Réunion informelle des Ministres de la culture: «Le nouveau rôle et les nouvelles responsabilités des ministres de la culture pour initier le dialogue interculturel» - Strasbourg, les 17 et 18 février 2003 

(version anglaise seulement)

Discours de Waldemar Dabrowski, Ministre de la Culture de la Pologne

I would like to take as a starting point the title of our Ministerial Colloquy: the key issue is ‘cultural diversity’, and the requirements that are addressed to us ‘with due regard for cultural diversity’ - ‘dans le respect de la diversite culturelle’ .

Our meeting today is a real expression of ‘cultural diversity’.

All of us here today were born and spent our early childhood in various places in Europe, the lives of our parents and grandparents were defined by various historical, history, social, religious experiences, and the traditions in which they grew up were different. All of that went to create our first home, our first fatherland. Great artists know that what is innate to us is most important in the creative process, that which is innate also describes the fundamental scope of our identity. In the course of our lives, our identity is enriched by new experiences, new points of reference and if one has a fortunate turn of events, it is possible to achieve a balance between that which is innate and that which is acquired.

I remind you of this difference not because of their being obvious, but to call to mind that the reality which describes the term “cultural diversity” for us, as private entities and in our social and political roles as Ministers of Culture, is on every occasion something different, differing from each other, posing different demands. In the actual practice of executive power, and the responsibility that flows from it, we have on every occasion to deal with ‘diversity’ in its concrete shape and form. The better we understand the specifics of this concreteness, the better we understand the tension between it and the forces that describe our contemporary situation.

I say this so that cultural diversity does not become for us yet one more ideologically enlightened universal means to lever our way into reality. So that we don’t make out of the ‘specific’ yet another spectacle, another administrative ‘non-reality’.

I see our new ‘responsibility’ as regulated by due regard and sensitivity to the ‘specific’. The specific is cultural and artistic life. Ideology

–each one, even the most enlightened and best intentioned one – signals death.

We know from the experience of intellectual resistance to totalitarianism that the formulation of every idea, every programme which is defined solely as opposition proves to be of little worth in the positive sense, and barren at the moment when that which we opposed falls apart or changes. When the reality of ‘cultural diversity’ becomes for us ideology, when it becomes solely defined in negative terms by reference to the destructive forces of contemporaneity then its real political effectiveness will be increasingly weak. The most conscious and creative dissidents of divided Europe, from Vaclav Havel to Adam Michnik considered that it was essential ‘to break away from the enemy’, that which we want to build positively cannot be defined by negation. That is an important message.

We must build, and help build, sovereign autonomous cultural realities. We need the deep conviction, experience and faith that cultural reality is endowed with a real existence which calls us to cultivate it. From the times of Cicero ‘cultivation’ has been and is the basic etymology of the concept of culture. How does this experience, this conviction, this faith really look in Europe today?

How frequently in the way that we think about Europe today, about its social condition, about capitalism, about the place and quality of culture in the individual and social lives of Europeans, do we refer in our thoughts to the times of the Iron Curtain which divided us - we who were thirsting for the free world of the West . We think of Europe from the perspective of its ‘Three Great Decades’ – from the end of the 1940s to the end of the 1970s. Of these three ‘Great Decades’ of post-war Europe, the ‘Golden’ one was the 1960s. ‘La Dolce Vita’ as perceived so acutely by Fellini.

After the 1920s, (up to the Crash of 1929), this was the second ‘Golden’ decade of the 20th century. From today’s perspective we see how fragile were these interludes, full of illusions - that’s the way it will always be.

The last revolutionary and utopian alternative for consumer society was 1968 – this alternative suffered defeat both politically and socially. This utopia of 1968 also brought art to its deep crisis of the latter decades, to its ossification in academic post-avant garde forms.

But really the Europe of these ‘Three Great Decades’ no longer exists. It is already history. It is only the illusion of a nostalgic memory to see today’s NATO through the lens of the 1950s, or the European Union through the lens of the Treaty of Rome of 1957. This nostalgia was not alien to us until yesterday. It remains in the hearts of Romanians, Bulgarians or Ukrainians. Why do I speak of this? Because all that defined the reality of Europe and the world, the reality with which we have to take on board today has really come about in the final decades of the last century.

One aspect seems to be decisive here. Power, economic force, (die Macht - in the sense in which it was used Canetti in his precursive work “The Masses and Power”) became the power and number one force. The economic factor is decisive in the field of power relations, that is in the realities of every Authority. It has elements of the Grecian idea of the natural order, which needs to be maintained, always to be taken into account, and not to be disturbed.

Determinism is the basic ideology in which we dress up this inexhaustible economic factor.

The entire basic appearance of today’s world, the social communications sector has been organised on the model of an enterprise, and in a natural way, it assumes the model of an economic power. This idea relates to the whole of the media, information technology and consumer dimensions which define the reality, and the posture of our individual and social lives today. Information in the 1990s became a commodity which as Ryszard Kapuśćiński analysed incisively, sensational information, or information as spectacle is the dominant form.

