Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose

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Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252029653
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2005
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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Cultural Democracy

The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose
By James Bau Graves

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02965-8


"What does your community need to keep its culture vital and meaningful?"

In 1994, I posed the question to a group of elders from Watt Samaki, a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Portland, Maine. We were seated on hundred-pound sacks of rice in the back room of an Asian grocery, sipping soy drinks and passing a paper plate of shrimp crackers. The group was agitated by what they viewed as the rapid deterioration of their community and troubled by a sense of isolation from the local mainstream. They were also a little mystified as to why a white bureaucrat was concerned about their problems, and dubious about the prospects for any action. But I had suggested that there might be some money involved, so they'd agreed to the meeting.

In the decade following the U.S. defeat in Indochina, thousands of Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in cities throughout the United States. Portland was a typical destination: a small city with a dominant European American culture, but a relatively liberal attitude regarding diversity. Portland viewed itself as a welcoming new home, a place where refugees could settle into the community and build new lives for themselves. Within a few years, thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese newcomers had established the largest Asian enclave in the state. They were followed by new waves of refugees from Afghanistan, Russia, several African nations, and Bosnia. But by the early 1990s, even as the pace of refugee resettlement accelerated, Portland's Asian communities had entered a state of crisis. Things hadn't turned out quite as expected: white anti-immigrant backlash had created a series of ugly incidents; parents were alarmed at the directions their children seemed to be headed; and families were choosing to move away.

Asian culture in Portland, fragile to begin with, was breaking down. The Vietnamese and Cambodians were striving to make a place for their families. Many of them worked two or even three jobs to get out of the subsidized housing projects and into American-style prosperity-exactly as generations of immigrants had done before them. Finding prosperity wasn't the problem. Existing social services offered basic English instruction and job training, and in-school English as a Second Language (ESL) education for their children. But access to the welfare state wasn't their problem. They had lost their roots. The loss of their culture, and the subsequent disintegration of their communities' sense of cohesion, was the problem.

The question "What does your community need to keep its culture vital and meaningful?" elicited blank stares from the assembled elders. Most of us are not accustomed to contemplating such questions. Few people devote much time to ruminating on what our culture even is, much less prescribing what it might need to keep itself healthy. I tried a different tack. "Name the things that you and your grandparents know and care about-that twenty-five years from now nobody will remember any more."

This was more successful. "Our language" was the quick response. "Our children all speak Khmer around the house, but they can't read or write. If our language disappears, our culture will surely follow." A chorus of assent.

"The soul of Cambodia is etched onto the walls of Angkor," said another elder. "The celestial dances shown there are the most perfect embodiment of Cambodian heritage. But none of our children knows these dances. They have never seen them performed; they don't know what they look like. They're cut off from what it means to be Cambodian."

The meeting erupted into several intense discussions, all in Khmer and unintelligible to me. Occasionally, someone would offer a summary translation, usually reducing a long speech to something like, "He disagrees!" It was clear that, after fifteen years in Maine, this was the first time any public agency had posed the question of cultural assessment to the community's assembled leadership. My inquiry was the beginning of an explicit attempt to bring Cambodian culture into the public realm. To answer it, the elders had to focus their attention first on what it really means to be a Cambodian. What were the traits or practices that most profoundly shaped their identity? Only then could they begin to imagine how that vision could be supported.

I came to the discussion with the resources of an institution at my back, some experience about how to deploy and sustain them, and a willingness to listen. What I heard was that sustaining community culture is a long-term proposition. The Cambodians were disinterested in staging one big, splashy public event. They wanted something for their children to grow up relying on, something that would become a tangible and continuing presence in their lives. My job, if I was to avoid contributing to the general disillusion with American civic institutions, was to facilitate a consensus on the nature of the community's aspirations, and attempt to build a pathway to realization. If this was going to work, it would require a huge commitment of time and resources, and thoroughgoing, open-ended collaboration. "Okay," I said. "We're prepared to move forward in whatever directions you choose; and we'll continue to work with you for as long as the programs continue to generate positive results, and we can keep on raising the funds to make them possible." It was a beginning.

This book is a report card on American culture. Not the culture of Wal-Mart and the cineplex but culture as it is lived closer to the ground, local culture, neighborhood culture. It is about the kind of cultural activities that actually engage Americans, things people do, rather than passively consume. It is about making your own dinner, rather than going to McDonald's. It is about dancing, not about watching somebody else dance on television. There is a big difference.

My focus is on the choices that individuals make about how to shape the fabric of their lives, and about the mechanisms that make those choices available. Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of "the pursuit of happiness" and enumerated it right up front along with life and liberty as the motive behind the American experiment. The cultures that we inherit, and the systems they support, play a fundamental role in the narrowing or expansion of the array of choices that we have before us in that inalienable pursuit. And our decisions about how to conduct our lives in turn feed back into the next evolutionary cycle of our cultures.

Culture is important. People kill each other about it. Surely, Karl Marx and Adam Smith were correct: lots of wars get fought for reasons that are fundamentally economic. But just as surely, they were mistaken. Cultural clashes are frequently the dominant factors in the instigation of armed conflict. The prolonged state of violence between Israel and Palestine is enormously costly to both sides, but it persists because the cultural chasms are so wide. Agitation for a more equitable economic distribution may have contributed to the breakup of Yugoslavia, but culturally motivated tensions allowed for the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia and Kosovo. Basque, Quebecois, and Timorese separatists surely believe they are getting a raw economic deal from their respective central governments, but it is their cultural identity that propels them toward independent nationality. Our cultures tell us who we are. Along with bread and freedom, that's what people are prepared to die for. "In the post-Cold War world," says political scientist Samuel Huntington, "the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural." The cultural choices we make are fundamental building blocks of the political world we inhabit and the legacies we leave to our children.

