Secretariat Report On the Conclusion of the 17th Year of EU-Japan Fest
is that the freedoms they are repeatedly griping about
are gifts surpassing all others.
— Marai Shandouru, Hungarian poet
I will surely never forget the concert in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 13, 2009. That evening the voices of boys and girls from different countries sounded throughout the cathedral of Sv. Kotrynos Baznycia, a church used as an armory and ammunition depot during the long Soviet occupation. The damage to the splendid baroque interior was tremendous and it remains painfully scarred. The voices spreading through this space that had known such hardship overwhelmed their listeners with such beauty and clarity that we seemed to be hearing a melody played by angels. Before long this sensation threw open the doors to the hearts of all who had come, and on the other side we apprehended a priceless freedom of another dimension, one we are not ordinarily able to perceive.
After nearly a half-century of Soviet domination, Lithuania recovered its independence in 1990. Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian video artist based in the United States, wrote thus of this historical development:
self-liberated Lithuania–no, nobody helped Lithuania to become free,
no Americas for Lithuania, Lithuania liberated itself — yes, when the
Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Vilnius, Landsbergis, in
the Parliament surrounded by Soviet tanks, sat at the piano and played
preludes by Ciurlionis.
The angels were watching and doing their work.
Recession Brings No Pause to the Arts in Europe
More than a year old, the global recession did not abate in 2009, but surged ahead and spread into yet more countries. In Lithuania, one of the hosts of the Cultural Capitals of Europe, the economic crisis was severe. In January the national airline went bankrupt, and in February the government announced sweeping and merciless spending cuts. The cultural budget was no exception. Japan received daily reports of Europe’s economic gloom. Arriving in Vilnius troubled with such anxieties, however, our fears vanished entirely. Everywhere we looked, activity firmly rooted within the public was unfolding with a vigor that squarely rebuffed the lethargic mood. Over the several years since Vilnius was selected as a Cultural Capital of Europe, Japanese artists and Lithuanian arts bodies and groups paid each other numerous visits in preparing an extensive program for this year. They brimmed with the hope that these activities would continue beyond the year of the Cultural Capital of Europe, and that the arts would develop and deepen across national borders.
While the recession brought higher unemployment and consumption by the general population slackened, apparently spending on the arts alone increased, a vivid illustration of how the very existence of the arts is a great source of human energies. Through revolution, the people of Vilnius secured for themselves unparalleled freedom, and that freedom steered the artistic activities that gave them the courage and joy of life into something more robust than ever. It was as if a sailboat was moving boldly forward into a strong headwind. This taught us that the greater our trials, the stronger we become.
This year, Linz, Austria, is the other Cultural Capital of Europe. Apart from being a provincial industrial town, in contrast to Vienna or Salzburg, Linz by no means features often in the international discussion. The selection of Linz as a Cultural Capital of Europe stemmed from this city’s efforts on behalf of culture and the arts undertaken with a medium- and long-term perspective after the war. There were striking achievements in the fields of modern and cutting-edge art in particular. Ars Electronica, the festival of digital media art launched 30 years ago as part of the music festival commemorating the Linz-born musician Anton Bruckner, has developed into a festival of a size and substance unrivaled in any other country. Numerous Japanese artists have taken part over the years, contributing significantly to its evolution and development, and it was the good fortune of the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee to have had the opportunity to assist – to the extent we were able – in this enduring enterprise.
In January 2009, the long-awaited Ars Electronica Center was completed. It is said that 80% of its visitors have been local residents. That the people of even a provincial city of no more than 190,000 engage with and learn from world-class cutting-edge digital art underlines the immeasurable cultural force of this city.
It goes without saying that Linz too has been touched by the economic downturn, and the city council has heard calls for cutbacks in the cultural budget. However, the citizenry delivered the judgment that the arts are all the more important in a recession. The municipal authorities, too, determined that the sum budgeted for cultural programs was on a par with the social security payments to the unemployed that would be incurred by cutting back on cultural programs, and succeeded in having the council reconsider its shortsighted proposal to trim the cultural budget. It can be said that cultural activities in Linz are not ephemeral, but continuous. They are the accumulation of many years of work, an expression of the strong wishes and earnest backing of its citizens. It seems that the underlying vitality of this country’s culture is to be found in the significant role that the arts have continuously played in the lives of its people, in times of prosperity and adversity alike.
Do We Really Need the Arts?
As for Japan, Japanese culture and the arts did not, unfortunately, develop in conjunction with its striking economic recovery, and there was no cultural policy. Of course, no one has contended that the arts are unnecessary, but neither has there been a debate over the consensus, much like a delusion that has – unnoticed – taken root in our world view, that the arts are “highbrow.” However, when the arts move our souls, we have no use for this “highbrow” label. The ever-present danger is that once it is defined as highbrow, art loses its ability to resonate with the human spirit, its primary standard of value reserved for those practitioners with name recognition or a record of illustrious prizes. Plainly, a consensus void of this unambiguous foundation has lodged itself as the overriding duty of the cultural bureaucracy that pours vast tax monies into countless, massive, empty community facilities of uncertain utility. Unfortunately, these facilities are not adequately used, and cannot possibly promote the development of culture and the arts.
On the other hand, the fiscal deficit of the current Japanese government is known to be an outlier internationally, and the shortfall of resources for social security, child-raising and national security is cause for great alarm. Not only is budgeting for culture and the arts of extremely low priority, the expense of maintaining the scores of facilities and public bodies associated with them is tremendous. Under these circumstances, one may easily imagine that the funds available for nurturing culture and the arts per se will dwindle further and further.
