Keynote speech by Istvan Szabó

The relevance of European culture, politics and economy in era of global competition

Keynote speech by Istvan Szabó

Thank you for the honourable invitation. My task is to examine the situation of European culture in the world of globalisation, in connection with the questions of economy and politics. This is a little bit complicated for me so I will simplify it to a narrow field, to my profession and then we shall see what conclusions can be drawn from it.

The motion picture, the film developed into the most important means of communication in the second half of the 20th century. As it recorded the events in action and motion, while being present almost everywhere we can call it the memory of the 20th century, the chronicler of its culture. If culture is an active form in which different behaviours attitudes and tradition-based morality appear, then films can record these straight away, in their original reality. But apart from documenting reality, films present lifestyles, conflicts, ways of problem solving and emotions through fiction, with the help of stories. Thus films can do picture living cultures in their own reality – cultures which provide a force of cohesion in society.

This way films serve as a mirror of culture, a set of examples, a representation of dreams and also as the propaganda of relation-systems. If a film does it well, it becomes important for people, because in a given age it represents their emotions and desires. What is more, it gives faces to represent the emotions of the audience. This is how stars were born, whose face, personality always represent the spirit of a cultural environment, the spirit of the current age – zeitgeist –, the desires of the audience. These faces were mostly European faces for a long time. Even when they appeared as heroes of stories from overseas. I’m thinking about Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman or Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Peter Lorre, Béla Lugosi. But audiences all over the world admired of Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri, Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Philipe, Jean Gabin, Jean Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Mastroianni, Monica Vitti, Liv Ulmann. They represented our culture, the way  how we love, how we are jealous, how we hate, how we forgive, how we argue, what gestures we use, how we express our emotions, what words we use, how we solve our problems, how we ask and give –that is on what level our relationships work. Our culture was reflected on the film screens, and also the world came to know our culture through our films. At the same time we also could come to know others. From the Naked Island we learned how members of a Japanese peasant family live and talk to each other. From Satyayt Ray’s films it was the Indian culture that reached us. And we could also detect the differences within the Christian world between the Swedish Bergman with Protestant roots, Fellini with an Italian Roman Catholic culture, the disillusioned Bunuel, brought up by Spanish Jesuites and Tarkovsky with a Pravoslavic spirit in the same period of time.

We could experience that culture and also European culture  is colourful – we can say it is local – German culture is different from Italian, English is different from Spanish, Swedish is different from Hungarian, or more, Prussian is different from Bavarian, Milan is different from that in Sicily. But there is still something common in this picture which is formed from mosaic-pieces of many different colours and shapes, this is what we call European culture. What it is? What is the common root which feeds every European culture; let it be in the North with cold and short days, or under Mediterranean climate, either in a big language family, or in a small language community, no matter if it is Catholic, Protestant, Greek-Catholic, Orthodox or Jewish? What is the essence of every European culture, the common spirit of Europe, that only Europe owns, something that we must protect in this world of globalisation which requires likeness, adaptation, correspondence, market assimilation and the competition according to different rules?  Is this the social sensitivity taught by the Bible, or the feeling of solidarity, the tolerance for the weak, the fallen, the struggling –is this also a teaching of the Bible? Or is it the idea of democracy, the heritage of the ancient Greek, the desire for human equality, or the nostalgia for the purity of law remembering Rome? Maybe it is the desire for freedom since the French revolution? The desire for freedom which is not selfish, which doesn’t only acknowledge its own interests but also its duty with respect for the freedom of other people.

And of course there is the historical experience. There is the view of the ruins, which says “Nothing lasts forever.” There is a city in Hungary. It is called Kecskemét, it was famous for its peach-brandy. The city’s central main square is surrounded by six churches. There is an Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic, a Calvinist, a Lutheran school with its small church, a synagogue and on the corner of a small street on the other side of the square there is another Roman Catholic church with a nunnery. On the upper end of the square there is a beautiful town hall. In the middle of the square, among the trees only one building stands, and this is a café-house. So a hundred years ago, in the age of the Monarchy, the citizens of this town – no matter whichever church they were coming out from – all went to the same café-house to have a cup of coffee, to have a word with each other, to play cards or billiards. And according to old photos this café-house was always full with people. For me this crowded café-house, surrounded by churches means the spirit of Europe.

