Can culture save Europe?

contribution dedicated to the dibate “Can culture save Europe?”

by Ignasi Guardans, former member of the European Parliament; co-founder and CEO of CUMEDIAE
(published on 13 March 2017)


It is nobody’s secret that Europe, and the political project it started 60 years ago, is going across its worst storm in decades. Many from inside, and many more from the outside, believe that this is a ship that may well sink. And even many among those who have dedicated their lives to building the Europe we know dare to contemplate, for the first time ever, failure as a possibility.
Many factors have led us here. And only an effort combining of political intelligence and determination will take us all together to navigation under clearer skies. And in this process, as it is corresponds to its role in society, culture and the arts has essential roles to play. Roles and tasks that are diverse, complex and interrelated, as culture in Europe cannot be reduced to one single dimension. We could now focus on a few of them.
To start with, culture and the arts have always represented a space where the “unspoken” can and should be spoken. It is via the arts that the political and social situation is best critically addressed and where the society can see itself in the mirror. Even in the current times, where the rise of commercialism and an unprecedented rise of creative consumption risk turning everything into pure entertainment, this function of culture survives and is made more evident, and not only among the elites of opinion and decision makers.
The impact of the current refugee crisis is a good witness to that. A crisis and a challenge that is straining to its limits our common integration capacity, our openness to the other, a shared understanding of our common and yet diverse and constantly evolving identity. We cannot allow the perception that “the other” or “the newcomer” is a threat to peace, security and prosperity in Europe.
It has been good to see that many in the cultural and artistic field have risen and in a way re-discovered their critical role in society in the context of these debates: as a critical conscience of the weakness of many proposed solutions; and as means for refugees and migrants to meet, to communicate among themselves and to become more visible within the communities hosting them, with the respect they deserve. And as Europe faces this essential need of internal social integration, there is growing conscience (at the Commission with the Creative Europe, and nationally through a large amount of initiatives), that culture is to play a most important role in creating bridges, connecting people, overstepping the differences and providing more positive approach towards one of the biggest challenges Europe is facing.
But we need not only ideas and projects to bring together refugees and the local communities where they will integrate. We also need a new narrative to help nations and local identities to have a better feeling in their relationship with the other Europeans sharing this adventure, and even beyond that. The nasty and dangerous return to nationalism in Europe, the call for a protective and nostalgic return to local identities is not only a failure of global economic policy or a miscommunication of the virtues of open trade. It is also a cultural failure, a failure of some of those who are now most alarmed by this internal enemy of the European open ideals. Europe has always not just supported but promoted cultural diversity in all its expressions. But something has been done terribly wrong, also in the cultural field, when it’s so easy to find a German, a Catalan, a Fin or a Pole (and we can leave the Brits as a lost case) who is convinced that Europe has become a threat for his or her collective ideals and dreams and a danger to a certain notion of identity.
This is not just an economic debate. It is through culture, and communication, that we will find any answers to change this trend from global to local; or perhaps to turn them into something that creates a more constructive, and not confrontational, relationship between local and global; between local and European. Probably there is no way back to the hyper connectivity of our societies, and of each one of us. And they may be no purpose in fighting that. But social networks, and the new debating spaces created by them, are definitively a place for culture to “invade”: cultural actors must be essential players in these new agoras of interpersonal exchange. And contribute as much as possible to their openness.

Heritage: Combining the past and the future
Heritage, and in particular material heritage, is another dimension, perhaps the most visible, of Europe’s cultural identity. However, in a planet becoming smaller by the day, where hundreds of millions of people are have now travel capabilities that had been unthinkable to their immediately previous generations, Europe risks being reduced to that: the most important concentration of cultural heritage. An open museum with the size of a continent. This, while others ride a future of technological progress and artificial intelligence (and, with luck, they may sell or license it to us). We don’t want to get there, do we? Stones and walls and bridges and towers and churches and squares, as much as our old industrial areas, are not only heritage to preserve or to made available to foreign and local tourism. They are remnants of past of economic and social progress, of industrialization and creation of wealth. But there is a gap to cover, between a past we are proud of, and a future we don’t want to miss. Heritage and when possible the public space around it needs to be integrated in sustainable ways at the service of the cities’ real inhabitants, and of their personal and societal development, as much as of those who visit from abroad. Each city will have to find its own path and its own balance. The goal should be clear: Europe’s cultural heritage should not be reduced to being object of a sacred protection; it should be integrated in Europe’s present and in the building of Europe’s future.
This of course refers to technology, and the amazing tools it can offer; but it goes way beyond that: there is room for a more solid team-working and communication between the different actors who are thinking about how to build the future of a city (including urban planners and those promoting the new economy of data and shared knowledge) and those who are more concerned about the best preservation of its past.

Culture alone cannot save Europe from its evils nor protect it from its threats. But only with a strong engagement of those who create, who disseminate and who support culture will it be possible to renovate the project for Europe and to obtain the engagement of the new generations who must lead it for the next jump of 60 years.

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