Unbecoming Europe. Or, The obscenity of power.

Posted in 1 by Editor on July 22, 2009


Guess which Maltese quango unblushingly proclaims the following as its “vision”: “A bold and daring expression of Malta’s unique Cultural and Artistic identity that engages society and impacts future history” (capital letters in the original). Let me spoon-feed you: It is the same organisation that, according to its “mission” statement, solemnly declares its resolve “to achieve new heights in creativity and accomplishment for Culture and the Arts in Malta” (again, their caps). There’s more: It also spells out how it will behave in the course of its mission. It will be nothing less than “Adventurous and Brave”, “Passionate and Committed”, “Focused”, “Open”, “Quality Driven” and, of course, “Results Oriented” (sic, their caps yet again).

You don’t need to be particularly savvy in the corporate communications trade to know that the drafting of mission statements is a chore that serious copy text writers undertake with the healthy cynicism that one expects from hardened professionals. In fact, clients’ own enthusiasm for hyperbolic mission statements has visibly decreased over the years. The onset of the global economic crisis has further encouraged the adoption of a more sober and feet-on-the-ground language. Ironically, the taste for ornate corporate rhetoric tends to linger on in the culturally-provincial peripheries.

Back to our mysterious quango. If you haven’t yet worked out its identity, I’ll give you some more clues.
It was set up by an Act of Parliament in 2002, which Act decrees that the said body “shall consist of a chairperson and not less than four and not more than eight other members”. These “shall be appointed by the minister [responsible for culture] for a term of three years but the members so appointed shall be eligible for re-appointment on the expiration of their term of office”. The law also provides for any such member who “in the opinion of the minister […] is unfit to continue in office”. In such cases, the person concerned “may be removed from office by the minister”.

In a manner typical of quangos (quasi nongovernmental organisations), the body in question is a hybrid. It “is a body corporate having a distinct legal personality” but it is ultimately at the minister’s mercy. When He (my cap this time) directs it to do something, the organisation “shall […] give effect to all such directives and shall conduct its affairs accordingly”. Should the mysterious body “fail to comply”, “the Prime Minister may make an order transferring to the minister in whole or in part any of [its] functions”.

The Act provides the members of this body with operational guidelines. Some are frankly nebulous and ambiguous, for example, to “advise the minister on cultural policies and strategies that reach out to the whole socio-cultural sphere”. Others are refreshingly clear and to the point, for example, to “promote […] freedom of artistic expression”.
Make no mistake. This organisation is not just a talking shop. It may enter into contracts, acquire, hold and dispose of property, employ people, lend and borrow money, levy fees and other payments prescribed by the Act, receive funds from the Minister of Finance from the Consolidated Fund, use and administer immovable state-owned assets. It can be a very influential body and/or an effective transmission belt of decisions and instructions by effective decision makers. It can be an instrument of state power.

Quangos can also be used to protect the ultimate wielders of power from the focus of public attention. Power, you see, often prefers to be off-stage, off the scene. Perhaps because sometimes, having disobeyed the divine order not to take a bite of the fruit of the tree of good and evil, power becomes aware of its nakedness. It perceives itself as obscene (according to an admittedly uncertain etymology, “that which should not be seen”) and hides behind a variety of fronts.

I could perhaps add that this body recently took responsibility for a disturbing decision, one that does not become the highest standards of European culture. In fact, from a European point of view, it was an unbecoming decision and will certainly not help this country become as European as it should be. This body’s decision to exclude from an exhibition an artwork whose author’s artistic seriousness has not been questioned is scandalous, even by such “old” standards as the 1973 Miller test.

Wittingly, or otherwise, the corporate entity I have chosen not to name – call it a form of symbolic censorship or of censure if you must – has promoted the sort of culture Zizek refers to when he writes: “Is this not what, ultimately, culture is? One of the elementary rules of culture is to know when (and how) to pretend not to know (or notice), to go on and act as if something which happened did not happen. When a person near me accidentally produces an unpleasant vulgar noise, the proper thing to do is to ignore it, not to comfort him: ‘I know it was an accident, don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter!'”

If anyone considers the above text libellous, please sue me.

Mario Vella

The original article may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090720/opinion/unbecoming-europe


7 Responses

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  1. Joe Vassallo said, on July 23, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    My God, are we in 1900? – as happened to Modigliani’s nudes in Paris – are we? ask Raphael Vella.

  2. Diabolik said, on July 23, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    @ Joe Vassallo:
    With all due respect, what has the Modigliani example got to do with this case of POLITICAL censorship? This is worse than when, on December 3, 1917, the Paris police was scandalized by Modigliani’s nudes at the Berthe Weill Gallery (the gallery was unfortunately situated just in front of the quarter’s police station) and forced the owner to close the exhibition (see Doris Krystof, Amedeo Modigliani, Taschen 2009, page 59) because “they had pubic hair”! The Raphael Vella case is worse because, from the little we have heard about the whole incident, the Council did not object to
    nudity or eroticism in the artist’s work but acted the way it did to cause no offense to Maltese politicians.

  3. Raul Micallef Mellor said, on July 23, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    The quango Dr Vella refers to is evidently the Malta Council for Culture & the Arts. The council is made up of the following: Adrian Mamo (Chairman), Joseph Camilleri, Professor Rev. Peter Serracino Inglott, Kevin Sciberras, Dr. Jeannine Giglio, Dr. Martina Caruana, Nicole Bugeja, Dr. Sandra Dingli, Dr. Italo Ellul, Davinia Galea (Chief Executive Officer). This information was retrieved today 25th July from the About Us section of the Council’s website http://www.maltaculture.com/page.asp?n=whoweare&l=1
    Did all the members of the Council agree with the decision to exclude Dr. Raphael Vella’s work from the exhibition? If any of them did not, they ought to hand in their resignation in protest against this barbaric act of defiance against the highest standards of European civilisation.

  4. Marian Caruana Muscat said, on July 23, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Further to Raul Micallef Melville’s comment. As far as I know none of the other artists in the exhibition protested against the MCCA’s decision to exclude Raphael Vella’s work. Is it true? What a joke of a country!

  5. Robert Galea said, on July 24, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Dr. Raphael Vella is area coordinator for Art Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta. Shouldn’t his colleagues in the Faculty (and all other Faculties of our Alma Mater) express their disapproval of this blatant instance of state censorship?
    Would they have been so silent had there been a Labour government? You can bet your MCMA that they would have been up in arms if we hadn’t been saddled with a PN regime.

  6. Sophie said, on July 24, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    What does Raphael Vella, the artist himself, think of all this?

  7. Rebus Malti said, on July 25, 2009 at 7:50 am

    Just to remind you all that Watersbroken has already spoken about Raphael Vella and his views, see:
    I can understand why Mario Vella did not suggest this link himself in his latest The Times article…probably because he does not want us to focus too much on individuals. The victim is not Raphael Vella, the victim is the whole of Maltese society.

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