Man can tell a great deal about a nation’s philosophic trends by the art which it puts forward as the highest achievements of its culture. Through the metaphysical value judgments made by the artist bringing the art into existence, an observer can fairly accurately discover that which the artist holds in high esteem, that which he disdains, and his fundamental outlook on reality. And when that art is selected to be representative of the cultural accomplishments of an entire nation, the same can be said of the nation itself (or at least the dominant trends of its intellectual leadership).
This is as true in the case of the Olympic opening ceremonies as it is in any event so immersed in culture. Having finished watching the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics, here are some thoughts on what the British were displaying as the finest example of their culture, especially in contrast to how the Chinese handled their own opening ceremonies in 2008:
Beijing’s artistic aspects surpassed London’s considerably. China took its thousands of years of remarkably few accomplishments (aside from the compass, kites, and gunpowder) and turned it into an impressive display of strength, direction, and purpose on the part of the Chinese people throughout history. Oppositely, Britain’s performance (not all, but much of it) appeared to mock its own culture which, indubitably, has produced much more of value.
The Chinese did a whole segment recognizing the “achievements” of their mystic philosophers of old, while the British display made not one reference to the fact that it was Anglo-Saxon legal and moral principles – as laid out in the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights – that were some of the earliest which limited the role of the state and introduced liberty on the world stage as it had not been seen since antiquity.
While the Chinese put on remarkable performance of 2008 drummers all playing at specially choreographed times to produce an incredible display of light and sound, the British spent a great deal of time trying to build a “love at first sight” story which was supposedly only made possible by the digital age and the World Wide Web, treating such achievements snidely as vain, silly, and childish “materialism” – not the story itself, necessarily, but its entire context. Moreover, it meshed some of the pillars of Britain’s musical culture over the last few decades with dances which appeared generally mindless, not to mention with performers on jumping stilts wearing bulbous, cartoon-like mascot heads.
In terms of aesthetic proficiency, the Chinese put a great deal of effort into devising very precise performances in which a single error could be easily spotted; while I will not deny that it certainly took effort on the part of the British to put in sync everything that they did, it did not demonstrate the same kind of clarity, precision, and self-esteem that occurred in Beijing.
Even so, there were some acts of sincere admiration for their own culture in the opening ceremonies. The idolization of James Bond (a modern romantic literary hero admired by Ayn Rand), honest respect for their literary heritage, honoring Tim Berners-Lee (British developer of the World Wide Web), the very accurate point that Britain was a driving power behind the Industrial Revolution, and well-deserved appreciation for icons in the athletic, comedic, musical, and acting fields were all positive aspects.
But even many of these were mixed with an irrational sense of irony and shame. It treated some pastoral fantasy of a non-existent past in higher esteem than it did its industrial achievements, which were portrayed by men in top hats waving their arms and producing smokestacks while dirty factory laborers toiled to actually bring them in existence. (At least, however, they note that it was the businessmen who directed the production, even if there was an implicit notion that it was possible only by exploitation.) This juxtaposition of misguided conceptions of exploitation and immense levels of production (even mimicking the process of forging one of the Olympic rings out of molten metal) was one which only exemplifies that the British themselves are still unable to feel properly patriotic toward those values which once led them to prosperity.
And certainly it did not go unnoticed that the segment of the performance devoted to some of the island nation’s most recognizable literary achievements (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, etc.) was also turned into some political advertisement for Britain’s socialist healthcare system, the National Health Service (NHS).
Though I disagree with the premise that public funds should be used to finance such an event (not to mention using public power to take private property to construct stadiums), I feel similarly towards the event as Ayn Rand did towards NASA: if it is going to be done, it should be done properly, and there are worse things the money could be spent on. As far as the evening’s performance went, however, I do not think it did justice to either the triumphs of the United Kingdom or the West in general.