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Dry the Swamp of Ignorance / Assécher les marais de l’ignorance (...)

Dry the Swamp of Ignorance / Assécher les marais de l’ignorance (FR/EN)

août 2004

by Dragan Klaic
Publié dans l’hébdomadaire hollandais "Vrij Nederland" (no 35, 28 août 2004)

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Dry the Swamp of Ignorance

European Culture : a task for the EU

by Dragan Klaic

- Have we been fighting against the Moscow Diktat only to succumb to
Brussels, ask the concerned Hungarian intellectuals ?

- We knew very well how to defend the Catholic soul of our national culture
against godless Communism, say some Polish colleagues, but are we going to
save it from the Brussels bureaucrats ?

- How will we sustain our small national culture on the EU cultural market
of 450 million consumers, asks a choir of Slovene, Estonian, Lithuanian and
Latvian culture experts, coming all from nations of less than 2 million
inhabitants each.

And Czechs and Slovaks, now separated as cultural realms and as states, are
as nervous about the prospects of their national culture as are many Danes,
Swedes or Portuguese. In Barcelona and in Cardiff they prefer to preach the
gospel of regional culture that reflects the separate ethnic identity of the
Catalans and the Welsh respectively, and in Northern Italy, Lega Nord‚s
fantasy of "Padania" couples regional fiscal exemption to a separate
cultural realm, spared the meddling of "Roma ladrona", the thieving

National or European culture ?

National culture, once perceived as a foundation of the national state and
its best ornament, has become a troubled notion. Identitary anxieties are
feed by globalization and European integration and by migration that has
turned solid national states into tense multicultural societies. But if the
national cultures are to flow into some amorphous European culture, what is
then its nature, profile and perspective, how can it preserve vitality and
diversity of its components ? A chimerical image of an official Euroculture,
over-regulated and uniform, bland and boring, prompts conferences and
symposia, held every weekend about these topics across the continent,
while most Europeans care more about unemployment, inflation, crime and
terrorism than about „the values and norms‰ of European culture.

Politicians refer to European culture in more pompous moments, when they
seek words to say something positive about the European integration but
their only real cultural concern is how to strengthen the position of own
national cultural industry against the assault of the US competition. They
know that the ultimate battlefield will be the World Trade Organization and
that they must oppose its liberalizing zeal together with other EU
governments - if they are to make a strong stand and preserve what has been
the only plausible and palpable common cultural element of Europe since the
World War 2 : cultural policy as part of public policy and government
subsidies to culture, distributed for the sake of innovation and diversity
and in order to facilitate the participation in culture of all citizens. In
Western Europe, this government commitment to cultural investment has been
weakened by the shrinking of the welfare state ; in East and Central Europe
it has been much thinned out by the transition from communist ideological
monopoly to market economy.

Minister Bot’s Berlin surprise

On the eve of the Dutch EU Presidency, our Minister of Foreign Affairs Ben
Bot pleaded in a speech at the Humboldt University in Berlin that EU should
be involved in fewer fields in order to take care of the remaining business
much better. As one field from which EU should withdraw he mentioned
culture. The media ignored the intricacies of his argument and focused on
his qualification of the EU as a "federation in the making". But what could
better than culture federate 25 member states and 450 million EU citizens
from Galway to Przemysl and from Utsjoki to La Valetta ? Wouldn’t culture
connect them deeper than the same euro bills in their valets and the
communality of their consumer impulses ? And what can confirm the sense of
being European to millions of those who still live outside the new borders
of the EU, in Tirana, Uzhgorod, Belgrade or Moscow - if not culture ?

Moldavians, for instance, are today isolated and pauperized under an
anachronistic communist government, but their capital Chisinau was the
cradle of Yiddish theater and boosted opera performances and symphonic
concerts at the beginning of the 20th century, so that this remembrance of
their kinship with European cultures is the only European good they still
posses. And Georgians and Armenians will similarly invoke as their European
credentials first the Christian faith and then culture.

So what is prompting minister Bot to plea for the EU to pool out from
culture when the timid EU cultural program disposes with only eur 34 million
a year, a mere 0.03% of the EU budget ? Contrary to Bot‚s plea, the EU
should enhance the cultural diversity in Europe by supporting multilateral
cultural cooperation, if it wants to alleviate the identitary obsessions of
the citizens and counter their insecurities, if it wants to bridge the gap
between the large and small members states, between rich and poor cultural
systems. Otherwise, grudges, jealousies and bickering will constantly
undermine the Union, let it sink in ignorance, stereotypes and prejudices
most Europeans nourish about each other. What can make the citizens of the
EU trust each other if not a better cultural knowledge and understanding of
the other Europeans ? A raised degree of intercultural competence that helps
them live peacefully next to a migrant neighbor and share the same
aspirations with a fellow European residing 2000 km away - this deserves the
investment of the local government as much as of the EU.

With the EU enlargement with 10 members states now officially completed, one
could imagine cultural expansion instead of Bot‚s retrenchment : Houses of
European Culture opening up in Vilnius, Bratislava and Tallinn in order to
reassert the European character of their cultural traditions and speed up
their reintegration in the Europen cultural space to which they once firmly
belonged. This would help eliminate the backlog created by the decades of
Cold War and ideological monopoly and make sure the local creativity
benefits from the best European practices in international cultural

As a life long diplomat, minister Bot could also envisage the EU involvement
in cultural matters from a viewpoint grounded outside the EU itself. What
does European culture look alike, seen from Istanbul, Cairo or Moscow ?

Beyond promotion and propaganda

Most inhabitants of those cities cannot probably discern European culture
or cultures neatly from an amorphous notion of a Western culture, shaped
prevailingly on the American model, and carried over by the cultural
industry and especially through the media. Since the war in Iraq, much of
the angry anti-Americanism in the Muslim and especially the Arab world
manifest itself as violent anti-Westernism, engulfing Europe in the turmoil.

If the EU wants to prevent Huntington’s idea of a "clash of civilizations"
becoming a reality and if it is striving to develop a common foreign and
security policy, culture better becomes one of its key pillars. Patient
dialogue, a range of added creative and collaborative opportunities and an
investment in development of the civil society would yield more results than
the efforts to impose own cultural industry, cultural imperialism, culture
disguising propaganda and damping of shlock.

In the Cold War times, Europe was neatly divided by the Iron Curtain, also
in a cultural sense, with most of the international cultural traffic being
carefully orchestrated, financed and supervised by the national governments.
Cultural exchange - as it was then called - was clearly an instrument of
foreign policy, a diplomatic signal, a matter of national prestige
packaged for export, especially when aiming across the Iron Curtain. Since
1989 international cultural cooperation grew significantly in Europe but
not much outside it. Most European governments still keep in their
embassies a cultural attaché and bigger and richer countries run entire
networks of cultural centers in foreign cities, signaling that culture on
the international level remains a highly politicized matter, an instrument
to ensure national political prestige and influence and increasingly to
corner part of the market for the products of own cultural industry.

British Council, Goethe Institute, French and Italian cultural centers,
Instituto Cervantes of the Spanish government and other similar networks
abroad have been originally set up to promote own national culture and
language, in a world marked by the Cold War tensions, ideological
competition and troubled decolonization. Today all these agencies seek to
shift their role towards international cultural cooperation, dialogue, and
intercultural exploration and yet, in a foreign city they tend to compete
with each other . Their best staff members understand that they would
benefit from mutual collaboration and would achieve more by combining their
modest resources and much reduced budgets, especially outside Europe, where
they often lack strong domestic partners. But , such cooperation among
national cultural machines, all good intentions notwithstanding, goes
against their core ethos, distinct bureaucratic procedures and
institutionalized hierarchies, as set by their respective ministries at

A retired Western European diplomat, who served in Moscow in the early
1990s, told me recently that he tried to nudge his EU colleagues (there were
only 12 at the time) to set their embassies‚ cultural offices under one
roof, keep their respective institutional distinctions, budgets and
reporting channels but develop a common programming in the same building,
with a combined library. It was not possible to reach such an agreement and
the opportunity to acquire such a building in the center of Moscow for
relatively little money was squandered.

A modest proposal

This federalizing effort would probably not work out today either, even if
President Putin or Mayor Luzhkov would offer a nice, centrally located
building for free. At the other hand, what if the EU would take culture for
its strategic potential and decide to set up Houses of European Cultures in
some key cities outside the EU ? Start with Moscow, Istanbul and Cairo as
major metropols in the EU’s immediate neighborhood.

Take Istanbul, for instance. Whether the EU top confirms, postpones or
rejects Turkey’s candidacy for the EU membership this coming December, the
decision will have major cultural ramifications. With the acceptance of
Turkey’s candidacy, a House of European Cultures in Istanbul would have a
task to speed up Turkey’s integration in the EU cultural zone - despite an
anachronistic and inflexible state system of cultural institutions and to
empower the autonomous but fragile cultural network that is concentrated in
Istanbul ; or in the case of negative decision of the EU top, to reduce the
adversary cultural consequences, to mend fences, to support those
Europe-oriented Turkish intellectuals and artists who will be disappointed
and left in the cold, under a strong home pressure of an anti-European
backlash that will almost certainly follow a negative vote.

