Can Europe Make It?

The dialogue or the asylum: can Europe stick to its values?

The chance conjunction in Prague of DOX's Art Brut exhibition and of the Václav Havel Library's 2015 European Dialogues contains a message about European values and the public sphere.

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
31 May 2015

From the Collection de l'art brut de Lausanne website

I wandered into the Art Brut exhibition at Prague's DOX Center for Contemporary Art mid-way through - on the third labyrinthine floor. So I didn't know what I was looking at. Here was a Québécois artist who had bought a piece of marginal forest land near Montreal in the 1970s. Since then, he's been building imaginary living spaces - and some actual ones - out of objets trouvés. Here's a wall of photographs of his creation. The houses are dream-like spaces, and the dreams are made from the everyday. Some of them are bad dreams - doors that open onto nothing, a roof that isn't really one, a whole house that has been flattened, as if its only role is to be a photograph in an architectural magazine. But some dreams are good: here's a cozy space, a wood-burning stove, planks held together with horse-shoes and the ceiling plastered with the discarded comic books of youth. Astérix et Cléopâtre keeps the rain out. The comforting memory of a child's home provides all the warmth needed even from the Canadian winter.

As the remarkable exhibition by Mario Del Curto progressed and I found out more about the artists, I started reading the art differently, of course. Here is the description to one set of images.


Here were works collected from asylums and clinics the world over; they were utterly engrossing, and yet my relationship to the later pieces was utterly different from the relationship I had to that first set, before I'd known what I was looking at. There was the poignancy of the personal stories, of course. The illiterate migrant from Africa, in an asylum in Lausanne, who covered the existing writing in second-hand notebooks with a pictorial autobiography of loss that almost no one could quite decipher; the Japanese calligrapher whose private ideograms, repeated and repeated, morphed from elegant calligraphy up-close to whirling chaos seen from outside, a private language his carers have to decode; the brilliant Bostonian engineer who inscribes mysterious formulae onto scraps and warns his collectors not to try to apply them in reality because that would be dangerous ... Del Curto is remarkable in describing the artistic projects of these minds.

But where is this art being made? In the asylum, or in Del Curto's annotations?

The answer to that question brought me back to the reason that I was there at all, on the wrong floor of the DOX labyrinth - at least for the Art Brut exhibition. I was on the right floor for the Václav Havel Library's 2015 European Dialogues conference, this year entitled 'A time for European politics'. This post won't do justice to the richness of the program and the discussion. Here, all I'm going to try to do is to capture that one thought that joined in my mind the session that I chaired - 'Can Europe Stick to Its Values?' - with my dislocating experience of Art Brut. The reason that the Dialogues worked is exactly the reason that Del Curto's creators are so poignant: the dialogues are a common endeavour to make meaning; Art Brut is private language without dialogue. It is the inverse of art: the appearance of meaning, not the meaning of appearance.

My approach to chairing discussions (which I describe also here, for example in a discussion on the future of welfare in the UK) is to have my own hypothesis clear and to hope that my speakers will clarify, change and deepen it. I want to do this unobtrusively and without forcing a discussion into any unnatural place.

My hypothesis on European values and the difficulty of sticking to them was this:


  1. The EU should be the political embodiment of the values of Europe's surviving 18th century Republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité (and not because the European Enlightenment Republic is the last word on political virtue; rather because the EU needs to be something distinctly European)
  2. (the realisation of ideals in general is always hard, so of course the EU doesn't live up to what it should be)
  3. The mutual interdependence of those three core political virtues is often overlooked, and a lot of the trouble of sticking to them comes from a lack of recognition of that interdependence. 
  4. The special trouble that we face today is that each of these virtues, with threats from the outside and poor institutions on the inside, can be turned into their corresponding vices. 


