It’s just culture, right?

The physical and spiritual migration of animals, reported for Transhumance. All photography is by Francesca Todde for Theatre du Centaure.

Transhumance. Photos: Francesca Todde for Theatre du Centaure.

An edited version of this opinion piece was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Opinions are free to air, but should not go unchallenged. Last week, the V18 Foundation announced that it is using a percentage of its budget to help organise an international football league.

Many disagree. Now that excitable emotions have been calmed, it is time to take a good look at the implications. So far, no convincing explanation has been offered for the decision, the only reaction being a dismissive “football is culture” and “this is nothing but cultural snobbery”.

Of course, this is a facile way to shut opponents up. The truth is that football is, indeed, part of our lifestyle – at least as a spectator sport. Many feel that there is a need to include more diverse forms of culture than the traditional arts in the V18 program, hence their support for the measure.

This is a laudable idea. However, it smacks of attempting to run before we can walk. Other countries do indeed take a wider view of the term ‘culture’. These other countries have the budgets of orca whales. Malta clearly doesn’t.

We can barely find the funds to support the traditional arts, let alone to expand beyond. Until we manage to build the foundations of a strong arts scene, how wise is it to steal money from one impoverished sector to give to a separate one that already enjoys significant funding? The laying down of priorities is an urgently-needed exercise.

Yet, even when we are in a position to be freer with our V18 budgets, I find it impossible to accept that a plain and simple sponsorship of a football league is the cleverest way to spend our euro. There are so many intriguing avenues that have not yet been explored, by either the past or the present V18 administration.

For starters, fringe and non-mainstream events remain one-off occurrences limited to annual festivals like Notte Bianca and the Malta Arts Festival. We devote a good amount of time and energy to the organisation of traditional arts festivals, but do we have a long-term strategy in the pipeline for less obvious events?

Take visual arts as an example. So far, I have seen no evidence of moving beyond the traditional genres. Is the idea of a tattoo convention – particularly given Valletta’s ties to the sailors’ community during World War II – so inconceivable?

Non-mainstream events are organised almost exclusively on a private basis: the annual Malta Comic Con is one such success story. Why are we not channelling funds to make it possible for these to be adopted within the cultural mainframe?

The same argument applies to the cultivation of sub-cultures. Taking music as an example; what are we doing to encourage the growth of genres that are not necessarily mainstream?

Why do genres like death metal, punk, hip-hop, rap etc only get an official airing, so to speak, during events like Notte Bianca? Why hasn’t metal at the Manoel Theatre become a more regular occurrence, rather than an annual ‘wonder’ during Teatru Unplugged?

Does the current structure enable and encourage such options, or does it make it practically impossible? Why aren’t we thinking of using funds to transform existing alternative spaces – such as the skate-park in Msida, the BMX track in Pembroke, the area around the Valletta bus terminus, clubs, tattoo parlours – into performance venues?

Marseille, which held the title of European Capital of Culture last year, organised a wonderful event that incorporated subcultures from various areas. The event combined activities like skate-boarding, street art and underground music like hip-hop, and was one of the highlights of a programme that was otherwise termed ‘sluggish’ by critics.

But skate-boarding is a sport, I hear you say. How is supporting football any different? The difference lies in the approach. The Marseille team created an artistic experience that successfully blurred the borders between sport and art. The V18 Foundation took the unremarkable road of offering a sponsorship to a football league.

Francesca Todde

More photography from Transhumance. Photo: Francesca Todde.

The cultural pot needs a good stirring even with respect to which arts are deemed ‘worthy’ of support. How can government claim to wish to diversify the arts, when it has not even managed to accept and nurture acts that take us out of our comfort zone? Artists that have proven themselves, such as satirical music outfit Xtruppaw, are largely ignored because upfront satire is not something that the powers that be can easily recognise as artistic.

In 2012, a proposed project that included a music album, a website, a music video and online digital game was refused funding because it lacked ‘artistic’ focus. A follow-up meeting revealed that the project was deemed to have ‘a lot’ going on, and that had the applicants focused on only one medium they would have been regarded more favourably.

What exactly are we saying here? Do we support only the simpler projects, those that do not require a re-wiring of the usual approach? Despite lack of funding, the project was successfully concluded – naturally, on a smaller scale due to budgetary issues.

It is easy to see that, if the present administration wishes to prove itself and instil a fresh approach to culture, there are plenty of glaring omissions to address, before turning to football for inspiration.

In 2012, the city of Maribor, Slovenia, held the title of culture capital. Included in the program highlights was an event called The Stage between the Sky and the Earth, which included theatrical genres like cabaret and striptease. We have a long way to go before we wrap our minds around that – in the meantime, we continue believing that a satirical project that crosses three platforms lacks ‘artistic focus’.

But the buck does not stop with government entities like the V18 Foundation. The new generation of artists has an essential role to play in a successful V18 strategy, and Malta’s established names have a duty to nurture this role. We have witnessed the beauty of such collaborations within theatre and music, but we have yet to see it happen in the visual arts. If the cultural landscape is to mature, we need the input of those who are disparagingly referred to as ‘Ċikku Nobodys’ by some of the established names. The arts know no sacred cows.

We need to be discerning, of course. Not everything is art – and if this approach provokes accusations of snobbery, then so be it. But let us not make the mistake of isolating those with potential. It won’t take too long for other countries to snap them up, and examples abound during the past two years. Photographer Ritty Tacsum was recently invited to exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Taipei; artist Joseph Calleja was offered a solo exhibition by Takaya Fujiin at the latter’s experimental gallery on the banks of the Kamo river, Japan; Adrian Scicluna is part of Debut Contemporary, a Notting Hill based art platform that showcases up-and-coming artists, and has held a number of exhibitions in London; Nigel Baldacchino was the youngest artist to be invited to take part in the 2012 Summer of Photography Biennale, organised by the Museum of Fine Arts of Brussels (Bozar).

Like them, there are others, and these are the future generation of Maltese artists. Ċikku Nobodies indeed. The arts should never be about maintaining the status quo, and it is a sorry state of affairs when the members of the old-guard are reluctant to acknowledge the worth of the new.

Of course, the artists who truly want to take their discipline to the audience don’t wait around for the government or their peers to open the doors of opportunity. They go out there and do it. Even if it means foregoing a profession and doing only odd jobs so as not to compromise their art. Even if it means being perpetually broke. Which is why the decision to take away money from artists who need it to give it to a separate, well-funded sport was baffling to many.

This is not to say that football, boċċi, water-polo, or other sports cannot legitimately be incorporated into a successful V18 strategy. However, since the concept of a European Capital of Culture presupposes the encouragement of creativity, would it hurt to at least attempt to take a novel approach to these elements?

If we look at the experiences created by other culture capitals, there is inspiration aplenty. Marseille 2013, for instance, included a multi-disciplinary event called TransHumance. The idea was for participants to cross the regions surrounding Marseille on foot and on horseback, while enjoying the experience from the point of view of the different animals that inhabit that countryside. Certainly as diverse an approach to culture as one could hope for.

What made it special was the way nature was manipulated in order to become part of one living, artistic tapestry. This was achieved by using on-site choreography, visual installations, photography and myriad other sensorial wonders.

A far cry from financing a football league, you will agree.