The idea of one, single European identity is long gone. Instead, there is a recognition that European cultures and identities must be conceived in its plurality. However, in times of strain such composite culture might emerge as fault lines that drive processes of disengagement, such as the departure of the UK from the EU. Can cultural leadership act as bridge across different cultural imaginariums? The challenging question was unwrapped in a panel moderated by Peter Inkei from Budapest Observatory (HU), Yamam Al-Zubaidi from Riksteatern (SWE), Bel Olid from the Association of Catalan Language Writers (AELC) (CAT-ESP) and Clymene Christoforou from ISIS Arts (UK).
The panel agreed that the European project is a cultural project, although what a distinctive European culture actually is remains a big question. Yamam pointed to the necessary but uncomfortable fact that often European culture is defined in contraposition to other cultures. This offers a fertile ground for far-right parties throughout Europe to instrumentalise national culture as an imagined barrier. In this sense, it can be said that far-right nationalist movements do show cultural leadership, one that increasingly restricts freedom of expression and cultural production. Bel Olid, added nuance and complexity by noting that national cultures also reassert themselves at regional level when referring to cultural identity politics in her homeland Catalonia. Yet, Catalan nationalism has a strong Europeanist component, hence challenging the notion that nationalism is necessarily exclusionary and antagonistic to the European project. Within this framework, what is the role of cultural practitioners and artists? Clymene describes the result of the Brexit referendum as being, amongst others, a result of the lack of an emotional link to Europe. The last 30 years have been dominated by a paradigm that emphasised a scientific, data-driven, quantitative approach. Yet, increasingly we come to terms with the fact that political processes are driven by emotions and narratives. Humans are moved to action through stories, and culture plays a fundamental role in crafting those stories. Should be we be creating new spaces for interaction, for new voices to be heard? Nurturing home-grown nature of artistic projects and creating environments for artists? Definitely. The elitist-populist tension inevitably emerged at this point. Where do artists stand in this divide? Are we not using the same discourse, pointing our fingers at the ‘haters’ and seeking security in bubbles of like-minded people? The ‘other’ is not here, but in a place resulting from his vulnerability, a vulnerability making him overprotective and defensive. As such, we need to overcome our tendency to see things in a binary manner (Stella Hall), and we need to question how we address this as artists. Should we act more as mediators? While Bel spoke out powerfully on the need to make complexity beautiful, Simone Dudt (EMC) questioned whether it is possible to reach out effectively with complexity? Bel stated that one should not underestimate people and offer simple messages, while Clymene felt that the need to be honest (and thus present a complex discourse) results in a too nuanced message and was a factor which weakened the ‘IN’ vote in the UK. How can we actively change the order which is producing populism (Teodor C.)? Is it our role to present alternatives (Yamam)? Is contesting ‘enough’ in some instances (Bel)? We have the responsibility as artists- as humans- to be a voice (Clymene).
CAE takeaway: The European project is a cultural project, based on complex and multiple identities. Often identities are defined in opposition to others, something that national populist are exploiting. In this sense, this political movements do seem to show cultural leadership. Humans are moved to action through stories, and culture plays a fundamental role in crafting those narratives. The cultural sector tends to offer a nuanced view of the world. Complexity is beautiful but it is only powerful when channeled in an organised manner.