Roman roads that still lead the way, the future of the EU, the sheer pleasure of swinging an axe and a few more subjects to fire up your imagination and get you talking in 2016.
Notes: The sounds, the smells, the reassuring tedium: nothing is more rewarding than the slow and leisurely pursuit of chopping wood.
Neither Rome nor Paris were built in a day and neither will disappear if you get there one day later. Perhaps by steam train. Or by foot. Anything really slow will do. Speed is the enemy of admiration; the constant acceleration of our existence makes us alpha predators of life.
As an antidote I advocate chopping wood, preferably in the Norwegian forests. Unhurried, tedious work. A few times during the firewood harvest and always on the first day, I like to use a bow saw. A pure, analogue instrument. Two parts: the frame and the blade.
I walk until I find a tall but stout tree, one that is my age or older. I might have walked by it when we were the same height. Me on my way to school, the tree on its way towards the sky. Cutting it down is heavy labour, dangerous too. I sweat, I struggle.
Not many people hear a tree falling these days. It is an astonishing sound. And it falls slower than you would expect; it takes seconds because its first and final journey is stalled by the resistance of the branches against the air. The sound is long and creaking initially, followed by a great whoosh before it lands on soft winter snow.
This is the sound of the real world. This is work at its finest, not something we rush through with the goal of relaxing afterwards. Here, work is the goal – and the slower the better. There is no stopping point, no finish line, just more room for admiration of the moment and of the tree. Nothing can touch its majesty in the air nor on the ground. It still offers hours of heavy and rewarding work. Hauling it to the trailer, unloading it, cutting it and then – what I enjoy the most – the splitting.
I use an axe. Not because it is slow but because it is dangerous. I cannot let my mind wander; if other thoughts intrude the axe will embed itself in my knee. So I fix on one single, hard blow. And strangely my frustrations go into the firewood; and next winter (when it will be used for precious heating) into the stove. It is rewarding work because it is manual and it takes time and therefore I put a part of me into it. I can see the result, lift the result, smell the result, use the result.
So many of us have jobs with a great separation between what we do and what puts food on our table. Our work may not be tangible at all; it may only exist on a spreadsheet. Not so here: the weight of the log is equal to my reward. Double the labour, double the reward. I am present in the moment and I want to go on; it is repetitive but never boring, and when I split a log it is final. Most other things in life demand constant improvement but at the chopping block every log is different and each is good – and I want to keep going.
It is a big heap of wood now. I stack it loosely so that air will circulate. Then comes spring and then summer; I step back and know that nothing more can be done. The seasoning cannot be rushed. Later the stack will yield the odd creaking sound as it shrinks. I do not have to visit it every day to see the difference.
I cannot assist it nor does it need help. It prepares for winter by itself, the different logs like geological layers of my labour. It grew slowly and is to be consumed slowly: its value will not deteriorate. It is a protest against haste. Because speed is a currency always in deflation: things that change fast will change again soon. Not so with a woodpile.
A Norwegian author and journalist, Mytting has written three critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into more than 10 languages. His latest work, Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, is published in the UK by MacLehose Press and in the US by Abrams.
Notes: A new breed of foreigners known as ‘roamers’ are actively seeking out lives abroad – and the cities in which they settle should embrace them.
When it comes to citizenship, most politicians are stuck on an idea from the 1960s: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” These legislators have no clue what to do with an entire group of people who respond, “I love my country but I wouldn’t want to actually live there.”
There are 232 million people living outside their home country today. While many of these people are immigrants, refugees and expats, there are millions of people who live abroad in a way that isn’t explained by those narratives. Highly educated and globally minded, these foreigners make an active choice to live internationally so they can find better careers, more intellectual stimulation or simply more adventure abroad. I call these people “roamers”: a new breed reassessing where and how they live – and it is having a profound impact on cities, societies and economies.
Though passports and citizenship are meant to imply certain loyalties, predispositions and roots, roamers have a mobile notion of home. While immigrants build ties to countries and may be willing to wait five or 10 years to become fully-fledged citizens, roamers build indefinite ties to cities. Unlike expats, roamers don’t necessarily expect to repatriate, at least not for good; they pursue professional or personal goals unfettered by national borders. Today people increasingly say they’re “based” somewhere. In the same way that religions have a pious and secular divide, we may be in the middle of a nascent split between fervent patriots on one side and agnostic citizens on the other. In the same way you’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m a lapsed Catholic,” might people soon confess, “I’m Canadian but I’m not practising”?
This has left national governments scratching their heads; many countries don’t even keep track of how many of its citizens hold citizenship elsewhere. Cities on the other hand, could be the big winners here if their leaders have enough foresight to capitalise on the trend. Because in the same way that the ancients were citizens of city-states, roamers might be going full circle back to the earliest model of citizenship – at least emotionally.
Take, for instance, Taiwanese native Hsin, a self-identified roamer. Hsin lives and works in Germany but she longs to return back to where she feels most at home: Boulder, Colorado. Despite spending the first 20 years of her life in Taipei, when she moved to Boulder to finish her undergraduate studies something clicked. “It was like I was finally back in my own element,” she says. Importantly, Hsin’s affinity is city-specific. “I felt at home enough to call myself a Boulderite but I wouldn’t say I felt American.”
Forging a new and possibly temporary relationship with a city is more accessible than developing a bond with a country. It’s relatively straightforward to become a Londoner; becoming English is something else entirely. One can enjoy living in Beijing without having a similar affinity for China. The US is a much denser, more emotive concept than New York; the country has a national anthem, a constitution and an oath of allegiance. The US goes to war; the Big Apple does not.
Cities, for their part, are beginning to recognise the opportunity that comes with attracting large numbers of foreign-born residents. All global cities rely on roamers to feed their hungry economies. The world’s top 30 cities now account for roughly 18 per cent of the planet’s GDP and they need the professional skills that roamers bring. The UK’s most pro-immigration politician is Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and a New York-born Brit, who has said that the capital’s thriving economy depends on “talent being able to migrate in from overseas”. Yet professional firms, he adds, “are finding it very, very difficult at the moment to get in some of the people who you really need to keep London’s economy going”.
Though cities might recognise the economic value of roamers, they’ll also need to acknowledge that this new way of living requires a new way of governing. A city such as Paris might be a magnet for plenty of roamers but there could be an equal number of Parisians who are themselves roaming to cities abroad. The scales may balance out occasionally; at other times they’ll surely be tipped. As the idea of citizenship becomes even looser, cities will increasingly need to react in new ways.
