|Marseille, taken by me, probably whilst drinking a beer on a terrace in the Vieux Port|
The problem seems to be that in the run-up to the festival the city solicited proposals for cultural projects, some of which the city refused, and three refusals in particular have enraged those who submitted or supported them.
The first concerns Marseille native Marcel Petit, a famous ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of ther Marseille National Ballet who died in 2011 at the age of 87. A project in his honour was supported by Edmonde Charles-Roux, a member of the Resistance in World War Two, the daughter of a shipping magnate and the wife of Gaston Defferre, another member of the Resistance who went on to become Mayor of Marseille. He died in 1986.
Then there was the project elaborated by Marseille author and actor Philippe Caubère in honour of the poet and author André Saurès, another son of Marseille. He died in 1950. Caubère's project was also refused.
Lastly, photographer and historical photo-documentalist Antoine Agoudjian, a specialist on Armenia (he has Armenian origins) saw his idea for a project for the festival's Euro-Meditteranean workshops refused. He is bitterly angry at the decision.
I was of course sorry to read that these proposals had been refused - after all, nobody likes to see their proposals refused in any sphere of activity - but although the anger of those who worked so hard to develop their projects is understandable, I consider nevertheless that the festival committee made the right decision in each case, and here's why.
The European Capital of Culture's entry on Wikipedian sums up the event's raison d'être quite well;
Preparing a European Capital of Culture can be an opportunity for the city to generate considerable cultural, social and economic benefits and it can help foster urban regeneration, change the city's image and raise its visibility and profile on an international scale.The key to that description is in the second half of the sentence, which puts the accent on the fact that the event can be a springboard to the future development of a city. This was put in more precise terms in a review of a 2011 book titled 'European Cultural Capital Report 3, edited by Robert Palmer, Greg Richars and Diane Dodd. The reviewer wrote that;
Bob Palmer looked back over the 25 years of ECOCs comparing it to a growing child which was conceived with a kiss between the late Greek Minister for Culture, Merlina Mercouri and French Minister of Culture, Jacques Lang. The analogy proved to give a good overview of how the ambitions and demands of the ECOC have changed over the years.And it is precisely that forward-looking approach which has allowed the event to survive, as it was in danger of being ossified at the beginning by its backwards-looking stance.
In summary, the first five years saw capital cities being awarded recognition for their importance as already established cultural capitals. Whereas from 1990, when Glasgow won the title, there was already the idea that the title could help create cultural cities - and thus the award became a torch for cities to hold for one year in recognition of their aims. Later in the proceedings, Bob Scott suggested that receiving the ECOC title was like earning a scholarship in order to go forth and do great things.
Nobody would deny respect to Marcel Petit, a man who introduced the word 'ballet' into the vocabulary and culture of the people of Marseille. But he died many years ago and his work is now a legacy. André Suarès was also a great man, and his books and poems were full to the brim of mature reflections upon grandeur, the quest for one's inner self and an insatiable interest for the wider and more pragmatic issues of this world. But again, he too is a part of France's proud past and although he too deserves a place in France's collective memory his work would have been out of place here. Photographer Antoine Agoudjian, at 51 years of age, is thankfully still of this world, but should he really be surprised that the committee of a modern-minded celebration of culture would prefer a younger phototographer - Kathryn Cook - who has a more contemporary and possibly more objective approach to historical events, to deal with Armenia, the history of which which she knows well?
France has always had a tendency to conflate culture and cultural heritage, and this episode demonstrates that very well. As do French university literature faculties, which are only now waking up to the fact that the old rule which meant that 'if an author is still alive he cannot be a great author' is no longer applicable. And it was also this tendency to hark back to past glories which resulted in France submitting a disastrously poor video to support its candidature for the 2012 Olympic Games. That video, full as it was of dusty and pompous references to past glories and images of fine old buildings, contained relatively few images of younger people. London's submission was much more contemporary on the other hand, it centred upon the vitality of Britain and the world's youth, and that is why the French video was largely believed to have put the Olympics committee off the idea of choosing France.
'Culture' is a fairly vague term which, in terms of countries, encompasses the globality of a country's "socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought", whereas "cultural heritage' is its legacy, a legacy of its past.
France's cultural heritage is incalculable in its scope, and it has inspired literally billions of people over the years and all over the world. But that does not give it an automatic right to sit down at the table of a modern celebration of culture today. There are times when highlighting cultural heritage is appropriate and there are times when it should make way for the modern world.
It is a real shame that the French approach to culture seems to consist of clinging onto the outdated notion that pride of place should be given to the past at the very moment when its current cultural output is getting so little support from French cultural authorities and so few opportunities to showcase itself in major events.
These events are all too often hijacked by dinosaurs of the past and their present defenders who barge noisily in and throw their airy and grandiloquent weight around in an attempt to hog the limelight at the expense of those young creators who also need their opportunity to shine.