An appeal to re-think cultural policy

Serving to all its intents and purposes as a pseudo-intellectual diatribe against populist aesthetic contempt, the Piano debate has certainly not been an important contributor to society’s cultural and intellectual development.

The chamber of deputies  – ‘It looks very much like a classroom’
The chamber of deputies – ‘It looks very much like a classroom’

In Uruguay’s seaside city-resort of Punta del Este, five large fingers of stone can be seen coming out from beneath the sand of one of its many beaches. This landmark, “La Mano” – an iconic monument by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal – eventually became a symbol of Punta del Este, so naturally, when visiting Punto del Este, one would be hard pressed not to take a selfie with it and post it on their preferred social media profile. A more traditional tourist would instead send a postcard of this iconic monument to their loved ones. 

Malta’s beaches are also graced with a couple of concrete structures embedded into the sand, but unfortunately these structures only serve to host fast-food kiosks or some other commercial outlet. In line with what seem to be signs of Maltese society’s rising collective and cultural consciousness vis a vis public spaces and their use, people are now voicing their disgust with how our beaches have been allowed to degenerate in this way.

Similarly, people have also protested at the lack of cultural awareness shown by Maltapost when it removed letter boxes painted over by the world-renowned graffiti artist Christian Guemy (C125). Moreover, one mustn’t fail to mention the protests made at the apparent plan of both Labour and PN to move Valletta’s market stalls next to the new parliament building. Let’s just say, the list cringe-worthy cases goes on. 

Here, I want to be especially clear. I am not trying to take a position similar to that of the sophisticated and intellectual émigré, who, for example would look down on the Maltese for having treated Renzo Piano’s City Gate project with disdain.

Indeed, it is only natural that there are those who are admiring Piano’s aesthetic, and others who are not; however, we can easily gauge that there is something intrinsically wrong in the cultural development of our society by analysing the Piano debate. Serving to all its intents and purposes as a pseudo-intellectual diatribe against populist aesthetic contempt, the Piano debate has certainly not been an important contributor to society’s cultural and intellectual development.

In the first place, we should never forget that the arbitrary manner in which the previous government administration pushed ahead with this project, shows that the underlying mentality of the PN government on culture was simply a matter of money. Things seem to have developed on the premise that if we want a better entrance to our city, we can easily hire a world-renowned architect and whip up a grand project that would redefine the city itself. After ending up with an open theatre which is impractical to use, mainly due to issues of noise pollution, a new parliament lacking in office space and a chamber of deputies which looks very much like a classroom, now is high time we accepted that things could never have been so simple. 

This is possibly an ideal moment for us to stop and re-consider aspects of our cultural development and to ask ourselves whether our new government, despite the increase in allocated funds for arts and culture, is actually on the right track with a concrete and well-defined political and ideological vision in cultural policy. 

Apparently, government and state structures have retained the previous mentality in arts and culture and the main cultural issues simply boil down to questions of money, bureaucracy and administration.

This is not strictly and solely Labour’s fault, so allow me to be clear about this. If our artistic community is so bereft of a collective cultural consciousness that it expects to strive on its own without having the society they live in as its main reference and counter point, then we are truly lost in a neo-liberal competitive process where artists have turned into professionals just like any other. 

A case in point which attested to our deeply-entrenched cultural crisis was when Alex Vella Gera rocked the boat with “Li Tkisser Sewwi” – he didn’t just scandalise the prudes or the Christian-Democrats, he, most importantly, irked other authors themselves, including the notable Mario Azzopardi (il-Mulej) and Frans Sammut, who deemed it the appropriate time to come out against his work in full force, rather than focusing on the real issue at hand. 

A couple of years later, once again, Vella Gera served to bring to light how some naïve members of our intelligentsia still haven’t emerged from the indigenous safety-bubble that has marked and maimed the development of Malta’s cultural scene.

In yet another public show of scandal at Vella Gera’s narrative in a reading of his prize-winning novel of “Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi” during the National Book Prize ceremony last December, hosted by the Prime Minister himself, a Labour-leaning member of the National Book Council was so irked with the reading, that after the ceremony was over, he rushed to It-Torċa’s editor complaining about the sacrilege which had just occurred; and the editor, who took the claims at face-value, proceeded with a damning article on the event.

Naturally, the article backfired, and the reaction to it was marked with disdain at the editor himself for showing complete ignorance of the literary setting of the event, the importance of engaging artistic activity and the context of the text.

Maybe, after many years of indulging in relentless cultural incest by trying to place an excessive emphasis on our Maltese-ness in an attempt to carry our youthful patriotism into our art and culture, we are gradually waking up to the reality that we, as a society, have not only failed to establish a marked local cultural aesthetic with its own distinguished spirit, but the foundations for cultural development remain blurred and inconspicuous. So much so that the only truly unique and distinguishing feature of the Maltese is the often abused and largely misued Maltese language. 

Thankfully, nowadays there are various authors who are increasingly trying to move away from this incestuous mindset and their works will surely keep causing a degree of commotion, but this glimmer of hope is far from enough to address the deeply rooted crisis we are facing with our cultural development. An intensive debate which addresses the problem of our cultural development is desperately needed and the government should also have the courage to step forward and start to radically re-think the politics of culture.