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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Bookshelf Essentials column, “Cultural Democracy: What’s It Good For?” by Tom van Buren here.
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Volume 31

Cultural Democracy: What's It Good For? by Tom Van Buren

In a welcome development, ethnomusicologists working in the public sector are increasingly reflecting and writing from a theoretical standpoint on the lessons of their work. Anthony Seeger, former director of the Archive of Traditional Music at Indiana University and more recently of Smithsonian Folkways recordings, has been a strong voice for such work within the discipline, which has only recently given serious consideration to its public sector. Folklorists have enjoyed a more hospitable environment for such inquiry, but folklore’s focus on folk culture has tended to steer scholars away from discussions of the wider culture and institutional and political priorities and toward the concerns of marginal or niche cultures. As the corporate culture tightens its hold on the mainstream media and the margins shrink, all workers in the vineyards of community-based arts would do well to share the wisdom of their labors and sharpen the focus of their advocacy.

Ethnomusicologist James Bau Graves’ new book, Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 2005), is just such an effort. Graves codirects the Center for Cultural Exchange, formerly known as Portland Performing Arts, a leading regional traditional arts organization. He has been working in southern Maine since the early 1990s with communitybased collaborations that support and present traditional artists.

Published with the tagline “how America shortchanges art and communities, and what can be done about it,” the book examines key American cultural issues in the light of participation in traditional arts. Drawing from his fieldwork and his experience presenting folk and traditional arts, Graves compares the assumptions of both commercial culture and elite institutional culture to those of homebased ethnic cultural manifestations. The conclusion that America shortchanges the arts in general should come as no surprise. In 2000 Canada exceeded the level of U.S. per capita direct support for the arts by a factor of seven, France by nine, and Germany by a whopping fourteen (117). Support in the United States has dropped in real value since then. Such figures are mirrored by similar disparities in humanitarian foreign aid.

Why does this matter? We in America have grown inured to a lack of community in society. We have lost touch with a sense of shared values in what Graves calls the “public purpose.” There is little remaining consensus on the value of education, health care, avoiding crippling debt, mutual civility, the administration of justice, and so forth. Those working at nonprofit institutions, who are also keen observers of the cultural ramifications of globalization and commercialization, can scarcely help but reflect on the changing sense of public space and purpose. As politics get increasingly nasty and exclusionary, we would do well to consider what is left of the cultural middle ground as it applies to our work in the folk arts.

Graves’ central purpose is to delineate what makes the arts resonate for different cultural communities and to elevate cultural practices that derive their meaning from the shared experience of community and tradition, as opposed to the abstract value of art objects on the printed page, behind the proscenium of the stage, or out of reach on a museum wall. His argument empowers—at least in concept— locally rooted culture. It is also a meditation on Graves’ experience with all levels of public presentation, from participation in funding panels, to public programming, to the mediation of competing agendas affecting a given culture.

The first portion of the book focuses on the dichotomies within community culture. Later chapters deal with practical issues in supporting and presenting community-based arts, highlighting problems and making suggestions for improvement. These practical issues include funding, educational work, the mediation role of arts programmers, and both negative and positive aspects of globalization (particularly the growth and empowerment of transnational communities). The final chapter lays out four key lessons that sum up Graves’ accumulated wisdom. According to Graves, culturally empowered communities require 1) regular access to master traditional artists; 2) “prominent and public platforms for demonstrating and celebrating the vitality of their artists and their heritage” (209); 3) “continual exposure to the stimulation and crossfertilization of encounters with other cultures, both related and distant” (210); and 4) both comprehensive and long-term support.

The book at times reads like a litany of references, quotations, and examples from both Graves’ own work and experiences from the wider field; perhaps more examples appear than are needed to make the good points central to the thesis. With judicious use of the index and systematic perusal, however, one can glean extensive and varied information, while still following the basic argument of the book. Despite its subject of cultural democracy, the book is squarely aimed at the cultural professional. As valid as most every point and example is, community-based cultural advocates and tradition bearers might have difficulty wading through the text. The book’s lessons might be lost on the readers most central to the kinds of cultural dialogue it calls for. Certain sections stand solidly on their own, as meditations on issues in cultural presentation and at times as cautionary tales. As a reflection of the work of public sector folklorists in this time, Cultural Democracy deserves a place in the emerging canon on traditional arts presenting and analysis in the United States’ pluralistic society.

Bookshelf Essentials

Tom van Buren is an archivist for the Center for Traditional Music and Dance and folklorist for ArtsWestchester.Photo of Tom Van Buren

In 2000 Canada exceeded the level of U.S. per capita direct support for the arts by a factor of seven, France by nine, and Germany by a whopping fourteen (117). Support in the United States has dropped in real value since then. Such figures are mirrored by similar disparities in humanitarian foreign aid.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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