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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Take back the cultural Olympics from the bureaucrats

By Norman Lebrecht / August 13, 2008

Suddenly, 2012 feels like tomorrow. When the last athletes leave Beijing in four weeks’ time, London will formally take over as the Olympic city for the next four years, kicking off on September 27 with an all-singing, all-dancing arts festival that is supposed to generate continuous excitement until the main sporting event.

Every city that bids for the Games must submit a cultural component and, while most of them put on a bit of a show – Athens had 600 arts exhibitions and Beijing this year has raised the quality bar by several notches – London will need to do more, much more, than any Olympic city before to claim a place on the winners’ rostrum.

There is a great deal at stake in the 2012 Cultural Olympics by way of national pride and economic interest, more than is fully apparent, or fully accepted by the creative industries. The run-up to next month’s cultural jamboree has been notably unhappy. Over the past three years, multiple authorities – the Culture Department (DCMS), Arts Council England (ACE), Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA), the 2012 organisers (Locog), Mayor of London and others – have pecked away at arts chiefs, demanding that they sign on to a politically correct celebration of the arts.

Locog’s man in charge of delivering culture and ceremonies is a former BBC TV director, Bill Morris, who ran outside broadcasts for the Queen’s 2002 Jubilee. His chair is Jude Kelly, artistic director at London’s South Bank. Both have annoyed arts leaders who want to see cash on the table – £40 million has been promised – before they disclose their hand. Some privately question the value of a cultural Olympiad. Why, they murmur, should we invest all this effort in order to play second fiddle to boys in shorts? ‘Do we really need it?’ sighed one harassed director last week.

Well yes we do, and here’s why. When the starting pistol is fired in August 2012 and the tenth billion pound is spent, Team GB will in all likelihood do no better on the track and in the pool than ever before. We have many fine qualities as a nation and one of them is that most British sportsmen I have met honestly believe in the Olympic ideal that it is more important to take part than to win. This is both high-minded and eminently sane, for a nation of 60 million amateurs has little chance of beating 300 million pumped-up Americans at the races, let alone 1.4 billion Chinese.

When the final tape is breasted and the drug cheats disqualified, Britain will come in at around 15th in the medals table and our heroes, as ever, will be the also-rans. In terms of impact on national character and fitness, the no-expense-spared London Games of 2012 will make no deeper or more lasting impact than the austerity, take-the-bus-home Games of 1948.

What will endure is the world’s perception of Britain as a civilisation, a country that has transformed itself since 1948 from global empire to an equal-opportunity society with a set of humane values, archaic rituals and quaint institutions. The Olympics are a one-off, two-week chance to show the 21st century what we are made of, the noble ideals and commercial opportunities that London represents.

That is where the arts come in. London is the world’s capital of culture. Its museums and galleries rack up record attendances for an explosive diversity of exhibitions that is greater than New York, Paris and Madrid put together. Its musical range extends from star-cast opera to salsa clubs, electronic sound-labs to Amy Winehouse. Theatre is the city’s hottest ticket and dance is on glorious form. Architects have redrawn the skyline and even British cinema has stumbled back into groove. London is the Renaissance City of the third millennium and the Olympics its shining showcase.

The plans revealed so far are as predictable as you would imagine – a Shakespeare festival, a BBC-Barbican co-promotion of world music, a storytelling enterprise at the British Museum. All well and good, but not yet good enough. What is needed is more of the here and now – Stoppard, Pinter, Hare and the up-and-comings alongside the venerable Bard; dark and dirty music venues mixed in with Covent Garden; a post-Hoxton exposition of gritty British art; Carlos Acosta dancing in the streets, request night at the Proms.

Nobody watching the Olympics will switch to Stratford-upon-Avon during contests of dressage and skeet shooting, but they might be drawn to less formatted diversions. This is not a matter of choice but of strategic necessity. An Olympic festival that does not rally wholehearted support across the arts will damage the creative economy. The arts must find a way of getting behind the Olympics, without appearing to be marshalled into a politically driven cavalcade.

The time has come for the arts to take ownership of the cultural Olympics, to outface the bureaucrats and take over the calendar of events or, if that’s undoable, to create a parallel festival that will assert the uncontainable energies of creative London – a 24/7 melting pot of all the world’s cultures.

A London fringe festival for 2012 would set the blood racing and liberate the arts from the perception of political control. It might occupy Speakers Corner, Kew Gardens and Hampstead Heath, for starters. It could perform good art and bad, first come, first seen, a Glastonbury before it went all commercial.

An independent cultural Olympics, running alongside the official event, would proclaim a message of freedom and enterprise that has been missing from the Games ever since they last came to London at the dawn of Cold War and the onset of Orwellian thought control. The Olympics were revived a century ago as an open space for young people. There is a chance for the arts to set the Games free in London, to give them back to the next generation. What are we waiting for?

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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