Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bread and circuses

What to think of the Olympics? On the one hand you've got people (on Facebook) complaining that it's all a distraction from pressing political issues, or that the opening ceremony showed a Disneyfied version of British history with no reference to colonialism, and on the other you've got unapologetic enthusiasm for the emotion and beauty of the games. I vaguely sense that I ought to feel like one (actually both) of these parties, but I don't. I like sports enough to react against the condemnation of the whole thing, but I just don't like athletics or gymnastics enough to get very worked up about sports that aren't some kind of football. I'll watch bits here and there, which is probably what most people do. For instance, I watched part of the opening ceremony, but the long parade of athletes and the dumbed-down commentary ("don't worry, I've never heard of Tim Berners-Lee either!") drove me away.

What about the bread and circuses charge? Well, I like circuses and I like bread. Few who complain from a left-of-centre position are likely to object to the bread part, and the opening ceremony of the games this year celebrated the National Health Service, which is a bit like advertising bread. Not a bad idea if you want something similar to emerge in the United States, for instance. Of course it was all rather pro-British, but what do you expect? Over at Crooked Timber, the always-good Hidari takes this objection to its logical conclusion:
But of course I am a pretentious elitist and snob and would have chosen Ken Loach to direct the ceremony, which would have consisted entirely of black and white shots of pensioners weeping over the privatisation of the NHS for four hours, intercut with statistics about the LIBOR scandal for light relief with choice arias from Moses und Aron as the background music, so I am perhaps not the best person to be making aesthetic judgments about populist spectacles.
In fairness to the likes of Hidari I should note that I don't live in Britain and so do not see the NHS being gradually sold off or any of the other things that lead people to think that the Olympics is a bad use of public money. But in general I think that bread should be provided to those who need it, and that people can't live on bread alone. The question then is what kind of circuses should we have [UPDATE: What a terrible inference! What I should have said is simply that I support spending public money on arts, circuses, etc. What I should have done is drink more coffee before posting.], and of course people will disagree. As long as the entertainment is not watching people getting killed, as in the original circuses, then I'm not very fussy. The Guardian seemed to enjoy the opening ceremony, as did most other people. I'd call that a success.

The ceremony has also been called very British, which I'm sure led to some frustration for non-British people who couldn't understand it all. But I'm glad there is still such a thing as British culture to be expressed in this way. Not because I think British culture is better than any other culture, but because I like culture. I also like variety, so I hope there is also a distinctive Chinese culture (or multiple Chinese cultures), Indian culture, French culture, and so on. It seems that there is, which is encouraging.

Finally, just when their music thread had me almost convinced that taste is all hopelessly subjective, along comes Kieran Healy with a subjective assessment of sports that is uncannily close to my own view. Which is good.

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