and political courtship (Bourdieu 1977; Burke [1790] 1997; Schiller [1794] 1994). Here we show how aesthetics remain a key to twenty-first century statecraft. Noting the effects of top-down patronage, whether in the direct manipulation of dialogue or in the more indirect tailoring of critique, the premise of our research is that if widening participation in the arts matters, it matters first and foremost in decision making about spending. Our study tests the deliberative capacities of randomised citizen juries as patrons financially empowered to commission public-interest arts projects on controversial themes and across contested frontiers of sovereignty or cultural identity. We consider our initial findings from the comparison of deliberation in non-randomised control groups and in randomised juries. We discuss the potentially positive role of randomised citizen juries as ‘jolts’ of equality and pluralism at the level of cultural governance (Connolly 2017). We also outline the main political, institutional, and professional blockages and impediments to the democratic integration of such empowered dialogical encounters.

Alex Law

Professor of Sociology, Abertay University, Dundee.

Professor Alex Law teaches sociology at Abertay University, Dundee. His teaching and research are informed by relational and historical approaches to sociology, taking long-term perspectives in sociological theory to problems of nation, state, and society.

Kirsten Lloyd

Lecturer in Curatorial Theory and Practice, University of Edinburgh

Dr Kirsten Lloyd is a Lecturer in Curatorial Theory and Practice at The University of Edinburgh, where she founded and directs the MSc by Research in Collections and Curating Practices.

Martyn Hudson

Applied Sociologist of Art and Design; Critical Theorist

Dr Martyn Hudson is an Applied Sociologist of Art and Design and a Critical Theorist whose primary research interests lie in Sound Art, Cultural Landscapes, Classical Origins of Critical Theory and Aesthetics, Socially Engaged Practice with Communities and Design-led methodologies.

Owen Logan

Honorary Research Fellow in the University of Aberdeen's School of Divinity, History, Philosophy, and Art History

Dr Owen Logan is an Honorary Research Fellow in the University of Aberdeen's School of Divinity, History, Philosophy, and Art History. He has worked in several countries in the fields of the creative and performing arts, art history, sociology, and energy studies.