As part of the ‘New Narratives for Europe’ project being delivered by the Free Word Centre, Xiaolu Guo writes the second of a series of essays, exploring the future of culture on this continent and the revitalising affects this may have worldwide
It’s in the air. The second Renaissance of Europe is coming. This new Renaissance will begin on a bitter winter’s day in 2019, when a bunch of artists and intellectuals will burst forth from the ruins of economical austerity brandishing new works and distributing manifestos hot off the press. The Florence of this re-birth will be London, not a 14th century diminutive city-state with cobbled streets and horse-drawn carts, but a 21st century megalopolis, with a vast ecological footprint. This time, Northern Europe will take centre stage rather than the balmy South of pristine blue skies. This time, the cultural seismic shocks will be almost immediate, and global. The cultural moment will not be a single event—the adventure of an afternoon or the frolic of a week – but will continue for 200 years, like a Reich of a thousand blooms, until the American Empire sinks, a smouldering cultural ruin, and China has become the real Middle Kingdom.
Why will there be a second Renaissance in Europe? And so soon? Certainly not because the artists are so rich that all the gadgets of the age will be at their disposal – the latest ‘4-dimensional’ cameras and quantum computers—or because they will own vast painting studios, clogged with heroic canvases, or they can command theatre productions of thousands. No, none of that. Rather it will be for the opposite reason – the artists will not be able to afford the materials of ‘luxurious’ art practice. It is precisely their poverty and their anger that will propel them into new spheres of creativity. Circumstance – grim, implacable, unalterable – will force them to create something much more significant and truer than the artists from the post-modern superficiality, the dominant fashion in the last three decades, whose shadows still breathe down their necks. They shall be information-rich, but materially poor, networked, but under-nourished. The minds of this vanguard of youthful paradigm breakers have just been born.
It’s the right time. The signs are all in place, discernible to those with an ear to the ground, and a nose for historic winds. The intellectuals, the artists, the scholars, the middle class citizens as well as working class heroes, will all have a role to play, that is, in the wake of the young vanguard. The specific craziness of Europe, its turbulent atmospheres swirling at the centre of a crazed and overheating world will be the melting pot. This European theatre of cultural eruption is a new Europe. It’s not the religious Europe of the Middle Ages. Nor a Europe ravaged by wars, the familiar imperial clashes and collateral genocides. The Europe of the New Renaissance is the Europe beyond border controls, the Europe freeing itself from American foreign policy objectives, from selling arms to death dealers. This is the Europe with a population of 750 million seething souls, and vast troupes of immigrants; the Europe with 24 official languages and more than 300 languages of everyday communication, bubbling with clashing syllables, and the rhymes of the day to day buying and selling; the new Europe, of dynamic ethnicities, turning nations and tribes into human flour and baking new human experiments; a Europe of riots and rage, a sweating cauldron.
Now, let’s look around. Let’s take a look at Asia, America, and Africa. Why no renaissance for them? Yes, China is striving and Chinese modern arts impress us all these days. It’s politically engaged artists are beacons of conviction and guts. It’s cities stun us, and we quail before its scale. But China is a monocultural nation-empire, yoked to a geriatric governing elite, and it will probably take another three generations for the old-guard mentality to leach away and allow its populace to breath, and be what they are, Chinese. Then the ancient spirit of China might rise again. But not yet. Yes, India is strong and its culture is diverse, but India is shadowed by its caste system. Democracy for the top fifth of the population, deprivation for the rest. Overpopulation and corruption, poverty, poor sanitation, and corruption again. We have to wait to see what will come of it. And America? Yes, the dominant voice for the last 100 years with a thousand military bases ringing the globe; yes the indispensible nation that will be dispensed with. American the quiet police officer carrying a big stick, the empire without borders, whose foreign policies are the mistakes of a well-intentioned bully, at best. America that has become more and more affluent, its 1% is the 1% of the world’s 1%, its rich are the super-rich of the world. New York City is its Gotham city, with at least ten thousand slightly fat Batmen running after Starbucks coffees. And now it is the place for the rich and elite, the haven for bankers, tycoons and racketeers. Where will its refugees of culture go? Where will its experimental artists, the underground poets, and post-Beatnik filmmakers, and near-nude performers flee? Not to its West, the silicon valleys and tinsel towns, and the droning dream factory. These refugees won’t have a place to dream. They will have to buy a one-way plane ticket, and to relocate themselves stealthily: to Berlin, to Lisbon, to Istanbul, to the edges of East London.
