Media, Arts and Democracy

SWe are influenced daily by the online media, blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds and a myriad of ways in sharing content.  New and influential media-distribution channels have appeared in the 21st century delivered via the World Wide Web across the Internet. The media plays a role in asserting what is in the public’s best interest, and sways public perception on what is good or what is bad, what is acceptable and what is not, what is art or what is not art, who is an artist and who is not. In terms of the arts, the media can influence the arts positively or adversely depending on how the information is shared and presented to the public. Hence, there is a question of how the public perspective is swayed to perceive the arts.

In a cultural democracy, the arts are the fabric of society and there is a tension regarding how information and the arts are represented. Artists, cultural workers, and creative people are regularly in the quest for cultural democracy. In the aim to democratize the arts, the media plays a vital role, as the voice of media is often heard by the citizens who follow them. For creative workers, the fulfillment of a long-standing desire to bring together artist and the community is the hope that the media can offer. If the media decides to raise the voices of those artists they choose to, the artists will be heard. If the media decides to speak on behalf of the cultural community, the art community will be heard as well. However, this is a double edge sword as the arts and the mainstream population often perceive the arts and culture an ‘elitist’ endeavour. Although the media draws from a multidisciplinary fields (i.e. sociology, politics, economics) to narrate their issues; there is scarce coverage on favour of the discipline of the arts in this country. If the arts are featured, popular newspapers, such as the Globe and Mail or the National Post, or the Toronto Star opt to feature scandalous issues or controversial works of art. For the most part these divisive issues become headlines, affecting the public perceptions of what art is all about, limiting participation and building the stereotype in the arts field. As a result, only a few citizens get to enjoy the arts because only the very few understand it. As for the rest, unbeknownst to many, the arts are placed in the periphery.

Arts in the Periphery

Our arts are in the periphery, they are only accessible to the ones who understand them. Indeed, most local newspapers occasionally cover art reviews of exhibitions or artists who they deem worthy of coverage. However, this selection may not be in part with what the general public may want or understand to be “art.” As a researcher and visual artist, I find myself perusing international newspapers rather than our local ones in an aim to learn more about arts and culture. The inadequate Canadian coverage in the field of the arts sends unequivocal message of the arts as an isolated matter or for the enjoyment of some. This generally results in citizens neglecting the arts that were intended to involucrate them. In other words, the message that the media sends is of that a ‘privilege,’ rather than that of the arts as the ‘right’ to its citizen. There is a well-established consensus that the arts matter to all, they are not a privilege, but somehow the media has been unable to democratize the arts by overlooking the need of the public, and by sending the message of exclusivity. Hence, citizens need to be indoctrinated in the arts.

Citizens Indoctrinate

Participation of all citizens is important to strengthen our cultural democracy that society ought to render. Frequently, the media is influenced by dramatic events and exaggerates occurrences to leave a strong impression on our memory. Citizens get bombarded with repeated advertisements in an aim to; for example, purchase more under the rubric of conspicuous consumption[1]. As part of our human construct we tend to pay attention to dramatic events and repetition of information, and thus the media exercises these strategies to get our attention and make us ‘addicts’ of consumerism and propaganda. Furthermore, the media focuses on the negative messages, such as controversies, scandalous images, and reprehensible information which are much imbued in the daily negative narratives that the media presents. In a general sense, the media propagates popular messages that are more commercial and capitalistic, in order to gain return on investment, or economic gain. Under this negative construct, the arts suffer.

The creation of the ideal image or utopian vision is “for sale” in the media such as the successful artist who is measured in economic terms, thereby commoditizing the artist. The creative gift of the artist is unloved and the criteria for “excellence” are no longer based on merit but rather on how controversial her or his art can be. Likewise, in relation to the number of sales and artist’s worth is measured by the number of pieces sold; hence, price matters. There is an emphasis on transaction, where the artist ends up making a product for sale to satisfy the market, or to satisfy the media. Lewis Hyde’s theory of the gift chastises the transaction economy and advocates for the gift economy—where works of art are ‘gifts’ and are not created to satisfy the markets. Lewis Hyde argues that a work of art is a gift, rather than a commodity and those artists are labouring in the service of his or her gifts. It is as Hyde believes that “ideas do not circulate freely when they are treated as commodities” (p. 107). As a result, the commodification of art interferes with the creative process. There is then a tension on how the media sways public perceptions. The arts get questioned and the dichotomy of mainstream culture versus commercial culture accentuates the divide. One negative influence can trigger another negative effect and this can cause a chain of reaction leading to the destruction of the relationships between the media, arts and democracy in society.

