There’s a lot of talk these days about how London can learn from other big cities in the fields of business, education, and industry. That might be true, but as the anticipated/dreaded Olympics creep up on us, I was reminded of the World Shakespeare Festival that has been in cultural headlines since April and will continue to dominate those headlines even after the medals have been handed over to the Olympians.
The Festival is part of the Cultural Olympiad: a city-wide carnival of everything British from “traditional” (whatever that means) to modern snapshots of British life and arts. While London’s Opening Ceremony probably won’t be as expensive and decadent as Beijing’s, I found myself wondering if any other city in recent memory had put so much collective effort into organizing a cultural olympiad or a World Insert-Cultural-Icon-Here Festival.
…its modern status as a centre for culture is also thanks to modern factors…
Historically, London’s reputation as an international cultural capital came before the rise of New York, Tokyo, or Shanghai, and to a certain extent it maintains an intense competition with other European hotspots like Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, and Moscow. It might be a matter of London’s history as the epicentre of England and the British Empire, but its modern status as a centre for culture is also thanks to modern factors. Its reputation as a cultural capital is defined by three crucial rubrics that cities like Hong Kong lack. And they might sound like economists’ terms, but a culture is something that, like an economy, needs to be built.
Say whatever you want about the BBC’s political inclinations, but BBC Radio is one of the many building blocks that have popularized cultural awareness for millions. Whether it’s cerebral, political, or lyrical, it is more diverse than many radio stations in the “developed” world, and I can confidently say its material is much richer than that of Hong Kong radio stations. Or look at city-wide events like the Cultural Olympiad or the World Shakespeare Festival: there will be few cities that can match London in this regard unless they build something comparable.
Like investment in a growing business, over many decades London has invested heavily in cultural venues and talent to the point that, even during these brutal times of cuts to the humanities and arts, it still remains heads and shoulders above many cities of comparable size and fame in attracting performers, artists, writers, and musicians. Private donors, foundations, and institutes have all played an important part in setting up and sustaining ideal environments for actors, artists, and singers to train.
Hong Kong has all the “hardware” it needs to become a cultural capital, hands down. It has more money than London, and that might be a huge advantage. It has a huge population, a superb education system, and intelligent, good-hearted people: all recipes for cultural success. Yet in terms of actual output, it lags woefully behind London. As Sir David Tang has noted on some occasions, the question of “software” remains the problem. Sure, London has the advantage of being one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and the cultural events and activities that can be enjoyed here are logically more diverse. But this is only part of London’s success. London (and more broadly the UK) has some of the best institutions of art and music in Europe and the world; even with stiff competition in France, Germany and the States, it’s easy to look at the fruits of London talent. Theatre, dances, concerts, and musicals for almost every inclination every single day in so many parts of the city.
Image courtesy of Laura Scaron