European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Can ECoCs contribute to a cultural synthesis - Hatto Fischer




How Europe is connected through culture -

the possible contribution of ECoCs to a cultural synthesis


Hatto Fischer

Athens 25.7.2014

 given for

The First Annual Valletta 2018 International Conference


Cultural Relations in Europe and the Mediterranean

Europe and Mediterranean, Valletta Sept. 4 and 5, 2014

Valletta Campus, University of Malta, Valletta


a version of the power point presentation given at the conference

How Europe is connected through Culture - Hatto Fischer 



Since Europe finds itself at a critical juncture, there is a call for a new narrative. Likewise there can be associated to the title 'small city - big dreams' of a conference held in Valletta in May 2013 to start preparations for 2018, a story about a magic violin, include Vincent Van Gogh's 'law of proportionality', and not end solely with how small Malta shall locate itself in big Europe. No doubt Europe faces many issues as high lighted, for instance, by the ongoing European debate to which among others Habermas or Bauman are making their contributions. Many of them were further underlined by the outcome of the European elections held on May 25th 2014. Thus if Valletta is to prepare to be European Capital of Culture in 2018, what needs to be observed? So far ECoC cities have failed to fulfil the European dimension and neglected to give their full support to an artistic director so that he can develop an inspirational, equally challenging artistic programme. No wonder why then so many people fail to identify themselves with Europe through culture! Even more critical is that ECoC cities chose to ignore one key term in the title, namely that of being a 'capital' for one year. Surely that has to mean being willing to assume responsibility as to what is happening to culture throughout Europe, and not only within the confines of one's own city. Instead the cultural horizon is reduced by focusing only on how to use culture to make the city more attractive to visitors. By ignoring the political dimension of culture, the art on display fails to deliver any political message. Hence the critical question has to be asked how can this be corrected? It will prove difficult since the continuity of learning between former, current and future ECoC cities has stopped ever since the formal ECCM network ceased to exist in 2010. The informal network which replaced it includes only present and future ECoC cities while none of them are asked to make a contribution to the European Capital of Culture as an institution which maintains an archive to uphold the necessary 'memory work!' How odd, since culture is all about remembering stories in need to be told. An epistemological critique of the concept 'culture' will attempt to show linking culture solely to the economy means displacing culture especially if it leads to ignoring that culture is 'theory'! Subsequently by not promoting a cultural life in Europe is being perceived by artists, while making no real investments in the arts, the culture projected by ECoC cities shall amount to little more than fireworks and superficial festivals, while not much shall remain thereafter in memory. If a ECoC leaves no traces, it will be impossible to construct stories how to connect Europe through culture. Can this omission be rectified by attempting a new cultural synthesis deemed as key prerequisite for democracy in Europe? If so, it amounts to stories yet to be told as to what happens when the arts do succeed in really connecting people.



When Valletta received the official designation of the title 'European Capital of Culture' for 2018 in May 2013, a conference was held with the title 'small city - big dreams!' That title reminds of a story about the magic violin.

It is about a boy who does not seem to grow, but remains only as tall as a thumb. One day his father gets really angry at him since he would want him to join him when cutting wood rather then doing that job all alone. Upon hearing his father shouting at him, the little boy runs out of the house and straight into the forest to hide. When waking up the next day, he sees that he has not grown a bit over night. Again he hears the sharp voice of his father and starts to cry. Suddenly a bird lands close to him and asks what is the matter? After being told by the boy the story, the bird comforts him and says: “don't worry, I have a solution for you; I shall teach you to play the magic violin!” The bird flies off and soon returns with a violin. Then the bird tells him to play on the violin forward and by so touching the high tunes, everything shall become smaller, and vice versa, when he plays back and touches the lower tunes, everything will become larger. After learning to play the violin, the boy returns home. His father sees him coming and rushes out to greet him, but when he sees that he had not grown a bit, he wants to shout again. But before he can, the little boy plays quickly the violin. Upon hearing the high tunes the father feels humble, and when the low tunes, the father feels so strong that he is ready to do the wood cutting all by himself, without the help of the son. After that the little boy says to the father, “even if I do not grow taller right away, I will make things look larger and smaller, and if you don't believe me, just take look for I will now play to the moon and you will see the moon grow first larger and then smaller.”

Alone such a story can tell a lot. It evokes also further going associations. As the title used for the conference in Valletta in 2013 suggests, it is a hint at a magic relationship children know only too well but adults seem to have forgotten, namely the huge difference between physical and imagined reality. For what appears to be small in reality can become huge in the world of the imagination. The story of Alice in Wonderland tells us what happens once the optics are reversed made possible by looking through the other end of the telescope. And Swift's Gulliver Travels shows him ending up on a beach to be tied down by dwarfs which make him appear to be a giant. Often we tend to exaggerate upon hearing a noise in the dark and image immediately a huge monster when in reality, if we verify the animal making that noise, we would have no fear since only a squirrel. Verification of what we image in reality is important. It helps us to keep our feet on the ground. Here culture becomes a way to tell stories. It implies learning to master exaggeration to make a point but also how to give a truthful account. For stories even of the imagination should not be a lie or some over exaggeration with the aim to distort the truth with the aim to deceive.