Looking ahead to 2016 and beyond, it would be wise for cities to do what they can to attract as many roamers as possible. This may require an innovative approach. In New York, councillors are currently considering legislation that would extend electoral rights to its one million foreign residents, who also happen to be taxpayers. Although democracy isn’t entirely predicated on a monetary exchange, it doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to argue that all taxpayers, not just US citizens, should have a say in how their New York tax dollars are spent. While the bill will certainly meet with opposition from Washington – where conventional wisdom dictates that only American citizens should have the privilege of voting in elections on American soil – that it’s being considered at all is encouraging.
But beyond high-minded philosophical assertions of universal suffrage, New York has much to gain from the move. By offering foreigners the chance to vote, New York is offering them the opportunity to form a deeper connection to the city. Many roamers are frozen out of the political process because, by virtue of living abroad, they’ve lost their right to vote in their home country. Despite court battles to overturn the law, Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years are not allowed to vote at home; registered Australian voters lose their voting rights after six years and New Zealanders must set foot on home soil every three years to keep their voting privileges. But for those roamers who are still able to vote in their home country – including Americans, the Japanese and recently departed Brits – an impressive 58 per cent still take part in the ballot in spite of all the red tape involved in voting from outside the country.
If New York extended voting rights to foreigners it would give roamers more than an opportunity to mark an “X” on a ballot every four years; it would give them a reason to buy in. It would send foreign residents an implicit message: “You live here, you pay your taxes here, you deserve a voice. Welcome to the club.” Invite a new member to your club and you can be sure they’ll be the first to volunteer for a committee. Like our Taiwanese friend Hsin, New York-based roamers may never feel American but the right to vote invites them to take ownership of their city – be that by donating money to a political party, investing in a business or volunteering in the community.
If New York passes the bill in 2016 it will be a marked step toward recognising the place foreigners have in global cities. The move could inspire other cities to follow suit, or at least spark a much-needed debate about non-citizen voting. Roaming is a growing phenomenon and whatever New York decides won’t stop more and more people moving abroad. But cities that are early adopters of welcoming and courting roamers will ultimately be the big winners in the global race for talent.
Born in Canada, Patha has lived in the US, Singapore and the UK. Her book Roaming: Living and Working Abroad in the 21st Century is out in January 2016.
Notes: Despite a drubbing on home turf in 2014, the World Cup created a feel-good factor that swept Brazil. The cost of the Olympics may prove an own goal.
In August 2016, Rio de Janeiro will host the Olympics, the first to be held in South America and probably the biggest event in its history. The clichéd image of my country is once again travelling the world: samba, Carnival, women enjoying our beaches in tiny swimsuits and even the return – if we are lucky – of “the beautiful game”. Just two years after hosting the World Cup, Brazil has the opportunity to use perhaps the greatest soft-power tool in the sporting world to sell its brand globally.
There is just one caveat: what seemed like a golden opportunity back in 2009 – when the South American giant won the bid – has proved a bad omen. The exposure that both the World Cup and the Olympics have offered the country has instead focused a painful spotlight on social inequalities, political corruption and misspent resources. No one doubts that the Olympics will be a great celebration “Brazilian style” – but one that will leave a bitter taste. After the party is over, my country may well find its hopes of becoming a world power further away than ever.
It all looked so promising in the mid-2000s. As the world’s leading producer of sugarcane, coffee and oranges, Brazil benefited like no other country from the commodity boom throughout the region. Massive oil reserves were discovered in Rio state’s waters promising long-term prosperity, while state-sponsored relief programmes lifted 40 million people out of poverty. Impressive as this was, one doesn’t need to be Cassandra to see that circumstances have shifted rapidly. With the economy slowing, the once aptly named “country of the future” is left pondering just how auspicious that future is going to be. What the world will see in Rio in August – if it really pays attention – is a tale of lost opportunities.
The retraction of China’s economy – the main destiny of Brazil’s commodity exports – and a series of economic mistakes by president Dilma Rousseff’s administration offer a scenario that makes my fellow countrymen rightly ask: what’s the use of hosting the Olympics anyway? But before we pen a doomsday prognosis, perhaps it’s worth looking at the example of the World Cup. Despite Brazil’s dire on-pitch performance – losing in humiliating fashion (7-1) to the Germans in the semi-finals – away from the stadiums it wasn’t as bad as initially feared, championed by international media (including the New York Times) as a great success. Sure, it was hard to sweep some of our chronic problems under the carpet – including the ever-present social inequalities and poor infrastructure – but protests proved weak and the population ultimately enjoyed the event. It was futebol, after all.
But the Olympics are another game. Unlike the World Cup, they are concentrated in one city, diminishing the potential economic impact for a country as vast as Brazil. In several previous incarnations, the Olympics have proved a negative investment and this time should be no different: not good when Latin America’s largest economy is set to retract further still during the course of 2016.
The so-called feel-good factor from Brazil in 2014 will not be repeated either. But perhaps the more important point is that the Olympics will do nothing to shift the status quo: Brazilians are going to continue to feel the same way about the state of the country and its political leaders. Rousseff has approval rates of just 8 per cent according to some polls – an all-time low for Brazil’s young democracy – and faces a radicalised opposition.
The massive protests that took over the streets of Brazil in 2015 – a sign of widespread frustration with corruption and the empty promises by politicians on both sides of the divide – will be even bigger in 2016, this time including hundreds of thousands of striking workers due to the recession. And while people keep occupying the streets, the elites – intellectual, economical, cultural, social, political, you name it – have remained in a state of coma, waiting for 2018 to arrive when a new general election might offer some kind of change. What everybody seems to agree with is that the Rio Olympics budget – R$7.4bn (€2bn) – seems outrageous at a time of such economic instability.
However, we shouldn’t assume that Brazil’s international-tourism capital will be the same after the Olympics. Downtown Rio will be reinvented, with a transformation almost as effective as Barcelona’s port area. The construction of two new museums – Museu de Arte do Rio and Museu do Amanhã, the latter designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava – are permanent cultural gifts. A new tramway connecting the city’s main bus station to the domestic airport will help reduce the huge traffic jams just like the contentious subway system expansion that is finally bringing the metrô to the populous West Zone.
But there have been overlooked opportunities as well. The subway extension has missed out parts of South Zone – notably the key neighbourhoods of Humaitá and Jardim Botânico – which is a lost opportunity to integrate a city geographically divided by mountains and the ocean. The bike lanes that are being built all over the city are in desperate need of improvement. The plans to solve pollution issues in both Guanabara Bay and several lagoons all over the city were never concluded. The expropriation of houses by the local government, for Olympics improvements, was severely criticised by independent institutions in a city where housing is a huge problem and 20 per cent of its 6.5 million inhabitants live in favelas.
