What does European culture mean?


Is the blandness of the euro note’s design symbolic of the inability of Europe to shape a shared identity? Or will the cultural bonds between EU states ultimately be what keeps the European project alive?

WHILE THE EURO is still in circulation, it is worth dipping into your pocket, fishing out a banknote – assuming you have any – and taking a minute to contemplate the physical embodiment of the beleaguered currency. Given that it symbolises an audacious project – the monetary union of a previously fractious continent – the design of the euro is, to put it mildly, underwhelming. Whatever the denomination, the notes are adorned with nondescript renditions of bridges and arches, all singularly lacking in character or visual impact.

In seeking to convey messages of openness and co-operation, the framers of the new currency did not choose inspirational figures or structures from the continent’s tapestry of interlinked cultures: no Leonardo or Cervantes, no Michelangelo or Beethoven, no Pantheon, Forum or Sagrada Familia.

Instead they used images that are, in words of the European Central Bank, “stylised illustrations, not images of, or from, actual constructions”. If a nation’s legal tender reflects its most cherished characteristics – think of the punt, with its iconic portrait of Lady Lavery as a virtuous Mother Ireland – then it is little wonder that the euro zone is in trouble. The insipid faux-grandeur of the banknote would struggle to inspire any affection, loyalty or imagination.

If the euro’s design shortcomings symbolise anything, it is the problem of defining a shared culture for such a diverse collection of nations.

Europe’s artistic heritage and creative achievements are incessantly hailed as bonds that transcend national divisions from Dublin to Tallinn, but there has been little articulation of just what these common cultural ties are, never mind how they supposedly make the continent so much closer now than during previous eras of conflict.

For most of the postwar era, in western Europe anyway, there was little need to substantiate the grand claims made for culture’s unifying potential, so long as things were going well. But with the euro project faltering in the face of economic crisis and raised national hackles, it is worth asking just how real the concept of a shared heritage is. If there is no meaningful unity in European culture, what chance is there of agreement on more pressing financial issues?

Moreover, there is the question of how Ireland fits into any putative creative legacy. Are we the influential cultural force of our national self-image or a sideshow to a pan-European mainstream, as our economy has turned out to be? The notion of a shared culture has been an ever-present background assumption throughout the evolution of the European project, though it took time for more practical policy on the matter to emerge. The Treaty of Rome, the foundation document of the European Economic Community, contained a reference in the preamble to culture’s potential for uniting people and promoting development, but no more. The Maastricht treaty of 1992 provided a legal basis for cultural policy, though even then the terms were vague, stating that “the community shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the member states, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”.

In practice, this has entailed the EU helping exchanges between various arts organisations across the Continent. Not for nothing did the European Commission’s 2007 agenda for culture approvingly repeat a quote by the Nobel-winning playwright Dario Fo that “the arts, literature, music are the connecting link of Europe”.

Cultural Contact Point Ireland, which is funded by the European Commission and the Arts Council, has helped facilitate projects such as 12 Points!, a peripatetic jazz festival run by Dublin’s Improvised Music Company, and One, an international performing arts project organised by Pan Pan Theatre Company in 2005.

Such ventures may open up valuable new avenues for artists and organisations, but ultimately they seem to operate on the cultural periphery rather than shape a grand overarching vision. The annual European Capital of Culture initiative seems to fit the bill better, allowing the cities in question to run year-long, outward-themed arts programmes. But while holding the title can enhance a city’s reputation, as with Glasgow in 1990, the benefits often have more to do with building local pride than cultivating greater awareness of the wider creative world.

A European Commission report in 2004 said that Dublin’s 1991 stint may have helped the development of Temple Bar (though some respondents felt this would have happened anyway) and possibly led to greater support for large events. But as to whether it enhanced transnational co-operation, “this cannot be ascertained”.

Meanwhile, Cork’s tenure as cultural capital in 2004 left some local artists feeling excluded, and seemed to leave little in the way of an enduring legacy.

At best, these undertakings have had mixed success in encouraging the public inclusiveness essential for a collective identity. There is, of course, one cultural event which truly draws together millions of people across the continent: the Eurovision Song Contest. But an annual televised pageant of bland ballads and gaudy pop is hardly the kind of improving, unifying heritage envisioned by the founders of the European project. Then again, the whole notion of just what constitutes European culture is unclear anyway, particularly in an expanding community of 27 nations.

