Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Culture in Dialogue between Visions and Reality - from conscioiusness to commitment by Bernhard Beutler


I would like to begin with two brief remarks:

  1. It is a true pleasure to be invited to Athens. I still learned the old Greek at school and, of course, never 'dreamed' at that time to be some day invited to a forum at the feet of the Acropolis. I am thus extremely grateful to Spyros Mercouris and the organisers of this conference.

  2. There is a very active Goethe Institut present in Athens and the reason why a Goethe director from elsewhere has been invited lies apparently only in the fact that one expects a report on field-working and networking as seen from Brussels, the administrative capital of Europe. And yet it will be a very personal view.

The topic of today's conference within the framework program “Freedom of Expression and Dialogue” suggests correctly that there is a dichotomy to be seen between what one wants to do and possible limitations provoked by external influences, be it of political, economical, religious or any other nature. But there are also internal obstacles to overcome between our visions and the realities we have to face, as mostly in our personal lives, also in the field of culture and its activities.

We are used to be subjected by our politicians – world-wide – to all forms of pseudo-visions, particularly in times of election campaigns and man is unfortunately often short of memory.

This conference and the 'Day of Europe' lies in the centre of a week where Europe-wide the memory of the 2nd World War and its atrocities is being revived due to the fact that we remember this week the end of that war and the liberation of Europe. While the observation and preservation of this memory is essential it may be equally essential to listen to a remark by Gustave Flaubert who clearly pointed out: “while the past retains us and while we may be afraid of the future we miss the present.”

In order to achieve progress based on experiences of the past and confronted with the challenge by and for the future, we have to find a way to reach a pragmatic vision or a visionary practice. We have thus to follow a 'program' of consciousness, an analysis of the given situation and commitment for future steps.

In times of globalisation of world economy and the creation of world-wide artistic networks it is necessary indeed to look ahead on the basis of past experiences and to reflect upon the environment, the setting and the means in which our cultural activities may manifest themselves.

  1. Challenges by globalisation

In a recent study by a German Technical University – I was told – students were asked to describe the manager of the year 2000: he (not 'she'!!!) would be between 30 and 40 years old, possibly good looking, hyperactive, yuppie-type, no vacations, only a prolonged weekend occasionally in the Caribbean, no family, no friends among his colleagues because of danger of possible lay-off with the firm and thus avoidance of 'deontological' problems. Being asked whether they would like to become managers under these aspects the researchers were told by the absolute majority: “yes, certainly”. The future career obliges them to react in this way.

Such an investigation of an older age group may turn out less consenting. “Lean management” and “shareholder values”, hectic fusion or attempts of fusion, “hostile take-overs”, quick steps for the stock exchanges etc. define the economical world today; the magic formula: zero divided by 2 (reduction of personnel by half), multiplied by 3 (times as much work-load) – i.e. 0:2x3 – symbolises the entry into an anti-human, perhaps late-capitalist-period. And this is the case not only within the business world but also within cultural institutions, Europe-wide. Less personnel, same budget and salary, three times more work signifies the new society at the turn of this century. By saving the posts the burden is left for the remaining staff – a “bureaucratic version of slavery” (according to a Munich head-hunter).

The new media have effected us all. With each new task we are challenged by an accordingly higher number of e-mails, for example, to be answered immediately. Fax and e-mail which have probably been invented to relieve us from stress have greatly increased the daily office stress, and, worse than that, they cripple both the reflection process and the sensitivity for expression of language. The cultural world is not immune against the temptations by possible cultural partners who try to lure us last minute into an alleged co-production when everything has already been decided upon by the other partners and we are called upon only to fill the missing financial gap.

The new media technologies have – as the prophet for this period, Marshall MacLuhan of the University of Toronto predicted in the 1960s – proved to be the decisive factor at the turn of the century, but the 'Gutenberg Galaxy' by sur-information and chat-rooms on the Internet has opened a world-wide agora, but the rapidity of the information process will not necessarily also contribute towards a profounder understanding of man.

The media themselves having got used to react to the accusations of furthering violence, superficiality, live confessions on screen for “exhibitionists” of all sorts and, particularly, the run for personality-sensations with the reply that they only respond to the requests by the public and that they only react as a mirror. We are surely here caught by a vicious circle which is difficult to break. A lady who runs each Sunday night's talk-show on the first chain of German television manages to get all the big political VIPs of the Republic but she gets entangled in banal questions of personal set-ups within a given party structure. Real topics are out of our political campaigns, scandals, battles for posts etc. signify a great part of our media interest thus betraying the right of information on Sachthemen / specific subjects to be urgently discussed. In some countries the paparazzi-syndrome replaces distinct journalism; man is flooded with secondary, often trivial information. Where and how should culture in Europe find its way under these marketing conditions, let alone the financial restrictions of today.

