New European Bauhaus: a promising intention and a much needed open debate

October 26, 2020, 8:14 am

The European Commission has called for an “innovative and aesthetic” approach to fully realize the Green New Deal in people’s lives. Through focus on design, sustainability and investment, the New European Bauhaus aims to be an intersectional project that transforms environmental, economic, and cultural goals for Europe.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen first hinted at the setup of a “new European Bauhaus – a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together” during her State of the Union speech on 16 September. One month later, she followed up on this announcement, stressing the need for a systemic change in order to tackle emission cut and energy poverty. According to von der Leyen, “To achieve this, we need broad engagement, wide support, and lots of innovation and creativity. This is why we are today launching the New European Bauhaus. The New European Bauhaus movement is intended to be a bridge between the world of science and technology and the world of art and culture.” On the Commission side, the initiative will be co-implemented by various Directorate Generals.

The delivery phase of the project will focus on developing five New European Bauhaus projects across EU Member States that aim at sustainability through the intersection of art and culture and the respective adaptation to local conditions, giving attention to natural building materials, energy efficiency, demographics, future-oriented mobility or resource-efficient digital innovation. 

We welcome this turn to bridge culture and the Green Deal as it paves the way to a long-awaited high-level recognition of the role of culture in the implementation of the sustainable development goals, as advocated by the cultural ecosystem. The New European Bauhaus initiative aims to launch a comprehensive collaboration among European creatives and could be a promising sign of the mainstreaming of culture across various policy fields. 

With an aim to build “the world of tomorrow for a tomorrow that is greener, more beautiful and humane”, the New European Bauhaus project turns culture and arts into leverage for giving an aesthetic to promoting a ‘new’, more sustainable way of life. Essentially focused on the creation of efficient – but beautiful – hard infrastructures and objects, the proposal as it stands, however, minimizes the full capacity of culture and the arts.

Culture is a transversal and cross-cutting concern and constitutes a fundamental pillar for sustainable development. Culture is also essential to explore and interrogate current and complex challenges, to inquire into our interdependence with the environment, and to nourish humans’ collective life. It also has a value in itself.

The idea – quite vague and loose in its current form – also brings controversies. Let’s have a look at some of them, with the aim to enrich the debate around the New European Bauhaus initiative.

A trademark with contested influences 

Inspired by the Bauhaus Movement in the early 20th century, this emerging project echoes some of the original concepts of embedding aesthetics into the functionality of everyday life. Cross-disciplinarity and co-creation processes were at the core of the Bauhaus project. The reference to the Bauhaus, however, not only leads to interesting associations with the progressive artistic movement from the Twenties. It also cancels the complex confluences triggered by the Bauhaus design and the prevalence of form over content in its aesthetic strategies, as analyzed for example in recent exhibitions like 50 years after 50 Years of Bauhaus.

Most probably the approach from the first and more influential Bauhaus’s director Walter Gropius, who prohibited any political positioning and declared the political neutrality of the movement even 50 years after the closure of the Bauhaus project, facilitated the reappropriation and instrumentalisation of the effective and functional aesthetics of the Bauhaus by the totalitarian regimes of the modernity.

Another feature that is worth mentioning is the discriminatory treatment of women, who were usually steered towards the weaving or ceramics workshops rather than male-dominated mediums like painting, carving, and architecture. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius encouraged this distinction through his vocal belief that men thought in three dimensions, while women could only handle two. “Where there is wool, there is a woman who weaves, if only to kill time,” said Oscar Schlemmer, a well-known artist and choreographer who taught in the Bauhaus 1

In view of these controversial issues, the choice of such a trademark is at least a complex one which is worth a wider debate.

A given narrative 

If presented as the major EU framework for bridging culture and wider socio-political-environmental course of the Union at a purely aesthetic level, the New European Bauhaus might thus be regarded as a rather questionable process.

Cultural movements appear spontaneously. They are not established by political authorities. More often than not public authorities – and this can be the case of the New European Bauhaus project -, understand art as an aesthetic, moral, and emotional support of different types of powers seeking to preserve and enhance certain community values, which may be progressive values. Art and cultural movements, however, are also based on the freedom that underpins the creative exercise and can provide the opportunity to ask us new questions, questions that could dispute the dominance of one specific cultural description of the world. Decolonization perspectives finally gaining terrain in Europe is a good example of this. 

Additionally, limiting the contribution of the creative sector to a purely for-male added value, highlighting just the beauty and the ephemeral pleasure, leaves aside the contribution of culture and cultural agents to what is needed more: add culture as the fourth dimension of sustainable development, foster critical thinking and express and negotiate other collective narratives in various shapes and forms.

As Article 3 TEU stipulates, one of the EU’s main aims is to ‘respect its rich cultural (…) diversity,” echoed by a similar formulation in Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. Cultural diversity is at the very heart of the European project. It draws its lifeblood from the many identities and alterities of its diverse societies. Is there such a feature as “the” aesthetic of the Green Deal to fit them all? 

What about the money?

The New European Bauhaus initiative has no defined budget yet. Culture and creative ecosystems, devastated by pandemics, express concern whether the New European Bauhaus – if supported by the Creative Europe program, the only EU program specifically dedicated to culture – will hinder its already scarce budget. 

We deem it essential, instead, that this new EU initiative is funded from outside Creative Europe, maybe through the Green Deal financial envelope, to signal and valorise the contribution of culture to the EU’s green transition, rather than purely “greening” culture and creative sector. 

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Beyond a rather complex trademark, and a weak conception of what culture and the arts are about, such an overarching project is also an opportunity to include a transversal cultural perspective in the sustainability strategy and put it at the center of European politics and policies. We are looking forward to knowing more about the way the whole project will be framed, as well as the degree of involvement of cultural actors in it. 

It is on us, as the ones working in the cultural ecosystem, then, to actively react to the invitation to co-create and contribute to defining the way we will act in this space. As a teaser for how beautiful this could be, just a final remark: artistic practice often interrogates the dominant culture and its conventions and convictions. Part of its transformative power lies exactly there.

 

 1“Bauhaus Bodies, Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School”, Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler (eds)m Bloomsbury Visual Arts 2019

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