„Old Europe“ and a changing paradigm on cultural relevance

Nowadays, when we reflect the situation of global cultural exchanges, one aspect is obvious: people often say, when describing the current exceptional circumstances, for example, that the global economy or global politics is undergoing tectonic shifts or that humanity is facing tasks of a complexity never encountered before or that nations need to make titanic efforts to cope with the current crisis. But in fact, a great deal has happened during the last two decades: the inglorious demise of communism, Fukuyama’s brief dream of the global spread of American capitalism, the new terrorism since 9/11, astonishing natural disasters, the economic rise of China and India, epidemics and finally the crisis of the market economy. European culture is, within this global development, a difficult term because this term is on one hand linked with a long history of negative dominance of European cultures in the countries which had to suffer under the systems of colonialism, on the other hand, when we look on the situation of today, we can observe that in many European countries events of so-called “high-culture” determine the broad understanding of culture. Mass culture and symbolic approaches, in Russia, India, Brazil and other countries, are based on completely different concepts. That means, that we as Europeans have to reflect these different international approaches and we have to ask ourselves why our concepts are often called “old-fashioned” or “too intellectual”. In this fast, new global world we can see, without any doubt, some dangerous dividing lines when we use the term culture. That has consequences for the questions of cultural transfers.

Without offering too much pathos at the beginning, it is perhaps necessary to make a few personal observations and remarks on possible trains of thought. In my case, it was first the radical experience of a new world, its visions and demands that I discovered in Dubai between 2007 and 2009, after spending time in the high-culture world of Berlin opera. It was probably my experience of speed and cursoriness derived from this and the risk that an emerging culture might destroy itself through too much acceleration. Speed in Dubai was literally a hallucinatory experience. Looking at things more closely, it was clear that Dubai – despite its exotic exceptional role – was the ne plus ultra of the phenomenon of speed, which has also entrapped the developed world. Putting things more simply, you could say that the largely peaceful period since the end of the Second World War has been a time of the removal of boundaries and particularly increasing mobility. But ever since the start of the global financial crisis, we have felt that this age of unlimited mobility may perhaps be drawing to a close. We are looking for new narratives in order to describe what is happening around us and where it is taking us. Sustainability has become one of these narratives and no supermarket can survive any more without sustainable products or services. Sustainability is now mainstream.

Another possible narrative seems to be forming right now. The longer the crisis continues, the more probable the prospect becomes that there will not be any simple return to former market economic conditions. Climate change, the shortage of resources, population growth, the end of economic growth – all suggest that the 21st century could become the century of a new asceticism. The spirit of the age already has a term to describe it: frugal innovation. The special thing about this phenomenon may be that it only appears to be based on a Western idea – but in reality it may have the potential to enable emerging economies to have a strong economic and cultural influence on the rest of the world.

It may be appropriate for Western countries to introduce more and more restrictive austerity packages and declare that austerity is a general virtue. The engineers of the abandonment of nuclear energy in Germany, for example, are thinking of ways in which they can make a departure from atomic energy attractive to emerging economies. But this raises the question of whether the West can seriously and in good conscience call on the rest of the world to forego what is left of the world’s natural resources – after it has first consumed a large proportion of them itself. This is not only a moral problem, but also one lacking in innovation. The statement “No growth” as such can only be understood as very negative.

But it is possible that those countries, which are causing us so many headaches by their rapid rise – like China and India –, are even one step ahead of us in terms of austerity and can show us what is actually required to make austerity work:

The Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car, for instance, became a symbol before the first one rolled of the production line in 2009. The Tata group, India’s most revered conglomerate, hyped it as the embodiment of a revolution. Frugal innovation would put consumer products, of which a $2,000 car was merely a foretaste, within reach of ordinary Indians and Chinese. Multinationals are beginning to take ideas developed in (and for) the emerging world and deploy them in the West. The term for this development is Jugaad innovation. Jugaad is a Hindi word meaning a clever improvisation. Clever improvisation seems to become a new influential form of innovation moving from East to West. For example, Walmart, which created “small mart stores” to compete in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, is reimporting the idea to the United States. India’s Mahindra & Mahindra sells lots of small tractors to American hobby farmers, filling John Deere with fear. China’s Haier has undercut Western competitors in a wide range of products, from air conditioners and washing machines to wine coolers. This trend will surely accelerate. The West is doomed to a long period of austerity, as the middle class is squeezed and governments curb spending. Some 50m Americans lack medical insurance; 60m lack regular bank accounts. Such people are crying out for new ways to save money. A growing number of Western universities are taking the frugal message to heart (at least when it comes to thinking about things other than their own tuition fees). Santa Clara University has a Frugal Innovation Lab. Stanford University has an (unfrugally named) Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability programme. Cambridge University has an Inclusive Design programme. Even the Obama administration has an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to encourage grassroots entrepreneurs in health care and energy.