Lula da Silva, the then leader of one of the world’s largest economies – one that even surpassed the UK for a single year – and a politician that left power with huge popular support, aimed to use both the World Cup and the Olympics to reposition Brazil internationally. Corralled by the opposition and ex-allies, suffocated by the mistakes of her own economic and political teams, Rousseff is facing a completely different reality. She could try – if lucky – to use the Olympics and the well-known Brazilian penchant for a good time (maybe I’ve been swept up in the cliché too?) to alleviate the economic and political mess in which our nation is immersed. But not much more than this; the dreams of a new emerging power have been postponed until after the Games.
That’s not to say that the Brazilian dream is completely over. The ambition to become a bigger international player is still there – and the primary focus is winning a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. My country too has become more involved in peacekeeping, taking the lead in Haiti and opening an operations centre in Rio. In 2015 Brazil was also one of the key members – along with China, Russia, India and South Africa – of the New Development Bank, a rival to the Washington-based IMF and World Bank. Brazil’s own development bank, the powerful BNDES, has been financing infrastructure projects in several Latin American and African nations, exporting the Brazilian brand with some success. And its social-welfare programmes, such as the Bolsa Família, has inspired similar policies in countries all over the world that are struggling with poverty.
Despite all of this, the Olympics will prove one decisive factor: Brazil needs to deal with its internal problems before becoming a more consequential player internationally. The list of urgent measures needed to modernise the country is vast. It is also in need of a complete transformation of its weak infrastructure, highlighted recently by the environmental catastrophe caused by the collapse of two mining dams in the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais. The human cost (at least nine people dead) and the ecological one (thousands of hectares of protected area destroyed), plus the inefficient responses from the authorities, were the saddest aspects of this global embarrassment.
It is clear now that the significant investment in both the World Cup and the Olympics would have been better spent on developing our education system, improving our public-health system and creating new programmes dedicated to eradicate urban violence. Despite important social gains, the economic boom years were not used to effectively deal with some of our main failures as a nation. Olympics are seen as either a blessing or a curse to the cities that host them: if Barcelona 1992 is always pointed out as a success story, Athens 2004 is perhaps closer to what one can expect for Rio 2016. The decision to host the Games now seems like a nonsensical affirmation of a powerful Brazil that exists only in fiction.
Graça is a Brazilian journalist based in New York. He is a correspondent for Radio France International and contributes to outlets including Folha de São Paulo and the BBC.
Notes: When it comes to road-building, the Romans were the original and best. Despite the passage of time, we can still learn from the Empire’s techniques.
Travellers will experience roadworks in most parts of the planet in the coming year. In Lagos, Nigeria, “Operation Zero Tolerance for Potholes” will be in effect; in North Carolina, €675m will be spent on the Monroe Bypass; a €747m loan to Sri Lanka is set to improve 3,100km of roads; and the China Road and Bridge Corporation, following its motto “Build roads and bridges, make contributions to the society”, is in discussions with the president of Chad over new infrastructure projects. If you drive from London to Land’s End, meanwhile, you will experience the effect of €2.8bn being spent on the creation of a dual carriageway that will go through a tunnel under Stonehenge. This may all seem a 21st-century priority but perhaps building roads is just what humans do – or perhaps it is something governments think they should be doing. Historically it was the Romans who pioneered road-building across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Even now they continue to offer solutions to our contemporary issues regarding infrastructure expansion.
Roman roads provide a counterpoint to our current concerns over migration in Europe. Our preoccupations with borders and nations would seem alien to those living 2,000 years ago. Roman soldiers were recruited into the legions from all parts of its empire. By the second century, Roman senators hailed from North Africa or the Middle East as well as from Italy. Analysis of skeletons has shown that 30 per cent of the Roman population of what is now the UK was migrant. The Roman Empire enabled far greater mobility than we experience today with the migration rate to the UK standing at 13 per cent. The Romans, like their contemporary European counterparts, sought to control those coming in and out of their empire by directing movement. The roads provided an infrastructure of mobility – straight, efficient and enduring.
Roman roads were created for the long term. In many ways they were over-engineered with layers of compacted gravel up to two metres deep. The first long-distance road, the Via Appia, initiated in 312BC and running from Rome to modern-day Brindisi, virtually bankrupted the treasury and caused Rome to mint its first coinage to pay for the work. Eight hundred years later, this road could still be called the “Queen of Roads” and Italy’s barbarian king Theodoric even initiated a restoration programme to ensure its survival. A Roman road was fundamentally an all-weather surface that would not wear out due to time or use. Such endurance nowadays seems almost unthinkable.
Roman roads show us an ability to disregard the restrictions placed upon humans by the physical geography and climatic conditions of a region. The Via Flaminia (built in 220BC from Rome across the Apennines to Rimini on the Adriatic Sea) created a new geography for Italy that disregarded the obstacle posed by mountains. Even in the Alps we can still find milestones and outposts from military officials living in extreme conditions. In the deserts of the Middle East too, milestones commemorate the construction of a road from the border of the province of Syria to the Red Sea – the first step in the creation of the new geography of the Roman province of Arabia by the emperor Trajan (98 to 117). This ability to disregard geography seems alien to us today but with global warming and sea-level change we may need to look to Rome to inspire new infrastructure projects that deal with the extremes of climate that humans will face.
However, even Roman roads needed to be repaired and this was a priority for the most famous emperors from Rome’s long history. In 27BC, Emperor Augustus conducted a programme of repairs to the roads of Italy. A generation later we find Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo was denouncing the poor condition of the roads in the senate. Legal cases followed with corrupt magistrates and contractors prosecuted in the courts by the emperor Caligula (37 to 41). The guilty were forced to sell their property to cover the costs of repairing the roads and many seemingly reputable people were impoverished. Today in Pompeii you can even find places where the Romans poured molten iron between the joints of paving stones to ensure that their roads remained bonded together.
The comparison with the potholed roads of today seen on global journeys point to an inability to maintain our basic infrastructure, something that we tend to feel is tolerable. Perhaps we are in need of a Corbulo to set our own politicians straight.