II. An ethical approach

Culture has in this context of globalisation and the new media a particular role to fulfil. In a 1999 seminar on Culture and Ethics, conducted by the European Cultural Institutes in Belgium, regrouped under the name of CICEB, and the European Ethics Centre at the University of Leuven, it became clear that we are witnessing a specific “crisis of the humanum”.

“Lorenz spoke about the Abbau des Menschlichen as a consequence of the widening gap between technological power and human values. Habermas discerns a growing colonisation of the human life world by economic rationality. Foucault has described the disappearance of the human subject. MacIntyre has analysed the life world as emotivistic and relativistic, in short, a world in which manipulation and instrumentalisation of persons by management and therapy become dominant feature of human interaction. New extreme-right movements deny the universality of human rights.” (Johan Verstraeten). One of the main theses of Verstraeten is in fact that man not necessarily needs new seminars on ethics but rather to go back to his roots, particularly back to the ancient Greek debates on dialogue, eros and democracy etc.; and then on to the great thinkers of the occident; our youth in the last decades has tried new inner consolation against all sorts of materialism in the east; in recent times there is a tendency towards all sorts of sectarianism, even fundamentalism, to be observed – all this are indications for a search of the humanum in our lives and our times: we have to face ourselves in the last instance, to live with our personal conscience and try to be credible – as Simone Weil once stated: one has “to root oneself in one's own honesty.”

An ethical consciousness is thus primordial for survival of both society and individual today.

In this context it is consoling to know that there are many non-profit organisations visible in the field of humanitarian actions; striving for Human Rights. Voluntary associations and observation platforms by amnesty international, Medicins San Frontieres, Greenpeace, Pax Christi and others serve as positive networks for the information of the public.

In a conference at the Goethe Institute Brussels(two months ago) Hans Küng, theologian and founder of both a European Ecumenical Centre at Tübingen University, Germany, and founder of the Global Ethic Foundation, repeated clearly the imperatives for our times when he demands a personal “global ethic for global politics and economics”. It was Küng who, together with the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the former President de la Republique Francaise, Giscard D'Estaing, had developed in 1993 a hardly noticed charter for Human Obligations paralleling the Charter of Human Rights. Küng, however, reduces the solution of our problem to the question of believers and non-believers, thus trying to contradict Samuel Huntington's probably overvalued study on the Clash of Civilisation. Küng's thesis is simple: “There will be no peace between civilisations without a peace between the religions.” - And there will be no peace between the religions without a dialogue between the religions. And, finally: “There will be no new world order without a new world ethic.” The latter suggests, of course, independently from any religious adherence, a renaissance, a “reanimation” - to avoid the ambiguous term of “revival” - of personal consciousness, personal evaluation and personal ethic. The answer to globalisation has one one hand to stay personal – without drifting, however, into some sort of narrow-minded parochialism.

On the other hand, however, there remains still the existential problem of how globally to cope with devastating situations of rapid global help after earthquakes, drought, natural catastrophes etc. perhaps it is up to “culture” to contribute ideas towards solutions in these repeated crisis of humanity.

If we leave the reflection on ethics to the philosophical “ethics” experts, we miss the boat. In my view it is the task of Culture to transfer these innate ethical “imperatives” at least implicitly by our cultural creation, cultural activity, cultural policy. In times where freedom of expression – subject of this weekend's debates here in Athens – is endangered in a sometimes subtle, sometimes less subtle way, it is up to the “cultural activists” to pave the way for the discussion. In this connection you may permit me the remark that I appreciate the fact that in my present host country Belgium a strong debate develops over the handling of the contacts to Austria; but I had to refuse to take an active part in it for reasons of principles: as a guest in a given country there is the ground rule of neither offending the host country or a third country, let alone to organise a debate on internal politics externally. There is, however, a need to remain vigilant on the rising of dangerous extremism all over Europe. And, surely, “culture” and the cultural organisers have to reflect upon the consequences of boycotts or non-boycotts in a given situation. Currently we are observing a rise of so-called “populists”, not only in Austria, but also in certain regions of other European countries. I personally regard the term “populist” used by the media as highly questionable, since it minimises, even banalises the real existing danger. The antique cry of Principiis obsta – stop the beginnings ought to be voices by authors, artists in the field long before any extremists gain power in parliament or government – if we really want to take care of the gift of democracy.

