Hilde Teuchies on the place of culture in the European project of the future
Dit artikel is enkel beschikbaar in het Engels.
Approximately 35 years in the performing arts have led me to all corners of the continent. From the mid 1980s and in the years of growing internationalisation that followed, I was able to help steer European exchanges, gatherings and collaborations. I had the occasion to accompany artists as they conquered European audiences. And I had the chance to raise a voice with colleagues to draw Europe’s attention to all that blossoming cross-border creativity. I have had my share of optimism and frustration. Tired of an all too lax decision process, I regularly turned my back on Europe in order to focus once more on the essential (the artist). But again and again I came up against Europe. After all, in the arts field there is no getting around the broader picture. So yes, Europe. Now that I myself am taking a step back, I would like to zoom out briefly on that broader picture. What do art and culture mean for Europe today and what could they mean in the future? I allow myself to ignore short-term feasibility and political pragmatism for a moment, and try to look further, deeper into the future.
It is time for another narrative, a strong narrative.
Let’s start out from the situation here and now. Malaises that have been growing for years are now crystal clear. Natural disasters rub our noses in environmental challenges. While the welfare state is being dismantled, income inequality is growing. A surge in populism points to a fundamental breach of trust with politics. In short, years of intensive neo-liberalism and blind faith in the market have led to acute problems that can no longer be ignored. For a long time, this generated an undercurrent of unease, but today it is coming back to hit us smack in the face. Every day we see the consequences of global migration waves, of the undoing of social and democratic rights, of irreversible climate change, of growing individualisation and globalisation. No wonder that citizens feel increasingly helpless. It is difficult to find one’s bearings in an environment where trusted social and cultural boundaries and perspectives are collapsing.
The arts are not located outside these turbulent economic, political, social and environmental waters. The ecosystem of the arts is embedded in an increasingly complex machinery of national and transnational institutions and policies, in urban fabrics, in the confusion of social media, the swamp of warped social relations, the coercive straitjacket of the market with its focus on output, profit, efficiency and growth… That does not leave the art world undisturbed. It determines our way of thinking and being. Also in Flanders, the arts sector is wrestling with social difficulties such as a precarious (artist) status, gender inequality, a lack of cultural diversity, and a work environment that has been corrupted by the pursuit of profit. Our daily work environment is so permeated by neo-liberal thinking that we hardly even realise it anymore. It is visible in our managerial jargon, in a product-oriented practice and in the undermining, market-driven chain of production, presentation and distribution.
Without culture there is no community. For the European project, this lack of ‘belonging’ has disastrous consequences.
The malaise in the arts sector in Flanders, made worse by the pressure on the public subsidies of the past decade, is tangible. Everywhere questions are being raised about the way in which institutions and organisations, companies and artists function and interact. At the same time, in debates, in-depth articles and research projects, cries for a fundamental revolution are being heard increasingly frequently. More and more artists and organisations are setting up experiments in order to approach things differently, to reinforce the position of artists and to seek new relations with a variety of audiences.
The realisation is growing that a different approach is necessary. That we have to oppose the sneaking scantiness and superficiality. This is something we have to achieve by introducing slowness, by seeking to go deeper and especially by establishing connections. In other words, it is time for another narrative, a strong narrative. In the words of cultural philosopher Thijs Lijster, that is ‘a narrative that is capable of setting a movement in motion – in the first place, a movement of the mind, but if it is a good one, also a social movement’.
Perhaps we can turn Europe into such a strong narrative? Perhaps we can actively influence our European habitat, appropriate it more and make it more liveable? The arts play a crucial role in the telling of ‘strong’ narratives. That is precisely where the imagination resides that is necessary to be able to imagine our world differently. What revolutionary strategies can we develop within the arts? Where are people already working on alternative narratives? And how can this lead us to another, better Europe?