As the historian Timothy Garton Ash has written: “The more nations there are in the EU, the more diverse the family of national memories, the more difficult it is to construct shared myths about a common past.”

The automatic reflex is to turn to the touchstones of great artists, writers and composers, from ancient Greek drama through the Renaissance masters to the disruptive works of modernism, not to mention the raft of historical sites dating right back to classical Greece and Rome. But even the obvious examples come with caveats.

Is Shakespeare uniquely English or part of European heritage? Is a poem such as Yeats’s Easter 1916a quintessentially Irish work or an expression of a distinctive wider legacy? Moreover, ascertaining the borders of European culture can be challenging. Prior to the fall of communism, the transnational heritage in question was distinctly western, effectively ending at the Berlin Wall; even today, the EU’s shared culture implicitly excludes the Russian canon of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky, not to mention that of the continent’s ambivalent neighbour, Turkey.

These issues are pertinent for this country. An offshore island on the land mass’s western fringes, Ireland has occasionally played an important role in Europe’s cultural evolution, such as the contribution of Celtic monasteries in preserving and spreading Latin Christianity, for example.

But for centuries the nation was removed from the main strands of artistic and intellectual life, through its geographical position and colonial subservience. Throughout much of the 20th century, this isolation was self-imposed, thanks to the independent state’s robustly intolerant Catholic ethos and the neutrality that removed the country from the second World War and postwar reconstruction.

On the face of things, then, Ireland has rarely been more than a bit player in the grand scheme of things. But according to Richard Kearney, professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of the 1997 study Postnational Ireland,the ambiguous nature of Europe’s culture – the difficulty in “defining it and owning it” – is also its strength, allowing countries on the margins to share in a common heritage. “There has long been this idea of Europe as a crossroads, between Asia, Africa and America, which gives it great potential,” says Kearney.

“It is a crossroads of translation between different languages, which allows a real appreciation of cultural regionalism; a crossroads of transition, a transit zone always on the move, where the borders are porous and open to cultural hospitality; and a crossroads of transnationalism, which has seen strong relationships grow between France and Germany, or Britain and Ireland, and acknowledges different national cultures.”

Seen as a fluid entity, European culture may be almost impossible to define, much less unify, but it is more inclusive. This idea of an open and shifting common heritage places Dublin at the heart of modernism through Ulysses, despite Joyce shunning Ireland for vibrant Trieste and Paris. It sees Samuel Beckett, a Protestant outsider in the Free State, joining the French Resistance and becoming a key figure in European literature, while still retaining his Irishness.

It even makes a virtue of Ireland’s Janus-faced position on the Atlantic coast, looking simultaneously toward Europe and America, by framing it as another gateway for what Kearney calls Europe’s “cultural hospitality”. Historically, this cosmopolitan receptiveness saw the humanism of Greek philosophy gradually meld with elements of Christianity, Judaism and even Islam to shape the quintessentially European intellectual tenets of universal individualism, freedom and democracy.

These days, such crosscultural conversations are more likely to take the more populist form of French-Algerian rappers IAM, British-Bangladeshi author Monica Ali or even Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley. Even the pliable membership criteria of the Eurovision, which has seen the likes of Turkey and Israel win the contest, is in keeping with these cultural traditions, whatever about the dubious musical outcome. But ultimately the receptiveness to such exchanges is rooted in the common values that grew out of Europe’s culture.

“There are shared narratives – the Abrahamic narratives, the Greek humanist narrative – that are part of our heritage,” says Kearney. “If you’ve got those, you’ve got some common cultural basis.”

Viewed through this prism of common cosmopolitan tolerance, the woolly definitions of wider heritage appear more practical. It is easy to scoff at Europe’s juxtaposition of lofty aspirations and grassroots cross-border artistic projects, but both play a part in encouraging a more open and accepting cultural landscape. After all, the centuries when the ascendency of high European civilisation was taken for granted also coincided with the bloody warfare that scarred the continent’s history.

With the pressures of national self-interest threatening the European project, it is worth remembering the intellectual values, forged by years of cultural traditions overlapping and cross-pollinating, which inspired the orignal postwar dream of unity. It is better to build imaginary bridges than burn them.