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Does European culture exist?

August 8, 2013

Enda O’Doherty in Eurozine:


The Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller, in a chapter she contributed to a book published in 1992, stated with some confidence her view that there was no such thing as European culture. There was certainly, she wrote, Italian and German music, and Florentine and Venetian painting, “but there is no European music and no European painting”.

It is true that the history of art and culture was not really Heller’s field, but it would seem that those who, in the same year as she wrote her essay, framed the Maastricht Treaty, signalling the transition from European Community to European Union, at least partially agreed with her. The treaty was the first time the community had taken for itself significant powers in the cultural field. European cultures (note the plural), the relevant article stated, were to be understood as requiring “respect” – by which one understands freedom from too much supranational interference (“The Community shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the member states, while respecting their national and regional diversity”). At the same time however, the Community was to be entrusted with the task of “[b]ringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”.

As with most negotiated texts, there is a compromise lurking here, or possibly a contradiction. First, cultures are to be understood as national (and grudgingly, just a little bit regional); they are even perhaps what define nations, the particular set of practices and inheritances which the Dutch, or the Germans, or the Portuguese have by virtue of their nationality, the thing that they have and no other nation has – that Dutch, that Portuguese thing. And yet it seems, according to Maastricht, that there is also a common cultural heritage which belongs equally to the Dutch and the Germans and the Portuguese. But what is this heritage? Is it something made up of a little bit of everywhere sort of tacked together (“the Europe of Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe” perhaps, to which statesmen like to pay obeisance in their speeches before quickly passing on to more important matters)? Or could it be something more mysterious, something actually European?

Be this as it may, European culture certainly has deep historical roots. But these roots, of course, lie in something quite different from the geographical and political entity that we know as today’s Europe. Europa was first, in Greek mythology, a Phoenician woman abducted by the god Zeus, appearing in the form of a white bull. Then the word came to designate those lands on the western side of the Bosporus (the eastern side being Asia), corresponding to part of modern Bulgaria and “European Turkey”. The Roman world was partly European but also Asian and African, its centre of course being the Mediterranean, the great sea, mare nostrum. The Roman church derived its teachings from the east (Asia and Africa again) but later established its dominion chiefly in western and central Europe (…)

Peter Burke has shown to what degree the Renaissance was not just an Italian affair but a phenomenon whereby a certain style, which may have started in northern and central Italy, a way of painting, a way of building, a way of thinking, a way of running one’s household if possessed of some power and wealth, spread out dramatically, to France, to Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, England, Scotland. Such a dramatic propagation of ideas, objects and practices was facilitated (as Gothic architecture had also been a few centuries before) by a greatly enhanced mobility of craftsmen and artists. [More]

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