Repairs cost money and the Roman approach is worth considering: a partnership between the emperor and landowners, who would benefit from the improvement. Just over 25km of repairs on the Via Appia were fixed in about 124 at a cost of 2,039,100 sesterces. To put this into context, a Roman legionary was paid 900 sesterces a year and a senator – the wealthiest in the state – needed to own property to the value of one million sesterces. It’s the equivalent of constructing a road from Bexhill to Hastings (9km) at a cost of €1.6m. Clearly the lesson is that infrastructure expansion can’t be offset against short-term economic gains; these are investments for longer-term development.
Rome’s roads, like open borders in Europe today, enabled migration most clearly seen in the Eternal City at the centre of the road system. The population doubled each century to create Europe’s first metropolis, with a population of one million inhabitants by the 2nd century. Rome was also the first city to address traffic congestion in a way that seems modern from our perspective: a ban on large vehicles for nine hours a day. There was an exception, though, for construction traffic building new monuments in the city: the Colosseum for example, or a host of the emperors’ other projects. Like today, construction traffic resulted in fatalities. Roman poet Juvenal reported the danger in his Satires 2,000 years ago. Thirteen cyclists were killed on the streets of London in 2014 and there is a call for the banning of hgvs during rush hour, a measure that Juvenal would have endorsed. Inevitably development of capital cities has a cost and that can be measured in human fatalities; issues raised by the Roman yet still ignored.
There was a rhetoric associated with road-building in the Roman Empire that has much in common with today. When a road was improved, new milestones – more than two metres tall – were erected to ensure all knew that the emperor had taken action to address a problem by creating a new road or bridge. Signs announced a road as “old and collapsed” (the Latin had a ring to it: vetustate dilapsam). The message wasn’t that different to the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, stating in 2014: “For years our roads have been neglected. Now that this government is fixing the economy, we can afford to invest properly in our roads.” Whether that investment is short or long term remains to be seen. Yet the Romans’ legacy is clear: today it is possible to locate more than 400 bridges in Italy that were built 2,000 years ago. They knew what timeframe they were building for – but do modern leaders?
With an empire of more than 5.7 million sq km, materials were mined, refined and transported on an unprecedented scale. The results can be seen from cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet: heavy metal pollution peaked in the first to second centuries, a blight on the environment that would not be experienced again until the Industrial Revolution. There was an impulse to create roads. It’s something perhaps better understood today in China, where 71,000km of motorways have been constructed in the last 10 years and 40 per cent of city dwellers are migrants.
Roads alongside the development of new cities created the shape of the Roman Empire and to some extent programmed the geography of Europe. The transport systems of the UK and France are centred around their capital cities today: London and Paris, both Roman cities at the centre of road networks. In Italy the Via Appia, the Via Flaminia, the Via Aurelia and many others take their names from the ancient roads established by the Romans. Many follow the same route, while beneath their modern surfaces lie the remains of ancient roads. Our new infrastructure projects are simply tinkering with a system of roads and cities created 2,000 years ago. The question is: do we need to take action on a similar scale to the Romans to create a new geography for Europe’s future wellbeing?
The Romans had a different timeframe: they counted years from the foundation of their city in 753BC and knew their history but could also stare down a future in which they expected the empire to exist “without end”. Rome sought to create cohesion in which movement was prioritised – a different scenario from our increasingly fragmented world with its lack of commitment to existing political geographies.
Laurence is the author of numerous books on the Roman era, including The Roads of Roman Italy: Mobility and Cultural Change; Ancient Rome as it Was: Exploring the City of Rome in AD 300; and The City in the Roman West c.250BC-c. AD 250
Notes: Blockbuster exhibitions are pulling in the crowds to galleries and museums like never before but where now for this new-found love of culture?
Modern and contemporary art has never been so popular. Ever increasing numbers of visitors flock to see and experience the museum and gallery displays on offer around the world. This makes me wonder about the changing attitudes towards visual art and if, in fact, the viewing public is becoming more culturally inclined. Put another way, is the surge in the attention to art signalling an important shift in cultural attitudes that is set to continue in the coming years?
Art now operates as a kind of cultural currency where blockbuster exhibitions tour the world, bringing with them key artworks from prestigious national collections. These shows certainly act as a bridge across social and cultural divides, and new ventures such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi enhance this international dialogue. That said, art as cultural capital also fuels the rivalries between prestigious collections and the cities they inhabit. We can see this in the fierce competition over visitor numbers between venues ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris to the Tate Modern in London. Indeed the popularity of London’s museums and galleries adds weight to the claim that the city now rivals Paris and New York as an art capital.
Visitor figures certainly underscore the new-found status of London’s art institutions. Family-friendly and architecturally revamped museums such as the v&a and the British Museum continue to grow in popularity, although around half the visitors to the world’s museums and galleries are tourists. And it is easy to understand why. These establishments project national identity and taste; their permanent collections contain internationally renowned treasures and, in the case of the UK, they are accessible for free.
What is interesting is the different ways in which the public engages with visual art. Closer analysis of the increased footfall in art galleries raises important questions about what the public wants to see and what this tells us about the changing attitudes towards culture.
Blockbuster shows about impressionism or those focusing on household names such as JMW Turner or Andy Warhol attract huge numbers: in 2014 more than half a million people saw Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern. Refreshingly one of the UK’s most popular art exhibitions remains the David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, shown at the Royal Academy in 2012. The attraction of these exhibitions is obvious: large numbers of well-known artworks are accessible for a limited period. It is a rare chance to see with your own eyes an image that might have previously only been known through greeting cards. But rather than indicating a growing interest in art, do these shows belong more to the burgeoning “event” culture in the UK?
Unlike permanent collections, where access is free, a trip to a temporary exhibition can cost between €21 and €28 for an adult. Clearly these prices have not deterred the record numbers of visitors eager to queue for the privilege of shuffling past the artworks on display in an inevitably crowded exhibition space. But it is also apparent that the visiting public prefer to do this than go to see the many masterpieces in the comparatively blissfully peaceful rooms that house permanent collections. It is certainly true that temporary special exhibitions enjoy generous publicity budgets but are vigorous marketing campaigns enough of an explanation for their popularity?
This isn’t just about something only being of value if it has a monetary price; that is too simple an explanation. It has more to do with the entertainment value attached to exhibitions. Entrance costs little more than a film would and less than a theatre ticket. In return the visitor enjoys the narrative of the exhibition; it becomes almost a passive experience where the choice of the theme, the artworks and the sequence in which they are viewed have all been made. Compared to a trip to a permanent collection, the visitor is saved from the freefall of having to choose what to see and, importantly, why the selected works matter. This begs the question of whether permanent collections ever have the same cachet as their transient cousins.
