This is an article that appeared in Brooklyn Rail, a NYC-based art magazine. My brief was to write a piece on the effects of European unification on European culture. Click here for the BR website version. Or…
1. Europe: From division to unity to fragmentation
As the Iron Curtain was coming down, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Double Life of Veronique (1991) not only captured elegantly the emotional impact of Europe’s post-war division but also conveyed a brooding angst about the promised ‘European Union’. Kieślowski’s device was the overwhelming bond between two identically looking strangers, Weronika in Poland and Véronique in France (both played by Irène Jacob). Their paths only cross once, as Europe is about to be re-united. Jubilant that she had just been invited to audition for a major singing part, Weronika is rushing home through Kraków’s Main Piazza only to find herself in the midst of a demonstration. A protester accidentally knocks her bag over and her sheet music falls on the ground. As she is picking it up, she notices Véronique boarding a tourist bus. The two women’s eyes meet for a fraction of a second. After a successful audition, Weronika lands the solo singing part but, while singing her heart out in the concert’s premiere, she collapses on stage and dies. At that same moment, in Paris, Véronique is overwhelmed by deep, inexplicable grief.
Véronique’s emotional and musical bond with her Polish double (they share a love of the same music), and the radical absence she felt upon Weronika’s death, symbolize the solidarity and cultural-cum-spiritual connection between western Europeans and those left behind the Iron Curtain, even toward the southerners in Greece or in Spain who were not released from fascism until the mid-1970s. Films like Veronique and Costa Gavra’s Z (1969) epitomized a European cultural unity that not only survived but, actually, grew in the shadow of harsh divisions.
Could an elegiac film of this type emerge from today’s ‘united’ Europe? The irony of our present moment is that the eradication of borders and the triumph of the Single Market have devalued and fragmented Europe’s cultural goods. Today, Weronika might get a recording contract in Paris or in London but her music will be ‘homogenized’ within a global marketplace for music and art that knows no boundaries and lacks a heartland. Music, art, even theater have come under the aegis of market forces, guided by Brussels’ funded institutions, and ‘showcased’ in blockbuster exhibitions, or heavily marketed concert series, in which the stars are postmodernist curators, celebrity conductors and, of course, their corporate sponsors.
In short, instead of being bonded by music, emotion, guilt and culture, Véronique and Weronika would, today, be bound by a contract drawn out by some global legal firm. Indeed, Véronique would probably be worried that Weronika might move to Paris and take her… job. In this harsh world of ours, there is no longer room left for films like Veronique.
2. Culture and Europe’s Single Market: A mounting contradiction
Looking down from the heights of the famous Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park in Vienna, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man, 1949) issued an impertinent theory of culture: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
However impertinent Lime’s line may be, European high culture is drenched in blood and underpinned by conflict. Art and music are far from benign features that sit decoratively on top of European civilization. Picasso once said that a painting is not meant to decorate but to act as “a weapon against the enemy”. Beethoven dedicated his Ninth to Napoleon, and then tore up the dedication in anger. D.H. Lawrence sported a raging contempt for democracy, with a sprinkling of virulent anti-semitism thrown in for good measure. Ezra Pound’s poetry celebrated his immense love of European culture which, alas, proved no impediment to his glorification of fascism.
Hermann Göring once quipped that: “When I hear the word culture I reach for my Browning”. He was right to think that culture is, indeed, a dangerous weapon. Unless, of course, culture becomes commodified by expert gallerists, post-modernized by cunning curators, and sanitized through the meat grinder of the European Commission’s funding procedures. Göring never understood that he had no need for his revolver! Culture could be defused simply by making it go through the revolving doors between the Single Market and a European bureaucracy. Indeed, why send the storm troopers into the theaters and the artists’ studios when, the bureaucrats, the auctioneers and the curators can eliminate the potential of culture for political subversion, turning it into another realm where playfulness and subversion are traded in the cultural stock exchange, alongside jewelry, cars, gadgets and toxic financial derivatives?