And Africa? Well, Africa has to recover from the traumatic post-colonial legacy, from disasters of old European influence, and new Chinese entrepreneurs and state-backed agents, who come in peace, but want the land. Perhaps it will take another century to stabilise itself, to produce some fruit to its peoples, to play catch up with the world, and move beyond it. But it needs time.
Here comes Europe! Here comes everyone, in Europe: after a century of wars and ideology; after history is over, killed by Francis Fukuyama; with the majority of its working middle class becoming poorer and poorer; with a third World War looming on its horizon; with a clash of cultures and its underbelly of Islam about to burst. In this time of war, artists, scientists and scholars merge, not to perform secret acts in their ivory towers but to act intellectually in public, not afraid of being stripped bare, and to be seers for the mass. Here is just a handful of examples who have already come before us: Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and his ever critical post-Marxist social commentary; Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid for her futuristic design and for being the first woman who received the Prizker Architecture Prize; French economist Thomas Piketty for his vision on economical order especially his latest book Capital In the Twenty-First Century; English physicist Stephen Hawking’s theory of black holes and the beginning of time against our old God; German painter Gerhard Richter’s striking photo realism and abstract expressionist explosions; French novelist Patrick Modiano’s profound sense of displacement and the depiction of memory; English writers Will Self and Iain Sinclair’s literary recuperations of the psychogeography of our cities in the age of gentrification; French artist Sophie Calle’s cross-disciplinary image-narratives; Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke with his disturbances of the heart and reflective visions on death and humanity; English painter David Hockney and his dialogue between optical theatre and figurative painting of illusory depth; Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek for her extraordinary linguistic zeal for revealing social clichés and the dark side of female sexuality; and many, many more – Sally Potter, Ken Loach, Claire Denis, Peter Higgs, Jean Marcel Tirole, A. L. Kennedy, Ali Smith, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Steve MacQueen, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Daniel Kehlmann, Zadie Smith, Banksy, Elizabeth Price, etc. And then there are the new artists to come – the polymaths of some years from now. The ones who will be uprooted from homes, from cities, and from landscapes, to find themselves here, in Europe. They are not going to be restrained by their national identities, nor will they be entirely happy to call themselves ‘Europeans’. Because they are the products of a new hybrid, both of humanity and culture.
The future is crooked. You cannot see the future you can only feel it, and then you can only feel it side on. The new Renaissance won’t be a rebirth of the familiar. It won’t be a rebirth of paintings, literature, film, photography, opera, TV. Somehow we believe implicitly in the immortality of our old medias and the divisions between them. But the new renaissance won’t respect the familiar. It won’t take us along the paths of the already known. It won’t give us a better or new novel, painting, or film. Instead it will confound our categories of culture. It will deliver a new marriage between art and science that will take us beyond both art and science. A mind transformed by the potentialities of science – from neural enhancements to the trans-human – won’t be exploring aesthetic experience as we now know it, but falling headlong into new dimensions of feeling and form.
This essay was written in the age of discontent. Europe is still locked in its long winter. But wait for the burst of light. It’s coming. Renaissance 2019: 100 years after Versailles; a hundred and fourteen years after Einstein’s special relativity; one hundred and twelve years after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; seventy-seven years after Max Ernst’s ‘Europe After the Rain’ seventy-two years after the invention of the transistor. It has already happened in the future. 2019 is my year of imagination and hope. But don’t wait for it to happen while it’s happening. Like all ruptures of history, it will only be known in retrospect.