Gratuitous Beauty Pageant Post

Giovanna Mazotti was voted Miss Italy in 1952 winning the right to represent her country at that year’s Miss Universe competition, which was eventually won by Miss Finland. Upon returning home, Miss Italy  told a Rome newspaper that the Miss Universe contest was rigged in favor of Finland as a publicity stunt for the Summer Olympics. “Why not call her ‘Miss Olympic’ if publicity for the Olympic games is the object?”

As we get close to 2012 and as we contemplate the Tories cuts in the budget of the Arts Council of England, – the Guardian estimates it at 30% – so the Cultural Olympiad’s short-term power within the Arts now begins to assert itself. The comprehensive spending review stated that the annual budget of the ACE will effectively be cut from £449.5m in the current financial year to £349m by 2014. And whilst the Olympics budget has not escaped the scrutiny of the Tories, the sheer scale of the event and the fact that most of the prestige arts projects have already been signed off, the Cultural Olympiad is turning into the big show.

As the ever excellent Arts Desk points out, the Cultural Olympiad due to organisational issues is now focusing solely on 2012. (I must add that despite being a huge fan of sport and a culture vulture, I am relieved by this. The proposal for a Freedom Ship, which would have sailed the world full of arty folk between the Beijing and London Games, sounds like hell on earth. I imagine a tall ship going alongside in Mombassa and the Singing Kettle pouring out of it.)  With McKenzie not yet in post,  the Arts Council announced 12 commissions around the country, on which they are spending £5.4 million in October last year. These look decidedly woolly. Meanwhile Ruth Mackenzie has managed to scrape together a budget of £80 million solely for 2012, although much of this is support in kind, including a huge contribution from the now cash-strapped BBC.

But in a shrinking funding pool, the Olympiad, despite its clout, has yet to find a convincing sense of itself.  Yes, it has a hugely impressive group of advisers: Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival, Brian McMaster, the longest serving director of the Edinburgh Festival, and Martin Duncan, Mackenzie’s former co-director at the Chichester Festival Theatre, all of whom have a pedigree of putting on excellent, unpatronising, unashamedly high-brow work. Yet what we have seen of the cultural component of the Olympics is still generally about pushing the inclusivity agenda of the event: Stories of the World for children and Unlimited “a £1.5million commission fund to support high-quality collaborations between disability arts organisations, disabled artists and producers, and mainstream arts organisations.”

The arts have always been integral to the Olympics but have always had an uneasy relationship with it. Indeed, until the last Olympics held in London in 1948, medals were given for the best arts projects, and more. Anyone who visited the Victoria and Albert Museum between 15 July and 14th August in that year would have seen medal winning work by a number of individuals included one called  Yrjö Lorentz Lindegren from Finland  who won a gold medal for  town planning for an Athletic Centre in Varkau in 1948. Indeed this championing of sport is ubiquitous throughout the Olympic cultural strand going back to the founding of the modern games in 1896. Art is not allowed to exist on its own terms and must champion some aspect of sport, endowing the latter with a dubious moral or social purpose and corrupting the former to mere propaganda.  A perfect example is this: In 1912, under the pseudonyms Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach, Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement and the President of the International Olympic Committee entered his “Ode au Sport” in two languages for the 1912 Olympic Art Competition. Lo and behold it won a gold medal.

Despite the strengths of McKenzie and her advisory committee, I strongly doubt whether the Cultural Olympiad will be able to prevent itself from becoming a beauty pageant to promote the Games. Those who believe that the arts in England could do with some blood-letting should be aware that with the Cultural Olympiad’s increasing influence on our cultural landscape, art is going to have an increasingly and more obvious role as propaganda. Around 1/5th of the entire arts budget in 2012 will go on saying something positive about a sporting event.

Charlotte Higgins hinted in the Guardian that McKenzie is interested in celebrating the idea of truce and the role of the United Nations in them during the Olympiad. I’ll believe that when I see it. The International Olympic Committee which maintains control over the tone of the Games through signed protocols is unlikely to countenance this and will seek a celebration instead of its own role as a guarantor of harmony. Even if McKenzie is successful, the Cultural Olympiad will demand that artists celebrate the values of an organisation. This will tend towards a corruption of the arts as a whole rather than prompt some libertarian unfettering of it.

Still as Giovanna Mazotti made clear in the rest of her interview, beauty pageants are subject to all kinds of political influences, not just the Olympics. On her ignominious return she told her interviewer that Miss Hawaii was voted runner-up “because they have been promising statehood to those islands and that Miss Hong Kong was placed third “…so that the Orientals won’t think America has prejudices, and in spite of the war in Korea, beauty is still beauty.”

Miss Olympic, sorry, Miss Universe 1952.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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