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The European Union is Still Worth Celebrating

In a season of Euro-unhappiness, the continent's culture shows why the EU was a blessing

Robert Arno/Flickr

They blasted Ode to Joy in Ban Jelačić Square in Zagreb this past weekend, as Croatia—its rugged coastline packed with holidaymakers, its interior still pock-marked by nearly 100,000 landmines—finally became the newest member of the European Union. It’s the eleventh former communist republic to join the bloc, and the first since 2007.1 Goodness knows the EU, misgoverned by an austerity-crazed policy elite that has pushed half a dozen countries to the brink of default, could use the good press, and it’s nice to recall how many countries still want in.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was nothing inevitable about the shape of today’s Europe, whose geographic and economic contours could hardly have been foreseen in 1989. Not long ago, the east was terra incognita for western Europeans, stereotyped as a place of chronically under-stocked fixed-price department stores and rickety Trabants and Yugos. Now euro-skeptic Brits take ten-euro flights to Riga for drunken stag nights, while the under-construction Magistrale bullet train is set to connect Paris and Bratislava in eight hours. Simple divisions between west and east no longer hold now that three former communist states are in the euro (mixed blessing that it is!), with a fourth just approved. Slovenia is richer per capita than Portugal. The Czech Republic’s unemployment rate is just a quarter that of Spain’s.

Europe today remains a fissured continent, it’s true—but those fissures no longer follow a simple NATO/Warsaw Pact divide. And culturally, eastern Europe no longer exists as a distinct and closed-off sphere. That cultural progress, even more than the continent’s imperfect political and economic integration, is cause for a major celebration.

While austerity programs have brutalized the cultural scene in some of the indebted states of the continent’s south, parts of the east are thriving.2 Though Poland’s growth has slowed from the soaring pace of 2011 and 2012, in the last decade or so, it’s developed into something of a cultural powerhouse, especially in the field of fine art. Mirosław Bałka, a sculptor who works outside Warsaw, won the prestigious Turbine Hall commission for London’s Tate Modern and just presented a massive, oil-spewing installation in New York this spring. He wasn’t the only Pole with a giant sculpture in New York this year: The young artist Monika Sosnowska, based in Warsaw, installed a beguiling steel sculpture at the Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park. On the art fair circuit, Wilhelm Sasnal and other young Polish painters have become collectors’ darlings. No fewer than six Polish artists (including Bałka) were included in this year’s Venice Biennale—compared to just one from Spain. Young European artists priced out of Berlin are increasingly setting up in cheaper Warsaw, and even Lech Wałęsa, the leader of Solidarity and the first president of post-communist Poland, is getting in on the act—he recently told the Financial Times that he wants to see Polish art collections grow “10 times faster than everyone else.”

Poland is not the only country whose cultural figures have transcended the tired east-west divide. Look at Hungary, which—despite its homophobic, anti-Semitic, Roma-hating government (that is cracking down on cultural freedoms, too)—has produced three of the most widely admired contemporary European novelists. Imre Kertész, an Auschwitz survivor who won the Nobel Prize in 2002, has become an implacable opponent of the Hungarian government for its derogation of European ideals. (This summer’s Paris Review contains what he is calling his final interview.) The chaotically brilliant Péter Nádas recently published Parallel Stories in English: an 1,100-page novel that sprawls across the continent, from France and the Netherlands to both sides of the Berlin Wall. And the dark postmodernist László Krasznahorkai, whose slow-motion novels feature sentences that sprawl over three pages or more, is a literary colossus in Germany and something of a cult figure in American literary circles. The current issue of the New York Review of Books features a 4,000-word panegyric to Krasznahorkai’s fiction, concluding, “There’s nothing else like it in contemporary literature.” When the author came to New York for a reading last year, so many Brooklyn twenty-somethings showed up that people had to sprawl out on the floor.

Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery
An installation by Poland’s Mirosław Bałka 

Or head to Slovenia, which, thanks to the political philosopher Slavoj Žižek, is now swarmed with visiting Lacanian hipsters posting metaphysical bon mots to their Tumblrs. While you’re on the road you can call your friends on Skype; it was developed in Estonia, and although Microsoft now owns the company, most of the programmers are still in Tallinn. Even the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest, once a cavalcade of schlocky western pop, has migrated eastwards.3 Since 2000, no fewer than five former Soviet republics have won the contest, and so has Serbia—a country that, despite official intolerance of homosexuals, conquered the continent with a lesbian-chic power ballad.

And which European nation has produced the most exciting, most surprising cinema of the last decade? Not devastated Spain, not hamstrung France, but Romania—once a byword for communist dysfunction, where filmmakers used to be forced to churn out propaganda of a blissful workers’ state. Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007 for his brutally real abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is only the foremost of a dozen directors of the Romanian New Wave, recently the subject of a major retrospective at Lincoln Center in New York. Unlike eastern predecessors, such as Roman Polanski or Miloš Forman, Mungiu and his contemporaries have all remained in Romania—even as that country’s political situation has been upended in the past year due to an ugly power struggle between the right-wing president and left-wing prime minister. You could even argue that the new government’s threats to the Romanian film scene (they don’t like movies showcasing the country’s troubles) have offered the best chance for the country to win international attention for its political woes.

Courtesy of Mobra Films
A still from Romanian director Christian Mungiu’s 2012 film 'Beyond the Hills.'

It’s notable that many of these artists and writers, despite international renown, have remained in their home countries. That’s a big shift from the cold war era, when the only surefire way for artists from the east to win any global attention was to get out of town. The most notable cultural figures from the east from a generation ago were defectors or émigrés, such as the painter Gerhard Richter (trained as a socialist realist in Dresden) or the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (who left Bulgaria for Paris in the 1960s). Only a tiny number of easterners working in the east ever won much global attention, and then usually when their work reflected a political struggle; beyond that, the east got pigeonholed as a cultural backwater. Those who risked their careers and even their lives by working outside official networks remained totally unknown on the near side of the Iron Curtain. Slowly, happily, these artists are now being rediscovered.4

The very idea of a coherent “eastern Europe” is a cold-war relic. Geographically it’s nonsense: Vienna is east of Prague, Helsinki is east of Warsaw. Culturally it’s nonsense too. Croatia, for one, has far more in common with Italy and Austria than it does with an ex-communist state like Estonia, more than a thousand miles away. It’s far past time—especially as so many western states are in such serious trouble—to junk this meaningless and unhelpful phrase, and to start thinking of Europe and of European culture in far more complex ways. For the mandarins of the EU, and the sunburned tourists on the Croatian coastline, realize something that many of us have been too slow to accept: There is only one Europe, and it’s time to pay attention to all of it.

  1. Croatia endured the most rigorous admissions process of any EU state; the application took ten years. It will be the last new member for a while; the next up is thought to be Montenegro, probably not until next decade.

  2. Though not Croatia; it has been trapped in recession for five years.

  3. There actually was a cold-war version of Eurovision in the eastern bloc: the unlamented Intervision, held in Poland and founded by—of all people—Władysław Szpilman, the Holocaust survivor made famous in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist.

  4. I was especially impressed by two recent retrospectives of the disquieting Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, seen at MoMA in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which demolished the idea that all eastern artists’ work during the cold war was irrelevant or belated. And last year Laibach, the legendary dissident Slovenian rock band, were feted like gods at Tate Modern; the show was so oversubscribed that the museum had to extend the performance.