Magazine article The Spectator

Creating Cultural Indifference

Magazine article The Spectator

Creating Cultural Indifference

Article excerpt

Every year from 2005 a city will be nominated from a different EU member state to be the European Capital of Culture. It is the UK's turn in 2008. Already competing for this grand title are those oh so very cultural cities of Bradford, Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool, Oxford, Bristol, Inverness, Newcastle and Gateshead, and Milton Keynes. Winners are promised an opportunity to showcase their cultural wealth, regenerate their cities and attract masses of new tourists.

Towards the end of March pages and pages of completed applications for this honour will be pushed through the letterbox of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, whose appointed panel select the UK's entry. Judging by the PR campaigns, management consultants and arts bureaucrats have been busy stringing together enough sentences to sound exciting and on message without actually saying anything. In this age of bland conformity each bid is predictably similar, down to the last cut and paste.

Each city begins its statement defensively with what it is not. They are all against the notion of high or traditional arts. None is old fashioned. Needless to say they are all new and exciting, forward looking and boundary breaking. After cutting through this rubbish what is most significant is that none of the statements is about culture despite it being a competition to become the Capital of Culture for a year.

In the submission that goes to the panel, a series of questions are asked, starting with `What is the concept of "culture" for your city?'. This first question indicates that not only is the DCMS unsure of what culture is, but that it has to question the term by calling it a concept and putting this so-called concept in quotation marks, just in case it was not clear enough.

This first question is the only one that even mentions 'culture' let alone Culture. The rest demand information about the transport infrastructure, participation of under-represented groups and long-term prospects. Consequently each concept of 'culture' for the cities is meaningless. Bristol's 'concept' is `all embracing including urban design, the arts, sports, green space, cuisine amongst others'. Brian Woods-- Scawen, the chair of the Birmingham bid group, stated that, `Culture is everything that helps us see the world from someone else's point of view. It covers the arts: performing, visual, literature. But it covers much more: heritage, food, sport, learning . . . '

All of the proposals make a virtue of celebrating everything and therefore nothing. For Brighton and Hove their `definition of "culture" is broad - from highbrow to lowbrow and everything in between. It's sport, drama, dance, world music and sculpture, it's literature, pop, classical music and painting, it's street theatre, opera, cafes and gigs in pubs. It's everything from Ayckbourn to the Zap club from Aida to Zamora.' The bid for Norwich includes that well-known creative activity 'work', and the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Councillor Russell Goodway, went so far as to state that, `Every suggestion will be considered and, if it is feasible and practical to do so, it will be included.' So everything is included and anything that can be done will be done, regardless of what it is or its quality.

Each bid venerates everything and everyone so as not to be judgmental. Not one states something that can really be assessed. No one will take responsibility for their own ideas on culture and the city. This is also why they all talk about listening to ordinary people - a term no normal person would use. …

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