In a recent general election, the arts were not even mentioned in the manifesto presented by the party attempting to take power, let alone featured as a point of debate. This is to say that the public was not looking to politicians for involvement in this area. In the budgeting that followed, culture and the arts were targeted for cutbacks, and the memory of their being placed on the budget review chopping board is fresh. The vast budget allotted to community facilities and the grants programs for the arts are not in response to the strong demands of the Japanese people. Rather, they were created by bureaucrats and elected politicians while the Japanese people turned their attention elsewhere. We must reflect on this reality now, for it was our indifference, our irresponsible and tacit approval that gave birth to our present condition. I feel that there is a limit to how much we can scream at politicians for the increased funding of new projects in the arts while forgetting the stance we have taken with regard to the arts to date.
World War II left Vienna in ruins. The first building to be constructed in the rubble was the national opera house. This reflected the strong wishes of the many citizens who have, in their hearts, a place for the arts. In fact, there are a large number of cities in Europe that, as in the case of Sibiu’s International Acting Festival, make use of a building ruined in the war to actively pursue high quality projects in the arts. These examples suggest that the facilities themselves are not where the problem lies. Belatedly, I feel a strong regret for having repeatedly criticized the government for its building of facilities.
Now is the time for each one of us to look at the way we are living and ask ourselves if we really need the arts. I believe that engagement with this question will, in and of itself, open the way towards retrieving for our own purview the issue of the arts, for which the human spirit can intrinsically find no substitute.
Revisiting Japan’s Human Potential
At arts events in recent years I often hear that, having borne the blow of the current depression, the participants are in an impoverished condition. But is the depression the principal cause?
The state of the country in the immediate post-war years may already be worn-out history, but there is no mistaking that this was when Japan embarked on a fresh start. There is much we can learn from taking another look back. Tracing back the Japanese journey of recovery from the destitution of mountain upon mountain of charred rubble to one of the world’s economic powerhouses, one may identify a shift from reconstruction to recovery. Reconstruction consists of a material and quantitative restoration achieved with expeditious and formidable material assistance. Recovery, on the other hand, demands the spiritual strength of human beings, a strength that underpins their unbending will and their ability to execute as they work towards a spiritual and qualitative sufficiency and development grounded in a long-term perspective.
Japan escaped the devastation of the immediate post-war years thanks to generous international assistance, not least from the United States. And it is an indisputable fact that the spectacular economic recovery that followed, acclaimed even as “the miracle of the Orient,” was accomplished through a human effort that moved Japanese industry from its lowest point to its highest. Underpinning the economic recovery of Japan was a commitment to face down and overcome hardship.
Over the seventeen years since the establishment of the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee, a number of leaders from the business world have served as executive chairmen, working in support of our efforts in culture and the arts. What made a deep impression on me as secretary-general during this time was the firm will and enthusiasm the successive executive chairmen brought to the role and to the responsibilities that they took on.
Currently, in culture in the arts, in addition to projects of a quality that will move people’s hearts, are we not also in need of the will and enthusiasm – the human potential – exemplified in the business world described above? Both of the European Capitals of Culture mentioned above attest to the importance of human effort in constancy to the arts, in the face of the global recession.
Our contemporary society faces one new challenge and difficulty after another: privatization, fairness, equality, social inequality, change of government, a public distrust of politics, information disclosure, community revitalization, the collapse of education, a falling birthrate, an aging population, fiscal collapse, and more. We seem to be living in a downward spiral in which the effort to overcome these problems only generates new difficulties. Meanwhile, risk-aversion invites new risk, leaving us stranded and up to our necks in it. This is the pessimistic diagnosis that saturates our media. And it is a reality not only found in Japan, but throughout the world.
At the same time, however, the world of art features numerous instances of confronting this tide, of resisting it nobly rather than bending to it meekly. Last autumn I had the opportunity to visit the Istanbul Biennale, an exhibition of contemporary art held in Turkey. Its theme was “What is it that animates human beings?” and I was simply overwhelmed by the vast number of powerful works there that piercingly interrogated our condition at the mercy of our complex contemporary social systems and circumstances, unending international conflict, the flood of information, and so on. A piece that caught my eye at the end of the exhibit was a large neon sign that said “Don’t complain”. It was a strong contention by the artist that if you complain your life will be dominated by agencies other than yourself. The piece cut keenly through the contradictions of society with a powerful force, providing us with an opportunity to feel, think, and reflect anew on what it is to be alive in this time. And therein lies an energy which may help us to regain the humanness that we are losing sight of.
We are living in an age that is more materially wealthy than any other in the history of man. And yet our complaints are amplified as we blame most of our problems on “the times” and the “complexity of the system.” On the other hand, there is the saying “Pessimism is a frame of mind, but optimism is a matter of will.” Through the strength – the human potential – of the many people who have worked with us to date, not least in the difficult straits of 2009, I have had the opportunity to most painfully feel the presence of the “will” that all of us inherently have.
Looking back on our work in 2009, I am filled with a fresh determination. I am confident that through the future efforts of EU-Japan Fest, we may overcome differences in viewpoint and in values, rack our brains, hear each other out, spend time, build trust, and act with assurance even in line with the smallest expectations.
To everyone who shared in our work during this past year, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude.