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Speach held by Peter Curman at a Writers' & Artists' Conference on the Greek island of Santorini, 2000

View of Greek island of Santorini
Photo: Peter Curman

Culture - a republic of its own

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 marked a dramatic change in European contemporary history. In fact, it was the beginning of a new epoch both politically, humanistically and artistically. Countries that for decades had been pressed down and camouflaged arose and claimed back their identity, their history and their cultures. Up to 1989, half of Europe was an abstraction called "The Soviet Union". Over the Baltic sea a political fog hindered us from seeing our neighbours in the Baltic states, St Petersburg and Poland. We were living in another world.

But in 1989 - two hundred years after the French revolution, a new revolution broke out. It was the civil society that protested. The Hungarian writer and philosopher György Konrad called it "the kitchen revolution". In his book "Antipolitics", published in 1985, he predicted what was going to come. People sitting together in the kitchens were simply tired of the official world of lies and failures. And suddenly they discovered that they could govern their own lives and fates.

In the Baltic states people threw out the intruder with songs and poetry; the Estonian uprise has been called "the singing revolution". Also in Latvia and Lithuania the writers and the artists played an important role. The same goes for Czechoslovakia - do yo a remember that country? - and Romania. In Czechoslovakia the imprisoned dramatist Vaclav Havel was promoted from dissident to president in some few weeks. In Hungary the chairman of the Writers Union, Arpad Gunz, became the president of the liberated state. How did it come that all these writers and artists suddenly found themselves in the frontline in politics? Perhaps because they had kept outside the old rotten societies; they were not part of the old corruption. They represented the civil society that for so long time had been neglected by the politicians.

Today, however, we must all ask ourselves if we really took the chance of 1989. Did we succeed in forming a new world of hopeful and democratic societies? Or did we ourselves be manipulated into new forms of abstract and antidemocratic structures? What has really happened after the European uprise of 1989?

It may seem as a paradox that as soon as one union fell apart a new one was founded: The European Union. Another paradox is that the fall of the Soviet Union was the result of the peoplesī resistance against the governing Soviet politicians while the construction of the European Union is a result of the so called peaceful ambitions of the European politicians and not by popular actions emerging from the people. But the difference is that the European Union will serve the interests of the people. The Soviet Union claimed to do the same but today we know that it did not. No more parallell between these two unions whatsoever!

But what did we writers and creators do to safeguard the victory of 1989? Some landmarks we have achieved. One is the International Writers and Translators Centre on the Swedish island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea. It was the result of a historic cruise on an old Russian ship, "Konstantin Simonov", that took place in early spring 1992. Onboard, some 300 writers, translators, publishers and booksellers from all the countries round the Baltic sea had gathered to discuss the new political and cultural situation that we now were facing. We were all determined to build bridges and overcome the problems of yesterday. Onboard the ship we had seminars and discussions and in the habours we gave readings and listened to conserts. And after the cruise - as a mirakle - the Govenor of Gotland offered us a site to meet the year round. And since 1993 - exactly nine months after the end of our cruise - the new centre was ready to welcome us all and has since then been operating as an important international meeting place.

Inspired by this success we two years later cruised the waters of the Mediterranean and the Black sea on a Greek ship, "World Renaissance" from the Epirotiki Lines, with some 400 writers and translators from 30 countries onboard. It was a meeting of writers from the north and the south of our continent but we were also happy to have colleagues from Vietnam and Israel onboard. Like on the Baltic sea we had discussions, readings and seminars onboard while we were guests of honor ashore in the harbours welcomed by Mayors and Writers unions. After the cruise we met again at a follow up meeting in Thessaloniki where the municipality of Rhodes offered a site on the island of Apollo. And in 1996 we inaugurated "The Centre of Three Seas", beautifully located on the slopes of Monte Smith overlooking the waters under the distant near mountains of Anatolia. Since then the centre of Rhodes is open for writers from all over the world to come and write and enjoy the hospitality of the Rhodian people. Like in Gotland the stay is free of charge. Both centres are operating under the auspices of UNESCO and in the statues both centres declare that they will promote mutual respect and understanding of diverse cultures.

The creation of these centres is of course linked to the historical scenery of Europe. We were sort of hitchhiking with history. Still it is important to remember that these big international event were not one second inspired or supported by any European cultural program. On the contrary, the whole idea of these ventures came from our conviction that writers all over the word - European or not - need each other and each otherīs literatures in order to develop. Culture can never be locked into any narrow frame program; it lies in the nature of culture to be free and independent. Therefore I think it was a good decision when the Swedish parliament decided, when adopting a national cultural program, that "culture shall be a free and independent force" in Swedish society.