It remains to be seen whether narratives like austerity or frugality actually describe the change of values in our global society in a profound way and what consequences this will have on the development of art and culture. For example: Are we about to embark on a new, ascetic avant-garde movement? Or an innovative culture based on shortages and improvisation?

Leaving aside all polemics, we should perhaps ask ourselves how open we really would be towards a radical transformation of values – or whether and where Europe – the old continent – is able to produce social and artistic models for this, which handle the change process critically without demonising it? And whether European culture – a tool to distinguish between nations, their heritage and identity, and to foster understanding between people – might be an area where these kinds of models could be created.

A major obstacle today is the obvious weakness of all that what was supposed to be considered “Europe” and “European”. In the period of an apparent decomposition of Europe’s fiscal and to some extent even political entity we probably also need to reflect on how much European experience, values, traditions and success still matter to the rest of the world. We may feel the imperative to rethink the balance between the “national” and the “European” in this context but also the question of how far art and artists should consider themselves concerned from the current crisis of an European identity.

I believe that our own attitude often stands in the way: we proclaim the universalism of values, which leads to cultural essentialism, but with a two-faced view of political and cultural developments in countries outside the West, on the one hand, and human rights, freedom of expression, welfare and environmental standards, on the other. For example, many large-scale cultural projects launched in emerging countries during the past few years – the construction of museums, universities, theatres, theme parks, but also exhibitions or festivals – are still based on this kind of essentialism and assume that we know best how to develop these things and that it would be appropriate for us to supply our ideas and products too.

But in reality, this essentialism is a myth like any other. It is probable to suppose that a major transformation is taking place right now in terms of content, institutions, work models and values. Despite all the convergence that has taken place in economies and cultures, the last ten or twenty years – since the end of the Cold War – have clearly demonstrated that civilisation around the world is still highly diverse and nobody has the last word on interpretation any longer.

Therefore we probably need new kinds of think tanks in Europe just to have functioning platforms to discuss these questions with many different international partners in order to find solutions. For example, a think tank like the one planned at ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts) could help efforts to monitor these transformation processes; this would firstly involve examining the role that our Central European region plays in all this (in developing theories, research, practice and teaching) – and secondly, the significance that this transformation could have on the region (its cultural institutions, the art community, content, research, teaching, strategy development etc.). International and regional perspectives should be seen as two sides of the same coin.

The Central European region, however, is an open-ended term; it basically refers to the German-speaking world, but it also refers to a possible hub function, which countries like Switzerland, Germany, Austria and perhaps even Holland could fulfil in mediating between the eastern and western parts of the continent. And they can help to improve a transfer of cultural ideas, goods and projects from Europe to the rest of the world with an important goal: to show that the European heritage of enlightenment, reflection and dialectic strategies is not something “old-fashioned”. But this is not an automatic recognition, not any longer. We have to prove that European approaches lead to sustainable results, that time and patience are not only factors of hesitation. They are necessary to avoid the kind of speed which results, at the end of the day, only in titanic masterplans for new symbolic buildings and tourist events but no concrete space for innovative artistic ideas which can help to understand cultural identity as a key factor for relevant artistic expressions. Unfortunately, there is often little interest in many countries outside Europe, at least not on official levels, to reflect intensively the abuse of the term culture for purely symbolic and representative actions. The complexity of cultural diversity and its streams in a global world, and also the support of sub-cultural scenes, need relevant advocates who can make clear that this approach goes beyond economic challenges. At exactly this point, the Europeans could potentially find a new role within this global discussion – provided that they are also able to change their attitude and call a halt to discussing culture predominantly as “high culture”. Primarily, we need to ask ourselves what global culture actually is and to what degree it might represent a new category or a new cultural term. To answer these questions one should compare developments on other continents precisely. If we look, for example, to Shanghai or to Shenzen, we can see a huge energy as well as a kind of “naiveté” we have already lost in Europe and of course we would not be able to re-establish such attitudes any more. Culture, in these cities, means something completely different to a European context. That requires – for us – first of all a process of translation. We have to learn how people outside Europe understand the term culture. And we have to reflect that this is not a new space we are looking at. Historical knowledge, a precise approach to foreign traditions, and an openness for different positions should be the starting position for cultural transfers from Europe. And we can learn something very important from countries abroad.

