Thursday, 15 September 2016

What can culture do?

The idea of a 'united Europe', in whatever form, is an idea of the cosmopolitic elite, the people who travel without financial difficulties to other countries than their own, read material in other languages, and feel at home in all European areas where they find environments and services, comparable to home. Mostly they populate the cityscapes and are used to mixed crowds and differences in human appearances and dress codes. But the people who have to delve deep into their budget when they go on holiday, and take toilet paper and peanut butter with them when exploring other countries, or prefer expat holiday settlements as on the Spanish mediterranean coast where everything is the same as at home but weather and seeside superior - they feel much more closely connected to the place where they grew-up, and are mostly found in the countryside. In the current division between populist masses in Europe who vote for extreme right-wing xenophobic parties and the elites, or - in the UK - between the brexiters and the remainers, the results become apparant of decennia of a mood wherein life and society has been seen mainly from an economic point of view, accompanied by consumerism, unregulated capitalism, and erosion of social welfare systems, to the advantages of 'the rich' and to the detriment of 'the poor' - to say it schematically. Since the disadvantaged masses, who are increasingly anxious about their livelihoods and future, are greatly outnumbering the elites, an axe has been laid at the core of democracy and the constitutional state, since the democratic weight of this electorate steers politics into the direction of a narrow-minded nationalism and cancellation of some civil rights. Ironically, since the fall of the 'ideal social state' in the east, Europe has moved towards a situation which has some likeness to the early 20th century - and we know what happened next.

The behavior of some nations towards the European Union, which was a creation by these nations anyway, is worrying and despiccable, as is the lack of vision at the EU leading elites. Too long has Europe  calmly leaned backwards and trusted its bureaucracies to do the work, with the result that constructive and creative ideas have become rare where and when they are most needed. Where is the Grand Narrative of a united Europe which is really advantageous for all its civilians, and not only for the elites and the big industries? The EU hymn from Beethoven's 9th symphony has therefore become a laughable irony.

The increasing nationalism which is currently emerging everywhere in Europe is a reason for great worry. The EU is first and foremost a peace project: if the EU unravels and nations fall back upon their national status only, reassuring the masses but helpless to solve their problems, not only will half a century of constructive effort be undone, but a situation will arise where common interests will disappear from sight and primitive emotionalism will take their place. There is a good reason to see a new great war in Europe as a concrete possibility, since the conditions for such a catastrophe are now slowly lining-up. 

But history never repeats itself literally, it has an infinite repertory of variation upon the universal themes of human folly and (self-)destruction. What has all this to do with culture? It seems to me, that in such times, in spite of all the setbacks and increasing erosion, culture has to reinforce its voice, on the side of its artists through creation of high quality works which stimulate awareness of civilizational values, but also on the side of the promotors, by claiming more attention in the media, and by a greater awareness of the choices to be made: which art should be exhibited? Which music should be presented in the concert halls and opera houses? Led by the question: what are the works which we hope to have a civilizing influence upon audiences? History shows that culture cannot avert human disasters and cannot turn primitive people into civilized human beings, but at least it can keep the flame of aspiration and harmony alive, also in the dark.

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