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Ungarn Budapest Studenten der Universität für Theater- und Filmkunst SZFE
Image: DW/F. Schlagwein

European artists unite against nationalism

Stefan Dege
October 9, 2020

Germany's Academy of Arts is forging an alliance in Berlin to fight Europe's biggest enemy of democracy: nationalism.


The president of Germany's Akademie der Künste(Academy of the Arts, Adk), Jeanine Meerapfel, has been trying to determine how various artists and cultural institutions could rise up against nationalist forces in Europe, an issue she's been reflecting about ever since she took on the position in 2015.

"There is an urgent need for action," Meerapfel told DW, pointing out recent events which she says serve as a reminder of the danger nationalism poses to the cultural world. 

At the end of August, Germany witnessed the attempted storming of the Reichstag during protests against COVID-19 restrictions. Demonstrators, many with far-right sympathies, broke through a cordon and raced up the steps of the parliament building before police dispersed them. Some of the protesters carried the flag of former imperial Germany — still deployed by the Reichsbürger (Reich Citizens) far-right group. 

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government is attempting to seize power in independent institutions, including cultural ones such as the Budapest University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE)

Like most higher education institutions around the world, especially those in the arts and humanities, SZFE is identified with left-liberal ethos and Orban's conservative government is increasingly set on wiping those out. 

Meerapfel, who is also a film director, hopes to address Europe's wavering democracy during a three-day conference hosted by the AdK in Berlin, as well as discuss with fellow artists how the European Union can safeguard its cultural and arts scene.

Jeanine Meerapfel, president of the Akademie der Künste
Jeanine Meerapfel, president of the Akademie der KünsteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Europe: A cultural project

From October 8 to 10, the AdK invites representatives of European academies of arts and cultural institutions to lay the foundation for a European Alliance of Academies — a project sponsored by the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media — under the German Presidency of the Council of the EU.

At least 60 are expected to participate in the conference including Austrian author Robert Menasse, British writer A.L. Kennedy, German-Polish journalist Basil Kerski, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and German contemporary history scholar Philipp Ther. 

As Europe becomes increasingly divided in the current political climate, Meerapfel thinks it's more important now than ever before to turn towards culture and the arts. 

"Together we want to fight against right-wing populism in Europe and prevent the drifting apart of peoples," Meerapfel said.

"We must preserve our identity but in doing so link hands. We must try to understand what moves one another. This is important. Otherwise, the things that separate us will prevail instead," she said, adding: "We have experienced this before and we do not want to experience that again."

Artists unite: 'We can shape Europe'

For the French writer Cécile Wajsbrot, the European Alliance of Academies is an important step towards strengthening the EU. Wajsbrot said the union has become almost exclusively focused on the economy. 

"At a time when EU borders are not so much between countries but within countries themselves — between those who believe in democracy and culture and those who despise it — a European Alliance of Academies is an important symbol," Wajsbrot said in a statement. 

Robert Menasse, EU flag out of focus in the background
Robert Menasse has written about the future of Europe and the European Union, criticizing tendencies of re-nationalizationImage: picture-alliance/APA/H. Neubauer

Austria's Robert Menasse, author of The Capital, described as the first novel about the inner working of Brussels as the center of the EU, told DW he felt concerned about threats to the freedom of culture, particularly in Hungary and Poland. 

"The fact that the EU is too hesitant to resist only reinforces the problem," Menasse said. Artists are in a way the "natural opponents" of nationalism, the writer explained, adding that is why the academy conference is vital. 

"When misery erupts, I want to be able to say: I warned you, I was against it! We can shape Europe…or else suffer the consequences," he said. 

Poster artist Klaus Staeck
Poster artist Klaus StaeckImage: DW/S. Dege

For Klaus Staeck, the former president of the AdK, it is more important than ever before for artists and cultural institutions to join forces, even if it is only to help artists who have become victims of state arbitrariness. 

"If only there had already been an 'alliance of academies' when it came to protecting the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from his house arrest, when it came to taking the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov out of the Yakutia prison camp and when it came to preventing the absurd show trial of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov," Staeck said. 

For renowned German filmmaker Wim Wenders, "there has never been a better time than now for the creation of a European Alliance of Academies."

Film director Wim Wenders
Film director Wim WendersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Referring to the pandemic, Wenders said that while the coronavirus social distancing measures has physically separated people, many more feel united in isolation. According to the director, the global pandemic has awakened a deep longing for a new kind of togetherness. 

"In the end, will this experience just end up as a footnote — a missed opportunity in the memory of humanity?" Wenders asked. 

Digital media saves conference

The AdK conference in Berlin has not been spared by the pandemic either, with some sessions having to go virtual. 

"The initial idea was of course to actually meet in person. Now we have to get to know each other partly through digital media," said Meerapfel. "But that could be achieved. Arts and culture is not about solutions but finding 'ways': ways of thinking, ways to enlighten." This also applies to the pandemic, she added.

Founded in 1696, Berlin's Academy of the Arts is one of Europe's oldest cultural institutes. The academy currently has a total of 416 members and is made up of six departments: fine arts, architecture, music, literature, performing arts, film and media arts.

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