I want to illustrate this argument with an example. When in New York, Seoul or Rio de Janeiro cultural institutions search for new solutions for their projects, they start with a kind of international check, they look for so-called “benchmarks” from elsewhere, screen similar problems and how they have been solved in other countries. For example, thus far they have no personal contacts to Germany, to choose my home country, as it is very difficult to find out about such benchmarks in Germany. The explanation is quite simple. It is hardly possible to find proper benchmark-projects on the websites of German institutions, in English. Naturally, they exist, but their knowledge, their results, their experiences are not available as sources for international partners and their wishes for a dialogue. Here a huge potential for cultural transfers exists. Knowledge within international Arts Management is knowledge written in English. It does not matter if we look to Spain, China, Brazil, USA or India, the second language for such projects is mostly English. This is of course a problematic reality, especially when we reflect upon the loss of cultural diversity and its transfer via language, but it is a working reality. When we see how many German artists are successful abroad, just to name the painter Gerhard Richter or the film director Werner Herzog, it is astonishing that German cultural institutions are not very often at the level they could be, as relevant partners within international discourses. Globalization can support cultural transfers and the exchange of ideas but it can also lead to a dominance of only some countries, like the USA or India, which use language patterns in the same way as special marketing tools – in a strategic way to be visible all over the world.

European culture does not exist only because of famous opera houses, festivals, theatres or museums. Concepts of diversity and using mass culture as a common value stimulating new audiences exist but they are not on the main agenda of cultural policies in Europe.

In the 21st century it is necessary that European cultural institutions define their values and strategies in a way which reflects the potentials of cultural transfers in a globalized world. To become visible, to avoid the stereotypes of being “old fashioned”, or being sceptical but without losing the historic heritage of rational criticism against quickly drafted concepts of cultural success is a potential which is still widely unused. European artists have already found many ways to be accepted and to be visible in global spheres, but when we talk about a structural, a political, and an economic approach, then we have to admit honestly that, the gaps between Europe and other continents in the field of culture have become bigger than they should have. Starting to discuss this phenomenon is perhaps the first step to changing the situation.

These are all signs of a crisis. Familiar behaviour, decision-making, and interpretive criteria do no longer work. Crises of this kind have occurred time and again in the past, for instance, with the advent of modernity or of American popular culture. Crises also call into question institutions, as well as the theory and practice of culture. As a rule, they end with the assertion of a new understanding of (cultural) phenomena, that is to say, with the rise of a new theory and practice. As history teaches us, existing theories and practices do not automatically vanish as a result of such shifts. Often, such theories and practices are expanded or complemented. The situation of artists and cultural researchers can be compared to that of cinema-goers watching the same film for the nth time. They know the characters, the key scenes, the outcome. This time, however, the film suddenly starts running much faster. We lose our sense of direction. We see familiar sequences, but also unfamiliar ones. We realize that the film is narrating something new. But we do not know what. Memory does not help us. We leave the cinema — irritated or fascinated, or indeed both — and realize, moreover, that the film continues beyond the screen. It enters our everyday life, just as we become members of a cast acting out roles. Unlike in the feature film, however, no one is giving directions in this film-as-life, thus leaving us to find our own roles and develop a dramaturgy.

These phenomena can also be viewed from a different perspective, namely, technological progress, modern urbanism, and sociology. And yet these phenomena remain phenomena of cultural globalization, since they affect the internet or urban planning just as much as the theatre or the gambling industry. This leads me to suggest that it makes sense for us to consider these phenomena together. These thoughts offer us an opportunity to ask ourselves which film – to use the word as a metaphor – we are currently experiencing. Or rather, which culture are we living in?

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