News ID: 261512
Published: 1201 GMT November 13, 2019

Europe needs another cultural revolution. But who would lead it?

Europe needs another cultural revolution. But who would lead it?

Václav Havel is pictured during his time as the president of Czechoslovakia.

By Andre Wilkens*

I was an East Berlin student in 1989 when Michael Gorbachev visited the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and warned our leaders that if they didn’t change, they would be overrun by history. Theatres and churches became popup platforms for real democracy. Rock bands played the anthems of change and stopped caring about state censorship. Half a million people took over Alexanderplatz in Berlin in a show of extraordinary courage and optimism. I was filled with hope and anxiety. And then the Wall came down: The defining moment of my life. I knew then that nothing was impossible; that hope had won. Europe could reunite in peace.

Over the next three decades I would become a practicing European citizen with a British-German family living in six different European countries. All was good.

Fast-forward to 2019 and my feelings of hope and anxiety are strangely familiar. A new kind of polarization threatens the gains of European cooperation. Unacceptable levels of inequality erode the fabric of our societies; gaps of understanding and trust divide citizens and those they perceive as elites.

Shortly after the excitement of the 1989 revolution, an arrogant sense of the end of history set in. What else did we need beyond fine-tuning the wonderful twin-engines of capitalism and democracy? The collapse of the Soviet empire happened in the heyday of neoliberal capitalism, bringing with it aggressive privatization, the rolling back of state regulation and, praise the lord, shareholder values. This neoliberal medicine was prescribed for the former communist countries in the form of economic shock therapy, which produced mixed results but was always accompanied by rocketing levels of inequality.

I guess for most Easterners, myself included, copying the Western way of life seemed good enough for a while. But a copy-and-paste revolution is not a real revolution.

The 2008 financial crash, ground zero for postwar capitalism, should have been a warning that capitalism needed more than a facelift. And instead of just imitating the over-consumption and remote governance of Western Europe, the newly reunited continent should have leapfrogged into an era of more sustainable economics and revived grassroots democracy. Historically it was a missed opportunity for imagining a better Europe, together.

Artists and cultural workers played a central role in 1989. They disobeyed, they challenged, they offered hope and strength and energized people who had been resigned to the status quo. ​I think of the East German actor Ulrich Mühe, who used the stage to call for a peaceful revolution and who later starred as a Stasi officer in the Oscar-winning ‘The Lives of Others’. I think of André Herzberg, frontman of the band Pankow, the Rolling Stones of the GDR, whose every concert, every song, was a call to rebellion and freedom. I think of Václav Havel, who went from dissident playwright to the Czech president. ​The revolution of 1989 was cultural as well as political.

What was also remarkable was how public spaces, town centers, marketplaces, theatres, stadiums, railway stations, were occupied by the forces of hope. Graffiti and leaflets appeared everywhere. Satire and humor were deployed to powerful effect.

Today our public and civic spaces are shrinking, more restricted, more segregated and more commercial, usually covered in advertising. And when governments turn autocratic, public spaces are especially vulnerable to surveillance abuse and manipulation.

So what’s happened to artists in the last 30 years? Did they keep up the pressure or sink into complacency? Did we all sink into complacency?

I believe artists and cultural figures can and must again be the drivers of change. They can imagine a better Europe beyond simplistic talk of growth rates. They can help save Europe from nostalgia for 20th-century nationalism. Because the most pressing challenges of our times, like climate destruction, are global.

The European public sphere is still weak. But where it exists, art and culture have been its forerunners. Look at the range of European orchestras, festivals, exhibitions, pop culture and architecture. Don’t forget Eurovision or the Champions League — seriously.

But at a time when US and Chinese digital platforms dominate the European public space, European governments and institutions also need to invest in a digital architecture based on democratic values and European privacy standards. And artists can demystify and rehumanize digital technology.

We also need to invest in European experiences of all sorts: Studying together, playing sports, working, cooking, creating startups and helping each other out in times of crisis. Shared experiences create a sense of belonging, a European sense of purpose separate from big EU declarations. The EU’s Erasmus program is the world biggest student exchange program but it should be considered a pilot for a much bigger investment, which goes well beyond students and young people. We need an Erasmus for all.

Times of anxiety are also times of opportunity. They create urgency and a demand for imagination. By drawing on the lessons of 1989, we can turn these times of anxiety into times of hope again.


* Andre Wilkens is director of the European Cultural Foundation. This article was first published in the Guardian.





Security Key:
Captcha refresh
Page Generated in 0/5418 sec