Readers may recall the passage from Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, or the scene from David Lean’s film adaptation, where a dying man is diagnosed with another illness not acknowledged by the new Bolshevik regime. Only this time it wasn’t typhoid, which was denied to have hit Moscow, but mere hunger.
Amidst the economic and social tsunami wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is interesting to note how some simple truths haven’t changed. An old joke has culture described as the Cinderella of public policy. COVID-19 seems to have confirmed that, with sector-specific approaches to economic development, health, education and wellbeing continuing to exclude, by simply ignoring, any cultural, solidary and creative components from strategies that may contribute to less immediate albeit more stabilising and long-term healing influences on society.
Aptly enough on the Ides of March I was happy to speak again at the international conference on the future of European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) organised by the University Network of European Capitals of Culture, UNeECC, together with the Moore Institute and Galway 2020 who, due to the pandemic’s adverse effects on its celebratory year, like Rijeka 2020, has prolonged its programme until Easter 2021. The exchange was instructive in discussing what this flagship programme of the EU can do for our future. Key issues included the evolution of online cultural experiences, addressing cultural sustainability in relation to a growing relevance to the wellbeing of society and opening up to pressing realities like global viruses and climate change, to which colleagues in Ireland and The Netherlands, aware of the fluid relationship with the surrounding sea, are very sensitive.
Ironically, while Eithne Verling, Director of the Galway City Museum, highlighted the prominence enjoyed by Il-Ġgantija temples on her museum’s digital display, I pointed out she may soon need to update the graphics and include another nondescript block of apartments less than 200m away from the site and very much part of the landscape of the temples, flying in the face of current thinking on how to explore and engage in deep, meaningful ways with why heritage matters, beyond restricting it and resigning ourselves to commemorating nostalgic images of places that effectively do not exist anymore, neither physically nor in our speedily erased memories.
The Gozitan context is particularly troubling. As application forms for the next Expensive Cementification of Culture, as the Maltese European Capital of Culture in 2031 may well be known by then, are to be submitted to the Very Centralising Agency, as the Valletta Cultural Agency (VCA) that is controlling the process is already known by now, Gozo seems to be fast digging its definitive burial site, this time in concrete, just to make sure it lasts. If, as recently argued in a paper written together with John Ebejer and Marie Avellino of the Institute for Tourism, Travel & Culture at the University of Malta, Valletta’s legacy has been restricted to an ephemeral economic revival made up of boutique hotels and al fresco dining turned into al fiasco as brought up short by the pandemic, Gozo’s road to notoriety looks certain to be laid over with quaint concrete connecting all villages with Victoria on the one hand, and linking Malta through a tunnel on the other, in spite of calls for sensible action by Gozitan mayors desperate at trying to save the relics of once-Mediterranean village communities.
Jürgen Klopp, the currently beleaguered yet always strong and charismatic German Liverpool coach, a few months ago commented on the value of football lying in the fact that it was the most important of the least important things in life. Indeed, football seems to have garnered that respect by many in society, even leading to a discussion on whether the Maltese national football team could survive postponing a FIFA World Cup qualifier against Russia.
Compare that to culture: could anyone honestly apply Klopp’s aphorism to the performing arts, our heritage or the engagement of hundreds of creative professionals and students with digitisation from the perspective of personal and social wellbeing and educational development?
Admittedly, if we are to render unto Caesar his due, a great deal has been done by Arts Council Malta in terms of exploring the brokering and funding of creative opportunities for both short-term and long-term projects, particularly of a community-oriented and accessible profile. In the field of heritage, the national agency Heritage Malta has been consistent in opening sites to physical and digital experiences as much as possible within the limits of its capacity. However, if we feel the need to go beyond being merely fed and echo the plea by Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, may we ask for more?