What is culture anyway?


And why should anyone want to be the capital of it?

With the announcement of European Capital of Culture 2020 in the pipeline, I throw out some thoughts on the process. I haven’t been actively involved in any one of the bid projects; I support each of them in their own way, and there’s a few things I’ve seen from the outside that I need to get off my chest. I started this with some questions, as I mean to go on!

On a fundamental level, the Capital of Culture programme allows for huge sums of money to be pumped into the selected regions. The irony in the entire European Capital of Culture title is that “cultural capital” is a nonsense concept built to keep normal people out of cultural institutions. To me, the whole point of Capital of Culture is to take the concept of and turn it on its head; take the idea of elitism and high-brow ‘culture’ and instill a sense of involvement across all spectrums of the community.

The OED has an astounding number of definitions for culture. Let’s assume this is the one we’re mostly thinking about:

Culture, n. – 6. Refinement of mind, taste, and manners; artistic and intellectual development. Hence: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

It’s also where we get ‘cultivation’ from. Other entries in the same dictionary are all about farming, tillage, tending to the land and to its inhabitants.

What is being done to cultivate a sense of community in the ECoC2020 bids? What’s being done to foster growth among the people? It’s a question on the bid form but it doesn’t always get answered.

Culture isn’t a product; it’s not a tangible entity defined by music, dance, theatre, art. It’s a shared experience, encompassing visual and performing arts and the people who create and consume them. It also encompasses the people that don’t consume those things.


Monopoly money! Image: Chris-Håvard Berge on Flickr.

As for capital, this one’s easy. It’s money, or a resource of worth. You invest capital in a company so it can grow.

Put them together and we get…
Cultural capital, then, should mean a part of your culture that you invest in, in order to help it grow (or something you invest in your community, your people, in order to nurture them). These days, though, cultural capital mostly reminds me of that sort of person who goes to the opera so they can seem more impressive than they are. Or someone who goes to see a ‘foreign film’ because they get to tell their friends not about the film, but about the fact that they went to see it and wasn’t it only subtitled?

Anyway, this gets me to how utterly disappointed I am in some of the proposed events in the European Capital of Culture 2020 bids.

As you’ll know from my last post, Kilkenny Arts Festival holds a special place in my heart. From the beginning, I was overjoyed to see that The Three Sisters (led by Waterford) were in the race for the ECoC2020 title. I have invested a lot of my personal time (chronological capital?) in that city and I want to see it strive. The community feeling is powerful in Kilkenny City, Kilkenny County. Just look what happens when you give them a run for their money in the hurling (don’t; they won’t let you live it down). Shamefully, I know little about Waterford and Wexford, though I do know of the excellent reputation of Spraoi and Wexford Festival Opera.

Two of my siblings went to college in Galway, and I spent enough time at McDonagh’s to love the place (the city, not just the restaurant). I’ve hen-partied in the city and been to some excellent local gigs (‘hon the Róisín) and gotten poured on from the high heavens on Shop Street.

culture night

I passed Limerick every summer on the way to Dingle with my family when I was a kid. More chips. I also had the opportunity to go to some of the events for City of Culture in 2014, some of which were phenomenal and some of which fell flat. I worked in the Hunt Museum for Culture Night last year and met so many people who were there, in the city’s very active museum, for the first time. People who felt like they didn’t belong there except on Culture Night, because Culture Night shows everyone that they are accepted in so-called cultural spaces.

I worry that this feeling is lost on every single one of the other 364 days of the year.

How do each of the bid cities intend to involve their communities in their activities? Will their events be accessible to the actual general public? Will there be an outreach project for schools and community groups so people can feel like everything is open to them? How much will the tickets cost? Who can afford them? Will events and venues be wheelchair accessible?

I’m personally invested in arts and culture in this country. More and more, though, I feel like there’s a certain element of tooting your own horn just for the sake of it. Get the funding. Complete the project. Don’t actually think it out to the best of your ability – just get it to the point where it will work, take some pictures, move on.

I imagine this is partly due to the year-on-year funding process whereby cultural institutions in Ireland can’t actually plan in advance, and effectively live on scraps. That’s an argument for #ArtsDeptNow.

Are we asking for too much money? Are we asking for enough? Are we doing enough with it when we get it?

And here, what’s so great about street art and performance anyway? It’s interesting how street art has been incorporated into the bids, how it is assumed to have the power to initiate urban regeneration, how the use of street art to rejuvenate is somehow new and unheard of and going to change the world.

It might. It probably can.

But can you prove it? What are your measures of success? There’s a reason it’s one of the questions that needs to be answered in the bid process. It’s also not one I feel has been adequately answered. Look at Dublin’s initial bid. They posed pretty much the same question, and then failed at answering it.

Screen shot 2016-07-08 at 14.53.54

From Dublin’s initial bid book, p. 40/62 here.

Funnily enough, the Dublin bid included a lot about community, but I don’t know if I ever believed it. Plus there are a lot of negative pop-out quotes like the one above that are pretty off-putting at first glance.

There’s really no end to the questions posed in the lead-up to the ECoC2020 announcements.

Whoever wins the bid will have a lot to live up to. As of now, we don’t know how this will affect Ireland’s economy, Ireland’s cultural or social landscape, and of course the hosts. All I know is that we should all be pretty interested in getting some answers.

I’ll happily stand behind whoever gets the title and I hope everyone will be of a similar mindset.

After all, shouldn’t we make sure it’s a worthwhile investment?