Chrissie Tiller argues for the value of an ‘austerity Olympics’

"This is… Britain's moment… an incredible expression of Britain’s culture, Britain’s history and Britain’s creativity…" Arguing for a rejection of a 1948 ‘austerity Olympics’ model and a doubling of public funding for the opening ceremony, Jeremy Hunt clearly believes the only way to tackle an artistic problem is to throw money at it. This is not quite the argument he was making when justifying government cuts, but that was another decade and his faith in philanthropy had yet to be tested.

It is this premise – that more money will guarantee better artistic input into these ceremonies, which I want to challenge. Resourcefulness, inventiveness and the preparedness to take risks are, as we are always being reminded, central to the creative act. As is the spirit of resilience; a quality that Arts Council England has suggested we all need to develop in these darker times. So then what better image is there of Britain, to offer the world, than a celebration of a spirit of creativity and imagination that is not totally dependant on how much money is spent on it?

Revisiting BBC footage of the 1948 Olympics, despite royal trappings and military pomp and circumstance, one gets a sense of connection with the lives of ordinary people. It might be the use of cinders from domestic grates in Leicester to light the flame, the release of homing pigeons that had played such a crucial role in the recently ended war, or the fact that working-class athletes, often trained in the armed forces, were able to challenge the elitist ‘amateurism’ of the past. But there is an impression made by the simple, gracious opening ceremony, of a peace hard won and a desire to come together as a nation.

As we enter 2012 what aspect of British life might the arts want to be part of celebrating? The ennobled men who earned their fortunes from shorting banking stocks but have since given millions to our galleries and museums? The ever-increasing differential between a small elite, which is able to access as much ‘high quality’ art as they choose, and the rest of the populace? Or a preparedness to acknowledge the parlous state we are in as a nation, and finding within that not negativity and defeatism, but inspiration created by the honest reflection of ourselves and the discovery of a way to work together for a fairer and more equal future?

Stephen Daldry and Danny Boyle, co-directors of the opening and closing ceremonies, both cut their teeth in politicised, subsidised theatre, creating beautiful, powerful and relevant work on limited resources. More recently they have mainly been working to Hollywood budgets, but might not the Olympics be the perfect opportunity for them to encourage us all to see what can be done with less? Might the rest of the world not be more impressed by a Britain that chooses not to perpetuate the Olympic spirit of rank commercialism and political posturing, but rather one that confronts the banality of ‘bread and circuses’ and rejects the sop of momentary diversion and distraction for something more worthwhile and lasting?

Taking into account cuts to libraries, the arts and sport for young people, £42m may well seem like a drop in the ocean. Mr Hunt may even be right – that what we need as a nation is a glorious, costly, kick start to our economy. But would it be so wrong to ask those in charge of our Olympic ceremonies to embrace an aesthetic of restraint and moderation, and demonstrate the value of a creativity that matches its exuberance and energy with a sense of social responsibility? ‘Simplicity,’ Walt Whitman suggested, is the ultimate ‘glory of expression.’ Perhaps we could lead the way in celebrating a simpler more sustainable lifestyle?


Chrissie Tiller runs her own consultancy, Chrissie Tiller Associates, alongside her role as Director of the MA in Participatory Arts at Goldsmiths W: E: T: @chrissietee