One of the sure signs that a post-colonial power is getting nervous about its position in the world is when it starts to emphasise its outstanding cultural offerings. When a nation has true political and military ascendancy, it rarely bothers to do so. China, while voraciously importing all kinds of western art forms, does not trumpet its Ming dynasty ceramics or its contemporary cinema scene. It is too busy with its position as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and becoming a global leader. Cultural power is soft power, and no country pumping iron into its body politic wants to be caught having a flabby moment.
Which brings us to Britain. Or GREAT Britain, as we should learn to call it, in the wake of the coalition government’s attempt to big up the brand of UK plc. Note the capital letters, no slip of the caps lock key but a seriously in-your-face assault in promotion of the best of British culture, heritage, countryside, shopping and so on. Last week posters went up all over the world to remind foreign people of Britain’s greatness. One of them spotted in a New York subway misspelt the name of Wales’s Brecon Beacons. Never mind. The picture was lovely. Of course what put the GREAT into Britain was not its greatness at all, but an attempt to describe a geo-politically complicated land mass. But why waste a happy confluence of objectives?
GREAT Britain is a very different place from Cool Britannia. Coolness might have been the single most impressive human quality, according to the guitar-wielding Tony Blair and his baby-boomer cohorts, but the Conservative-dominated government of today prefers an adjective of stiffer stuff. Coolness never built empires, although it may have helped deal with the consequences of, or even contributed to, their dismantling. But greatness is the quality that keeps on giving. Even when you are not great, you can pretend you are because you have given the world Shakespeare, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Borat and Adele. We can still make people laugh and cry like no other nation.
There is a certain twitchiness among Britain’s arts impresarios as they prepare for the Olympic Games and the supposedly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show Britain’s greatness to the world. Buoyed by the impressive line-up assembled for the London 2012 Festival, they are busy assembling their own state-of-the-nation commentaries. Just in the past few days I have received notices celebrating the “Best of British” from the Writers’ Centre in Norwich, more “Best of British” offerings from Wayne Hemingway’s Vintage Festival in July, and a “Made in Britain” season of contemporary film at the BFI Southbank.
Later in the month, the Victoria and Albert Museum chronicles the best of British design from 1948 – the date of London’s last hosting of the Olympics. It is a story that leads from the gentle idealism of postwar planners, who believed great art and design could prevent wars, to the subversion of the 1960s and 1970s, and finally to the corporate co-option of design that has dominated the past couple of decades. Many versions of Britain are evoked by the show. Are they all equally great?
The Olympic Games have also served as an excuse for the revivification of the British Council’s admirable artistic mission. All manner of arts initiatives are planned for this year, from UK Now taking British artists and performers to China, to an exhibition of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia, of all places. But I wonder if the council finds itself secretly embarrassed by the GREAT campaign. It has always sought to persuade the world that culture is a two-way street, and that exchange is a more benign form of cultural dialogue than crude exportation. How does ramming home the message of British greatness help with that cause?
The work of the British Council, like that of the BBC’s World Service, is a perfect example of how formerly great powers can persuade the world of their continuing, but more discreet, greatness. The attempt to open up and share arts projects with the whole world is soft power at its most effective, illustrating a country that is mature, confident and happy in its own skin. It is built on the principles of free exchange: we will show you ours, if you show us yours. It doesn’t matter whose is better. But perhaps we will both benefit from the conversation.
In fact, the finest parts of the London 2012 celebrations do anything but act as a clarion call for British excellence. The World Shakespeare Festival is, as its name implies, a free-for-all allowing alien cultural traditions to engage with Britain’s supreme literary artist. It acknowledges the possibility at least that other countries may interpret his work better than we do. For example: the Barbican Centre’s May production of Cymbeline by Japan’s Yukio Ninagawa may persuade you, as his Coriolanus a few years back did me, that other theatrical traditions, less in thrall to the sound of Shakespeare’s poetry, can more vividly evoke the playwright’s political world on stage.
I happen to believe that London is the world’s outstanding cultural capital, and by a distance. But its greatness lies in its ability and willingness to absorb, share and mix with all that the rest of the world has to offer. That is a more subtle form of greatness, which should never be emblazoned in capital letters across posters on the world’s subways. One prominent arts adviser for London recently told me that other countries cannot understand why we sell ourselves short when it comes to the marketing and promotion of our arts.
But art is more powerful than public relations; and as its wisest practitioners well know, the seductive whisper has always had more telling effect than the bellow from the citadels of power.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden