A particular bugbear of mine in the lead up to the Olympic games has been the way the Cultural Olympiad has been shoved down our throats at every given opportunity. With the worldwide recession striking in 2008 and having recently strayed into double-dip territory, the Beijing games in China were widely believed to have been the last great hurrah in terms of extravagance.
Great Britain won the Olympics on the basis that we promised to emphasise culture, leave a lasting legacy to sport whilst rejuvenating an entire area of our capital that badly needed a facelift in the process.
What exactly is a Cultural Olympiad I hear you ask? At the risk of sounding naïve, how exactly is it possible to handpick culture for a mass and hugely diverse audience? Surely whenever anything is delivered to a wider market, the quality dilutes and its impact lessens. You simply can’t manufacture ‘culture’ for a pre-determined event. It loses the essence of what makes it, well, cultural.
Culture is all around us, in the food we eat, the things we drink, the places we visit, the things we touch – putting on a show with beaming faces aplenty with a bunch of acrobats flying around on a trapeze hasn’t got anything to do with the way that I live my life, nor will it impact on yours. Culture represents an emotive connection between the person and the subject matter at hand. If anything, the Cultural Olympiad is devoid of anything even approaching emotion.
I think it’s a poorly-conceived idea, the sort bandied about in some office in Central London by a bunch of higher-ups who occasionally attend the odd gallery opening. Even after an extensive perusing of the Cultural Olympiad section of the London games website, I’m still unsure of what it actually is. The phenomenon of a bunch of prats in a place doing ‘stuff’ in a showy fashion appears to be the only coherent and consistent theme.
It’s good to show off when you’ve got something to shout about. However, it just seems that during the meetings after we’d won the games, not one person came up with a real idea about what to actually do. I picture some unidentified person at the back of the room speaking up softly and suggesting ‘make it about culture’. I imagine that the rest just nodded in agreement without ever really thinking about what it actually meant. Slapping a badge on something doesn’t make it cultural, it makes it fake. In short, it lacks direction, focus and substance. Culture is supposed to inspire, inform and impress.
Here are a few excerpts from the ‘Inspire’ section of the site:
‘Deliver an inspiring Cultural Olympiad that encourages wide participation’
‘Deliver a wider cultural festival that generates a positive legacy, including increased capacity, economic impact, social cohesion and enhanced community identity’.
That’s all very well and good, but what does any of it actually mean?
Putting on a show is fine; in an opening ceremony it is of course to be expected, but the façade behind the culturally airbrushed exhibition is just so vague. It’s not trumpeting any real emotion, rather pretending to be something we’re clearly not for the sake of keeping up appearances to a global audience.
I must admit, I don’t really understand what the entire industry of PR does. If you took it out of the equation, the world would work exactly the same. It’s people talking about nothing of any substance just for the sake of it. Being nice isn’t a job but at the same time, being happy doesn’t constitute culture. And therein lays the problem – we have a generic event which is supposed to cater to everyone on a catch-all basis but instead interests no-one.
Without trying to stray into cliché, Great Britain is undoubtedly a ‘melting pot’, so why have we come up so short with ideas for this? Birmingham invented the chicken tikka masala for God’s sake. We don’t have one identity as a nation(s), but many. Instead all we are left with is this beige version of each community’s efforts. It’s like the whole of Britain has been lobotomised for the greater good.
Culture is a difficult thing to quantify and define, but being told what culture is and having it foisted upon you, is both patronising and insulting and in the end, really rather dull.
Image by Andy Miah courtesy of Flickr