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The Blog of Adam Price AS/MP, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

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Archive for August 13th, 2009

13th August 2009

THe strange death of Liberal Wales

In the continuing imbroglio (to use a suitably Italianate term) following my original piece about the WNO, the Lib Dems’ Jeremy Townsend was upbraided earlier in the week in the Western Mail for his  comments on Bala  as being ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and the Eisteddfod  as being less deserving of public money as it is a) popular (it generated a surplus) and b) less ‘ambitious’ than the Brecon Jazz festival (presumably as the Eisteddfod features “male voice choirs and traditional Welsh costume’, which for Mr Townsend, presumably, are ‘culturally regressive”.)

Now an anonymous author  (Peter Black please note) at the Welsh Lib Dem site Freedom Central has pitched in with a defence of Mr Townsend’s right to express the view that “our arts policy was being hidebound by a traditional and backward looking view of heritage”  which is code for those of us who see part of culture’s role as giving us a nation the confidence that comes from hearing our own voice, in our own language/s and in our own country.  I happily plead guilty to that.

What I do take issue with though is FC(UK?)’s argument that my description of Townsend’s views on the relative value of the Eisteddfod’s cultural output as Anglo-centric is mis-placed because all he was arguing for was its move to a permanent site as other have also advocated.  That, in fact, is not what Mr Townsend was arguing – as he himself points out in a response to Freedom Central – nor was it the basis for my comment.  Suggesting that organising Europe’s largest peripatetic cultural festival in a minority language in a country neighbouring the home of the world’s most dominant language is somehow less ‘ambitious’ than organising an international jazz festival seems to me to be making a ’value judgement’ which places jazz someway above cerdd dant, cynghanedd, choral singing, the finest Welsh tradition of  grassroots participatory culture and the entire artistic output of the Welsh language community.    This in my view, is a curious position to take, but, like Freedom Central, I will defend his right to take it.

Which brings me on to my second problem with the moderator of the FC site – their suggestion that I have somehow tried to close down debate on this issue.  As a liberal and a democrat (no caps) I take that charge very seriously and perhaps, for their own credibility’s sake, they may want to consider withdrawing it.  It was my original contribution, after all, that initiated this debate – and I have continued to engage in it as I am doing again now.  If anything, it was Mr Townsend that appeared to be attempting to curtail debate by suggesting that politicians should not be openly critical of the commissioning policy or the cultural output  of arts bodies, a suggestion with which I take issue.

The accusation that FC makes that my critique of the opera somewhow renders me an Establishment figure while Mr Townsend’s attack on the Eisteddfod makes him, presumably, a revolutionary,says more about Fredom Central and the Liberal Democrats than anything it says about me.  The central charge that the Eisteddfod is the recipient of largesse where more ‘cosmopolitan’ art forms suffer from some disadvantage because of some ‘nationalist clique’ is simply not borne out by the facts.  The Eisteddfod receives about 500k annually from the Welsh Government, while the WNO receives nearly 6.5 m (and another 300k of emergency funding in the last month).  I think this demonstrates the continuing salience of the point originally made in the ‘Culture in Common’ report by the Assembly’s Culture Committee almost a decade ago (under a Lib Dem culture minister)  that traditional dance and traditional music in Wales are ‘poor relations’ compared to virtually all other art forms despite their unique contribution to Welsh cultural identity.  Mr Townsend’s argument that traditional Welsh culture is given preferential treatment is simply plain wrong.

That said, JT’s own reply to my response to himis much more measured and intelligent than FC’’s defence of his views (Mike Powell’s comment is puerile, and worst of all, not funny).  I think he is wrong though to suggest that the ‘culture ministry’ model, which after all, is the norm in most of Europe should be equated with totalitarianism.  Different countries do operate different systems ranging from from centralist and pro-active to consensual co-ordination but I don’t think any of them are in the Stalin/Shostakovich mode.  Personally I still do not think that a Royal Charter body is the best placed to deliver an accountable and accessible national cultural policy for Wales.    

I think he is also wrong to argue that the New York Metropolitan Opera are not interested in the pursuit of original American operatic work.  Indeed there was an identical debate raging in relation to the Met a century ago when critics were clamouring for more American-penned work.  The MET first staring producing American opera in 1910 – and launched composition competitions for new American opera. (I think the idea of a competition for a new single act opera in the Welsh language would be an excellent new category for the Eisteddfod, either in conjunction with WNO or the new Welsh language company Opra Cymru -with its first performance at the following year’s Eisteddfod.)  The first recipient of a $10,000 prize was Horatio Parker whose opera ‘Mona’ was the first full-scale American opera to be performed by the Met.  Ironically, it was set in Wales under Roman occupation and featured a love affair between Princess Mona and Gwynn, the son of the Chief Bard, Caradog.  Gwynn even appears in the green bardic robes of the Ovate order which could be seen gracing the Maes only a few days ago. Small world. 

The Met did produce opera by about a dozen American composers in the first half of the 20th century.  In the immediate post-war period the company did become notieceably less interested in Amerian composers with the exception of Samuel Barber, leaving the field open to the New York City Opera to commission and perform new work.  But the MET’s interest in American music has re-emerged since the 1990s with premieres of new work by Philip Glass, John Harbison, William Bolcom,  John Corigliano, Tobias Picker as well as revivals of work by John Adams and Carlisle Floyd.  I think the ideal of a Welsh MET is actually therefore what I am calling for.

At a more fundamental level I think the source of our disagreement is this: I think it is right that culture (and therefore cultural policy) is about renewing a sense of national identity.  As Ceri Sherlock has written, we are both “custodians and creators’ of our culture.  Culture is Janus-faced:  it is about history, traditions, symbols etc and it is also about innovation and creativity.  It is our story – that only we can tell – about who we are and where we are going.  It is also about what we believe is valuable to pass on to future generations; for when this blog and Freedom Central and their authors have disappeared into the ether, it is only our culture that will be left as a symbol of who we were.  Culture in this sense is the transmission mechanism of identity.   If I want my identity to survive, than I have to care passionately about culture.  

In the last analysis Freedom Central’s comments on culture are interesting because they reveal the underlying values with which Liberals in Wales now identify: urban not rural, modern not traditional, British not Welsh.  The Liberals in Wales - which would once boast in the days of Emlyn Hooson, Geraint Howells, and even Richard Livsey of their small ‘n’ nationalist roots - have now possibly overtaken the Welsh Conservatives as the most anglicised party in Wales.