Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Literature, Identity and Discourse by Bart Verschaffel

In this brief survey I will reflect on the ways in which different European cultures exist in relation to each other and appear for one another. I base this comment on my experiences with Antwerp 93, the project that made Antwerp Cultural Capital of Europe for the period of one year. As you know, the idea to instal: a Cultural Capital was originally Greek. Melina Mercouri argued that in a united Europe, where almost everything is based on business relationships and where there is little interest in culture, this manifestation would be able to show and therefore solidify the diversity of European culture. Within this initial and more or less official context of the Cultural Capital project, Antwerp 93 would have considered putting Antwerp and/or Flanders on the map as its main objective (or, if not, as its main effect). Let us show ourselves with appropriate pride to Europe and world for it is important that the world should see us.

But it seems we have a problem. Europe does not see or listen, hardly any one interested and the hall seems to be almost empty. Let me make myself clear on the basis of one anecdote and one observation.

The theme of the opening weekend of Antwerp 93 was "Occupied City". Occupied City stood as a metaphor for the things that were going to happen in Antwerp during 93: Art was an alien force that would temporarily occupy the city, welcomed by some, hardly tolerated by others. Occupied City is also the title of one of Paul Van Ostaijens' most important poetry volumes. The poems written by the Antwerp and Flemish poet focus upon the German army occupation of Antwerp during World War I. Van Ostaijen is considered one of our best poets, the quality of his poetry is on an international level and he is a key figure for the earliest expressions of modernism in Flanders. He was a city poet and a free mind during a period of time in which most of Flemish culture still roamed in villages and was heavily controlled by rural Catholicism. This is why the Antwerp 93 opening weekend was also meant as a tribute to Van Ostaijen and was therefore presented in such a way. A couple of weeks before the opening, we (at the Discourse & Literature department of Antwerp 93) received a call from the BBC World Service - surely not to be considered as just another amateuristic free radio station - and we were asked whether we could arrange an interview with Paul Van Ostaijen. Unfortunately this man died back in 1928. Well, that sure brought our feet firmly back on the ground. Nobody knows what is happening in Flanders, no foreigner has even the slightest idea of what is going on here. Apparently - and this has been duly noted during 1993 - Flanders, as a more or less coherent cultural field with its traditions and its canon of artists and writers of European or world wide stature (or that's at least what we sometimes think), does almost not exist in Europe. Ask anyone initiated in culture in France, Spain, Denmark or Greece, names of Flemish poets or authors, artists or intellectuals, and almost nobody will come up with one name. And this while it is relatively easy to communicate names. If someone like Paul Van Ostaijen is world famous in Flanders only, where do you begin when you have to acquaint people with something so complex and difficult as a tradition, a context, a culture?

After the anecdote, the observation

Antwerp 93 has had an efficiently working press service. The budget for communication was small (around 100 million Belgian francs, a little bit more than 10% of the overall budget) so hardly any publicity space could be bought. There has been a massive investment in the press that ultimately had to result in a lot of free publicity. And this strategy worked; we had more than ten thousand articles and reportages, radio and television programs. The head of the city tourist service estimated the commercial value of all this press coverage around 1 billion Belgian francs - which is more than the entire budget of Antwerp 93. There were around twenty television reports made by TV stations of neighbouring countries like Japan, Finland and Spain brought their TV crews over. When you have a look at these twenty tv reports, made by people from different background and culture, you have to conclude that they made more or less the same film. If you have seen one, you have seen them all. The same images, the same items: the cathedral, the market-place, the cosy bars, the mayor, Rubens, colour, sumptuous women, the river Scheldt and the Antwerp-based fascist party Vlaams Blok (Flemish bloc). What goes for the tv reports goes, on a smaller scale, for the written reports. The latter medium offers more space for individuality and this could be noted in the reports. But the overall conformity remains frightening. In all cases the central part of what is being communicated as a City that coincides with a couple of city views and clichιs controlled by the tourist industry for several decades. "Flemish culture" and / or "the cultural happening" Antwerp 93, being an artistic project with a highly proliferated identity and a clear-cut commitment regarding cultural policy, has hardly been made public. Conclusion: the press industry and the way in which the public domain exists and receives coverage, is not able (unless on a marginal level) to communicate culture from an intellectually interesting point of view while remaining in touch with the subject.