Towards a European commons
We all know that nowadays Europe finds itself in deep water. In recent years, it has been inundated by waves that have brought one crisis after another: the financial crisis, the debt crisis, the refugee crisis, the terrorism crisis and, as an increasingly powerful undercurrent, rising economic inequality and a growing democratic deficit. In the meantime, citizens are feeling left out. They see the institutions that prop up the European project as a cold, unapproachable machinery that cannot be influenced. ‘The European project’, says Prof. Hendrik Vos, ‘is tough and sticky, and survives less elegantly, with small steps, tottering from one partial solution to another’. The timorousness of the member states is well known. All too often they hit the brakes when it comes to carrying out a daring common policy (for instance, in the field of energy, climate change, fair trade, mobility, etc.). That prevents so many opportunities for a more visionary and voluntaristic Europe.
The looming fiasco of the European project has everything to do with the failure to appreciate the autonomous dynamic of culture. So says Pascal Gielen in No Culture, No Europe. Together with his co-authors, an interdisciplinary group of scientists, artists and theorists, Gielen points to Europe’s lack of attention for culture as the most important cause of its political and economic failure.
Gielen reminds us of the essential role of culture (in the broad, anthropological sense) as the cornerstone of society. Culture, he posits, has a socialising, qualifying and subjectivising effect. It ensures a shared frame of reference. It gives meaning to the lives of people. In other words, it forms, not the superstructure, but the substructure or actual foundation of every society. If we define politics broadly as ‘the configuration of actions that give shape to a society’, then these actions cannot exist without interpreting – and giving meaning to – the social reality. And it is precisely our culture that functions as a maker and carrier of meaning. ‘So, politics must build on culture, if it is to be politics at all.’
In short, without culture there is no community. For the European project, this lack of ‘belonging’ has disastrous consequences. We do not perceive the European community as ‘something that is ours’. Neither do we feel responsible for it. Pascal Gielen: ‘It should come as no surprise then that neoliberal policies, which are aimed at efficiency, standardization and measurability, are a threat to various forms of community. The logic of the market, which is imposed upon the whole of society, leads to hyper-individualization, undermining of solidarity (by dismantling the welfare state), weakening of citizenship and, rather obviously, of community spirit. When citizens are increasingly approached as consumers – and therefore start to regard themselves as such — or are encouraged to see their fellow citizens as competitors, it is no wonder that they no longer feel responsible for the community.’
Within the broad activities of the cultural area, the arts occupy the smallest place. But at the same time, artistic practice can be the epicentre from which social innovation is set in motion.
Why should we still attach any importance at all to something like our European biotope? Why should we still mobilize ourselves for a failing European project? What if the ministers we chose keep repeating that ‘there is no alternative’ to the neoliberal path that Europe is now engaged on, while daily we are confronted with the pernicious effects of that path? Why should we not abandon the sinking ship called the European Union?
From this perspective one could certainly have sympathy for the diagnosis of a growing number of Eurosceptics. It is true that scepticism never offers a fully fledged alternative. The truth is that our lives are more than ever indissolubly connected with those of the 500 million other European citizens. Retreating to the nation-state is a misleading non-solution. For the most part, the organisation of society, including the region we live in, is determined by our European embedding, legislation and economic policy. Because of the increasingly poriferous country borders and the intense mobility of people, goods, ideas and everyday cultural practices, we have moreover a lot more in common that we would at first imagine. The truth is also that a large number of social problems can no longer be tackled at the regional or national level (think of climate change, mobility issues, fair trade, the refugee crisis, etc.). In addition, our global connectivity is also increasing, stimulated by galloping globalisation. This all requires a transnational approach. Let’s not forget also that the European project, even though from the start it has chosen economic unification as its instrument, was in the first instance a peace project. It could become so a lot more.
