How much do you know about the Cultural Olympiad? This is a trick question, so think carefully before you answer.
Why would you be aware of the Cultural Olympiad at all? If you're even remotely interested, that's probably because you're involved in some way. For those who aren't, the Cultural Olympiad is a kind of remedial project for the weedy kids who always forget their gym kit, and there's no reason why you should pay it any attention whatsoever. Until now. Because I have a proposal.
Here's some background. The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, wanted to revive the Ancient Greek ideal that mind, body and spirit could all be celebrated by the games, and this year's Olympics are accompanied, as usual, by a Cultural Olympiad intended to link the athletic competition to the arts. It's all very worthy, and a terrific cure for insomnia. Great art is rarely produced by civic initiative, and artists persist in being inspired by everything except good intentions. The best way to force terrible poetry out of good poets is to make them Poet Laureate and oblige them to write sonnets about the monarch inspecting a fish farm or having a hip operation. And if you want to kill the buzz of art stone dead, give an artist a theme, some money, and a duty to produce something for the public to enjoy, then sit back and watch the public storm the hardware stores in a rush to buy paint, so they can watch it drying as a more exciting alternative.
Now it's time to recapture the competitive edge of the ancient Cultural Olympiad. Welcome to a new sporting concept: Cultural Athletics.
What I'm proposing is a spectacle of brutal combat that pits creative types against each other for the entertainment of a baying global audience and the profit of greed-crazed corporate sponsors. Think of it as The Hunger Games with the difference that what these contestants are hungry for is blueberry muffins, skinny lattes, new Apple products, Academy Awards, blockbusters, bestsellers, better agents and high-end gift baskets. And while there's nothing new, for example, about authors being physically mistreated or even killed for what they write, it's usually done by the state, and not by other writers as part of an Olympic sporting event.
But why not? The government constantly tells us that fierce competition is the key to reversing our fortunes, rather than being the cause of the crisis we're in, and the arts should embrace this brave experiment in magical thinking with the enthusiasm that's proving so successful in areas like health and education. And it shouldn't be difficult to motivate writers, artists, musicians, dancers, architects and poets to fight each other. Most of them do it all the time anyway, and if you want to see real competitive spirit, go to a literary festival or an awards ceremony. If you're a creative artist, you want to be the best at what you do, like any obsessive. You crave victory over your rivals. If you can get some kind of prize to prove it, and a platform from which to deliver a speech about it, all the better.
But can the tides of jealousy, spite and paranoia that squirt through the veins of artists fuel the physical aggression required by the kind of spectacle I'm proposing? I don't see why not. Just create the right competitive forum, add money, status, alcohol and drugs, and watch the show. Ideally the rewards should be high and the competitors higher still. The rules on doping would have to be changed, of course. In the unlikely event that an artist refused to use the stimulants or soporifics that normally unleash their inner gladiator they would be disqualified. But if you put a bunch of creative people together under the right conditions you can pretty much guarantee they'll start assaulting each other sooner or later. Writers and poets are particularly pugnacious. Dylan Thomas would happily throw a punch at anyone who came within range, and Hemingway challenged everyone he met to a boxing match, including the women, and was so keen on shooting things that when he eventually ran out of animals to shoot, he shot himself.
Add the prospect of serious prize money and sponsorship deals, and we're good to go. I don't think we'd need to consider anything as vulgar as product placement within the competing works of art themselves. Tasteful costumes and discreet logos should suffice. If Martin Amis doesn't jump at the chance to wear a tight spandex body stocking in the livery of a merchant bank while wrestling with Ian McEwan as they both recite extracts from their latest novel about geriatric adulterers, I'll eat my rainproof poncho, supplied by whichever corporation has grabbed the franchise. As long as it's not Dow Chemical, proud purchaser of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal disaster. You wouldn't want to eat, or breathe, anything they make.
But back to the games, and the match I'm really looking forward to is the Stylized Dialogue final, which will be contested by Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet, spitting terse expletives as they duel with sabres on a narrow walkway high above the Olympic swimming pool. British film makers will be forced to stop whining about the free lunch that disappeared along with the Film Council, and make some proper films. This will involve competitive pitching in front of a crowd who will signal the survival of both the project and the producer with the traditional thumbs up or down. The final will be a special 'elevator pitch' in which the cables supporting the elevator of the losing competitor are severed, plunging them to their death.
Making the transition from non-competitive culture to punishing physical confrontation should be even easier with artistic pursuits that already involve physical exertion. Dance is only a step away from kick-boxing, and Swan Lake could become a bloodthirsty cull of ballerinas. Meanwhile, composers would create work that uses the human body as an instrument, so that musicians with cattle prods of adjustable voltage try to force agonized screams of the correct pitch from each other according to a musical score. Rap, hip-hop and some types of poetry already evoke the kind of aggression that can easily be actualized by supplying the contestants with weapons and a license to use them with impunity. And painters, of course, can easily be transformed into paintballers.
There's only one category of people from the worlds of arts and entertainment who will have to be excluded from these games. Critics. They're far too vicious.
Over to you. All suggestions welcome. Win for Britain!
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