So what now? It is too easy for a small culture to feel unappreciated, to accuse the larger cultures of indifference, or to criticize the media on a global level. Instead, we have to think about what we can want for ourselves or for the culture in which we live, and what we really want and how much self-deception lies hidden in this desire.

Is it really that bad that the BBC and almost anyone outside of Flanders has no idea who Van Ostaijen is? Can we or must we be hurt in our cultural pride? Is it really bad that there are only clichιs about Flanders and that is impossible, unless you are a 'star', to receive the attention created and supported by the media? Considering the self involvement of the larger cultures and the way the media works, what does this urge to become better known, to promote one's own culture - art, literature - signify?

Many difficult issues are touched upon here, many issues that need to be profoundly and thoroughly discussed. I nevertheless think that throughout these discussions the same elements will come up and prove that the desire to come to grips with identity, to make an 'image' of oneself that can be controlled, spread and ultimately loved, is a sure sign of an unwise, perverse narcissism. The idea that you have to grid yourself with a strong identity, that you have to wear camouflage so that you have total control when you meet 'the other', that you want to appear 'as you are' convinced that your very 'existence' or 'success' is dependent on the degree of attention you receive, is a particularly bad and perhaps a dangerous principle in culture politics. It doesn't work that way anyway. Let us leave the notion of culture policy behind that considers it important that the Flemish literature 'exports' names, or that nurses the thought that we all would be better off if Claus would finally receive the Nobel Price (not that he is not welcome to it, of course).

You only are yourself when you forget yourself, when you no longer know who you are, when you are gripped by something else, something from 'outside'. The question of identity, the 'who am I' question is juvenile, the preoccupation with the way in which you 'appear' is a juvenile concern. Mature self-reflection is not concerned with the question 'who am I', but rather with 'where am I'. Not standing in the mirror, but looking around you, describing your whereabouts, being gripped by the world.

Culture policy must therefore not concern itself with the question 'who am I / who are they', which is a lucid perception of your own situation and in particular of the complex, multivaried context in which culture exists, is created and passed on. I believe that politics, or a certain form of policy, must see it as its task to intervene in these matters, to keep an eye on the quality of the 'environment' and to guarantee it. This environment or this context is very specific and influenced by local criteria. But there are probably also 'structural' elements involved, such as the effects of living in a small culture - effects that all small cultures have in common.

I will now briefly describe Flanders' literary and intellectual climate. I don't have to tell anything new, the facts have been analysed, the determinant elements are known. I will mention three of them: Flanders is a small country, it has a small language and particularly, it has a short, almost non-existent intellectual tradition.

Flanders is small and this has its consequences, its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that it is easy to have an overview of things, that there are no problems with the opposition between province and capital city, that there is no fierce competition and that it is easy to draw everyone's attention or become known or even famous. The other side of the picture can be summed up by the small art scenes, a small-scale market with not much money, an inadequate infrastructure and a lot of complacent authors, publishers and critics. In the case of literature this means that you have to look up to Holland, different cultures sharing the same language, with a much broader market, and more publishers and professional critics. The only foreign country where Flemish literature can become canonised is Holland and its cultural capital city, Amsterdam.