Immersive or experiential artworks operate in a similar way to blockbuster exhibitions. In fact the only choice the visitor need make is to enter the gallery and witness the spectacle. Here I am thinking of the extraordinarily successful glow of Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project”, a 2003 installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. I remember vividly the giant sun reflected in a ceiling of mirrors, a defining moment in gallery attendance. Visitors now take it for granted that they will experience, enjoy and interact with these types of artworks without needing to know anything about art or its history. Whether we see these less as artworks and more as marketable experiences, they do draw in the crowds. The question remains why there still seems to be a barrier between a visiting public that is willing to pay to see art and experience it but at the same time remains resistant to engaging with a gallery’s free permanent collection.
The roll call of world-class artworks to be found in permanent collections is impressive. Here we find the work of figures such as Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Titian and Turner as part of a chronological display that might be subdivided into countries or stylistic schools of art. In some ways it is puzzling that these works are not seen as accessible when compared to modern or contemporary art. After all, they are presented as part of a narrative of the development of art and the visitor is invited to follow this story. Moreover most of these pictures are figurative; they represent the world we think we see. Whether the subject matter be landscapes or portraits, comparisons to nature are invited. And we must not forget that these works often depict episodes from the Bible, Greek mythology or European history.
But these are all reasons why these works might appeal to me specifically. I am an art historian and have studied and written about artworks throughout my career. Like any other profession, art history has its own taxonomies that easily morph into jargon. And this can be off-putting to the general public. Similarly, an emphasis on the social and historical context of artworks presupposes an interest in this and can alienate rather than engage the visitor. Not all gallery-goers are keen social historians and I have misgivings about presenting art merely as an illustration of historical events. The presumed preference for “realistic” art is squarely challenged by the record attendance at modern and contemporary exhibitions. The apocryphal popularist criticism of “a child of five could have done that” hardly seems relevant here.
How then could permanent collections become more provocative and engaging to the general visitor in the future? We need to encourage people to look at art and we can do this through an emphasis on the physicality of the artworks: what they are made from and the effect this has on their appearance. Rather than a routemarch through western history or the Bible, we can find unexpected connections between artworks linking them through themes relevant to the present-day experience. Perhaps something like the idea of devotion, for example. This does not uniquely apply to religious art but also to marriage pictures and stories relating to loyalty, family and the state; these are ideas accessible to all.
Getting people through the doors of our museums and galleries is not the problem; the interest in art as culture is clearly there. It is more a question of equipping visitors with the means of finding permanent displays as experiential and immersive as their temporary counterparts.
Arnold’s A Short Book About Art came out via Tate Publishing in 2015.
Notes: There are more movies being made than ever before so why aren’t we producing Hitchcock- or Capra-esque classics? The VCR has much to answer for.
My family was gripped by a movie on TV recently. Even those with other things to do stopped, sat and watched it to its end. Only as the credits rolled did anyone mention that the film, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, was black and white – and silent. This rare scene – at a time when having an evening meal together seems impossible – made me think about a pivotal moment from my childhood.
The scene took place in the living room. My mother was telling me to watch a movie that was about to come on TV. Like any teenager I whined, “Why should I?” “Because if it has Rome and Open City in the title, you should watch it,” she replied. Remembering that she had been right about Gone With the Wind, I sat down to watch. I rose in shock and wonder. Movies became my menu to a world of experience.
Good movies are still an enduring asset but they don’t seem to have the kind of life-changing effect on people today that Rome, Open City had on me. When Goldfinger came out in 1964, my brothers were so seized with James Bond excitement that they painted the lawnmower gold. Talk to any older moviegoer and they’ll tell you that entire families went to see the film that was released that week. Hit movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark remained in cinemas for an entire year. Movies were social events; now they are non-events.
The cultural power of movies seems to be waning more each year. A big part of the problem is that too many movies are being made. In 2005, 5,559 films were made globally. By 2013 there were 7,587: a 36.5 per cent increase. The flood has become a glut.
Even movies on television were once considered event viewing. A limited number of channels meant that everyone was watching the same film. Sometimes movies were affordable enough for stations to broadcast them frequently and they would go on to become favourites through exposure. One example is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. This Christmas classic ended up on TV essentially because nobody cared about it. Only by relentless broadcasting did the Oscar-nominated drama finally reach a huge audience – the one it didn’t get on theatrical release.
This is why It’s a Wonderful Life belongs to a collective consciousness of which, up until the past two decades or so, viewers were automatically a part. Everyone who watched TV knew specific films, actors and songs – references from a shared history that went back decades.
The ability to record movies from TV was a sea change in moving cinema away from being special. Before then, if you didn’t see a movie in the cinema you’d get that sinking feeling that you’d never see it again. With VHS came the joy of not waiting by the TV to finally watch movies missed in previous years. But the twofold shift in film culture – an increase in the number of films being made and the technological advancements that allowed people to watch them at their convenience – started the downhill slide: movies are now quotidian.
When you can see everything you only watch what is considered worthwhile. There’s a generational divide: older people believe there were brilliant films made before they were born. People in their twenties don’t care about old movies because they don’t feel as if they need to; there’s so much current fare available. Movies are at their lowest ebb, valued as disposable. Only polished releases such as Spectre and Star Wars: The Force Awakens can be cinematic events as popular as Cleopatra or Lawrence of Arabia once were.
What can we expect? More movies, certainly. Expect even more growth in the filmed-entertainment sector, with rising output from China, Brazil and India. The big tent-pole movies and franchises will continue to cut across cultures because every country loves a hero. Specific humour, arthouse and local stories will fare less well.
The late studio boss Ned Tanen left us with this thought: “When you make a movie, it’s a movie. If they’re still talking about it in 10 years time, it’s a film. If they’re still talking about it in 50 years time, then it’s cinema. But you sure as hell can’t start out trying to make cinema.” Movies are not the events they once were but we are culturally and socially more impoverished if we underestimate their power to entertain and unite. If we lose movies, we lose that menu to a wider world.
Krizanovich writes for newspapers and makes regular radio and TV appearances. She is the honorary secretary of the London Film Critics’ Circle.
Notes: While looking for solutions to the EU’s problems we should heed the advice of Austo-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I, here giving his first interview since 1916.
Can I convince you that Vienna in 1900 invented the hipster? And that this is important to the future of the EU? That it’s really very important?
Walk into an early-20th-century Viennese coffeehouse. It’s the iconic meeting point of fin-de-siècle intellectuals and artists. What you see ticks numerous familiar boxes.
