Friday 10 October 2008

‘Get involved in the Cultural Olympiad!!’

Cultural Olympiad Blog - part one

Four years before they begin, the London Olympics 2012 have been celebrated, vilified, enthused about, disregarded and argued over. From worries over whether Londoners should shoulder an extra tax burden to concerns that new buildings will drive up costs in the capital, a big part of the debate has centred around who’s footing the bill and how the Games will affect those not directly involved. While there seems to be agreement on the economic benefits in terms of trade and tourism, concerns about unequal distribution have dominated discussion.

But, following Britain’s impressive showing in Beijing and Gordon Brown’s consequent announcement that sporting excellence alone must be the way forward, beginning by creating a ‘competitive culture’ in schools, the sense that Britain is coming under scrutiny from the rest of the world, and must scrub up, fast, colours the climate.

To pave the way, the Cultural Olympiad was launched last weekend, funded jointly by the Department of Culture Media and Sports and the National Lottery, signalling the beginning of a four-year celebration of culture. The Olympiad, a necessary part of each Games, played a big part in London’s 2012 bid. With events and exhibitions billed across the UK, the Olympiad represents a national strategy for bringing art works and exhibitions to all parts of society, making for a more cultured citizenry and galvanising a new sense of Britishness. If the Games themselves are for only the best athletes, and Londoners will be the main beneficiaries, then getting involved with culture has been presented a cheap and cheerful opportunity for people across the UK to join in.

While the end idea is to put on a convincing display of Britishness – with eventual plans for a national children’s choir singing from a national songbook, for instance – the main thrust is to positively celebrate diversity and ‘other’ cultures. Whilst the Games themselves will happen in London, events have been organised by region and many focus on the theme of ‘place’ or ‘community’. With the tensions between excellence and participation, national and regional in full swing, the Olympiad’s strategy has been defined in terms of three key ‘values’, aiming to:

•  celebrate London and the whole of the UK welcoming the world – our unique internationalism, cultural diversity, sharing and understanding;
•  inspire and involve young people; and
•  generate a positive legacy – for example through cultural and sports participation, audience development, cultural skills, capacity building, urban regeneration, tourism and social cohesion and international links.

Defined in a way so broad as to apply to any artwork (presumably on purpose), it’s a wonder they bothered with such a nominal statement at all. Rather than planning top quality performances – like in sport – or those that best entertain, the arts have to protract ‘cultural skills’, regeneration and social cohesion (in fact, as sport has historically been tasked to). The arts are primarily understood in terms of their effects, or their various forms, rather than looking at what they are about or represent. To be fair, though, the response that would simply ape ‘the best’ artworks, especially without strong critical standards to judge what they might be, isn’t enough either. Though, beginning to say something about what sort of role the arts can play in public life, how they can build up a relationship with their audiences and strive to progress the art form, would point a way past waffling over participation - or banging vaguely on about ‘excellence’.

But when it comes to the elite’s thinking about what sort of content might be interesting, or what else the arts could do apart from getting people involved, the answer seems to be to reconstruct a sense of Britishness: What’s British? – everything in Britain! Such a bogus nationalism may make politicians feel better, but on its own will do little more than reinforce the uninspiring status quo. ‘Joining in’ may get people off their sofas, but joining in what, for what? Who wants to stand up to the world representing a woolly ‘sharing and understanding’ anyway? While gold medals are really the order of the day, so that sports at least have clear standards to aim at, the arts still suffer from being solely understood in terms of social glue.

The Cultural Olympiad has not been welcomed by many in the arts world either. Theatre magazine The Stage complained last year that reallocation of funding for the Olympics would kill theatre. Helen Mirren and others made a public complaint; on the other hand, many local councils are elated at the extra dosh. Indeed, the arts may well be being stifled of any innovation by thinking about how to get people involved rather than entertained, impressed or moved, but this is nothing new when it comes to looking at arts policy over the last decade; funding cuts will undoubtedly damage the cultural sector, but the real problem here is an entrenched apathy towards artworks, and uncertainty about what role they play in society.

A refreshing argument, though it would cut against the grain, would point out the economic benefits of the arts – the Russian art boom that survived the credit crunch for instance, the fact that building an audience can lead to financial reward, that people are generally willing to pay to see something stunning. When it comes to contemporary culture, as well as celebrating, commissioning new works from top artists that could command an audience, would be a start. But first, the Olympics needs to be understood as a national project, regardless of which groups win or lose financially, or where the Games happen geographically. A sense of shared national culture may begin to develop through the arts events and displays to be held over the next four years, but by aiming beyond ‘involvement’ towards some stronger, more persuasive ‘values’ worked out in a shared context.

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