Saturday, December 9, 2006

Culture - it's what we do

Today's picture is courtesy of Maggie Smith, Australian photographer and member of the Melbourne Camera Club.

There's a famous legend linked to my ultimate heroine, Dorothy Parker who lives on in a small section of my frontal lobe and whispers inspiration to me - she is also in sole control of the temptation to drink copious amounts of gin at social gatherings), although this is not the only version of the story in town.

When she was asked to give a speech to the American Horticultural Society, Parker reached the podium and declared, "You can take a whore to culture but you can't make her think..." That was her entire speech. If it's a true story, I doubt she was invited back.

Friday evening, in true Parker spirit, I drank far too much and didn't post - oops! But I did spend a great amount of time appreciating, and thinking about culture (as one does when one has consumed far too much chianti).

I spent Friday evening with The Bean, my uncle. When I came home from work, Bean was watching one of the music channels on Freeview. It was showing the 100 Greatest Mobile Disco Classics (which we both found suitably obscure a chart) and boy, were there some terrible songs making an appearance on there! We spent the evening with the charts in the background, enjoying such classics as: Sonia - You'll Never Stop Me from Loving You; Two Unlimited - Ready for This and DeeLite - Groove is in the Heart.

However, I did enjoy a moment of weakness when Nena's 99 Red Balloons came on and I sang it at the top of my voice. It made me wish that someone had thought to play this as the soundtrack to last week's World Aids Day when the Council released 1000 red balloons into the sky from the Guildhall Square.

As I was howling convincingly along to Nena, I realised what an amazing responsibility the cultural services across the country provide, and how easy it is to forget why the people responsible for providing these services, in one way or another are all here. Here's a sermon I prepared in my mind on Friday night on the topic:

The thing about culture is that it is not an end product. Culture is not the library service, or the museum or the art gallery. It's not a commodity that can be sold (although our access to aspects of it can often be controlled - that even rhymes, dang I'm good). In the western world, where we as individuals have become defined primarily as consumers, this can be problematic. It makes our understanding of culture sometimes elusive. It fools us into thinking we pop down to the Wharf of Guns andbuy some culture in a box to take home. For me, one of the best things about culture is that it defies this categorisation. Culture is as much about the walk to the Wharf as it is about getting there, and the culture that you'll find pre-packaged is often of questionable value.

Culture is, in one sense, 99 Red Balloons (both the song and the moment they are set free into the sky). It's the song that makes you turn the radio to top volume and the bass up to full power. It's the moment the balloons are released and the brief second when the people watching fall silent and simply stare at the sky. It's the book that tells the story of your broken heart back to you and makes you feel as though you're not alone. It's the painting that takes you to the field where you can smell the cypress trees on the wind; and it's the film that sends you home with a head crowded full with just one question, What If?

Culture has the power to change the way we think and feel about issues we thought we had decided upon a long time ago. It can create or steal anger, allow us to cry and make us laugh. And ultimately, I think, culture brings us together in ways we cannot imagine. It's the guy in the desert humming Hey Jude as he plays it on his guitar, while a teenager in Wales plays the same song for the very first time, thousands of miles away. It may be the only thing we have in common with someone else.

I think it is this ultimate power of culture to unite us in considering the complexity of the human condition that makes people join the Culture services in their local authority: whether they love the power of books, the power of a museum exhibition, a play, a poem or a painting (although they may not phrase it like that at interview. They'll probably say something more specific like, 'Oooh, I love books, me.'). We all share the same passion. That's why we go to work each day.

It is too easy to forget this in a local authority, and even in the independent cultural sector, when so much of the work we do is wrapped up in finance and/or politics. I don't know how much most people know about the current crisis (and I don't think this is an understatement) in local government: the alienation of local communities from their local democratic power (exercised in the vote and in their participation in services which are rightfully theirs and belong to them), the swelling deficits that seem to be affecting most local councils, the cuts being absorbed year-on-year by almost every service whilst the demands placed on them to further extend service delivery and scope. You can find out about Portsmouth's financial position here

The knock on effect to the cultural services is that they lose money. When they lose money they lose staff and work doesn't get done that should. People get so overloaded trying to do their daily jobs that stress goes up and innovation, positivity and morale go down. Daily working lives are taken over with an endless list of tasks that is never completed. The power of culture is forgotten.

I'm not writing today with a list of easy answers as to how you get round this, but I suspect the frst port of call is remembering what we are here for. I would argue that I spend a lot of my day thinking about the volume of work I need to get through, the amount of time I have available to complete it and the competing deadlines that working three jobs can tend to create (and don't even get me started in the peanuts I'm offered to do this monkey work). These things become meaningless (and there have been moments the past few weeks where my work has seemed completely meaningless) if I forget why, ultimately, I am doing them at all.

Perhaps we have to look at the current crisis in local authority leisure and cultural services as an opportunity to reconsider why we are here. The sky's the limit!

OK, there the sermon endeth. As you were. Now take some time to examine the new stained glass window underneath the Bell Tower:
Today's Beautiful Things

1. Problem solving in the face of another's moment of madness

2. The mystery of low blood sugar levels

3. My mum - who is the best.


Anonymous said...

Perfect truth in that very fine sermon,you are amazing

Dill said...

oooooooooooo creepy, i think your Anon fancies you!!!

Dill. xx