There is a famous Swedish poet, Gunnar Ekelöf, dead since twenty years or so, who called one of his books "Non serviam". I think this is a good saying for all of us: We donīt serve any other purposes than our own. The world of culture can never be a national property. It is a republic of its own. And that is also why my organization, KLYS - which is an umbrella organization for all creative unions in Sweden - feel critical against some parts of the European cultural frame program which claims where it is claims that we in Europe shall bring "European values" into our projects if we want money from the union. What do they mean by "European value"? Certainly they donīt mean Buchenwald and certainly they donīt mean Kosovo. I doubt that they mean the European wars in Kongo in the beginning of the 20th centuary when the educated and civil Europeans were comitting massacres on the wild and primitive tribes. The wording "European value" sounds strange to me, still more strange is the expression "added European value" which also is practiced in certain circles. There are also certain rules for how and with whom we shall cooperate within the European cultural framework. I think that it is time to start a dicussion in Europe with the theme "Eurocracy or democracy". The tendency to build a fortress Europe with closed doors and windows must be avoided. As I said: "Non serviam"!

When we within short are going to build a network of writers centres on Rhodes with help of new technology, we certainly try to invite writers from Japan as well as from Chile, Argentine, Palestine and also from the African continent. This might not be the taste of the European Commission - it will be interesting to see if they reject our application or not - but it is definitely in the interest of the literary world. For what could be more interesting for writers inside and outside Europe than to discuss how to make use of the new technology and build new literary highways in cyberspace? With the help of print-on-demand - a method that allows you to print books in small and cheap editions - it is possible to establish direct contacts between writers and readers around the world. Internet is everywhere, it is only your imagination - or lack of imagination - that puts borders. It is today possible to create a noncommercial book fair on the net. As the book market for years has been dominated by big companies and best-sellers there is a great need to find new ways to publish new poetry, dramas and essays worldwide. All these topics will be discussed on Rhodes within short - with or without financial support from the European Union.

This meeting here in Santorini is also a historical meeting. For the first time creators from all over the world gather to defend their common cultural values. Like people all over the world we feel that we must intervene and take control of the exploitation of our work. There is today a widespread feeling of being victimised by unidentified financial and commercial powers who want to reign our lives. That is why people have started to fight back. We donīt accept that our lives are being gambled away in multinational agreements between investors and merchants in various free trade agreements inside WTO or OECD. We claim that the politicians in our countries must take action to defend the cultural diversity and the right to conduct a cultural policy without foreign intrusion. When the cultural ministers within short will be meeting here our message must be: Say NO to unfair agreements that can affect the right to fullfill a just cultural policy! Tell your Minister of Trade to exclude culture from the negotiations! Culture is not a commodity to be negotiated. It is a value of its own. Like many people in the new movements that have arised lately - starting in France with "Attac" in 1998 - we want to take back the future of our world. The ongoing financial globalisation of investment capital is causing insecurity and threatens democracy itself. As Ignacio Ramonet pointed out in his famous article in "Le Monde diplomatique" in December 1997 the financial globalisation is a law to itself and has established a supranational state with its own administrative apparatus, its own spheres of influence, its own means of action. Therefore, our fight for a free and independent culture is a part of the popular resistence that you can observe both in France and elsewhere around the globe. Perhaps we should also claim that a cultural Tubin taxation should be imposed upon companies doing big international business and with this money strengthen the cultural diversity. We also share the opinion that this financial world has no base in society. One fears that the result of this state of affair might be that the real state in the real world will dissolve and instead create a financial market of itself regardless of the needs and wantings of living people. To this horrible perspective we definitely say no and we urge that our ministers of culture do the same.

Dear friends, we have gathered here on this volcanic ground to speak out and to join forces. Perhaps it is symbolic that we are meeting on this special island since also culture is a vulcano deep inside all of us. The politicians may rule over many parts of our lives but when it comes to culture they have no power to rule us. Culture means access to your own private life as well as the door to the private lives of other people. Culture has no nationality. It is a bird that flies through all societies or a challenge that we all share, a dream and a reality what we all feel upon our skin. For this genuine, common value: Letīs keep together! Let us develop a coalition that no anonymous powers ever can break. We are not for sale. Culture is a republic of its own! Thank you!

Santorini September 24, 2000

Peter Curman


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