For decades, longer even, cultural policy in Europe has been imagined as a conflict between two ideas. The first is that everyone should have access to the greatest achievements of art and culture. The second agrees, but says that everyone should also be able to contribute to culture’s creation and evolution. In the language of policy, the first is usually called cultural democratisation, while the second, which emerged a generation later and in reaction to the first, is called cultural democracy. Both have contributed to the remarkable expansion and transformation of culture in Europe (and elsewhere) since the end of the Second World War.
Both are also problematic, albeit in different ways, and I have thought a lot over the years about alternative, more creative and liberating ways to think about culture and its social organisation. Working for cultural democracy has not prevented me from seeing its weaknesses, the most important of which is probably the breadth of meanings applied to that term and the consequent difficulty of explaining it to anyone not professionally involved in culture.
But sometimes the voice of lived experience cuts through like a shaft of sunlight in a stormy sky and transforms the landscape. I’ve been working for a couple of years with el Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s historic opera house, on a community opera which will be performed for the first time in October 2022. Co-creation is an important part of that work, and 12 community choirs are now rehearsing to perform in the opera. What they, and the others involved in the opera co-creation, are doing is cultural democracy.
But democratisation of culture is also an essential part of this project, for them and for a much larger number of people who are not (and don’t wish to be) part of the co-creation process. During the course of this year, at least 1,000 people from community groups in the Liceu’s neighbourhood have participated in activities to discover what the Liceu does and why: visits to the theatre, backstage tours, discussions with artists, workshops, chamber recitals, attending rehearsals and seeing performances—all the practices developed over the decades to make great art accessible and enjoyable for people who have not previously had that privilege.
This week, one of my colleagues showed me an email that she’d just received from Magalí Sala, director of Xamfrà Choir, following their visit to the see Rigoletto, and it took my breath away. Here’s what she wrote:
I am writing thank the whole La Gata Perduda team for everything you are doing, and especially for the tickets for the rehearsal of Rigoletto. It was a very, very, very magical moment for all of us in the women’s choir and our companions.
It was spectacular !!! I was still in the clouds for a few days, telling everyone…an opera is a great show !!!!! Awesome !!!!! I can assure you that both for me and for the women of Xamfrà it will be an impossible moment to forget in our lives.
The costumes, the lights, the live orchestra, the voices (what voices!), the staging… not to mention the whole adventure: arriving together, look for our box, enter with the digital code, lobby to leave our things, the small screens for subtitles… Then the meeting with the director, seeing the mirror room, the grand piano … Matías* there too (he doesn’t know, but he’s already one more of the family !!) …
It was a very special evening, which I think will warm our hearts for a long time.
They thanked him very much, and I send you all their thanks and mine. I thought that everyone, everyone, at some point in their life, should see an opera and be blown away by the spectacle it is.
Congratulations on all the work you are doing to bring us closer. We hear the Liceu present week after week, for one reason or another, and we feel that we are already part of your machinery.
Thanks for everything, and we keep working !!* Matías is a cellist from the Liceu orchestra who has been heavily committed to the community dialogue
Reading this made me conscious of my own privilege and how it can still lead me to take for granted the value of such experiences. I grew up in a social and economic milieu where going to the theatre, museums and concerts was normal. I lived in a house with books and inherited the cultural capital of my family and class. I’ve worked for a society where those advantages are more justly distributed, and in which everyone can experience, test and critique their value. But it’s easy to forget the first steps, the basic principles.
There are deep ambiguities in the social transmission of elite culture. They become political questions when that transmission is supported by public policy and expenditure. But neither ambiguities nor politics can be understood without the experience that provokes them. Cultural democratisation is certainly not where work to ensure a fairer society and more inclusive culture should end. But reading Magalí’s email reminded me that it may be a necessary beginning.
I’m very grateful to Magalí for permission to publish her text here (in the original Catalan below), and to the Liceu for the photographs of visits to the theatre during the course of the project this year.
“Escric aquest text per agrair-vos a tot l’equip de La Gata Perduda tot el que esteu fent. Especialment per les entrades per a l’assaig de Rigoletto. Va ser un moment molt molt molt màgic per a totes nosaltres, les dones del cor i els acompanyants.
Va ser espectacular!!! Jo vaig estar uns quants dies encara als núvols, explicant-ho a tothom… una òpera és un gran espectacle!!!!! Impressionant!!!!! Us puc assegurar que tant per mi com per a les dones de Xamfrà serà un moment impossible d’oblidar de les nostres vides.
Els vestuaris, les llums, l’orquestra en directe, les veus (quines veus!), la posada en escena… per no dir tota l’aventura: entrar juntes, buscar el nostre “palco”, entrar amb el codi, el lloc on deixar les coses, les petites pantalles per als subtítols… Després, la trobada amb el director, veure la sala dels miralls, el piano de cua… el Matías també allà (ell no ho sap, però ja és un més de la família!!)…
Va ser una vetllada molt especial, que crec que ens escalfarà el cor durant molt de temps.
Elles ho van agraïr molt, i us faig arribar tot el seu agraïment i el meu. Vaig pensar que tothom, tothom, algun cop a la vida, hauria de veure una òpera i deixar-se colpir per l’espectacle que és.
Felicitats per tota la feinada que esteu fent per apropar-nos-hi. Sentim el Liceu present setmana rere setmana, per una cosa o altra, i sentim que ja formem part del vostre engranatge.
Thank you for expressing the complexities of the ‘divide’ so clearly – and for opening up ways to discuss it productively – based in practice.