Culture is big business, too. Including a significant portion of global tourism, plus the arts and entertainment, music, and film, culture is the largest industry in the world, generating trillions of dollars in gross world product annually. American culture exceeds all other sectors of the economy as our greatest export. Criminals, too, find wealth in culture. International smuggling of stolen objets d'art is exceeded in total value only by narcotics.

Taken as a whole, and including the literary, media, and performing arts, America's culture industry is responsible for about 6 percent of our gross domestic product. That's substantially larger than the entire construction industry (4.8 percent of GDP) and on a par with all wholesale trade (6.9 percent of GDP). In the area of consumer spending, culture is even bigger, absorbing over 12 percent of Americans' after-tax income. Each year, the performing arts attract more people than all spectator sports combined. Our culturally based decisions have far-reaching economic impact, particularly given U.S. dominance of world trade and finance. How we conduct ourselves culturally in Peoria has a ripple effect that is now global; anyone who has traveled outside the United States can verify this.

On a recent visit to Montreal, I happened to see a film at a big downtown shopping mall. I was surprised and slightly embarrassed that none of the dozen Hollywood movies were either dubbed into French or subtitled. Here I was in the Francophone capital of the New World, and nothing whatsoever had been done to accommodate the moviegoers' primary language. One can easily understand the concerns of separatists who fear for their culture's survivance.

But even more disturbing was the parade of images that flashed across the screen. The theater must have played trailers for every single film showing at their facility, all first-run American movies. Here was a real reason for a Yankee traveling abroad to feel embarrassed. Even in their souped up come-ons, one blockbuster after another looked, well, stupid. Try it out at your local theater and see for yourself. We've all become inured to the sex and violence, but the vacuity of the cinematic content makes a bold statement about the status of contemporary American culture: it's boring.

Turn on the radio. Empty ear candy rules the airwaves. Overproduced mush from L.A. or Nashville carries so little content that the performers themselves can't formulate much of an identity and feel almost interchangeable. Even the grungy so-called alternative music that tries to push against the bland amorphousness of the mainstream just ends up sounding like recycled punk: another big yawn. Most of that was pretty boring the first time around; do we really need additional helpings?

Or open the newspaper and check out the theater listings. You'll find the Great White Way dominated by reruns, or in some cases revivals of reruns. Apparently the smart money says we'd all rather be seeing the same familiar, reassuring shows our parents loved. Does the sunny worldview embodied in 1950s show biz still possess the power to dazzle? Can it have any conceivable resonance in our own very different zeitgeist? Or is it just filling a vacuum, standing in for the absence of compelling contemporary voices?

Then there's the nonprofit cultural sector, the independent theaters, modern dance companies and performing arts centers, where a deadening uniformity holds sway. I have had the opportunity of serving on grant-making panels for numerous large foundations and governmental entities. They send you large notebooks full of applications from the leading arts organizations all over the country, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of proposals. The reading gets soporific very quickly because it is so difficult to distinguish one applicant from another. It's as though the entire country is generating its programming from a narrow, prescribed list of acceptable artists. It doesn't matter whether you live in Florida or Montana, you're going to get the same, predictable, safe, politically correct performances you had last year, or the year before. Look over the season brochure from your local arts venue. You'll find nicely packaged multiculturalism -that has conveniently purged itself of any substantive encounters with another culture.

Even our avant-garde has grown stale and flabby. Experiments that held the excitement of creation three or four decades ago have turned to tedium. Dissonance still sounds dissonant. Minimalism has gotten even smaller. The shock value that once clung to all the old taboos-homosexuality, race, class, mental illness, mundane middle-class morality-evaporated long ago. Cross-dressing actors onstage talking about deviant sex plays in every small town now-daily on Jerry Springer. The generation of pioneering experimentalists that created a new American cultural elite is now either dead or very gray. They pushed the envelope pretty far, and in their wake, younger successors feel like the title of one of John Cage's famous works: Cheap Imitation.

In the moment of triumph, as our country strides the globe as a colossus, American culture is putting the rest of the world to sleep, and our own creative impulses have gone into hibernation. The global commercial success of American popular entertainment should not obscure its artistic impoverishment. The fact that a billion people are watching reruns of Seinfeld tonight doesn't make the program any less idiotic. The National Enquirer supposedly has the largest circulation of any "newspaper" in the country, but that doesn't mean anybody takes it seriously as a source of news. Likewise, the international dominance of American mass culture says little about the health of our nation's creative arts. In fact, the least-common-denominator aesthetic that is presupposed by box-office triumph carries with it an obvious down side. Where hype and mindless spectacle are so richly rewarded, authentic artistry cannot find a toehold. Commercial success implies an enormous risk to artistic vitality, and our national culture has long since struck that Faustian bargain.

Why did this happen? What went wrong with American culture? We weren't always so bland-quite the opposite. The hurly-burly of ethnicities that faced off to create jazz, country, and rock 'n' roll, pushed American culture around the globe. The same anything-is-possible spirit that fostered the emergence of Tennessee Williams, Jackson Pollock, Alvin Ailey, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Aretha Franklin still reverberates. How did all that American energy and vitality dissipate?

In the first half of the twentieth century, our country was a lot closer to the fundamental bedrock of ethnic heritage that provided our most essential cultural building blocks. Young artists could not avoid a very wide range of encounters with people who didn't think, talk, or act the same way they did. On a basic level, they had easy access to a lot of cultural substance.


Excerpted from Cultural Democracy by James Bau Graves Copyright © 2005 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Communion 23
2 Tradition and innovation 41
3 Presentation and participation 62
4 Conservation and commercialization 86
5 Donation and deduction 108
6 Education 127
7 Mediation 145
8 Globalization and localization 175
9 Revolution 196
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