• A theatre director recently told me that he would not be applying for the currently vacant job of artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, because he wasn’t sure what any of the three words in the organisation’s name mean any more: monarchy, Elizabethan authorship and permanent acting troupes are all concepts currently in flux. In the same way, anyone seeking to promote “British culture” – a key marketing concept in the year of the 2012 London Olympics – faces the problem that the definition of the United Kingdom is contracting while the definition of culture is expanding.
    • Artistically, 2012 will be dominated by two veterans of our academies and libraries: William Shakespeare, chosen as the focus of the Cultural Olympiad, and Charles Dickens, whose bicentenary falls in February. These are undisputed British – or, at least, English – cultural icons of the kind you would expect to find on banknotes.
    • The worship of Shakespeare and Dickens is a heritage reflex; that the two writers will now double as symbols of Britain in an Olympic year is problematic for two reasons.
    • First, there is the problem of familiarity. For British artistic directors to announce their intention of exploring Shakespeare and Dickens is rather like the owner of a fish shop declaring that next year’s menus will focus on seafood.
    • their dominance has had the unintended but severe consequence of disenfranchising generations of non-white acting talent.
    • The World Shakespeare festival, running from April to September, will also approach the plays multiracially.
    • And it’s on this question – of which flag to put on the badge – that the sweat really starts to pour down the foreheads of the cultural commissioners. In a recent article, the outgoing head of the civil service, Gus O’Donnell, predicted that the breakup of the UK is now a real possibility – an issue largely ignored by politicians and newspapers protective of the Queen, or nervous of traditionalist voters. This potential fracturing has dramatic implications for the arts.
    • As actual or psychological independence accelerates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it may be that the concept of British culture is becoming an impossibility.
    • The economic crisis that has made Britain more politically insular and suspicious of Europe has left its culture ever more dependent on co-funding.

      It is also more divided. The idea of someone from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland all going into the same building at the same time used to be the classic structure of a joke. These days it could be culture department policy. The biggest arts festival the UK has seen in decades will struggle to disguise these divisions.

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