Edition number 55; dateline 31 August 2012
The power of culture: curtailing careers and ending empires
It has been an unprecedented summer of culture for the UK, a festival of smiles dominated by sport but with just enough non-sporting activity to leaven the mix. The Leisure Review was determined that the opening of the Tanks at Tate Modern, a building for which we at TLR have developed strong affection over the years, would not be overlooked amid all the running and jumping but even our art and architecture correspondent would admit that the non-sporting cultural scene was also dominated by the Olympics, with Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony capturing the imagination of millions and adroitly demonstrating just how powerful culture can be.
Left to his own highly expensive devices, he created a magnificent and moving spectacle that managed to provoke joy, outrage and all points in between while somehow articulating the notoriously nebulous concept of Britishness that is so important to many of us but so elusively indefinable. While many around the world will have been mystified by much of it, Boyle’s vision of Britain skilfully expressed the pride so many of us feel in our own concept of what it means to be British, whether one happens to be British by choice or accident.
The power of culture was also demonstrated by the usual proximity of politicians to any notion of success. The opening days of London 2012 were notable for senior members of the cabinet racing from one venue to the next in a desperate attempt to associate themselves with gold medal-winning performances. After the press coined the phrase ‘Cameron’s Curse’, this frenzied ferrying was toned down and pretty soon the medals began to flow, creating enough reflected glory for a whole front bench of ministers to bask in. As Cams slunk off, Boris could not keep away and, as GB medals came thick and fast, the deputy prime minister, the acting culture secretary, even the chancellor could be seen trying to edge ever closer to the podium and the popularity it seemed to imbue.
However, what remains remarkable and unfathomable about the relationship between politicians and culture is that they never seem to understand that the power of culture is a double-edged sword. Witness, by way of example, not only Cameron’s Curse but the queasy smile on the prime minister’s lips at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics as attention focused on the government’s savage attacks on disability benefits and the deliberate demonisation of everyone entitled to claim them while the Paralympians smiled and waved from the track of the Olympic stadium as if to taunt him personally for having the temerity to return from his second holiday of the summer to join this huge celebration of achievement in the face of adversity.
A few weeks earlier the prime minister, keenly assisted by a raft of ministerial limelight-seekers, had chosen to draw the nation’s attention to the implications of London’s Olympic Games for sports participation. He thought the obvious conclusion was that competitive sport should be foisted on school pupils across the country; the wider populace decided that the lessons to be learned should focus upon the stupidity of the government withdrawing funding for school sport and the state of educational funding in general, not to mention the sale of school playing fields, which was shown to be continuing in the face of denials, disingenuous figure-waving and spectacular buck-passing.
Politicians obviously recognise that culture has this power because they try to harness it to their own ends so frequently. They come unstuck so regularly because they refuse to accept that culture is not something they can control. Culture is a rolling, continuously evolving maelstrom of expression and existence, a mercurial mix of invention and reaction, collaboration and defiance, that cannot be bent to the will of political agendas.
Politicians are addicted to smiling: their own to assure us that they are relaxed, capable and confident in their actions; the smiles of others to associate themselves with the image of success and contentment. This summer there have been enough smiles to lighten the hearts and lives of whole nations but the most telling smiles were seen not on an Olympic podium but in a Russian courtroom. The smile on the faces of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, three members of the feminist punk band PussyRiot, as they were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism is the smile that brings down empires.When tyranny takes hold it is amazing how often culture is shown to be the strongest weapon a people can wield. Politicians of all hues in all nations would do well to take note.
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