When this spirit became endangered it was these small towns like this and similar ones from where those, who founded the American film started, Adolf Czukor (Paramount), Vilmos Fuksz (20th century Fox), later Sándor Korda, Mihály Kertész, Béla Lugosi and many others from Austria, Poland, Bohemia, Germany. They knew how to address people with different cultures and religions, coming from different social-historical backgrounds with their stories, and how to tell them the common dream. Also, it may be important that while overcoming so many obstacles, which resulted in so many failures they armed themselves with the necessary self-irony. Thus they lacked the killing poison of arrogance.

But this world is over. After their successful films rules operating on the market were born. Industrial production grew up from the schemes of their stories. Film industry came to existence, its products flooded the world, conquering ever-growing markets for a dream which captured the audience all over the world. It was the heroes of their stories, their faces that everybody wanted to see ever after, because these faces represented the new dream. And the global market of the entertainment industry was born, on which films are only market products among many others. Market products that propagate the power of the victorious, the culture of the strong. Show yourself as a winner, do not admit defeat, win!

Now we have a market product before us which makes us wear jeans and T-shirts, baseball caps and trainers, because this is the way we look strong according to the films. We gradually start to speak in a modified language, we use the mirror translations of four-letter English words in a natural way. When we talk to each other the level of our human relationships  gets adjusted to the films from which we learned how a father and a son, a students and a teacher, a policemen and a suspect, husband and wife, boss and employee, secret lover and adulterous wife, or jealous lovers talk to each other overseas. How they behave, how they solve their conflicts, how they reach for their beers into the fridge. That is how they live, talk and think.

How did Gandhi put it? “I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Now, let’s turn to practical things:

  1. If we are talking about European culture, we must know that culture is local, it is an unalienable belonging of human groups, countries, and sometimes the differentness and otherness of local cultures generate conflicts inside Europe, too. But cultural diversity is a value, even in spite of conflicts.
  2. Each segment of culture requires community education and support – especially in smaller countries, which have a more closed language and culture – so we must create the culture of support in Europe, which defines standards and controls cultural expenditure in the same way as it does in case of economic or defence budgets.  It is about our demand, our right, our duty to portray ourselves.
  3. Ignoring cultural identity and cultural heritage can cause deficiency diseases which become political forces, see examples of escalating nationalism. Cultures not tolerating each other, impatience can result in mass hatred and the creation of an enemy-image in any situation, just think of the case of the Spanish cucumber in the Hamburg region last year.
  4. We should not only preserve culture but also advance and proceed with it.  We live in the age of digital revolution. If we lag behind in investing into it, we will lose lots of workplaces. Professionals also must learn about the new digital world. This requires money, investment, training and time. The world is already digital, so let Europe not remain just a museum which can only show ruins to tourists from overseas.
  5. The distribution of cultural values, thus that of European movie pictures must be considered as a common European programme, which creates and maintains markets. If European culture does not take on a role on the market, if everything is vested in the market – for example in the field of films, where the US is in an advantageous position – a kind of cultural monotony, what is more, a monolingual culture is created in the movies, and also as a result of the influence of movies and the television.

Let us be not mistaken about it, the US or China do not have any evil intentions. They simply want to get money for their goods. Or to create workplaces for their citizens, a prosperous economy in a well-operating market. Their superiority on the market is unquestionable, there is nothing we can do against it. Our task is to gain an acceptable position on this market for our goods, too. A minor but acceptable position. This is not only a matter of political bargaining or being shrewd. The goods must also be sellable. They must be interesting, long-lasting, or what is more, we should be able to take them home. They must be alternatives and the representatives of a culture which causes a great pleasure to know. They must be something that can have a legend – just like a Swiss watch. Something that holds out the chance for a different quality of life, which is good to have, for which I would gladly stop for a moment in the rush, which I feel nostalgia for if I could enjoy it once before. But the most important is: Europeans also need a realistic vision of the future. A followable vision which includes the most sacred traditions of European culture – respect for our fellow-men, solidarity, social sense, democracy, desire for freedom – and sets Europe’s place in a globalising world without giving up its values. This place is definitely not that of the first ones. But it must be a promising, safe space, preserving human values. What I’m thinking of is the safety of a well-built boat, which won’t capsize even if waves are pushing it from every direction.

It is not easy to realise, it will create a lot of dramas which will be worth making films about, giving faces to its heroes, to see Europe in loveable, inspiring pictures. And perhaps let the audience of European films get rid of boredom, too.

I have recently read somewhere, that when England was already in war against Germany, the minister of war turned to Churchill to raise the budget of military affairs for improving defence. Churchill asked him: “Where should I take more money from?” – “From culture and social expenditure.” – suggested the minister of war. – “But what do you want to protect then?” – asked Churchill.

Thank you for listening to me.

Comments are closed.