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Why is so much official EU art ugly?

Summary:
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi recently spoke at an art competition organized by his institution the themes of “Stability and Independence” (which may as well be the ECB’s motto) and “United in Diversity” (the European Union’s official one): “If I had to do it again, I would begin with culture.” This quote is often attributed to Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union. There is a debate whether he actually said it. But whether he did so or not, it is a great point. Art abolished borders well before they began to be removed from maps through the European project. […] Artists are often ahead of their time. Their artworks tend to escape political constraints, to denounce nationalism, and overcome wars. […] Art is part of European history, of European heritage at its best. It also reminds us that values are not only monetary. This is why the ECB, like most central banks around the world, collects works of art. Since the beginning our focus has been on contemporary art. Today, our collection consists of 320 works created by 170 artists from 20 countries. It includes paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture and object art. One of the latest additions is the installation in the market hall, “Frankfurters, 1980”, by Thomas Bayrle, whom I would like to warmly welcome tonight as well.

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Why is so much official EU art ugly?

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi recently spoke at an art competition organized by his institution the themes of “Stability and Independence” (which may as well be the ECB’s motto) and “United in Diversity” (the European Union’s official one):

“If I had to do it again, I would begin with culture.”

This quote is often attributed to Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union. There is a debate whether he actually said it. But whether he did so or not, it is a great point. Art abolished borders well before they began to be removed from maps through the European project. […]

Artists are often ahead of their time. Their artworks tend to escape political constraints, to denounce nationalism, and overcome wars. […] Art is part of European history, of European heritage at its best. It also reminds us that values are not only monetary.

This is why the ECB, like most central banks around the world, collects works of art. Since the beginning our focus has been on contemporary art. Today, our collection consists of 320 works created by 170 artists from 20 countries. It includes paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture and object art.

One of the latest additions is the installation in the market hall, “Frankfurters, 1980”, by Thomas Bayrle, whom I would like to warmly welcome tonight as well.

Why is so much official EU art ugly?

Frankfurters, 1980

Art unites, but to engage in art also means to accept different perspectives, and to embrace the possibility that different, sometimes even incoherent perspectives coexist. In this way, art stands for the idea of tolerance, of an understanding that difference enriches – and mirrors the European idea of being united in diversity at its best.

Blending different systems and cultures, enabling them to exist side by side and fostering synergies between them, without denying their origins, is really one of the lessons that artists can teach us. […]

Draghi is right to point out that “to engage in art also means to accept different perspectives, and to embrace the possibility that different, sometimes even incoherent perspectives coexist.” Indeed, this seems almost a prerequisite for art to be original, or to be a reflection of a national culture, as opposed to a pale imitation of, say, American pop culture. The most spectacular artistics of past centuries – Ancient Greece, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England – reflected cultural particularism, even as they had universal appeal.

But artists have not always opposed nationalism. In fact, quite a lot of artists – because art is such a potentially radical milieu – have gravitated towards nationalism and the far-right. And certainly many artists have often had the elevation of the Nation as a major theme. Unfortunately I am not an expert on art history, but I can think of Jan Matejko’s evocative romantic Polish nationalist paintings, to not speak of the nationalist politics of a Winston Churchill or an Adolf Hitler, who were also painters. Some of the most brilliant artists more widely defined – Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound, Céline, Yukio Mishima – were sympathetic with the far-right.

More recently, some have argued the values in the art of Christopher Nolan (The Dark NightInterstellar) or Mike Judge (King of the HillIdiocracy) are fundamentally right-wing. The novelist Michel Houellebecq, one of the last authentically French cultural popular across the West, is certainly not a left-wing artist.

But certainly, today, the artists receiving official patronage (governmental or oligarchic) and media attention tend to be left-wing and anti-nationalist. This no doubt reflects an emerging liberal/left-wing cultural consensus in the West. For example, American cultural producers – which are by far the most influential in the West and have a large impact in Europe – such as Hollywood, academia, and print media, are overwhelmingly on the left side of the spectrum, as reflected in campaign contributions:Why is so much official EU art ugly?

Interesting, tech companies – which have a cultural influence if only because go on Google/Twitter/Facebook, etc, every day – apparently also donate to liberal causes. But I suspect they also have a libertarian and elitist streak.

Today one can be a libertarian, a centrist, a liberal, a green, a socialist, a communist, or really any kind of Marxoid and still be gainfully employed in mainstream media and academia. But can one be a conservative, a reactionary, a nationalist, or indeed a fascist? No, not really, not outside of specifically conservative media (who themselves typically do not go beyond conservatism and low race-baiting) and certainly not in academia (though, of course, there are exceptions). Many will argue this follows a moral imperative, but I do not find this very persuasive. Certainly, the Nazis killed millions, but the peacetime kill rates of Fascist Italy or Franco’s Spain were quite low, and certainly lower than the typical communist regime (millions dead in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, or communist Cambodia).

So Draghi is correct: Today the artists given visibility and sponsorship condemn nationalism, because that is what the incentives are.

This is reflected in official art in Europe today. Really this is often absolutely dismal. I often “resource myself” walking across Brussels, enjoying the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century art and architecture: Neoclassical statues of idealized bodies, neoclassical buildings of stark columns, Art Nouveau… This art can be considered a bit conventional but at least it was actually trying to be beautiful, trying to elevate the beholder to a higher ideal, to dignify the public space and give meaning to daily life.

The same often cannot be said today. Walk through the EU Quarter, the European Parliament, or the European Commission and you’ll often find an absolutely random assortment of art which either evokes nothing or is outright disturbing (paintings of sheep, statues of creepy children, of weird things looking like silver-hooded Jawas, of deer having missionary sex, etc). A few examples of the “elevating” official art promoted by our tax euros:Why is so much official EU art ugly?

Why is so much official EU art ugly?

Why is so much official EU art ugly?

The superman/sheep one is actually kind of interesting, but I do not think it fills the criteria for official and therefore political art that should be in public buildings. I will spare the heavy-handed migrants one of comment…

This is very different from walking in the U.S. capital, where the numerous monuments there inspire an almost sacred national solemnity and pride.

In France things are even worse than in Brussels, what with the government’s official sponsorship of ugliness and obscenity with the infamous “butt plug Christmas tree” and so forth. One has to ask: What is the point in officially promoting obscenity in the public space? What is the effect? To promote anomie and nihilism? To desensitize us to the difference between ugliness and beauty, and therefore, to good and evil?

All this is no doubt a indicator of widespread and profound cultural collapse among our elites.

There are attractive examples of official EU art of course. The best often depict trees, which evoke harmony, rootedness, and growth through steady effort and the fullness of time. The ECB recently setup this “gravity and growth” tree outside its new headquarters (it’s bigger than it looks):

Why is so much official EU art ugly?

Why is so much official EU art ugly?

ECB Executive Board member Benoit Coeuré explains that the (bronze and granite) tree “conveys a sense of stability and growth and is rooted in the humanist values of Europe in the most beautiful way.”

Craig Willy
This is the blog of European affairs writer Craig James Willy. Elite and popular discourse on the European Union tends to have a weak relationship with reality. Both pundits and politicians – whether American liberals or conservatives, British eurosceptics or simply French – tend to project their national dreams and nightmares upon it. I have a nuanced analysis of Europe based on the primacy and diversity of national realities and on actual EU decision-making practices.

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