An apparent paradox. The post-Cold war era seems to have effected the culturalisation of politics. American elections are largely fought in the name of cultural issues; on a series of tantalising debates involving Christian versus secular values, regarding abortion, the death penalty, etc. Social differences and social antagonisms are increasingly framed in the context of culture, as intense, or even incommensurable, cultural identity clashes: ‘the West against the rest’, or democratic culture versus all sorts of fundamentalisms for a micro-level view. And in theoretical debates this development is reflected in the centrality of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis for more mainstream circles and the influence of postcolonial theory for critical studies. Concomitantly, in the post-Cold war era the predominant doxa forces the ultimate de-politicisation of culture; it is considered threatening to endorse the direct connection between the purpose or the content of cultural production and political activism. ‘Engaged art’, in other words, is either passé or even considered to be dangerous, at least in the context of a democratic society. But, perhaps, no paradox after all, just a series of interrelated trends.
These two developments might be thought not as antithetical but as codetermining. What they mark is a double-sided invasion: of cultural production onto the political field and of politics onto issues previously accepted as part of the cultural domain. It does no longer make sense to insist on a series of ‘and’ conjectures in order to discuss this relation: the object of study can no longer be formulated as ‘culture and politics’, ‘culture and ideology’. The ‘and’s need to be replaced with a series of ‘in relation to’; the task then becomes the analysis of multiple co-constitutions, of culture, politics, ideology, production, etc. It might seem threatening for culture and art that they appear to have lost their alleged autonomy. No privileged voice, no privileged view of the world, art has come down to the level of just another social practice. But this is not homogenizing, nor necessarily negative.
This is the theoretical starting point of the present project. If art and culture have lost their autonomous status then it becomes necessary to think of them in a series of multiple connections. Along these lines, the present series of interviews invites debate on the relation between culture and politics and culture and identity, the European in this instance.
We have asked 9 artists from varying fields and varying ‘cultural’ backgrounds to neither start nor conclude this discussion. Instead, the effort is to understand the new realities and explore the new challenges and possibilities that art has in the present global environment. There is no particular explanation to why 9 or why these 9, apart from our effort to open up the debate to different currents of thought. Nevertheless, the interviewees are somehow connected in that they engage with the social character of art. Again this is too broad, since the ‘social’ can be, and is in this instance, variously interpreted and experienced. The work of the 9 artists is, however, ‘social’, whatever we take this term to be; it engages with issues traditionally belonging to the realm of politics, as issues of justice, human rights, migration. More so, it is social because of its method; the works of the 9 artists employ means differentiated from that of the social sciences in order to portray or imagine social events. And, in this respect, they potentially offer novel ways to engage with social dynamics.
Αt this point, and since the website was dedicated to European affairs, we will refer to the content of the interviews in relation to the radical changes taking place in Europe. To be precise, European enlargement and the consequent population increase postulate a new reality that has slowly acquired meaning and shape, when previously it was predominantly conceived as a threat. Undoubtedly, in the context of this process, identity has become a central concern as the means to identify a set of characteristics that might signify unity.
The main question for Europe is whether there can be a unifying process springing from the differences among peoples, countries and values. Or, in a different formulation, it is whether, the common denominators necessary to define a European identity do in fact exist.
What can be concluded from the 9 interviews is that there is at least a partial agreement on the diversity of this “identity in progress”. The European identity cannot be based on uniformity, on identifying a set of common characteristics. Instead, it must reflect the recognition of difference; it must acknowledge the existence of disagreements even when they occur within the same field. Perhaps, we should even acknowledge the infeasibility of defining European identity in a mono-dimensional or monologic way. “If Europe has something to offer culture, it is pluralism” says Dimitris Papaioannou. “The cultural wealth of Europe lies in diversity, not uniformity” agrees Jose Saramago.
Dario Fo refers to cultural links created long before the creation of a European economic union: “Europe always enjoyed was that it promoted a culture inspired by common popular concerns. Even before Europe was united in an economic level or was conceived at the level of economic interests and trade, it was culture that united all the countries of Europe. The arts, literature, music are the connecting link of Europe”. On his part, Pawel Pawlikowski refers to the values on which art and culture are based: “If there is one tradition in Europe that is alive and worth preserving, one thing that still separates it from the American civilization; it is our sense of history and its complexities and our craving for authenticity.”
The threat of suppression or oblivion is always present in a unifying process, in an attempt to homogenize, to define what is common and unified. The interviewees believe, on the contrary, that we should endorse diversity and the right to difference as the core of European culture. Michael Marmarinos articulates succinctly this aspect of European tradition: “the privilege of United Europe (compared to the USA for example), is that long living nations and histories, with different but overlapping cultures, with different languages are determined to come closer to each other, and EXCHANGE their values. This can create a model of multi-cultural European identity, which, under some certain conditions and guarantees, can establish a delightful and positive movement against the worst disease of our era: FEAR. »
Even more decisively, art and culture, through their very form, are the embodiment of difference. They constitute a heretical voice, capable to subvert all political and economic elements that serve the purpose of convergence, homogenization or the dissemination of fear for the others.
In this capacity, art and culture can claim a central social role: we could imagine Europe along the lines that Ilya and Emilia Kabakov urge us: as “European culture”. And it is here where European identity becomes a positive substance, being the reflection of a culture springing from diversity and developing on the notion of difference. It would be useful to listen to the voice of a, strictly speaking, heterodox artist, Iranian Majid Majidi: “The language of Art can facilitate bringing people together, can develop people’s conscience of a common humanity, despite differences in races, cultures, or nationality.”
The contribution of every form of art and culture can be found in its potential freedom of expression, both as a carrier as well as the mirror of what is current: the mirror of our age with a liberating element that Eleni Karaindrou defines as redemption: “Redemption means meaning that I place myself in my time, even though this might cost me dearly. I am a person of my time and I don’t hide in a glass sphere of romanticism. Redemption means that I learn the truth that I come face to face with it.” In the same spirit, Wim Wenders refers to the most important element that arises from the process of creation: the element of change. He contends that the real danger lies in stillness, a quality that the European vision must utterly deny: “The process of strengthening a European identity is more than a necessary one for the future of this continent. It is vital. It can only become the home continent for the next generation of an even larger Europe, if it is filled with emotions, with solidarity, with understanding and respect. ‘America’ and the ‘American Dream’ are largely a product of literature and cinema. The ‘European Dream’ is still undefined and lacks precision. European films have the biggest responsibility here. Films can create that momentum, that enthusiasm, that “belief” in Europe more than any other means.”
A possible synthesis of all the artists’ opinions would focus on the need of accepting polyphony. The unification of Europe cannot continue if its aim is the destruction of diversity; instead, it can prove to be fertile ground for the development of the meaning of diversity and difference. Art and culture take elements from politics and other structures, and transform them into a new expression that does not tend to uniformity but to a multi-colored mixture of different languages, influences and ideas. The proper word that reflects all those elements was mentioned above: redemption.