La culture et les élections européennes : parler du silence

  • Column

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Guest column by Tiago Rodrigues, director of the Festival d'Avignon and Boris Charmatz, choreographer and director of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina-Bausch and Terrain.

Tiago Rodrigues and Boris Charmatz, 3 avril 2024 © Christophe Raynaud de Lage / Festival d'Avignon

Culture and the European elections: speaking out of silence

Guest column by Tiago Rodrigues, director of the Festival d'Avignon and Boris Charmatz, choreographer and director of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina-Bausch and Terrain.

We are two European artists whose work circulates throughout the continent. We have both recently left our countries of origin to take up positions as directors of major cultural institutions in other European countries. We are convinced that our careers are the fruit of a Europe committed to the free movement of ideas and people. We are aware that what has been made possible for us was beyond the reach of our elders, who experienced emigration and exile during the twentieth century. We believe that a Europe that places cultural diversity at the heart of citizenship is better equipped to face the future. For all these reasons and many more, we are deeply perplexed by the silence of the candidates in the European elections on the subject of culture in their political speeches.

Across the continent, across the political spectrum and in all countries, most candidates are dismayingly silent about culture and the arts. This omission ignores the fundamental contribution of cultural life and artistic creation to the European project. But it is also a serious political error. At a time when war is reappearing on the continent and Putin's criminal totalitarianism is posing as an adversary of the European project, election campaigns are focusing on security and military strategies, while completely forgetting about the defence of our values. Ignoring the arts and culture is tantamount to ignoring an essential part of European democracy and neglecting a fundamental tool of freedom of thought and expression. It is said that, in response to a journalist who wanted to know why the war effort was leading to cuts in all sectors of the public service, with the exception of culture, Churchill is said to have asked: ‘If we cut the culture budget, why would we go to war? In reality, he never said this. And yet this fictional quotation affirms what should drive a genuine European political project.

At a time when populist and nationalist demagogues want to erect walls to prevent any project for a peaceful Europe based on free movement and hospitality, ignoring culture and the arts is tantamount to neglecting centuries of cultural diversity. Remaining curious about others, confronting different visions of the world, bringing different bodies together, mixing our ideas in the fertile confusion of translation: these are essential characteristics of Europe's past, present and any future prospects. In the context of an increasingly polarised society plagued by racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, excluding culture and the arts from political debate is a betrayal of the immense contribution to social cohesion and diversity that theatres, libraries, museums, monuments and festivals have made since the end of the Second World War. It is also a waste of decades of decentralisation and cultural democratisation, which are more vital than ever if the people of Europe are to claim full citizenship. This deafening silence from the candidates in the European elections is a further step towards the destruction of public cultural service, which is not even guaranteed in many EU Member States.

Perhaps the Democratic candidates in these elections felt that using the words ‘culture’ or ‘arts’ might offend a certain electorate, seduced by the lies of anti-democratic populists who pit popular culture against supposedly elitist culture. Perhaps this silence is an electoral strategy. If it is, it's a big mistake; a prior censorship that cedes ground in a debate of ideas that has only just begun. Let us remember the journalist and feminist Louise Weiss, who presided over the European Parliament for a single day, the day it was created. On 17 July 1979, she declared: ‘Let us safeguard together our most precious asset - namely our culture and our fraternity within that culture. This appeal alone sums up that the European project for lasting peace, although based on trade and territories, will not survive without cultural diversity and a commitment to creative societies.

At this point in our history, when the climate crisis is forcing us to be inventive on the road to transition and a profound transformation of our societies, a feeling of the end of time is overwhelming us. ‘The time that remains’, as historian Patrick Boucheron would say, is the countdown to a catastrophe to which we cannot submit. We urgently need to overcome the end-of-the-world narratives with immediate action, but also to bring out the first chapters of new histories. Any genuine European project needs ideas that open up new avenues. This is precisely the superpower of culture and the arts: to invent what seemed impossible, to imagine beginnings where the end seemed inevitable.

Tiago Rodrigues and Boris Charmatz