Unbecoming Europe. Or, The obscenity of power.
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.
The original article may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090720/opinion/unbecoming-europe