In early 2017, Europe celebrated the sixtieth birthday of the Treaty of Rome, which holds the foundations of the EU. On this occasion, the media once more detailed all difficulties and future scenarios of the European project. The same doom scenarios were dished up along with worn-out neoliberal recipes. But other voices could also be heard. A growing number of people believe that we do not have to slavishly follow the warped European project. They are convinced that Tina can take her leave and that we can can tackle the European machinery from within. We are not powerless, claims VUB economist Jonathan Holslag. Five hundred million European citizens and six million Flemings can indeed weigh on policy. And that is also happening more and more. There are a growing number of bottom-up and civil society initiatives, that are working on new connections in society, that are experimenting with new ways of undertaking and living together sustainably…
This is how the young Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat, who gave a talk in the Kaaitheater earlier this year, sees it: ‘I know that many left-wing people want to leave the EU, but progressives have no other choice than to reform the system from within. There are two reasons for that. First: leaving the EU or the Eurozone does not mean leaving global capitalism. It is not possible to return to full national sovereignty. Politicians who promise an independent utopia are selling their citizens dangerous illusions and lies. (…) Second: progressives will always lose if they step out of an integrated market. (…) We have to penetrate the system and that is the only way we can change it.’
In the arts sector too people are thinking hard about other ways of living together, within a shared European space. People are actively looking for policy frameworks that place new and sustainable accents. If we want to bend Europe to our will, then art can play an essential role in this. After all, Pascal Gielen continues his line of thought, it is within the field of the arts that a certain ‘dismeasure’ can thrive. Art is one of the few places in modern society where pretty much every ‘measure’ (whether culture, economic, political or ethical) can be challenged. So culture is not only the engine that creates meaning and gives people a place in the social order. Stimulated by the arts, culture is a pre-eminently dynamic given. The arts create a space in which to question dominant meanings or existing social relations. Within the broad activities of the cultural area, the arts occupy the smallest place. But at the same time, artistic practice can be the epicentre from which social innovation is set in motion.
When working on another kind of social environment, what is most needed is interaction between different trends, social ideas and models – formulated by a broad and diversified group of cultural players. Together they do not so much generate a harmonious whole with clearly delineated proposals, but rather a kind of commons: a communal space, supported by different groups and lifestyles. It is such a communal place, such a commons, that we must create once more in Europe. It could become a biotope in which a different sort of European communality takes shape, in which other values dominate besides market obsession, competition and unlimited growth.
Today we could describe the practice of the commons as a place in which citizens think jointly about collective means and how to use them or to make them available. That can involve air, light, space, but also creativity, knowledge, technology, etc. The notion of the commons offers a framework in which to reflect on social challenges and to try out new ideas and solutions. The practice of commoning involves the creation of alternative, liveable conventions and decision-making methods, and is tried out in social, political, educational and cultural areas.
In recent years we have come across the concept of commons more and more often and in many areas. But what does it mean concretely? The first philosophers to use the term in a contemporary context were the American-Italian philosopher duo Hardt and Negri (in ‘Commonwealth’, 2009) and the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis (in ‘De utopie van de vrije markt’, 2010). Hardt and Negri describe the commons as a category that transcends the traditional opposition between public property (often safeguarded by the state) and private property. Achterhuis refers to the historical practice of a common pasture which could be used freely by all the members of a village community. In economic terms, the commons is the vast no man’s land between market and state, a domain accessible to all. An area, so argue a growing number of proponents, that we must continue to defend and protect from privatisation and overregulation. And more so still: it is an area that must consciously be reconquered.
Today we could describe the practice of the commons as a (not necessarily physical) place in which citizens think jointly about collective means and how to use them or to make them available. That can involve air, light, space, but also creativity, knowledge, technology, etc. The notion of the commons offers a framework in which to reflect on social challenges and to try out new ideas and solutions. The practice of commoning involves the creation of alternative, liveable conventions and decision-making methods, and is tried out in social, political, educational and cultural areas. There are countless commoning tools, where culture and technology play a primary role. What interests us here is how the arts sector can contribute to a European and local commons. We can interpret this as a communal space where we can create a frame of values based on mutuality and cooperation, and where we can search for better economic models and solutions to ultimately change the course of the sluggish European ship.