13 January 2008

Cities of Culture

This weekend the English port city of Liverpool held a series of spectacular celebrations to mark the official begin of its status as the European Capital of Culture for 2008. Predictably a lot of attention was paid to these show events by the British media, and equally predictably they featured prominently the two surviving members of the Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

Ever since their spectacular success as Britain's best-known and most influential music group in modern times, the Beatles - and everything even remotely connected with them - have been used and exploited by Liverpool's cultural bureaucrats to promote their grubby city and make it look more exciting and interesting than it actually is.

When I heard a few years ago that Liverpool had been chosen as European Capital of Culture for 2008, I was frankly quite surprised. It had been known that under the rotation system of the EU Britain was due for this annual honour in 2008, and then had to select the most suitable city from a number of candidates. In my opinion there are many more suitable cities, richer in culture, in the UK than Liverpool, which is better known for crime and deprivation. And - even though this goes a long time back - one should never forget that Liverpool was one of the main profiteers of the slave trade. Not an element I would regard as culture.

But, as with so many things in Britain, one should not expect too much, and certainly never the best and most logical solution. It just never happens in the UK.
By now it is of course too late and Liverpool will bathe itself in the glory and host a massive string of events, in total about 350 throughout the year. And I wish them good luck with them.
However, the question for me is what amount of culture and long-term input will remain in Liverpool when the year is over? On this line I am skeptic, knowing Liverpool and what is going on there below the great cultural canvas that covers the city for the moment.

Three years ago Ireland was due to provide the European Capital of Culture and the powers to be had chosen Cork, our second-largest city (after our capital Dublin had been chosen already in 1988, the year of the city's millennium celebrations).
As it happens, I was involved in the preparatory work for the events in Cork during 2002 and 2003, but not during the actual celebratory year 2005 itself (as I had another and even larger commitment for that year). There was a lot of planning done in advance, and Cork even used the opportunity to modernise its complete sewage system, although that did not directly fall into the category of culture. Much was done well, and the opening ceremony was quite breathtaking and impressive, especially for a small country like Ireland.
However, during the year 2005 itself the impact the status of European Capital of Culture had on Cork was a lot less than the city council had hoped for. Maybe the fact that the much smaller city of Waterford - 123 km east of Cork - hosted in the same year the start of the International Tall Ships' Race (and attracted more than 450,000 visitors in only four days) did not help Cork. But the main reason for the relatively limited interest was that there is just not enough natural and regular culture there, while many other attractions in the country were operating as normal and having many visitors, too.

The whole concept of the European Capital of Culture, as much as it was originally a good idea, is by now a bit dated and tends to get stale like old bread. After all the obvious choices for the honour have been selected already in previous years and hosted very successful and effective events, the award of the title is dropping down the list of available cities, reaching the second and third rate choices. Eventually the title will either have to be awarded to the major cities for a second time, or it will lose its value and should better be abolished altogether.

Strangely enough, quite the opposite is the case. Now the title of European Capital of Cultures is actually awarded not to one city per year, but to two: one in a member state of the EU, and the other outside the EU. This - frankly - makes no sense at all and devalues the status of the chosen cities even further.
Besides Liverpool the second European Capital of Culture for 2008 is the Norwegian port city of Stavanger. Outside Norway hardly anyone has taken notice of that, and the media in the English-speaking world only mention Liverpool. This is highly unfair to Stavanger, especially as the city has made a great effort and some of her 150 planned events are more original and more interesting than many of the shows lined up in Liverpool. But inflation means devaluation, and with simply too many specifically organised cultural events in one year everyone will in the end be disappointed. Like in every other way and walk of life, less could mean more in European culture.

The Emerald Islander


Alexander "Sunny" Bergen said...

Good points you are making here, with regards to Liverpool and the whole system of the "Capital of Culture".
It did start out as a good idea, but has run its course by now.
The EU has bigger and more pressing problems to solve and should have the courage to close a scheme when it no longer makes sense.


Happy to see that someone shares my view on this subject. It is rather unpopular to be against eventism, as most people these days just want more and more "panem et circenses".

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