I had this rough picture in mind while chairing:


There's lots that's wrong and reductive about the picture, but I find you have to have something pretty simple in mind to think on your feet in public. (The 'political dominance' column will particularly rankle; it is my view of the values most commonly associated with politcal leanings. But this is reductive. the right has no monopoly on liberté and the left no monopoly on love; and yes, the right does - mostly - believe in égalité at some level or other, even if it prefers to imagine it in the kingdom of God and attached to souls than realise it in the empire of Caesar).

Petr Pithart, dissident, revolutionary (he was Czechoslovakia's first post-communist Prime Minister) and intellectual, told us that faced with a values question, he was tempted to follow Wittgenstein ("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent") but entered the game all the same: the values of Europe are essential but forever in conflict; their conflicts mean that they require sacrifices; and sacrifices require honest and inspiring political leadership (he said this while a background projector rolled through a slideshow of grainy old black and white shots of Havel). Šimon Pánek, student leader at the time of the Velvet Revolution and then founder of the international NGO People in Need thought that his generation (which is mine) had become lazy about the inevitable survival of Europe's values; but the economic and geopolitical crises of the last 10 years have been a brutal wake-up call: they are threatened; we will need to avoid both wishful and comforting thoughts about Putin and dishonest and discomforting fear-mongering about migrants. Pavel Barša, philosopher and anti-establishment figure (both pre and post 1989), warned that we should handle all talk of values with care: when enlightenment values become motherhood and apple pie, Marine Le Pen can lay claim to them for racist and exclusionary ends: we must therefore focus on how values are realised in society more than on what they are in some abstract realm. Moritz Hartman, a post doctoral fellow at the Free University in Berlin described his project to regenerate the ideals of Europe, something he believes to be possible because of the actually realised European identity of "generation EasyJet" and its aspirations: democratic transformation of the public sphere will unlock the vision.

There's much more to say about all of this. Somewhat solipsistically, I only want to say briefly what happened to the picture I had in mind as the conversation progressed. Petr Pithart's view of the inevitable conflict of Europe's values pulled at my preference of seeing them as interdependent. Yes, there's a standard left/right (and economistic) view of a trade-off between freedom and equality ... but I prefer to think that solidarity provides the balancing item: it is the value that means that you cannot be free until others are equally so; that makes both of them imperfectly realised today. Šimon Pánek's wake-up added a sense of geopolitical threat to my mental image: Europe's values are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Kantian eternal peace between nations, and we should accept at least this from Karl Schmitt: when your enemy has chosen you, there is no amount of reconceptualisation that'll make him cuddly. Part of what keeps European values in the ideal (as opposed to real) today is that they really do have enemies, and real enemies are a huge constraint on what we can achieve. I felt most comfortable with Pavel Barša's view and his warning to handle values with care added a welcome layer to my view. And I was very pleased for Mortiz Hartman's optimism, idealism and pragmatism; when Moritz argued that the identitarian reality of his generation is utterly different from the old, Simon and I looked at each other knowingly: we're only just getting used to our selves as dinosaurs.

So what about Art Brut and where is the art in it?

What happened in the European values conversation was that a room-full of people was engaged in a joint entreprise of exploration. Each of us has pictures of the world that we're trying to knit into some sense, and bringing them together in a conversation helps us do that. Each of us is working to make meaning, and it is because there's so much we share that we can help each other. What each says is a check on the sense each is making. For all our individuality, we're involved in a common endeavour and we're working to make meaning something we share.

And that's just what Del Curto's creators do not have. They are making meaning, but have retreated from the common. Their tragedy is the isolation of their quest: to be an artist alone is hardly to be one at all. That is all the poignancy in their stories. The artist in this exhibition is Del Curto, because it is through him they speak a language we can decode. Without him, they are like Wittgenstein's lions: maybe they can speak, but we cannot understand them.

Making meaning, sharing it, and working to a common understanding: that's what the Havel Dialogues, embodying the best of European values, produced in bucket-loads; and it's just what the creators from the asylums of the world so tragically lack.

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