Brilliantly conceived by Herbert Morrison as a “tonic for the nation”, “The Festival of Britain” has been inaugurated in London and in several cities of the United Kingdom six years after the end of the Second World War. The initiative, attracting millions of visitors, aimed at lifting the spirits of citizens while gathering them around a shared cultural project. For the occasion, the best pieces of the British contemporary arts and sciences have been exhibited, to rebuild the fragmented identity of the country in the aftermath of the world conflict.
Certainly, “The Festival of Britain” did not represent the only attempt of spreading and encouraging this feeling of recovery: throughout the nation, several other initiatives have been created and utilized as focal points for the promotion of the arts worldwide, both in the years after the war as well as nowadays. Following the creation of the Arts Council in 1946, the “Edinburgh Festival Fringe”, the “Aldeburgh Festival” and the “Royal Festival Hall” have been established respectively in 1947, 1948 and 1951.
Built as a national and international response to the crisis of the time, a cultural policy project such as “The Festival of Britain” is a perfect example teaching us how, rather than focusing on what is going to happen to culture in the short and medium run, we should focus now on what we would like to happen.
A Great National Project
In such a singular moment of global reflection and recovery, Italy has the unique opportunity of picturing a project that does not only promote the mere survival of its cultural of artistic patrimony through palliative funds, but that also takes into account the long term implications of a real cultural revolution on the international scale. As a matter of fact, this complex and ground-breaking framework is meant to valorise the national historic and artistic legacy, while at the same time leading the new generations of artists and experts in the field.
For centuries, Italy has been admired for its extraordinary cultural and artistic heritage, derived from the intertwinement of different cultures and civilizations populating the land, in particular the European and Mediterranean ones. Such richness and legacy have been recognized by the UNESCO’s 55 World Heritage Sites list, where Italy occupies, together with China, the top position. Moreover, they represent a central soft power tool allowing Italy to preserve a leading role in global international affairs and, in particular, in the elaboration of policies related to arts and culture. A clear example of this influence is the creation in 2016, under the directives of Italy, of the Blue Helmets for Culture for the protection and conservation of world heritages in conflict zones. However, over-relying on the already existent historic heritage might prevent Italy from developing new sources of cultural production, making it therefore lose its privileged position in the field of global arts and culture in the long run.
This increasingly evident fracture between historic legacy and contemporary production could be restored through innovative systems of cultural and artistic story-telling. As a matter of fact, history is mainly bequeathed through symbols rather than actions: hence, artists have the mission and responsibility of creating a parallel and ideal space where reality is powerfully delivered precisely through these symbols, analogies and metaphors. Thus, to recover from a current crisis situation where art is bound to suffocate under the weight of cultural individualisms, long-term systemic strategies ought to be preferred to short-term ones encouraging feelings of national solidarity. Hence, in order to accomplish this vision, concrete projects based on an enhanced organization, structure and use of innovative technologies should be put in place.
A Festival of Historic Heritage and Contemporary Production
In order to harmonize and balance past and present, we should envision a project focused on big cities, but, most importantly, on the cultural differences and peculiarities characterising the “minor” artistic centres and realities across our regions. For instance, a great festival – of both tangible and intangible heritage - could be celebrated across all Italy, a festival where artists from the most diverse backgrounds could “adopt” a monument, a museum, an art piece, a building, a landscape, an archaeological site, a church, a traditional musical or literary piece or a handcraft and valorise it through art pieces, installations, exhibitions, shows and gatherings. Architects, designers and artisans could conceive innovative art pavilions or adapt already existing ones within new formats that could satisfy a wider audience. Start-ups as well as scientists could brainstorm with artists on the new frontiers unlocked by technology. Through several scientific committees, contemporary art curators could collaborate with art historians and archaeologists in order for new artistic expressions to exalt, rather than suppress, the traditional ones. A combination of art, culture, architecture and science should be therefore deemed as new paradigm for a sustainable development.
