This project should have set alarm bells ringing

Get as many Brits as possible to ring bells for the Olympic Games? Has the cultural establishment gone cuckoo?

Sarah Boyes

Topics Culture

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The Cultural Olympiad, a four-year ‘celebration of culture’ which will culminate in a festival coinciding with the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, has turned out to be a hollow affair. Nothing reveals this hollowness more than the recent spat between conceptual artist Martin Creed and official Olympic bell-ringers.

At issue are plans to herald the Olympic flame on 27 July 2012 with a cacophony of bells rung, it seems, as fast as possible. The incoherence of the plan is an apt symbol for the confused Cultural Olympiad project, which has been marked with ineptitude since its instigation in 2008. The bell-ringing scheme is a kind of celebration of not saying anything meaningful at all while desperately trying to cajole the understandably unimpressed public to join in the activities – in this case, to become part of the ‘bell-ringing community’.

Creed, who is mostly known for his controversial Turner prize-winning piece ‘Work 227: The lights going on and off’, displaying two flicking lights in a vacant room, has clashed with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR). His project, ‘All The Bells’, entails having ‘all the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes’. He stated blithely: ‘I dunno which notes are the best ones…so I think it’s best to ring them all at once.’ He also added that he remembers enjoying wedding peels as a child.

Alarmingly, there is not even a pretence at trying to mediate this personal childhood memory with any mature artistic understanding. The idea behind ‘All The Bells’ isn’t to reproduce the gentle sound of wedding bells, but to have as many people as possible yank at whatever bells they can find, or even to play an ‘exclusive Martin Creed ringtone’ on their mobile phones.

In response, the president of the CCCBR, Kate Flavell, wrote on her blog that the organisation would not be supporting the event. Ringing ‘as fast and loudly as possible’ is apparently unsuitable for bell-ringers. As Flavell informed the BBC, church bells only have one volume and their speed is similarly fixed. If Creed had done his research, he would have known this.

But for the directors of the Cultural Olympiad, who commissioned Creed’s piece, mass participation has trumped sense or excellence. Conceived during the New Labour years, the Olympiad reflects the party’s hallmark pinioning of art to a shallow social agenda. Billed as ‘the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements’, the Cultural Olympiad aims to ‘give everyone in the UK a chance to be part of London 2012 and inspire creativity across all forms of culture, especially among young people’.

But the vapid emphasis on ‘celebrating culture’ comes at the expense of talking seriously about art or commissioning excellent works. It traces a deeper shift towards ‘cultures’ rather than art works as the basic units of aesthetic understanding. All of this has poured headlong into the Cultural Olympiad, leaving it in a profound sense of disarray.

The ‘All The Bells’ website echoes the right-on ethos of the Cultural Olympiad. The focus on participation sets a kind of lowest common denominator for what adults should expect from cultural life. But if the aim is simply to ‘involve’ people, a forced march would do just as good. In fact, the ‘All The Bells’ website actually says: ‘We need YOU to help us ring all the bells in the UK!’.

Thus, the project nostalgically blends references to Lord Kitchener’s famous First World War slogan with echoes of the close of the Second World War, when the bells rang again to signal that Britain was at peace (after years when bell-ringing was banned). The familiar chimes expressed people’s relief, as most had supported the war effort. The shared meaning at the time didn’t come from each individual literally ringing a bell, though. It was a product of a shared experience, moored by common religious reference points. Church bells today have no such connotations.

Yet all this is irrelevant on the Cultural Olympiad’s metrics. Here, an art work is praiseworthy not for any deeper meaning or aesthetic value – its innovation of form or articulation of quiet, tugging truth. Rather, it’s valued in proportion to wholly extrinsic concerns about the extent it allows people to ‘participate’. Of course, the kind of participation envisaged doesn’t require intent listening, observation or intellectual engagement, but a kind of playful activity. The less coherent the art work is, the easier it is to participate in it. This is because each person must bring their own personal ideas, values and experiences to bear on the work, something that would be impossible if the art itself took any stance on these matters.

This is exactly why the foolish project of ‘ringing as fast as possible’ was commissioned as a key work for the Olympics: it means nothing, which is essential for trying to get as many people as possible to take part. ‘All The Bells’, like the Cultural Olympiad as a whole, makes a virtue of confusion and disarray and a mockery of art. It expects us all to chime along in a meaningless charade that rings very hollow.

Sarah Boyes is a freelance writer and editor, and the assistant editor of Culture Wars.

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Topics Culture


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