Do they care about their beans? Check. Although I’d take a classic Wiener Melange any day over that “handmade” cold brew.
Do they cultivate their facial hair? Check. The levitating moustache of novelist Arthur Schnitzler (yes, he inadvertently inspired Eyes Wide Shut) predicts the future of facial ornamentation. Gustav Klimt had the mother of all hipster beards.
Have they outsourced their offices to public space? Yes, and those café proprietors are exasperated they don’t have faster turnover. You don’t see rows of Mac computers and requests for the wi-fi password. Back then, they had notebooks of a different sort and asked for the pencil sharpener.
How about clothing? Some hipsters today might be wearing the same trousers – yes, the very same ones – as the emaciated glamster Egon Schiele. They’re vintage, after all. If you know his paintings you will understand why you don’t want them touching your skin.
Let’s face it: the Habsburg hipster would be recognisable to denizens of Dalston, Neukölln, Bushwick, Naka-meguro, and other hubs where the children of the bourgeoisie like to show that they are eschewing the trappings of the bourgeoisie. But more seriously, the importance of the Habsburg hipster is not just in appearances. Cultural capitals – in fields as diverse as the arts, advertising, graphic design or start-ups – rely on a big pond of talent. They need innovators who come from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. For this they need mobility. Vienna under the Austro-Hungarian Empire had the resources from which to draw. The city made the most of the people who inhabited its union.
Austria-Hungary had vast territories. The two kingdoms after 1867 had a power-sharing relationship dominated by one royal house: the Habsburgs. One emperor ruled these lands from 1848 to 1916 and that was Franz Joseph I. He was the uncle of Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in Bosnia would be the spark for the First World War. The war that ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The lands of the Dual Monarchy used to stretch from what is now Poland (north), to Ukraine (east), to the Alps (west), to Bosnia (south). In the Austrian half lived Germans, Slovenes, Czechs, Poles and Ukrainians. In the Hungarian half were Magyars, Croats, Romanians and Slovaks. It was a multinational European state that in many ways closely resembles today’s EU.
The people who gave birth to modern art in Vienna came from all over the Dual Monarchy’s realm. These hipsters came first to study in Vienna or were born to parents who made that journey. Take a look around this coffeehouse and you see plenty of small-town boys. Minorities, outsiders, Jews, gays, corn-fed wonders. Sigmund Freud came from Moravia. So did Joseph Hoffmann and Adolf Loos, the fathers of interior design. Painters Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt had parents born in Bohemia, where composer Gustav Mahler was also born. Arnold Schoenberg, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and novelist Stefan Zweig are outsiders of a different sort. All were Jewish and Ludwig was gay. The Jewish community was the great motor of Vienna’s intellectual climate. (Its destruction by the Nazis was a death knell for much of the city’s innovation in high culture).
In Habsburg Vienna, these hipsters produced arguably the first and most significant contributions to modern art. As cultural historian Carl Schorske argued, the bourgeois learned from these people how to appreciate art that wasn’t all that bourgeois. There was a breakdown of tonality in the concert halls. The men in Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze”, in the Vienna Secession, took off their shirts. The deep recesses of the subconscious became the dominant location for exploration in psychoanalysis. And Arthur Schnitzler went down the rabbit hole of infidelity. Let’s think of a modern parallel: the way a generation of fairly affluent young people grew up with Berlin’s electronic-music scene and embraced an industrial aesthetic (not to mention polyamory and omnivorous sexuality).
All these Habsburg hipsters were people who, for the most part, did not imagine themselves as Czech, Polish nor Austrian but rather as individuals with transnational identities. They may well have been the first “citizens of the world” in the modern age.
When thinking of the Habsburg hipsters you can’t help but think of all those young people from troubled economies now moving to Berlin or London. They’re taking advantage of the EU’s rules regarding free movement of labour to pursue their dreams of being software engineers, industrial designers or painters. They want to live in places that are rather more cosmopolitan, creative and sensual than, say, Jönköping. It was the same back then.
Vienna in 1900 was a good place to be a creative hipster. There were no significant crackdowns on artistic freedom in the 1890s and 1900s provided you were careful. Let’s not forget that the state was authoritarian. We should not romanticise it. The very word “empire” should give us the chills. It had limited freedom of the press and assembly but there was an independent original judiciary and the ruling powers were more concerned about political rather than artistic opponents.
Of course, these relatively favourable conditions for hipsters would be thoroughly destroyed. Defeat in the First World War meant Austria-Hungary lost its vast territories and its well of talent. Petty national elements came to power. The Nazis’ war on culture and difference finished the job. Stefan Zweig (who inadvertently inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel) wrote in The World of Yesterday: “I grew up in Vienna, an international metropolis for 2,000 years, and had to steal away from it like a thief in the night before it was demoted to the status of a provincial German town.” The Nazis might have had an empire but it rejected diversity and its brutality far exceeded the Habsburg’s. Vienna transitioned to becoming a backwater.
Then the Cold War put the iron curtain at the city limits and Vienna became an outpost of the West instead of being placed at Europe’s centre. The Cold War city was a shadow of its former glory with a shrinking population.
Today’s Vienna, however, is on the rebound, with an increasing importance that echoes its Habsburg days. This is largely because of the fall of communism and the country’s accession to the EU in 1995. Borders fell. The former hinterland was once again accessible to the former capital. Diversity increased again as immigrants from the Balkans poured in during the 1990s. The 2004 EU enlargement brought more arrivals from the Habsburgs’ former territories, which were once its well of talent.
The red-green city government is investing in urban renewal and Vienna is the fastest-growing metropolis in Europe. The Viennese have new neighbourhoods, new train stations, a new airport, improved transport. There is flourishing social housing, meaning mixed neighbourhoods. And, lest we forget, one of their most celebrated figures is a drag performer. Vienna is decidedly future-oriented once again.
If you hanker after such things you can still enjoy the Imperial institutions on the Ringstrasse: the Staatsoper and the Kunsthistorisches Museum. But there is also an animated reminder of the empire to consider: that Vienna has finally regained the joie de vivre of the once-buzzing Habsburg capital.
You have no doubt anticipated the next step of my argument. Vienna and the demise of its Imperial hipsters stands as a warning. Seriously. It shows how capitals that lose their hinterlands and become overwhelmed by narrow national culture can become graveyards of creative thought. It is also the story of how membership of the EU has given Vienna its identity back.