Economic determinism is a reality which we have to take into account, but I would be a fool or a pompous ideologue (‘the cleverer the stupider’ of Gombrowicz) if I were to think that this determinism describes the whole of the reality of man and the world. Freedom, intelligence, sensitivity and creativity are always the decisive factors.

Only now, after this diagnosis of the situation in the style of ‘real politik’ would I like to tell you about a certain real and specfic place in Poland which is called ‘Pogranicze’ – the Borderland.

Draft – Part 2

If you will allow me to just give one concrete example of this idea in practice, I will point you to a real town existing in a real place in Poland which is Sejny, the home of the “Borderland Foundation”, and the Cultural Centre called “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations”.

Why Sejny? Why the Borderland Foundation. The Borderland project arose out of the changes that swept Europe in 1989. Sejny is a small town right on the north-eastern border of Poland
it was chosen to reflect a move away from centralization, towards revitalisation of the regions.

The goal of the Borderland project – in the words of its members – is “to gather the richness and wisdom of the borderlands, a wealth which results from the co-existence of different traditions and beliefs”.

They talk of a search for a path that begins in ancient times and goes toward the present day, for a language which can make the elders’ wisdom available to the young generation and can inspire new artistic, scientific and educational research. The Borderland philosophy is summarized in its guiding concept - “where two people of the borderland come together, you will hear three voices singing”.

The Borderland project was set up by the Provincial Governor of Suwalki, and is under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture. Its location mirrors the cultural complexity of the region. It is situated right near the border with Lithuania, Belarus and Russia (the Kaliningrad enclave). It is an area with a very diverse range of nationalities, ethnic and religious groups: Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Roma, Tartars – Orthodox Christians, followers of the ‘Old Rite’, Protestants, and Greco-Catholics. It is also an area with a rich cultural past, such as the Armenian districts, and the Jewish districts. These have now been restored , not only as a memorial to the Holocaust, but as a means of widening knowledge of the Jewish traditions and culture in the area.

Sometimes, the ideals of cultural diversity, and social unity seem very abstract, but the activities of the Borderland are very concrete.

In the past twelve years, it has organized a pioneering formula of Cultural Centres, which have been a model for other centers not only throughout Poland, but also other countries. Within the framework of the Cultural Centre so many things have been organized: education programmes, the Sejny Theatre, the library (and Documentation Centre) publishing houses, a film studio, music workshops, photography, ceramics and textile workshops. Through concrete cultural activities, the diverse people in this region come to terms with their differences, past and present, and enrich their identity.

The main objective of the Borderland Centre and Foundation is to contribute to the strengthening of the environment through these initiatives, processes and groups of people, as well as individuals – rebuilding the past and reinforcing the identities of their living environments and traditions. All the time respecting cultural diversity.

Alongside the local activity of the Borderlands project is a wider international movement (like the Central European Forum, or the Open Region of Central and Eastern Europe), the organized session to be held on the theme of Modernity and Multiculturalism between Sarajevo, New York and Jerusalem – or the Café Europa - the literary café programme which has taken place in Barcelona, Bucharest and Amsterdam

Through this movement this modest project tries to create open communities in areas where different national ethnic religious and cultural minorities exist, and try to preserve and enrich them. The movement has also produced other projects which it has supported: all in areas with a rich mix of local minority cultures: Warmia and Kasubia in Poland, as well as in Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary and Bosnia. All of these projects are active in regions which have rich multi-cultural traditions but at the same time a background of conflict based on historical differences, and intolerance.

These cultural centers can really form the basis of dialogue and cross-cultural communication, as well as reconciliation between past and present. They fulfill a similar role to the ‘European Houses’ built in post war Europe, on the French- German borders.

One more word on the Borderland project. The latest project is the International Centre for Dialogue, which has been set up in a restored building 7km from Sejny- right on the Lithuanian border. The patron of the project is the poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose poetry and prose has captured the diversity of the region from which he comes. It is fitting that the Centre is located in the manor house, now restored, that belonged to his family before the war. It aims to be a center of education, primarily for all those who will work in minority cultures, and on locally based initiatives - but through them, a wider circle will be built and with them, a greater cross cultural dialogue with Europe.

Given the intensity of the conflicts and the bitterness of the memories of these regions, they represent a great hope.

The other important element is the way in which these centres have been able to flourish against the tide of economic and financial criteria that often seems to overwhelm us. They can point to a way that differs from grey uniformity.

These projects might seem small, but they are part of a long tradition in European culture.

Without wishing to sound dramatic, it is worth remembering in these turbulent times that it has always been the small and modest group that has preserved European culture. It is the wisdom of the Greek philosophers that have remained intact to this day, while the splendours of ‘big culture’ lie in ruins, the Roman poets still speak, though the vast and popular culture of the Caesars can only be imagined, and it was in the modest monasteries – from Ireland, to Monte Cassino in Italy, where artistic and intellectual life survived the Dark Ages.

Mass culture has its own energy, it does not need nurturing. I have already said that big numbers do not equal great culture, though as Ministers, we are often forced to justify cultural spending in these terms.

Whilst the demands of modernity may push us to pay attention to mass culture, it is in nurturing more modest projects that Ministers of Culture can truly sustain Europe’s cultural heritage, and in this way that cultural diversity and European unity can find fulfillment.