Out of the story of the magic violin can evolve the main question, if European Capitals of Culture succeed to connect Europe through culture? It would be the case if the culture ECoCs bring forth allows people to image freely relationships between the small and the large. It would allow to locate themselves within Europe and adjust accordingly. They would realize as well that the European Union is a re-imagining or as Habermas puts it, an 'ongoing constitutional' process. By departing from some common values, it is a way to seek the proper law to govern. And even if things have become complicated and confusing, it is possible to bring about a new cultural consensus for decisions on the basis for an updated constitution. At least, philosophers have this in mind when they speak about a practical discourse taking people from one level of cultural consensus to the next, so that a higher level of sophistication can be brought about. That process involving the imagination in relation to the institutions being created to make possible a certain way of governing all affairs is needed. If all actions initiated by the European Commission are to be coordinated, it requires still further going policy knowledge and a way to work out contradictions between policies aiming to protect the environment while others wish to further economic growth. In all cases, a good narrative shall facilitate and further an understanding of this complex undertaking.

If this is then what Europe needs, any ECoC has to develop a special concept of culture. Moreover if culture itself is an ongoing reflection of the stories being told and thereby demonstrates the art of exaggeration to make a point, surely the best way to connect people with Europe becomes a way to handle the imagination. This entails as well the art of illusions about which Michel Foucault stated there is a need to take them away but to leave those illusions in place which are needed for people to go on with their daily lives. The problem of illusions is that often they are used as an excuse not to seek a rational explanation, and therefore shall lead to the displacement of the very concept in need of being implemented. And definitely culture is not illusion but quite another way of finding out the truth when no other method seems to work. 1

People tend to project upon EU institutions their own way of understanding politics and cultural co-operation, and therefore need verification by being told what agreements have been reached in deliberations going on inside these institutions. 2 Hence the narrative about Europe needs constant verification in reality. It has to be done by ensuring both the inner and outer versions correspond to the tasks given to EU institutions. If not, the narrative about EU related affairs shall not be really to the point. Still, it is helpful to keep in mind what the philosopher Bart Verschaffel considers Europe to be, namely a fiction, but a very necessary one. 3

Picasso was aware of the importance of the imagination. He marvelled at the rich imagination of children but which they tend to lose once adults. Why? Adults seem to allow themselves to be cut off from a dialectic between imagination and empathy, although this facilitates the understanding of others. Once without empathy, no real dialogue is possible and therefore what the other images or fears, that cannot be reflected. Instead misunderstandings and disagreements will end up producing but enemy pictures of the other. Thus one task of culture is to let adults become again like children, rich in imagination and empathy for the others. Not to do so may already explain why the kind of culture being promoted by many ECoCs fails to connect people.

If any work of culture stands out in terms of connecting people, then it is Picasso's Guernica. 4 To date Guernica 1937 has become a conscious human cry against the countless killings of innocent people. World War II ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2014 we experience throughout the world such a massive, equally senseless killing of people, whether by car bombs in shopping malls or else rebel troops in Nigeria suddenly descending upon a village to kill everyone while taking hostage of young girls who should not be educated according to their kidnappers. And then there are the 295 passengers who were on that fateful flight of the Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, as well all those countless Palestinians killed due to the incursion of the Israeli Defence Forces into the Gaza strip. As if a show of force is meant to convince, yet how is that possible, if the other cannot be addressed since dead? Indeed, Guernica stands out still today as a master piece. It is capable of conveying a political message in the name of innocent people, and still do it without having to resort to the usual left or right wing ideologies. A culture is really alive if it succeeds to convey such powerful political messages through the arts taking side with humanity.

If culture is a conscious attempt to connect people in a non violent way, then by allowing to reflect through the arts what guides people's behaviour, it can safeguard that all act in a rational manner and in accordance with human values. As this brings the discussion a bit closer to the main question, namely as to what understanding of culture(s) can connect Europe to the Mediterranean region, it follows that the concept of culture has to overcome the post colonial mind set. It cannot be done by mere declarations wishing to promote culture while dismissing at the same time the arts as if but an illusion, since they have no impact upon politics while equally irrelevant to what happens in economic related trade affairs. Such a viewpoint leads if to anything, then to a mere public relation exercise useful to conceal favouritism and blank corruption.

In this regard, it is a worrying trend that almost all ECoCs fail to bring about a truly artistic programmes for lack of investments in the arts. Instead most organizations set up for that special year are operated solely by managers while missing is an independent artistic director badly needed if a truly artistic programme is to be realized. Only when such a programme can truly inspire people to participate on terms they can understand themselves, then culture shall give them access to further going connections with Europe and the world. For example, poets can build bridges of understanding and bring about an awareness for lesser spoken languages.

If a true narrative depends upon a 'cultural synthesis', then different strands of the arts need to be brought together. It is very much like a conductor who gets finally everyone to play in tune with the others. As such culture can and does make the entire system appear to be functioning in a rational, equally humane way. For then culture is both a kind of fluid to make things work and at the same time the air we breathe. Of course, culture is more than that.