Vienna is an object lesson in the destruction of a great creative metropolis. This cautionary tale should be well observed by those wishing to renegotiate EU rules regarding freedom of movement and open borders. Young people and artists just starting out need flexible rules of settlement. They don’t often otherwise have the qualifications to get visas as “economically viable” workers. Yet they represent the future of innovation. London, Berlin and Paris are today powerhouses of talent and keeping them vibrant and full of hipsters is something worth fighting for.
The world of the Habsburgs is one that makes emotional sense to me. I went to high school in a little Italian town on the coast near Trieste, called Duino. It is atmospheric, perched on a cliff, bilingual Italian-Slovene and was once part of the Habsburg Empire. It has an Austrian castle overlooking the Adriatic, owned by a Czech noble family. Part of it is occupied today by an international high school called the United World College of the Adriatic, where students from more than 90 countries study to show that education goes beyond borders.
You can stand on the battlements of the castle where the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke began writing his Duino Elegies in 1912; he was inspired to contemplate angels and the terror of infinite spaces. The wind drives and gnaws at your face. Looking out to the Adriatic you can see the coastlines of three countries: Croatia in the distance, then Slovenia and, of course, Italy. They were all once part of the empire. Trieste is there in the middle ground, beyond the cliffs. It was the thriving port of Vienna.
Now guide your eyes to the highland above Trieste. The limestone karst there is full of sinkholes and the geological processes that create them are fascinating. Underground water erodes soft limestone and when the surface layer collapses, a deep pit is created. In Trieste a sinkhole is referred to as a dolina or foiba. Sometimes they are full of bones.
This corner of Europe, where the Slavic, Latin and Germanic peoples meet, was a front line in the Second World War. The disappeared, the arrested and the massacred, war casualties were all disposed of in these sinkholes. Both South Slavs and Italians point fingers at one another for war crimes. One pit, at Basovizza, is said to contain 500 cu m of corpses. At the bottom of it, First World War cannons belonging to Austria-Hungary were discovered. A cross-section of a foiba appears as a cross-section of European history – and its capacity for barbarism.
Strict borders crisscrossed the land over the foibe until Slovenia joined the Schengen Agreements in 2007. Before that time, in the 1990s when I studied in Duino, divisions ran deep. The region was full of Bosnian refugees. War felt very close. The massacres in the Balkans showed us that ethnic conflict in Europe was still possible. A train journey to the former capital of Austria-Hungary involved a careful passport check. Trieste was a traffic-clogged city of old people with a right-wing frontier mentality.
I hardly recognise Trieste nowadays. This region of Italy is no longer the “meaning of nowhere”, to quote travel writer Jan Morris. Trieste is now the centre of an integrated region without borders and with free movement of people, run by centre-left mayor Roberto Cosolini. Croatia, meanwhile, is committed to joining Schengen, expanding the open zone further. It’s almost impossible to think this was once a bloody war zone. It’s uncanny to think that the ground is full of bodies.
The integrated area around Trieste, in this way, can be seen as a microcosm of what has happened all over Europe. You can now travel from Estonia to Lisbon without ever encountering a border. A remarkable achievement for a continent that entered two world wars in half a century, killing about 100 million people. No wonder the Nobel Committee awarded the EU with their peace prize in 2012 for contributing “over six decades… to the advancement of peace and reconciliation” in Europe.
Sometimes I wonder whether too much peace has made us stupid. Why is it then better to live in a cosmopolitan superstate? Because its economic and political entrenchment prevents destruction based on race and nationality. For at least 50 years the EU has prevented war. You might argue that there is a cause-correlation problem here: that Europe has not experienced conflict for other reasons. But I’m not willing to gamble. If we do, we have forgotten Europe’s track record of mass murder. I’m haunted by the gruesome notion that the foibe are not yet full.
Today, with the refugees flowing from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, countries as diverse as Slovenia and Hungary are rolling out the barbed wire again. Improvised visa checks are happening between countries as friendly as Austria and Germany. Once a border closes it is tricky to reopen. If a nationalist government is in power – using an emergency such as the influx of refugees or a terrorist attack as a pretext to preserve the nation state – it is almost impossible. This bodes ill for the future of the EU’s free movement of people. While policing borders and fighting terrorism, we might just trade away not only the dynamism of our cosmopolitan cities but also the peaceful achievements of two generations. We have to be aware of what we stand to lose.
Europe is obviously in trouble but I know whom to ask for advice.
We fly into Vienna’s new airport and take a taxi to the Ringstrasse. Through the royal gardens is a gate. It’s not long before we are in the square before the Imperial Chancellery building of the Hofburg Palace. Look at the monstrous statues: Hercules wrestling an enormous bull and then a lion. Is this an indication of what our conversation with the emperor will be like? The waiting room to the audience chamber has an elegant chandelier. It is less alarming.
Franz Joseph I receives audiences twice a week. He’s met almost 300,000 of his subjects over his reign. We are the first ones, however, from the 21st century. He has been advised of our visit. I hope we get more than the few minutes he normally consecrates to visitors. It’s not as if we are receiving a medal of honour or begging for a stay of execution. Won’t he be curious about the future? It’s only 1910, after all. We might just change history.
The audience room is cosy enough. There is an enormous, plush carpet on the ground that complements the red walls. From a chandelier, full of shapely lit candles, shadows dance. I expected a great vault, with the emperor sitting on a throne. But he’s standing calmly by the window in front of a lectern. He’s reading a book: the Oxford University Press’s The European Union: A Very Short Introduction by John Pinder and Simon Usherwood. How did he get his hands on that? The emperor is more powerful than we expected.
But that is not the first thing I notice about the emperor: he has amazing facial hair. Not the hipster variety but the Harley-Davidson kind. He really does have the fluffiest, bestest sideburns of any European ruler. They grow like extra appendages from the side of his head. His chin, however, is completely shaved. He should be a rock star. I wonder if he has biker tattoos. Under that uniform does he have winged skulls? A massive double eagle, perhaps? We approach. On closer inspection, with his sagging cheeks, he looks a little like the German chancellor in drag. Or rather, Angela Merkel looks a lot like Franz Joseph I.
There’s nowhere to sit. The whole audience will apparently happen standing up. The emperor – wait, did he just wink at us? – nods his head. It’s time to talk seriously. “Your imperial and royal majesty… how can we save the European Union? Is it worth saving? You have more than a little experience running a multinational European state, so I thought you were the right person to ask.”
I’m delighted to report that we get rather more than a few minutes with his imperial and royal majesty. We find plenty of points of comparison between the Dual Monarchy and the EU.
