Monday 20 May 2019

Culture: Wherefore art thou…

Above: Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zefferilli’s  film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet (1968)

Chris Gatt, who has been responsible for St James Cavalier for the last 14 years, had some hard-hitting things to say about culture and education when he was interviewed by Kristina Chetcuti in The Sunday Times. 

Here are some of the more choice quotes which were immediately picked up by the social media:

“Artists are a big problem in Malta: they are happy being a hobbyist,” 

“…we’re stuck with 50-year-olds like me or artists who only think of their next government-sponsored commission,”

“I’ve had directors at the education department telling me that culture is a waste of time”

“It’s like a fiefdom. Our structures are amateurish: which company changes a board, because a minister is changed?”

“We think of culture as a way to attract the tourist – it is not something that belongs to our soul – we think culture is just a product to be sold.”

He had a lot to say about teachers as well and it was these two sentences which almost made me choke on my morning coffee.

“Standards are falling: take the literature that students are studying, there’s little Shakespeare left – and that’s because it’s too difficult for the teachers. They can’t explain it to the students.”

Did I read that correctly? Are we actually tailoring our curriculum because teachers are finding it too difficult?  When I brought this up on my Facebook wall, it led to a lot of reminiscing about our own compulsory Shakespeare texts for ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, and the general consensus was that a passionate, truly dedicated teacher will find a way to make even the most challenging literature interesting and accessible. After all, Shakespeare’s stories are timeless, involving relationships and the whole gamut of human emotions – heck, a creative teacher could even give the plays a modern twist, complete with selfies and Twitter to make it relevant to today’s teenagers, much in the same way that film and theatre producers often do.

Baz Luhrmann's modern take of the classic love story starring Leonardo di Caprio and Clare Danes (1996)

Baz Luhrmann’s modern take of the classic love story starring Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes (1996)

There was something else which struck me about Chris Gatt’s interview. Understandably, his words hit a raw nerve as all those involved in the cultural sphere winced in painful recognition at the naked truth which few people have ever dared to voice.  On the other hand, I do not think it is a coincidence that he has spoken up so candidly precisely now, after he has decided to call it day and has submitted his resignation.  You can practically hear the sense of freedom in his tone as he is no longer bound by the shackles of his position where over the span of 14 years, he has had to deal with authorities from different ministries (depending on which ministry culture was “dumped” with).

I don’t blame him. It is naïve to think that you can be in that kind of position and speak publicly about the mistakes being made and the wrong policies being put in place by those who are effectively your employees.

Let’s be realistic here. Can you imagine doing that in a private company? We have all been in situations where we have seen cock-eyed decisions being made by our superiors which are clearly destined to fail – but who would be that foolhardy to go around publicly saying so?  It would be interpreted as the height of disloyalty and let’s face it, by badmouthing your own company you would be effectively sabotaging your own livelihood.

Even voicing your doubts about certain decisions within the confines of a boardroom can have you singled out as a “troublemaker” who is always rocking the boat. In my experience, there are not that many people in positions of power who are self-confident enough to handle criticism or who can accept being told to their face that they might be wrong – most just want obliging lapdogs who nod in agreement no matter how absurd the decision may be. Too many simply want their egos stroked, and have people look at them in awe and deference.

The most successful businesses, in fact, are those which listen to their staff and who aim for consensus rather than an authoritarian approach. The absolute best companies are those which appoint the right people for the right job. It need hardly be said that this should hold true even more for those being appointed in key positions in the public sector because their competence (or lack of it) has a very visible, ripple effect on everything they come into touch with on a national level.  If they screw up it doesn’t just affect them, it also affects us who have to deal with it.

It is to his credit that Chris Gatt made a success out of St James Cavalier in spite of the obstacles and the exasperating approach to culture and education which he mentioned in his interview.

Whoever replaces him will have a hard act to follow.




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