Up to a couple of decades ago Flemish literature had the philosophical struggle between believers and free-thinkers as its axis. Common to both parties was the fact that they made sure that the Flemish character of their culture was totally identified with the use of Flemish language. Since the 19th century the struggle for Flemish culture has been a language struggle. There are obvious, historical reasons for this: Flemish culture has risen from a culture of small people of rural background against frenchified political, economical, cultural and religious powers. People have fought to receive education and law administration in their own language. The creation of an individual, Flemish literature, and the struggle to maintain this language and literature has had important consequences for the Flemish public consciousness. The struggle is now over. Flanders has won the battle against the French-speaking Walloon provinces and the city of Brussels where the majority speaks French. Flanders is now the most prominent part of Belgium, both on an economical and political level. Nevertheless, people are still convinced that you can only be Flemish if you speak Dutch and that Flanders should remain a Dutch-speaking region at all costs. This gradually starts to show its limitations while the artificial aspects of being locked up in one's own language becomes noticeable. On a political and economic level, Dutch language is simply insufficient in Belgium and in Europe. As a businessman, a politician, a scientist, but also as an artist, critic or reader we still have to learn other languages. The question rises again whether it is not possible to be a Flemish poet or author and write in English or French. In the past authors like Verhaeren and Rodenbach have been in such a situation. How strictly or how exclusively should the connection be between a culture and its language? The question whether you can only be yourself in your own language and that the 'Flemish identity' can only exist in Dutch language, should perhaps be opened for discussion again. The argument against this is of course that language provides a way into our cultural history and tradition. But things are not so simple as they seem. Since: Flanders has a short, almost non-existent tradition. The history of what is now officially considered as Flemish culture and certainly as Flemish literature only starts late in the 19th century. And this particular history, with its subject matter texts, and possible sources of future inspiration is heavily influenced by the special conditions of a rural or parochial Catholicism that is now definitely a thing of the past and by an emancipation struggle that has been long decided. This history is now no longer useful, not as a frame of reference nor as base material. It does not yield any tradition. Like many other cultures, Flemish literary and artistic culture has become modern almost overnight, during the fifties and the sixties and, to the extent of becoming modern, has to orientate itself almost exclusively on foreign countries.

There is of course such a thing as the glorious Flemish History, from before the 19th century with 'our' famous painters, scientists and composers. Rubens, Breughel, Van Eych, Vesalius, Lassus: they have their monuments, streets are named after them and they are all over the touristic posters. But this old culture, with which Flanders identifies since the 19th century up to the touristic leaflets of today, has become part of us on a very superficial level. It is an unknown, almost alien culture. Flanders inherited its own 'glorious past' virtually only in the material sense of the word. The cultural heroes spoke, wrote and read almost exclusively in other languages, without Dutch language receiving anything from the benefits. One can furthermore hardly speak of anything interesting happening from the 17th up to the first half of the 19th century; 18th and 19th centurys 'culture' was almost exclusively imported in French. 'Flemish culture' is linked with a certain Flemish culture of the past, without having anything of the continuity that for example both French or English culture can boast. Flanders does not live with its 'glorious past'; ask any university graduate what he knows or thinks about Rubens. Flemish culture has a short memory, or perhaps no memory at all. This lack of an own tradition has its disadvantages: there is no 'suppose connate' no cultural background that is more or less obligatory, no levels are presupposed, there is no frame of reference for a discussion. But this lack of an obligatory tradition also has its advantages: it stimulates freedom, you can compose your own personal frame of reference and you can choose endlessly out of the entire European culture. Flemish culture has: no tradition, almost no memory, no standards, eclectic, anarchistically erudite.

Flanders does not function as an intersection, nor as a centre. It has no clear identity and is difficult to spot. There are many reasons for this, and those reasons make it useless and unwise to want to change the situation. Flanders-Belgium is a stopover, a passage, a kind of a no man's land. In a quite natural way, this situation influences everyone who writes, thinks or makes art. But within this vagueness, within this semi-sheltered marginal space that we call Flemish culture, it is not that difficult to work. I think that Antwerp 93, for example, has proven that this cultural zone has no owner with an over-sized ego, macho airs or aggressive tendencies, where people do not stay but enjoy to return to, can play a modest but important part. Not by blowing itself up and by trying to find some space next to the 'bigger' cultures developing a separate entity and a cleaned-up identity, but by creating and feeding various small co-operations and contacts, many of them based on personal friendship. Through this network of small and often personal relations, oxygen is being pumped that keeps thinking and creative work alive.


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