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The European culture capitals that should awake and unite
by Thanos Kalamidas
2011-02-03 07:01:22
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The cities of Turku (Finland) and Tallinn (Estonia) have been honoured by the European Commission with the title of European culture capital 2011. During this period the two cities will organize a series of cultural events with a strong European dimension, and by contemporary definition use it as an opportunity to generate considerable cultural, social and economic benefits to the cities, as well as change the cities’ image and profile on an international scale.

The whole idea was formed by the late Melina Mercury in 1985, then Greece’s Culture Minister and an internationally known and awarded former actress, in cooperation with her French Culture Minister counterpart Jack Lang. It all started the very same year, with Athens as the first European culture capital aiming to bring the Europeans closer together, highlighting the richness and diversity of the European cultures and raising awareness of their common history, values and common paths.

I had the chance to know them both personally, and after having worked with Melina – you would never dare call her with her title or her surname, working with her was literal, you would never work FOR Melina – I know that they both shared an enormous love for culture, for Europe and that they meant every single word when they acted on their dream. Most of the time Melina knew that the main contribution Greece was and is offering the European Unity is history and culture; it is the place where European arts and social structure, as we know it today, started. To honour this, the European leaders decided that Athens was to be the first European culture capital, marking the seriousness of the event with her name.

I have the feeling that until the mid 1990s the European cities chosen to become culture capitals have honoured the dream, transforming themselves into centres of European culture. They have not only promoted the European common roots and diversities, promoted the common values, historic and social paths, but they have also adapted to contemporary changes and through cultural tolerance they have found  ways to orientate solutions.

In the beginning social issues didn’t carry the necessary weight we need now, but as the Commission report says “Social objectives were not the highest priority for most European culture capitals, yet almost all included projects with social objectives. The different priority given to these objectives partly reflected the different needs of the host cities, although many European culture capitals displayed good intentions and rhetoric of social development. All European culture capitals mentioned growing audiences for culture in the city or region as an objective (“access development”). A broad definition of culture used by most European culture capitals contributed to this attempt to offer ‘something for everybody’. All European culture capitals ran projects for children; other frequent initiatives included cheap or free tickets, open air events and events in public spaces. Many European culture capitals also ran projects to create cultural opportunities for social groups outside the mainstream city culture (“cultural inclusion”). Initiatives were most frequently aimed at young people, ethnic minorities and disabled people. A small number of European culture capitals structured their programme around those objectives. Fewer European culture capitals ran projects to achieve purely social goals (“cultural instrumentalism”). The most common initiatives were training programmes for groups in the city or region.”

However, in most cases the impact of the European culture capital was limited to a short term impact like new buildings, city changes (traffic etc.), visitor impacts, new organisations and projects, instead of hard impacts that would excuse the fundamental aims. Actually most of them turned into an opportunity to attract tourism, and sadly in doing so with European funds it sometimes limited the culture events that should be the centre of the whole concept. This often excluded contemporary elements of European culture like immigrants and their influence on modern European art and culture, contemporary forms of expression and limiting everything to what …it sells, keeping the spirit of European diversity and European values drown into circumstantial profit. As a result the European culture capital concept for most of the cities had a very short term impact (cultural, social and financial) and left them without any hard legacy. Actually negative legacies were reported by some cities, including political arguments and adverse effects on future cultural spending.

According to the European Commission report the key for success is the extent of local involvement, the need for partnerships with all social elements including immigrants, the importance of planning, the need for political independence and artistic autonomy, the requirement for clear objectives, the value of strong content in the programme, and the need for sufficient resources, strong leadership and political will despite political agendas.

The next few months will show if Turku and Tallinn have the will to make the difference in a very worrying era with the European recession taking a harder turn, with art and culture the first to pay and xenophobia becoming a serious national problem in all the European countries. When Melina and Jack Lang talked about diversity of the European cultures and awareness of their common democratic values, this is what they had in mind. Let’s see what the contemporaries have in their mind, especially in two countries where xenophobic political parties have become strong partners in the state’s governing. 


This article was first published for the last issue of the art magazine Universal Colours

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Emanuel Paparella2011-02-03 13:01:59
Indeed Thanos, undoubtedly Melina Mercury and Jack Lang had it on target in as much as they understood the dilemma of a union wherein centrifugal forces like xenophobia may eventually lead to its dissolution. For, if there is to be a genuine union, a more perfect union, it has to be, first and foremost, a cultural union. Cultural identity is a sine qua non and it begins with the ancient Greeks. This is similar to the European vision of the late Jacques Derrida, the philosopher who spoke not of one but of a multitude of European capitals, of the paradox of unity in diversity; of an imaginative act that the current political leaders, mostly intellectual dwarfs concerned with economic and political matters exclusively, may be unable to muster. That imaginative act must come from the bottom up, from the people themselves who desperately need the original powerful vision of the founding fathers of the union; a vision which recognized that not by bread alone does man live.

Emanuel Paparella2011-02-03 17:44:34
Here is an excerpt of an article by Irakli Ziuali just out today:
“It is not easy to integrate Derrida’s Differance into social-economic life and furthermore to have it in international relations. But by the beginning of our century it was done and this fascinating voluntary step is the most positive development of the millennium so far. Of course, the European Union in its present form is a very recent phenomenon and obviously it is very early to talk about the definite success of this enterprise, but one thing is already obvious – that multi-cultural and multi-lingual approach can work and be applied successfully to the post-nation-state-building process. EU with its 23 languages is a good example of this.
One of the most important factors for European polyphony is that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) do not sit in national blocks, but in Europe-wide political groups. These include parties such as the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), socialists, liberals, greens and others. Between them, MEPs represent all views on European integration, from the strongly pro-federalist to the openly Eurosceptic. Here is one very good example of constructive channeling of identities and allocating the center of the dispute in a different place. Like all other EU institutions, the Parliament works in all the 23 official EU languages. European Union shows the respect for all languages and cultures of Europe, neither of those groups is considered second class. Respect for the identity of each member is an extremely important aspect of European experiment.”

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