For instance, an airport as transport hub may illustrate the difference between people moving according to simple rules when checking in and boarding planes and a cultural synthesis needed to coordinate and manage the entire airport organization, including planes landing and taking off, and this within a world having a variety of safety standards. Likewise culture is more than the economy or the unit being managed; it entails memory work but also a sharing of common values. Above all culture reflects a cultural synthesis in the making, when artists and the arts do relate to people who aspire to live and to work together in freedom and in respect of one another. Only when the human voice can be heard, a dignified life is possible.

Consequently a ECoC has to reflect upon what cultural synthesis is needed if the European Union is to be connected through culture. That task has a lot to do with what Kant coined as 'affezierbares Bewusstsein', or a consciousness which can be affected once addressed in a true and straight forward manner. Since we are affected by daily news coming in and we learn what is happening to other people around the world, culture acts here like a filter for it does not allow everything in while absorbing only then other ideas, if really open and curious about what others know. We do not know everything, only something as to what affects us when we move about in our daily lives. Close by we might meet a neighbour but through the news we learn over 1600 people have been killed by now in the Gaza strip. We partake at different levels and this in different degrees as to what is happening in the world. Over time, these externalized and internalized flows of informations will have become a part of our stories. By telling them to one another, we form our identities as it includes also taking a position to issues close by as well as far away. Certainly people are connected to the world in different ways all the time, what matters is what touches us when hearing about the fate of the Palestinians, and why we stay indifferent to events in the Ukraine until a tragic event like the loss of those 295 lives on that Malaysian flight brings war home, into our very houses?

Since 1945 Europe has been transformed through the creation of the European Union. The latter is an incomplete constitutional process since the EU institutions consisting of European Parliament, European Commission and Council of Europe require further reform. Nevertheless we move no longer just in reference to local or national values and laws, but have embarked on a long term cultural adaptation to EU norms, regulations and directives. Taken altogether, the European Union does take decisions as to which development path is to be preferred. The administration thereof requires in turn an ever more sophisticated reflection and willingness to come to terms with all these new complexities. Consequently the latter demands constantly an alteration in our thinking and way of appraising things.

If Europe is to achieve a cultural synthesis which allows people to remain true to themselves, this continent requires substantial contributions from the side of the arts and culture, so as to make Europe into an interesting place to live and to work in. The condition for that is an 'imaginary culture' needed to retain empathy for the other, including the migrant.

It is not sufficient to call for an inclusive society when culture lacks the power of the imagination to question reality. Moreover it makes no longer sense to speak about nomads in the 21st century when so many have become refugees. Only if culture means as well that the many homeless stand a chance to come home in Europe, ECoCs will have contributed to finding sustainable solutions. Yet rarely, if at all ECoC have been evaluated in terms of their contribution to a culture of sustainability. The term implies more than a mere legend left behind. If people can uphold activities of EU institutions, then European culture has become an integral part of their daily lives.

By reflecting what stories are told, people indicate that Europe is more often being shaped by forces not of their own doing. Moreover official narratives are suspect if they refer only to success while silencing all criticism thereof. This censorship means that actors within the EU institutions try to cover up failures and mistakes. Consequently the EU institutions retain no longer a creative spirit capable of challenging bad practices while the Eurocrats shall cut themselves off from a true culture which is directly related to human experiences, including failures to reach a true human self understanding within the given constraints.

Not covered in this approach is the formal way sought by EU institutes, member states and various other organizations like UNESCO to connect decision makers to a specific understanding of culture. In 2001 the European Commission did issue a tender so that cultural cooperation agreements could be examined, and thereby ways sought on how to help improve the situation. As this pertains to treaties, memorandums of understandings, formal and informal agreements between governments and all kinds of political authorities, reference to this can be found in a proposal made by the author on how to approach this formal side by including equally civic society and the so-called cultural actors. For artists themselves may initiate their own declaration so as to set free impulses on how to connect. 5 But this would be quite another topic in need to be covered, if full justice is to be done to the key question but how is Europe connected through culture? 6

When Karl Jaspers: About the conditions and possibilities of New Humanism gave his lecture in 1951, he attempted to draw lessons out of Second World War and what had brought about Fascism. 7 That needs to be kept in mind, when examining the narrative of how Europe shall be connected in future through culture. To examine the conditions and possibilities of creating a new ethical base when examinging not only the connections made by the arts and cultures promoted by ECoCs, but also to see if they have contributed to the making of a cultrural synthesis, five thematic questions shall be taken up:


Hatto Fischer


1The polish journalist Kapuscinski resorted to fictional writing when he could no longer figure out what was happening in Ethiopia.

2This idea is derived from the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis.

3Bart Verschaffel,(2008) „On the importance of the idea of Europe and the disadvantages of its realities.“


5See Flash back manifesto of artists in the area of Sonderborg while the city was preparing its bid for the title in 2017 but lost out in the end to Aarhus.

6For further information about this, see


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