III. The “European” consciousness

There is a personal consciousness but there exists also – in my personal view – a “European consciousness” often cited as “the European heritage”. At a conference on cultural heritage and identities in Europe (exactly one month ago) two directors of the opera, Gerard Mortier of the Salzburg Festival and Bernard Foccroulle of the Opera La Monnaie/de Munt in Brussels debated trans-national traits of European operas, for instance the fact that Mozart wrote many of his operas in Italy and in Italian, that Wagner's contents went back in part to the Middle Ages and the “Minnesänger” (Parzival) etc.

The two musical experts pointed out how clearly interwoven then European musical scene was – already 200 years ago. There was a European cultural consciousness and mutual “multicultural” influences long before the debates of our times. And the same is obviously true for the other fields: literature, fine arts, church music etc. Thus there are trans-national traits visible everywhere in our histories of European culture. Today in most of the European ballet companies, for example, you will rarely find a majority of nationals of the country in which the company is based (that, by the way, is true for major soccer / “football” teams as well.)

The current reflections on a “European culture” will, of course, not stipulate a “European culture” as such but rather an awareness on common sources. We are coming from local, regional, national roots which probably nobody can and may want to replace. But there are also common traits which unite us.

To illustrate the differences in consciousness of a national or “European” scope I remember an incident where the Goethe Institute in Brussels had intended – in co-operation with a number of other European cultural institutes – to organise a symposium on Goethe – European and Humanist. When a British journalist asked whether I could imagine a similar European symposium, say on Shakespeare, I answered: yes, since Shakespeare was part of our school curriculum just as Plato, Goethe, Mozart, Dante, Baudelaire, Hans Christian Andersen etc. There was an uproar in the British sensational press pretending that – according to my remark the Germans wanted to take away from England “their” Shakespeare: “Germans want to trade Shakespeare against Claudia Schiffer and Boris Becker”. This anecdote illustrates the various levels of “heritage-consciousness” in the different parts of Europe. Here is a lot to be done by parents, teachers, educationalists etc. Today's youth travelling easily by Eurorailpass or other means from one country to another ought to be prepared of what they might experience in the host country. Only by “diving” into the host country's culture and, possibly, language – and be it only passively – in the widest sense – may we experience its beauties and realise that we ourselves are foreigners everywhere and thus contribute to the daily fight against rising xenophobia in Europe. Goethe, the universalist, described culture by “everything which surrounds us”. The federal minister of culture in Germany, Michael Naumann, cites “culture (as) the most beautiful form of political freedom in a democratic society”. On the day of Europe we all gather under the tunes of the “European” hymn by Beethoven to the words of Schiller; but who of the young generations will still read (let alone be able to cite) poetry by Hölderlin and Rimbaud, enjoy, queuing up for a spectacle of “Faust” or go to an exhibition of the old masters of painting. “European consciousness” may be “taught” only relatively, it must be experienced personally – as it is the case, indeed, day by day all over Europe and beyond. Maybe, the debate of subsidiarity should be applied not only in agri-culture, but in culture as well.

IV. The EU and its Cultural Image

From the currently newly erupted struggle of and between regions in Europe striving for more competence for culture from the European institutions, (globalisation on the one hand, parochialism on the other) one may deduct a return to the thinking of 18th century “Kleinstaaterei”. The concept of small territorial states - “cuius regio – eius religio” (perhaps with accent on a regional culture) as well as the task assumed by EU to represent and administer “European culture” - without ever having tried to define its role, chances and limitations – leaves the puzzled European often stranded. And, in fact, the present applications of the statues given, leave apparently little room for the European cultural administration in Brussels. The “cultural ivory tower” in Brussels scarcely touches the individual artist in his or her motivation towards Europe. The way in which the EU Commission treats culture (with 0.04% of its budget) leaves us with little hope of fulfilment of Delors' wish: “to give a soul to Europe”. There is little money for culture in Europe, but there is also too little vision for Europe and its cultural consciousness. The cultural programs of the EU tend towards bigger sums for fewer projects. The cultural debates within parliament rest without notice outside the confinements of the parliamentarians themselves.

Often alternative projects submitted by young, small European “networkers” are being turned down. Adds one to this the necessary tedious filling out of complicated forms, adds one to this the late announcements by the EU-Commission with a short period of application plus the fact that efficient lobby institutions usually already have been active much before the announcement in the official journal of the EU – one understands that young artists or beginning networkers are frustrated and will hence not become ardent protagonists of and for Europe. No, the policy should be against the usual opinion: as much support for as many projects, even if this entails a shift of administrative supervisory activity for the office granting support. The European mosaic of culture consists of laying many, many individual stones; we ought not to hope to see the entire mosaic ever, but ought to be satisfied to have contributed towards the laying of cornerstones towards a renewal or intensification of a European consciousness for the next generation.

