‘Brussels, the capital of Europe’ is a phrase I’ve heard many times since moving to Brussels in March – in political speeches, conference texts, conversations – Brussels, as the centre of Europe. In this brief column, I will take the temperature of the state of culture, as portrayed in Brussels in the lead up to the European elections (voting in Ireland is on 23 May).
Brussels is a very diverse city where the country’s two largest communities live together, French Walloons and Flemish, alongside newer, immigrant populations. In fact, the energy in parts of the city centre seems surprisingly agitated. Arriving just six weeks ago, one surprise has been the conspicuous presence on the streets of the debris of protest, police cordons and blockades, diversions, all in the shadow of the great EU buildings, left from President Obama’s visit, EU/Russian talks on the Ukraine with Putin, the EU and African summit, and workers’ marches. Meanwhile, those inside the buildings, the public servants, are rather brutally termed ‘functionaires’, in an Orwellian manner.
It was immediately obvious how close art and politics are and how tensions lie just under the surface, when at the opening of ‘No Country for Young Men’, an exhibition at the BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels featuring 33 young contemporary Greek artists, the exhibition curator Katerina Gregos politely but pointedly noted that ‘the exhibition was not funded by the Greek Government, as part of its cultural programme for the EU Presidency’. In its depiction of a Greece in crisis, the narrative of ‘No Country for Young Men’ is competing with the Greek government’s portrayal of its situation for wider consumption in Europe.
In May every year, a festival called Kunstenfestivaldesarts takes place in Brussels. It is conceived as a bi-lingual city festival of artistic work by Belgian and international artists in twenty or more theatres and art centres. In his introduction to this year’s festival programme, Christophe Slagmuylder, artistic director of Kunstenfestivaldesarts, writes, ‘There is an increasing impression that politics – entrenched in certain popular themes that are likely to be easy vote winners – is being reduced to something of a spectacle. It struggles to champion fundamental ideas. It seems to act from the outside and no longer manages to be a core part of people’s lives.’ Reading this, I am reminded of the importance of the grassroots; that demands for what we need should come from the ground-up, through debate, expression, relationships, and alliances, to influence the political agenda and not merely react to it.
At another Brussels event, Paul Dujardin, Director of BOZAR, opened a conference on culture’s role in external relations or foreign affairs by stating that ‘culture is one of the main pillars of soft power’. Dujardin continued on to advocate for a more active and dynamic role for culture and for the EU to recognise the ‘added value’ and ‘soft power’ of culture, and called for adequate funding for culture. It seems that many public moments and platforms in Brussels are used to make a political point. The harsh truth pervades that the place of culture is still a hard fought battle within the EU’s structures and mind-set; the power lies with the departments for finance, development and perhaps, surprisingly, environment. There are hundreds of networks, lobbyists and groups in action in Brussels. Competing with so much expert lobbying from the various sectors, how does culture become a priority for funding in Europe?
You might ask, why does ‘Europe’ even matter? The European Parliament currently consists of 754 MEPs and EU legislation has an impact on 80% of national legislation. Decisions made in Europe in the field of culture are taken in consultation with all Member States. Through Ireland’s MEPs in the European Parliament, as voted in by you, people have a democratic voice in this decision-making. If you are interested to read more about what organisations and individuals can do at local and national level to exert influence among candidates and politicians ahead of the elections, Culture Action Europe have a useful online toolkit for voters.
In the next NCFA newsletter, I interview Luca Bergamo, the Secretary General of Culture Action Europe, on the arts, culture, advocacy and the European project ahead of the May elections.
Independent is an arts professional based between Brussels and Dublin.