Is Barcelona culture?

Article published on May 19, 2003
community published
Article published on May 19, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The cultural policy of the Catalan onion : how Barcelona created an image as a cultural capital empty of substance and driven by a publicity machine intended to invite tourists, not artists

Cultural Forum 2004, the Olympic Games 1992, Year of Gaudí 2002, Year of Design 2003. At first sight all the indications are that Barcelona is a city in which the state has invested sufficient resources, or an administration efficient enough, or a policy open enough to cover all sectors, even those neglected by central government and the generalitat , even those which other municipalities leave in the hands of foundations and private sponsors. To all apearances Barcelona is culture. Let's see what happens beyond that fascinating first glance, when your gaze lingers for a while on the details and you begin to ask questions noone wants to answer. When the onion loses its shiny outer layer.

The city rests on an extremely rich and historical architectonic heritage. Centuries ago it was the Romans who first gave Barcelona its special physiognomy. Less than a century ago it was the struggling Catalan industrial bourgeoisie, who as patrons to the Modernists launched Gaudí as well as many other talents whose work is still enjoyed and admired by the passerby. It is a city which offers a vast array of cultural events - many of which are open to the public and fee of charge - a range of musical influences and a somewhat more repetitive and conventional offering of dance and theatre. To the consumer, the spectator, it would indeed seem that Barcelona is culture. But let's not stop here, at the whole onion. Let's move on to the layer below.

Culture as a commercial strategy

"Barcelona is culture" is the signature slogan of the ICUB (the Institute of Culture in Barcelona financed by the local authority). "It's part of our sales strategy; we are looking to place the city on the map as a cultural attraction at a European level", observes Conchita Rodá, Director of Communication at ICUB, in front of an audience made up of students following a Master's in Communication. Some years ago at a similar conference, the Frenchman Patrick Lamarque, expert in Local Communication, ex-advisor to this city among others, pointed out that the first step toward specifying a programme for municipal identity is to choose a geographical feature associated with the name of the city in the collective unconscious. Might Conchita have been in Patrick's audience? It certainly looks like it.

Convinced that Barcelona is culture, thousands of artists from all over arrive here every year with hopes of being able to teach their art, find a place to publish, exhibit or perform and obtain subsidies. Hope soon fades. They quickly discover that there are two worlds which do not meet: that of the civil servants on the one hand, generally in the higher districts, and that of the artists on the other hand, who, based in the old centre, end up giving performances to fellow artists in squats, financed out of their own pockets. What the slogan hides is the prevailing 'old boys' network which comes into play when its time to give out funding, surely the only explanation for a bureaucratic tangle that not even Kafka would have dared to dream up, in which the Catalan language is more an excuse not to give up priviliges than a legitimate expression of nationalistic pride. The Master's students note down the formula, sure of their own success, ready to repeat it when they become civil servants.

Culture of Communication

And therein remains one of the possible explanations for this, as we reach the third layer of the ever- decreasing Catalan onion: Barcelona is stuffed full (almost drunk on the excess) of Master's and Diplomas in communication, marketing agencies and public relations firms, experts in institutional communication and corporate identity-building and advisors who sell their ideas to civil servants who either have no ideas of their own or no confidence in themselves to put their ideas into action. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man poses mega-sales, because there is money left over, and he can take away his part of the juicy pickings whilst the rest remains divided among the traditional Catalan surnames, fascinated by coloured mirrors they have acquired. He sets a "successful" precedent, one which will be imitated to the point of irritation. Because this is the final layer of onion peel, that which comes before the empty interior. The communication projects, the marketing formulae and large-scale events which make up the main stay of the this small elite are only a mise-en-scène that does not stand up to the slightest questioning and which collapses like a house of cards when confronted by a couple of common sense questions.

Meanwhile, young artists keep playing their drums or painting in the street on the edges of "making it", and democracy loses yet another opportunity to come fully to fruition. The true producers of culture remain orphaned, unprotected because the hand of the state, represented by the institutions of culture, is to them like a tightly closed fist, which holds on to the life giving water it needs in order to irrigate its talents.

1 - An expression mostly used in Catalonia. According to the saying Catalans are like onions: you can peel an onion and it seems that you never end, in the sense that the Catalan roots are very strong.

2 - Provincial government of Catalonia