Participatory Arts & Agile Citizen

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Participatory Arts and the Agile Citizen – Spain and Identities played out through culture

This is an extended version of a speech given by Chris Baldwin to The European Cultural Foundation at the University of Leiden in November 2006 (Meeting Title: Artistic Explorations in Cultural Memory).


2005 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Part of Don Quijote, a work hailed by the philosopher Michel Foucault as the first modern work of literature. Foucault claims that Cervantes discovered that the relation between words and things is, in many respects, arbitrary. With this discovery Cervantes ushered in the modern age. A revolutionary document of its own age, Don Quijote confronts us with the complex history of multicultural Spain with its Moorish, Jewish, and Christian cultures. But it is not just the commemorative reprints of the Cervantes novel or the thousands of commemorative theatre productions which has offered contemporary Spanish citizens an opportunity in recent years to re-examine notions of cultural and historical identity.

During the twenty five years of restored democracy Spain has seen a huge increase in the level of cultural participation and cultural activity. Much of this has reflected a need for Spaniards to find social contexts in which to re-examine notions of their own identity or, to be more precise,identities, as Spain is in many respects a far more federal state than Germany. The popular interest in recent and ancient history, folklore, eating and wine culture, attendance of festivals, theatre, music concerts and museums, or the learning of the country’s various languages in formal and informal educational contexts are just a few examples. One could also cite the public funding of archaeology and the development of the thousands of heritage sites into tourist attractions and “interpretation centres” as being not just reflections of an increasingly sophisticated definition of internal tourism but also an indication of the increase in the self esteem of Spain´s seventeen Autonomous Communities.

For a country which experienced such brutal repression and significant delays in development throughout most of the 20th Century the speed and ferocity of both economic and cultural development can be somewhat difficult comprehend for a significant sector of the population. All the more important therefore that cultural facilities and more importantly policies are developed and managed in a spirit of openness and honesty. Cultural participation and the use of cultural activities (such as theatre, participatory arts programmes, museum going, popular fiestas – indeed almost any cultural pastime which attracts public funding of one form or another) are opportunities for communities to explore their past, build common understandings about a shared heritage and even rehearse methods of working together in problem management contexts. In other words cultural policy as a metaphor for and parallel to transparent and democratic governance.

But cultural and economic development is not evenly spread across the country. Again, due to the power devolved to the Autonomous Communities, some are economically powerful and have public and private sectors which can be compared to the richest European regions, whilst others have sectors more akin to the poorer regions of Greece or Portugal. While in some Autonomous Communities rural areas and schools have access to sophisticated networks of public theatres and touring cultural products others receive only sporadic, less strategic offerings.

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