Sways of Persuasion

As a result, the arts have a constant need to justify themselves, because they are on the periphery of society. However in order to indoctrinate citizens, the arts required countless justifications. One justification for keeping the arts has become almost a mantra for educators, and even politicians: arts make you well-rounded. We hear this around us and read it in the literature. Furthermore, many instrumental justifications have appeared in the literature, including, for instance, that a robust arts community increases tourist revenues; that exposure to art maximizes a well-versed citizen, and, that art has a positive, moralizing effect on citizenry. The sky is the limit when listing the benefits of the arts. However, the implications of the arts are dubious. Betty Hanley argues that “in a post-modernist world, there is an attempt to measure the outcomes of the arts….Therein lie the challenge” (p. 34). Noel Carroll addressed the question of whether arguments can be made for government support of the arts in a democracy, in the absence of massive popular approval for such a policy. Carroll concludes by reinforcing that art has an intrinsic value and does not require justification, “Art is good in itself and does not require further validation” (p. 33). At the same time, he selects two strongest justifications for the arts from his list: the aesthetic validation and the moralizing effects of the arts.

Traditionally the arts have been used to illustrate and explain history. Art in the museums, galleries, events tend to be less commercial and represent the reflection on culture and democracy on the ground, whereas the arts in the media often represent capitalist views of art world. Contemporary and conceptual art have changed the way the art is defined. The general consensus that art can be anything is misleading, as Mark Kingwell well said, “When anything is art, art risks being nothing” (p. 28). This misunderstanding of the arts that the media represents brings about dissenting views on the arts and the artist. Art indeed cannot be everything, but art can be everything, becoming the hub of expression and reflection of its citizens, and that is a right. Art must not be important because it is controversial, but because it is essential.

The media can play a significant role in mitigating the tension between the arts and the public perceptions by cultivating the arts as a cultural resource for the nation. Our media needs to open up discourses of accessibility, resources of the nation, and the benefits of the arts in order to open up understandings to all citizens in a democratic nation that we live in. This quest for a cultural democracy in one that should be pursued within the tensions of bureaucracy, politics, and self-interests, the arts should rise. The idea of how we define arts can be a useful counteractive tool against the corrosive media. Conceptual art was not meant to be controversial, it was meant to be critical and explore history. Often arts can be critical and criticized; however, the arts should rather be used as catalysis for opinion.

It is important citizens, especially the youth engage in critical thought. The media tells us: what and how to think, when and what to buy. In contrast, the arts tell us to think, teach us to question and to express. The arts is not meant to be presented as a mockery of ideas, the arts allow us to think critically, to be more tolerant and open, to improve overall understandings, to promote individuality, bolster self-confidence, and most importantly to promote unity. Hence, media, arts and democracy need to collaborate. In a talk at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD) on November 11, 2013, David Mirvish stated: “The arts need to be valued because of their potential to change the world. Note it is not about the price.” The arts give us the excitement of being challenged by asking questions. With optimism the media plays an enormous role on the understanding of culture in the country. If the media sways the positive perception of the arts, it will increase understandings and enable citizens to self-discovery and finding meaning in the world—the quest of everyday life.

[1] Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) introduced the term Conspicuous Consumption to describe the spending behaviour of the public to display social status and economic power.


Noel Carroll, “Can government funding of the arts be justified theoretically?” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 21.1 (1987), 21-35.
Betty Hanley, “Policy issues in arts assessment in Canada: Let’s Get Real.” Arts Education Policy Review, 105.1 (2003), 33-38.
Lewis Hyde, The gift: Creativity and the artist in the modern world (New York, NY, 2007).
Mark Kingwell, Opening gambits: Essays on art and philosophy (Toronto, ON, 2008), p. 28.


2 thoughts on “Media, Arts and Democracy

  1. Great piece. You raise so many relevant points, it’s hard to know where to start.
    The media will always go for the lowest common denominator, which in most cases is price. ‘Can you believe they paid that for that!’ fluff pieces are meant to outrage more than to enlighten. It is easy to dismiss, dislike and discard things you don’t understand. The arts require a certain amount of engagement and engagement requires effort. This is a tripping point for some of the public and in a lot of cases the media that covers the arts. Some art needs to be unpacked to truly be appreciated and there is a series gap in education between the media outlet and the audience. More enlightenment less outrage.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Indeed, there is a gap in education between the media outlet, the arts and the public. There is a need for more ‘enlightenment’ and less “outrage”.

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