Rather than provide a long transcription of our laborious conversation in the subjunctive mood – weighed by polite formulations and styles of office – wouldn’t it be easier just to summarise his findings on the EU institutions and the economy? If the emperor were around today, here’s how he would have discussed the points of comparison between his empire of 1910 and the EU.
The emperor would have found the European Commission immediately familiar. The Austro-Hungarian system of Josephinism was just as bureaucratic and undemocratic. Some described it as “despotism tempered by slovenliness”. It’s worth remembering, however, that this system managed – quite benevolently – to carry a federalist system through more than 100 years. In the empire, the bureaucracy represented the interests of the Hausmacht, or emperor’s power. In a similar way, the EU Commission works in the interest of business and the free market.
In today’s Europe, Commission Eurocrats have enormous power but they are unelected and unaccountable. Only they have the power to propose legislation, not the elected European Parliament. This poses a problem for citizen participation.
It means that most Europeans don’t feel they are represented. Franz Joseph would say Europeans need an emperor to believe in! But for those of us who think democracy is a pretty good thing, enthroning an emperor of the EU is not the best solution.
What then could make Europeans feel represented? What would make them believe in the EU’s institutions?
The EU has “competences”, or policy-making power, in areas such as the customs union, agriculture, and consumer protection. But the emperor had real clout: competence in war, finance and foreign affairs and he could collect taxes.
I interviewed Brendan Simms, a professor in the history of international relations at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union. His position is “that in order to cohere the Eurozone, it needs to be a single state with a single army to save the euro and deter Mr Putin. The common defence could in turn give the union an institution [with which citizens] identify, as it does in the UK and US.”
The emperor would agree. The army was the core unifying structure of the Austro-Hungarian state. It was powerful in overcoming national differences (although there were endless debates over whether the 70 or so words needed to function in the army should be in German or could be in Hungarian or a minority language). Allegiance to the emperor could today be substituted by allegiance to an active European citizenship. The EU has not been able to create a cadre so international, except perhaps in its own bureaucracies or in the Erasmus university exchange programme (where perhaps only as many words are needed to get your Spanish roommate into bed).
Likewise, a common foreign policy would unify a Europe that projects its power internationally, in conflicts as complex as Ukraine or Syria, instead of focusing it internally with ensuing bickering. Indeed, the EU is vested with some powers that could easily be given to the provinces but lacks others that could provide Europeans with a sense of common purpose. Without that common purpose, Europe’s quarrelling units turn on one other.
But a reorganisation of competences is unlikely as long as the chief mover in the EU remains the member states, represented by the European Council. These members could remove even more competences from the EU. David Cameron’s recent demands are to give an even stronger role to national parliaments and to strip the project of the goal of an “ever-closer union”. This would turn the EU into a small regulatory project instead of a state builder. The EU, rather like the emperor, needs more powers.
Like the EU, Austria-Hungary had a common currency, market and customs union. The empire’s krone-zone (as opposed to the eurozone) was arguably disadvantageous to certain regions, like the euro is for its southern economies. The empire also had great income differences, as the EU does today. Big money in the cities and misery in rural Romania. But the common market, its free movement of labour, the resulting expansion of rail links, banking, exchange of commodities and a decent level of growth, worked together to keep the Dual Monarchy and its disparate peoples cohesive. It was the First World War that destroyed the currency and the common market.
When the common currency fell apart after the defeat, as Stephen G Gross at New York University has argued, the new states of central Europe were convulsed by years of crisis as they tried to stabilise their fledgling currencies. The lesson from the Habsburg days: it is better to stick with the euro than face the stormy waters of new exchanges.
What made the Austro-Hungarian krone-zone more successful than the eurozone? Again, more control at the top. The krone-zone also suffered a debt crisis and had problems with public finances. But a central bank, a power-sharing relation between the federal entities of Austria and Hungary, was an effective authority operating with a single fiscal policy. Europe’s fiscal policy is now in tatters, torn apart by national interests and ideologies such as austerity.
The emperor summarises that we need institutions with power that Europeans can believe in: an army and centralised decision-making on currency and customs. Then he nods his head curtly to indicate that the audience is over.
As we walk back out into the square I must admit that our conversation with the emperor has me feeling rather more clear-headed about what we need to do. What solutions does the experience of the Austro-Hungarian Empire provide us with for the institutional, economic and nationality problems of the EU? There are two options: either more or less Europe.
Is it that hard to imagine a country that resembles Austria-Hungary but with a democratic government? One that is federal, multicultural and multilingual, with a strong central bank and army for peacekeeping? No, it’s not hard. That place is called Canada.
Or do we move away from the Austro-Hungarian model to armed borders and nation states in Europe?
Alan Sked, a professor at the London School of Economics, is both the best-known specialist on the Dual Monarchy and the man who founded the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip; he now calls them “fruitcakes” and “racists”). He says people don’t identify with flawed and anti-democratic European institutions. Few people today think of themselves as “European”.
When an emergency such as the 13 November terror attacks in Paris occurs, you can’t help but notice that people sing “La Marseillaise” in solidarity and not the European anthem “Ode to Joy”. But is it natural that we root for the national team? Couldn’t we just as well root for a bigger team? Football fans, after all, can cheer both their local team and their World Cup national favourite.
I think a better EU is worth fighting for because I am afraid of the people Sked calls “fruitcakes”: be it Ukip, the National Front in France or Pegida and the Alternative for Germany. In an increasingly multicultural Europe with refugees pouring in from conflict zones, these political parties peddle notions of citizenship that identify blood and nation with belonging. They do not represent the diversity of the states in which they operate.
I ask Sked, “What are the lessons of the Habsburgs for modern Europe?”
He replies, referring to the Empire’s destruction in 1918, “Don’t start wars.”
“Don’t start wars” – the words of a Eurosceptic – may well be the greatest lesson of the Habsburgs. They are words that bring me back to the battlements of Duino Castle.
Historian George Kennan wrote, “The Austro-Hungarian Empire still looks better as a solution to the tangled problems of that part of the world than anything that has succeeded it.”
Before its demise the Dual Monarchy had institutional, economic and intercultural successes we might well emulate. With the “ever-closer” EU in trouble we need more Habsburg hipsters, more powerful institutions and a little more leadership. Europe is a work in progress but one that we need to finish.
Listen to the emperor.
Canada-born but Berlin-based Pearson is the voice of popular German blog The Needle; he is also an essayist and blogger for the state-funded Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin.