The Week in Arts: Leave so-called culture out of the Olympics

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The Independent Online

You would have thought that after the dismal experience of Cool Britannia and the Dome, Britain would have learnt to be wary of grandiose and expensive cultural jamborees. But not a bit of it. Here we go again with the London bid for the 2012 Olympics containing all the worst of overblown claims and sententious nonsense about Britain and the arts.

You would have thought that after the dismal experience of Cool Britannia and the Dome, Britain would have learnt to be wary of grandiose and expensive cultural jamborees. But not a bit of it. Here we go again with the London bid for the 2012 Olympics containing all the worst of overblown claims and sententious nonsense about Britain and the arts.

Some £50m, according to the bid documents published last week, will be spent on "official celebrations, city-centre concerts for every taste and exuberant community events". It will be a "festival of youth". "Major public meeting places such as Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden - as well as riverside promenades and many of the city's parks - will be the setting for live music, comedy, fireworks, and giant film screens that relay the Olympic action to enthusiastic crowds."

It's the "youth" bit and "enthusiastic crowds" that give it away. Remember those visits to Eastern Europe and communist China, when dignitaries were treated to folk dances and jolly youths singing the virtues of their city and motherland. It's "culture" as propaganda, the Olympics as vanity publishing for Mayor Livingstone.

Now, of course, one knows that this kind of marketing exercise is by its nature overblown. And one can take some comfort from the thought that the arts performances are to be overseen by Jude Kelly of Yorkshire Playhouse fame. But you can't make good art, or honest performance, out of false language.

Nor can you ever make worthwhile events by thinking up an image and working backwards to fill it. Successful cultural events work the opposite way round, from the inside out. That was what was wrong with the whole concept of Cool Britannia and the Dome. The examples of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Barcelona Games of 1992 used by London 2012's promoters only prove the point. They were all occasions when the hosts had things to say and needed the opportunity to do so: Britain, when it was at its manufacturing peak with an empire to provide the materials; London, when it needed to show that it had recovered from war and rationing and Barcelona to display that Spain had emerged from Franco and fascism.

London doesn't need to prove any of these things. It can express its cultural vitality, and its youth, with or without the Olympic games. The £50m that is earmarked for cultural events over a single month would be much better dispersed in seed money spread over a wider circumference and a longer time.

How to make an exhibition of yourself

A recent trip to Paris has reminded me once again of how much a city of art Paris really is. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the exhibition guides. Arts publishers and museums are more and more using exhibition catalogues as a means of producing academic tomes. The result is catalogues of huge size, density and cost. Even paperbacks now cost £23-35. This may suit professionals but it puts them way out of reach of ordinary punters who would like something that summarises the show and gives a fair sprinkling of reproductions.

French exhibitions, in contrast to Britain (and the US) where only the full catalogues are on offer, also have shorter publications, such as Connaissance des Arts and Dossier de l'Art at £5 or £6, published to coincide with the main shows. In addition it has the excellent Petit Journal des Grandes Expositions, covering the main exhibitions in 16 or 20 lucidly written pages. Why have don't we have the same? Is it because, at bottom, our institutions (and critics) despise the ordinary gallery goer?

¿ Ringing my local cinema to find out the times of the films this week, I was greeted by a recorded announcement which, when it came to the times for Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, at the 11am performance the house lights would be kept up "to enable people to knit".

Was it a joke or a recognition that knitting has become the new in thing? It wasn't there when I called a few days later and felt quite let down by its loss. But then it had made my day. Technologies may change; pastimes may come and go but the cinema continues as the one true place where humour reigns supreme and surrealism can take refuge. And anyway the Ritzy, Brixton, is the best house in London, if not indeed all Britain.

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