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A European Canon? That proved to be a tricky question, with a number of specific outcomes

Published 23 May 2016 at 12:09 by Liedewij Loorbach

The question seemed innocent: What European art and culture belongs in a European canon? But my oh my, has that question caused a stir. Words like ‘colonial discourse’, ‘Eurocentrism’ and ‘Western epistemology’ started filling out mailboxes. But there were also curators that left the ethical discussion to one side and said: Lars von Trier.

We asked out curators the heated question because on Thursday 2 June, highly established art types are going to be discussing this as part of the Re:Creating Europe festival. Our film curator Basje Boer thinks it’s a fabulous question. “A canon always inspires discussion: which artworks to include, which to exclude, and why, exactly? I often find the discussion more interesting than the canon itself.”

Pierre Huyghe

Pierre Huyghe

Theatre curator Céline Talens got a dubious feeling when she thought about a so-called ‘European Canon’ and shared her internal discussion with us. “We, in Europe, are currently dealing with an unstable self-image, because what is Europe outside of an economic agreement? With that, there is a large migration taking place that we refer to as ‘the refugee issue’, and the discussion about what will happen when they arrive, these aliens? What is integration? When should you bugger off and when are you welcome? That is embedded in what we perceive to be culture. And will we (the established European) now, under the guise of Re:Creating Europe, establish a canon? Is that a question of creation or redefinition? It is quintessentially a mechanism of exclusion.” That’s not to say that Céline didn’t think of a number of artists, when she was asked the question. They were: Panamarenko, Boukje Schweigman, Pierre Huyghe. Sorry Céline, we thought we’d mention them anyway.

Basje Boer, film curator
A new European canon: great idea! The first person that jumps to mind: Lars von Trier. A provocateur, a conceptualist, an intellectual who knows about our soft spots. His films aren’t easy. They confuse, shock, irritate, resistance. Once upon a time, I hated that man, I thought his films were too sentimental. Dancer in the Dark (2000) was pure melodrama: kitschy and so over-the-top that I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. But that is exactly Von Trier’s style: his films gravitate between seriousness and irony, between sugary sweet and brutally harsh. He doesn’t only want to make things, he wants to cause things. That’s not only true of his films: Von Trier is notoriously bad in person. The making-of’s of The Idiots (1998) and Dogville (2003) are fascinating to watch.

But I am not finished adding to the European canon. Looking at the directors working in Europe at the moment, I considered for example Jessica Hausner, who makes lighthearted and ironic films, like the recent Amour fou. I considered ‘our own’ Paul Verhoeven, whose Golden Palm nominated French production Elle is truly a European director. But I decided on Michael Haneke. His sober, heavy films about people in crisis might make him the ultimate opposite to Lars von Trier. Although, neither of these men have high regard for people. Is that what makes them typically European? Haneke is, himself, at least a lot easier to handle that Von Trier. See the man at work in My Life, a documentary by ARTE.

Dilan Yurdakul, theatre curator.
“That’s some question! The first thing that comes to mind: the films by Paolo Sorrentino – La Grande Belezza and Youth. Movies about transience, melancholy and desire, themes of all times and touch our souls deeply. About alienation and melancholy. Everything that makes life life.
But also the books by Houellebecq: he knows how to capture the spirit of the time in his somewhat vulgar and oh so direct language.

Youth - Paolo Sorrentino

Youth – Paolo Sorrentino

Vincent van Velzen, visual arts curator

In one-hundred years we will probably realise that the largest portion of the European history did not take place on the European continent. The impact that the actions by former European empires will have had on history and the shape of developments in other parts of the world is significant. In this way, we could draw a line starting with 17th-century painters such as Albert Eckhout who went to South America to capture what they found there, to contemporary art. Artist Willem de Rooij put on an exhibition in Berlin in 2011 in which he put paintings by 17th-century painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter, representing exotic birds, against objects from Hawaii from the 18th and 19th century.



We Are Public members can attend the event Re:Creating Europe | Made in Europe, addressing this question, on Thursday 2 June

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