Culture war, enter stage left

By James Inverne, November 3, 2011
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War has been declared and theatres, concert halls and anywhere that the arts flourish are the new battlegrounds. No longer above the political fray, culture is an increasingly active front line.

The thuggish disruption of September's Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's Proms visit by a few dozen cultural vandals grabbed the headlines, but there had been warning signs (last year the Jerusalem Quartet was loudly heckled at a Wigmore Hall concert). Now two explosive incidents have ignited the cultural landscape, with potentially seismic effects. In Paris last month a performance of a play snappily called On The Concept of the Face, regarding the Son of God was interrupted by noisy protests from the Christian Institute Civitas group (sound familiar, Promgoers?). The group returned the next night to throw oil and eggs at audience members arriving for the show. Meanwhile this week, also in Paris, the UN's cultural body UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state.

Though they might seem very different in nature, essentially the same thing happened in both cases - a cultural event was hijacked for political ends. After all, who from the audience will think of that play (sorry, I can't be bothered to type the title again) without remembering the protests? Who will now think of UNESCO and fail to link it to the Palestinians' statehood campaign?

Here's the non-story. It has always been thus. War has indeed been declared through culture but like military battles, it's a repetitive phenomenon, albeit with new technology. Social media might make it easier to coordinate protests at plays or concerts, just as unmanned drones make it simpler to bomb other countries, but the arts have always - always - been an arena for warfare.

A stagehand might have worked for the foreign office

It's soft war, sure. It's about the softest form of offensive there could be, short of the strategic withholding of Christmas cards. But, as history has shown, it's a potent technique and a surefire way to send the world a message without a shot being fired. When Britain accused Russia of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London, what was The Kremlin's response? They closed down the culture-orientated British Council in Russia and stalled a UK exhibition of Russian art.

But just as the arts convey hostilities, they also readily lend themselves to diplomacy and propaganda. The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, a product of Venezuela's much-lauded el sistema (publicly funded musical training), has been rightly celebrated. Yet it's been a PR masterstroke for Hugo Chavez, whose human rights record has its critics.

The other admired youth music project of our day, Daniel Barenboim's West-East Divan, which brings together Arabs and Israelis, is the best-known of a whole raft of cross-cultural projects which foster real hope for that region. But I'll also never forget a conversation I had with an Israeli government source a few years ago. Sometimes, she told me, a play or a concert might take Israelis to the West Bank and there might be an extra stagehand along for the trip. And until recently that stagehand might have worked for the foreign office. Culture as a back-channel for negotiation? Clearly there are instances when political messages through the arts are meant to be anything but public.

Throughout history the arts have been used. World leaders have closed plays whose politics they took exception to and have coddled shows they loved (occasionally even written them, as with the Iraqi musical Zabibah and the King, apparently co-authored by one Saddam Hussein).

That it happens doesn't make it any less worrying. UNESCO has now undermined its many cultural achievements. I fear it has, as much as the protestors in London and Paris, encouraged once again the politicisation of the arts. So we must expect disruption of performances in the name of politics to rise, especially as the police seem to have very little power to prosecute.

Old auditoriums in London have the stage boxes facing the audience, because in days gone by you would go to the theatre to watch fashionable society more than the actors. If things continue this way they might as well design new theatres like that too.

Last updated: 4:58pm, November 7 2011