Tuesday, March 18, 2008

CZJ and Welsh Culture

Catherine Zeta Jones is a modern day Nest (the Welsh Helen of Troy). By going to America, conquering Hollywood, and marrying into its leading acting dynasty she has both updated and reversed the myth. In the process she has also become the undisputed queen of Welsh popular culture.

Over the past decade Zeta Jones's face has launched a thousand magazine covers. No other Welsh person has featured on the front of so many journals. Only Richard Burton as male consort of La Taylor could come close to matching her pop cultural ubiquity.

It's a shame then that we don't yet have in Wales a permanent public space dedicated to showcasing aspects of our popular culture. I would love to see, for example, an exhibition of 100 magazines that have featured Zeta Jones on their cover. These periodicals would come from all over the world and encompass the entire span of her career. In glass display cabinets I would have open key editions like the infamous Hello (2003) wedding issue; or the 1999 Paris Match; the Slovakian Playboy (1999); or the Life magazine of 2005. They would be presented with the same kind of reverence that is accorded to say, the Gwen John collection at the National Museum of Wales.

Such an exhibition would be of interest on many levels: as a celebration of Zeta Jones's triumph as a pop icon; as a demonstration of how women are commodified in the entertainment industry; as a recent history of aesthetics in magazine design. And so on. I would be quite interested just to see how her hairstyle has evolved over the last ten years. In essence then it would have both intellectual and popular appeal. It might even entice through its doors those exotic and seldom seen creatures in the Welsh Arts world - the general public.

This is just one example of how to approach Welsh culture from an alternative perspective. It is something we need to do more often. Recently there have been a number of handsomely funded projects in Wales which whilst being worthy enough - and forming part of a wider process of cultural reclamation - are depressingly conservative in outlook. If we merely compile encyclopaedias of dead people; or attempt to construct artistic canons of "classic" works based upon notions of taste (ideas outdated and discredited for decades in other countries) we will risk condemning ourselves to a future of cultural sterility.

I've mentioned on several occasions the cultural stock-take currently being undertaken in Wales. This is a natural consequence of Devolution. The next phase will inevitably centre on an analysis of what we have discovered - ie the 'critical' phase. How we interpret and present this new found information is of great importance. If we do it in creative and imaginative ways then this will help to invigorate our culture. Personally I would much rather see the emergence of a Welsh Camille Paglia or Julie Burchill in the coming years than say, another competent but irrelevant poet.

Those who wield power in the Welsh Arts establishment have a responsibility here. University arts faculties, magazine editors and publishers need to be a lot bolder in their approaches to Welsh culture. And those who control the cultural purse strings must stop subsidising the middle-brow (almost always in Wales masquerading as high-brow culture) and start rewarding innovation, originality, experimentation as well as, of course, artistic excellence.