For three decades now exchange value has been wiping the floor clean with any other form of value, including the cultural. Since the 1970s finance has been subordinating industry and neoliberalism converted us to the new creed that markets are ends in themselves, rather than means to greater ends. Thus, we developed a radical inability to think thoughts that a more confident past used to allow: that there can be song and poetry valuable in its own right; that value may well be irreducible to price; that, no, not everything is a matter of demand and supply; that the inability to privatize the smell of a meadow in springtime is not a problem in search of a ‘technical fix’.
While commodification is a global phenomenon, it took a particular virulent form in the European Union around the time of Veronique’s release. Not because Europe became too pacified, or too unified for culture to flourish, but due to the constant retreat of the public sphere. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a Single Market from the Atlantic to the Ukraine and from the Shetlands to Crete. Borders are awful scars on the planet and the sooner we dispose of them the better. No, the problem is that market economies require a powerful demos to counter-balance, to stabilize, to civilize them. To keep Europe civilized and European culture ‘dangerous’, a Single European Market required a supersized democratic state. Instead, as the nation states were retreating, a wholly undemocratic, centralized bureaucracy was taking over. The emergence of a gigantic market and a colossal bureaucracy led to an Unholy Alliance of exchange value and bureaucratic fiat at the expense of the cultural and political values that Europeans so painfully produced over the centuries.
3. Divided by a common currency
On a dull autumnal afternoon in 1978 two suited men exuding authority entered the chapel in which the remains of Charlemagne had been resting for eleven centuries. The two men had just completed an agreement that set up the European Monetary System which, eventually, spawned the euro. One of them, the French President Valery Giscard D’ Estaing, was haunted by the memory of a previous experiment with monetary union – the calamitous inter-war Gold Standard. The second pilgrim, Helmut Schmidt, the German Chancellor, was worried too, fearing a backlash from the mighty Bundesbank. To drown their trepidation, Giscard and Schmidt sought solace and legitimacy in the legacy of the Christian King who, amongst European traditionalists, is synonymous with the longing for European Unity.
When, a couple of decades later, the new euro notes were issued, the cultural signs of the impending disaster were printed all over them. Take a look at any euro note. What do you see? Decorative arches and bridges. Only these are fictitious arches and non-existent bridges! A continent replete with cultural treasures has, unbelievably, chosen to adorn its freshly minted common notes with none of these treasures. Why? Because bureaucrats wanted to print nothing ‘dangerous’ on the new money. Even if one knew nothing of economics, and of the Eurozone’s hideous architecture, one glimpse of the cultural desert on the euro notes might have sufficed to guess what would transpire.
Thirty six years after Giscard’s and Schmidt’s euro-kitsch ‘pilgrimage’, a continent that was culturally united (despite clashing temperaments, legacies of wars, different languages, and even Iron Curtains) is now divided by a common currency. Based on a preposterous reading of Aesop’s tale, according to which all the ants live in Europe’s Protestant North and all the grasshoppers have congregated in the South (plus Ireland!), the crisis of a terribly designed monetary and economic union has propelled Europe’s core to an advanced stage of disintegration.
The Roman Empire imploded when its inner core became too brittle while its borders were expanding eastward. A cultural vacuum, also known as the Middle Ages, was the result. Today, the European Union is also seeing its core disintegrate at a time of eastward expansion. With one proud nation being subjected to fiscal waterboarding after the other; with one people turned against another; with no serious discussion of how to create a rational economic architecture; and with some Europeans increasingly convinced they are more deserving European than others, Europe’s core is weakening perilously and the bonds of solidarity are breaking up.
And here is the irony: Before the border fences were torn down, a film like the Double Life of Veronique resonated perfectly in Paris, in London and in Stuttgart. Today, a similar film would not. Véronique and Weronika would have no bond, no mystical connection. They would have been pitted against each other in the context of a ruthless Single Market where solidarity evokes predatory ‘bailout’ loans and priceless culture makes no sense.