It’s just a few short hours until the 2012 London Olympics launch. Aside from providing us with the usual rush of relative unknowns becoming instant household names, the Olympic games also provide their host country with an opportunity to showcase themselves and make a case for their prominence on the world stage. This chance to alter the perceptions goes far beyond the proof of athletic dominance. It also involves a substantial investigation into a host’s social fabric and cultural capital.
We don’t need to look much further with this subject than the 2008 Beijing games, which featured an elaborate opening ceremony created to signal China’s arrival at the pinnacle of the global economy. As we’ve been able to tell after some hindsight, many of China’s strengths and weaknesses were laid bare culturally through the games. Globally acclaimed artist and dissident Ai Weiwei helped design the dramatic “Bird’s Nest” stadium, then went on to boycott the games. He was later detained by the Chinese government for dissident activities, his artistic contributions now overshadowed by the political atmosphere they often criticize.
So, what have learned from London so far? After London police pledged to crack down on graffiti artists, Jonathan Jones at The Guardian was quick to chalk it up to a London that is failing on many fronts:
The Olympic suppression of graffiti and street art is a chilling sign that instead of magnifying or rekindling the reputation London now has for outrageous art and irrepressible creativity, this corporate behemoth is cancelling out the capital’s attractions and drawing attention to its weaknesses.
The crackdown means special attention paid to Banksy, the internationally renowed street artist who Jones considers the torchbearer (pun intended) for the “chaotic” creativity of Londoners. Banksy has replied to the crackdown, like he does, with a series of provocative new Olympic-themed works.
For its part, the Olympics is sporting (pun, again, intended) a number of creative projects overseen by the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and funded through organizations like the Greater London Authority and Arts Council England. The ODA commissioned a number of site-specific works for Olympic Park, the central public grounds for Olympic crowds, including large-scale sculptures like this…
…a sound installation with the voices of nearby residents, a planting of large trees, and plenty more. Some pretty impressive stuff, really, and all of it intended to enhance, but not overrun, the Park’s east London locale. Olympic organizers have also commissioned original music from the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Muse for a release of original music … but they’re also getting panned for cheaping out on musicians to play at the games.
Ultimately, from these games–as in the case with China’s relationship to Ai–we’re likely to come to a conflicted judgment of London’s handling of itself and its artists. In this race, it’s London as a corporate police/surveillance state vs. London as a global tastemaker, and it’s doubtful either of them will run away with the gold.
EDIT: Ai Weiwei weighed in over at The Guardian with his own feelings on the London Olympics. While he doesn’t care for the Olympics in general–calling them “dissociated” from the struggles of everyday people–he issues hopes that London will allow its people to “participate in and celebrate the joy of the games.”