Then Cairo, the political and cultural capital of the Arab world. As in
other Arab countries, whatever meager cultural infrastructure exist there,
it lingers between poverty and corruption, repressive censorial regime,
suspicious of dissent, and raising religious militancy, opposed to artistic
innovation and free debate. In Cairo, a House of European Cultures would be
a welcome expansion of the fragile civil society that lacks autonomous
spaces for creativity, reflection and debate, where each independent group
crumbles quickly under the harassment of authorities, caught in a web of
legal conditions impossible to fulfill, hurt by the resentment of the
neighbors and inner jealousy and shear exhaustion.

In Moscow, the House of European Cultures would have to fill the gap left
after the withdrawal of George Soros’ Open Society Institute, an independent
foundation that since perestroyka times used to spend up to $120 million a
year in Russia, from which at least 10% went for culture. No foreign (that
is, for practical purposes, American) foundation still active in Moscow has
anything close to this sum in its budget. Innovative, daring, critical
culture in Moscow survives in the Bermuda triangle, constituted by the
rigid and conservative state subsidized institutions, commercial and even
criminal operators who often use cultural activities as an alibi or a cover
up, and well funded reactionary and ultra-nationalist NGO‚s of clear
anti-European orientation.

Cultural operators instead of diplomats

Now some practicalities. Staff those houses not with diplomats borrowed from
the embassies and not with the EU civil servants, but with seasoned cultural
operators of practical international experience, contracted or seconded for
2-3 years. Nominate as the directors those professionals who have made
their reputation by running large interdisciplinary venues (such as
Kampnagel in Hamburg, KIT in Copenhagen or La Villette in Paris), or major
festivals such as London’s Lift, Wienerfestwoche, or KunstenfestivaldesArts
in Brussels, let them chose their staff from among the colleagues from other
countries with whom they have worked in the past, as long as they come from
different nations and cultures and competently cover a range of artistic
disciplines. Give them less than diplomat’s salaries but a decent activity
budget (from the EU foreign relations budget and not from the tiny EU
cultural program !) and let them develop their own idea and practice of
European cultures, according to the local circumstances, needs, prejudices,
assumptions and creative resources.

Let those staff members rely not on their ministries but on European
cultural networks which have given a tremendous boost to international
cultural cooperation and pioneered many innovative models of multilateral
work. Accept for 2-4 months advanced students of European universities to
work in these houses as interns. Bring in intellectuals and artists,
ensembles, teams and individuals not for the sake of prestige and
representation but in order to explore, debate, learn together and engage in
intercultural projects. Set up schemes that would go further than the
capital cities where the house is located and develop into regional
projects. Follow up with generous visitor’s program whereby local artists
and intellectuals would travel for a study visit to several EU countries,
and if invited to a conference in Barcelona, have a chance to give a
workshop in Lisbon or attend a seminar in Lyon.

Nurture a broad notion of culture, with a critical attitude to the cultural
heritage and tradition but a polemic questioning of the contemporary
cultural industry and its flattening and manipulative potential. Rely on
internet for the dissemination of information in order to concentrate on
human contacts and direct communication of cultural operators. Evaluate the
whole scheme in 4 years and strive to improve, correct, amplify where
possible, then ad similar places in several key cities further away from the
EU borders, for instance, in Teheran, Shanghai, Johannesburg, San Paolo,
Bombay, Lagos, Mexico City...

Instead of essentialist debates and nitpicking definitions of European
culture(s), their common aspects and divergent traits (debates inevitably
Eurocentric and insufficiently globalist in the perception of world-wide
cultural shifts, often permeated by reactionary cultural pessimism) , let
the notion of European cultures or rather cultures in Europe be constructed
from the outside as it were, experimentally, through a concentrated
engagement of European cultural resources and talents in a few crucial and
emblematic foreign capitals. In those urban pressure cookers the link
between culture and social development, creativity and intercultural
competence, even arts and religion, could be further tested, making the EU
foreign and security policy take shape through dialogue, understanding,
mutual respect and common learning rather than posturing and cajoling for
the sake of dominance and exploitation.

Ben Bot’s Second Chance

At the time I am writing this Jan Figel of Slovakia has been appointed the
EU new Commissioner for Education and Culture. Nether he nor other
candidates mentioned previously had any significant experience with culture
and cultural policy. The ongoing Dutch EU presidency offers, however, to
the minister Bot a chance to reconsider his Berlin stance and influence the
EU agenda by recognizing the value of culture for that "federation in
making " he has been envisaging, and make it federate on well chosen
cultural platforms, both at home (among 25 member states) and beyond its

Dr Dragan Klaic is a theater scholar and essayist. He is a Permanent Fellow
of Felix Meritis in Amsterdam and President of European Forum for Arts and
Heritage (