The EU should honour and sponsor those artistic events which truly demonstrate innovation and contribution towards European networking, and, maybe, beyond, and this on a wider scale.

V. Networking for Europe

To “live Europe” ought to be “fun”, a happy experience, joy from within, exchange with others, new artistic forms or old ones, striving for mutual understanding – cliché phrases? We tried this on a small level within a group of seven national cultural institutes in Belgium: Alliance Francaise, British Council, Instituto Cervantes, Instituto Italiano di Cultura, the Danish Cultural Centre, the Finnish Cultural Centre and the Goethe Institute. To establish the legal statue for a Belgian association one institute had to convene its council of ministers back home in the capital, another wanted to wait with the signature until the headquarters had decided, the third had only to call a lawyer at the headquarters for approval etc. etc. In the programming of joint events – apart from the bilateral task each institute continues to follow – we experience “Europe” in a nutshell: the debates about multiculturalism and migration may be relevant in one country, but not in the other; how to harmonise the ideas for a common (and coming) European symposium on the cultural future(s) of Europe in the 21st century, how to direct a joint program for languages, how, finally, to arrive to produce a European program for the passive acquisition of European languages etc.

While each national cultural institute pursues its own way of bilateral cultural exchange, as a group of seven we do experience this “fun” of working together, struggling with each other, sometimes against each other, trying to understand the working habits of the others – and we feel that it is worthwhile and to be copied elsewhere. The higher the number of cultural networks in Europe on all artistic or other levels, the smaller the danger of falling back into parochialism, or worse, nationalism or, particularly, xenophobic radicalism. WEBS have to be created not only in the web itself (Internet) but also within the framework of cultural institutions. They are existing already: dance theatres, opera-houses, libraries, universities “net” together, both live and on the net. The creation of cultural networks on all levels may serve as a remedies against a society under pressure. And this cultural Europe is, already today, in fact multicultural.

VI Commitment for the future

Conferences like the one today here in Athens will surely contribute towards a strengthening of the European consciousness. We will attain solidarity in areas where we may need this; we may exchange views on recent novels, exhibitions we have seen or not seen, discuss the next festival of Cannes or the fact that dance in Germany seems to be dead and having been replaced first by the dance theatre and now by slow motion. Remains the question whether the artist can really follow today the motto: “l'art pour l'art”, whether authors are not called to comment on social and political developments (as the Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass did and does); is it not on the creators in fine arts, theatre, dance, literature to comment recent developments, perhaps even to try to contribute and to shape future cultural policy? Cultural networks may help to this effect, too. The most unethical phrase of Brussels 1999 was uttered a few blocs away from my office which lies vis a vis the European Parliament; it was General Clarke who said just one year ago at a Kosovo-concerned press conference: “We are effective because we are destructive”. This leads us back to my initial remarks concerning the humanum in us. If it is obviously not the military, not fundamentalism of all sorts, not the global economy which brings back to us this sense of responsibility – what else could be other than culture in all its diversity, with its leisure, its meditations, its provocations, its perhaps stirring, shocking events, its reflection, its beauty? Culture, seen as a luxury and independent from the soul of both the artist and the “cultural consumer” remains passive and without consequences.

The real cultural commitment lies in the dialogue between the creator and his viewer or auditor, economically spoken between culture and economy, culture and politics etc. - thus assuming responsibility for the society of the future. The daily process of confrontation or harmonisation between dream and vision on one hand and economical, logistical reality on the other demands continuous reflection. This may mean protest where there is censorship, terror, intimidation; it may mean constructive criticism of decisions in cultural politics and the helping to find ways and means of solutions. This is a social debate – but it stays always first a private question of conscience - “for better or for worse” (English marriage vows), hopefully for a more decisive role of culture in the future. Thus by preserving the European cultural heritage, by debating and promoting a European consciousness of culture particularly among and for the younger generations we may help to shape a less economy-orientated and more cultural – if not, in the future, multicultural-orientated – Europe. There are indications that a true “value” - research if not personal search and debate starts in many places. Lastly in man it is not the “shareholder's” - value that counts but the inner value of man/woman. There cannot be given a “soul” to Europe if man/woman does not try to situate his own “soul” first. That also is an original cultural act. Maybe, the kairos is Now.

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