Attaining this new model is possible and it has been partly attempted in Matera, European Capital of Culture in 2019. The timeworn town has in fact re-flourished both culturally and economically thanks to the blending of traditional and innovative artistic expressions, relaunching tourism and craftsmanship as well as renovating the structural and architectural design of the city.
It is important to highlight the crucial role of the cultural and artistic sectors in the economy of the country. According to the report “Io Sono Cultura 2019” by Symbola and Unioncamere, cultural production in Italy generates around 96 € billions and has an induced impact of 265,4 € billions, equivalent to 19.6% of the national GDP. The data take into account the value generated by the institutions and organisations directly involved in the artistic and cultural sector as well as the ones of those sectors that indirectly beneficiate from it, such as tourism. For instance, in 2019 around 55 million people visited Italian museums and monuments. This number allowed 1,55 million people – corresponding to 6.1% of employed people in the country - to have a secured job.
With the support of a wide network of institutions such as national and public museums, festivals and schools, research centres, universities and concert halls, theatres and public parks, public and private historic houses and foundations, Italy could become an “open-air” museum for a during specific seasons of the year (during summer, for instance). This is even more important during COVID-19 times, when the reorganisation of spaces, particularly artistic ones, has become a new priority. This heritage festival could become a fixed and regular event, supporting the relaunch of local cultural tourism by respecting the environment, by adopting sustainable means of transportation, by encouraging traditional professions and by incentivizing intergenerational exchanges.
Furthermore, such artistic project would allow the creation of a wide, horizontal and cross-sectorial network of cooperation on a national level, including actors such as neighbourhood associations, student unions, centres for the promotion of art and creativity, together with other national and international institutions. In order to promote a fruitful and sustainable revitalisation of the territory, an international and global approach should never be forgotten: it will in fact be crucial to involve foreign artists as well, in order for them to celebrate our artistic and historic heritage while offering us new perspectives and collaborations with Italian artists. Ultimately, similar initiatives could be established in other countries too, to allow our artists to learn from a tangible and intangible foreign heritage.
A New Humanism
A festival of historic heritage and contemporary production should be deemed as act of cultural diplomacy: in order to tell our story and project it to the future we cannot in fact avoid to separate our ideological roots and identity from the ones of other countries of Europe and beyond.
Hence, we convey the history of the world through the symbols, both tangible and intangible, stratified in our territory over time, as in an ideal museum where art pieces do not only talk about themselves, but tell the truth about those who made history. The events, both personal and collective, must converge so that each one of us can find his or her own place in the world and can consciously chose the path he or she has reason to value.
Through the combination (and collision) of different timespans, a festival of historic heritage and contemporary production opens up for the spectator a deeply intimate and laic space made of ideas and inspiration. Within this space, the absence of time, interpreted as a reflection on time and its flow, manifests itself as an investigation on both our deepest personal selves and the ones of generations to come. Hence, we will all be called to take our own historic responsibility as individuals and as communities: this is who we are, this is where we come from, and this is where we are going to go.
A national consultation would be the ideal place to start such serious conversation. The next months will be crucial to raise awareness among citizens, to gather ideas, to identify the main voices and places, to gather investors and sponsors, to convince policy-makers in Italy and worldwide to adopt strategies aimed at dismantling the rigid hierarchies built over time and giving birth to a new humanism, based on the idea that the past can indeed represent a solid basis of confrontation for the interpretation of the present and the future.
We need to act fast: such project can be achieved only through a collective action and it will take a long time to be eventually attained. Yet, once completed, its cultural and economic impacts will make us finally understand both the usefulness of the current crisis as well as the central importance of creativity, in all its forms, in society. This is precisely what artists need, they need their theoretical, social and identifying value to be recognized, appreciated, shared and supported, and they need it to be beneficial for each and every one of us.
* Translated by Davide Fanciulli, ISPI