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Art, Economy, Europe.
Strategies against dystopia

In the magnificent hall of the Mosteiro de São Bento da Vitória in Porto, the Teatro Nacional São João (TNSJ) and the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe (UTE) called a roundtable conference on the theme “Economics, Art and Europe”.
In the context of the three-year project Conflict Zones, the conference — among the side events of the UTE General Assembly, together with a showcase — was opened in front of the delegates from all the 18 member theatres, an opportunity to put up a more and more urgent reflection in the context of an international setting.

The speakers’ table dug the pathway to a complex and compelling discussion, able to cross different and yet complementary areas of work. The researcher Tomáš Sedláček (Czech Republic) is a man of science in the first place; the artistic wing was represented by the director of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano – Teatro d’Europa, Sergio Escobar (Italy) and the artistic director of the TNSJ, Nuno Carinhas (Portugal); the political realm was represented by the mayor of Porto, Rui Moreira. The president of the administrative board of directors of the TNSJ, Francisca Carneiro Fernandes, moderated the discussion.

When one tries to establish a link between the three topics, an immediate response comes from the fact that economics and arts have always been closely tied to one another, with artists’ lives fed to rich patrons, the whole artistic expression at the mercy of public or private funds, or the cartel of the collectors reigning over this or that trend in visual arts. One of the questions raised by such a conference could easily be: which kind of influence can derive from Europe as a political and socio-economical environment?

In the words of Francisca Carneiro Fernandes, and of the all three speakers, “Europe” is almost always paired with terms such as “in crisis”, “shifting” or “under threat”, and the major question is most likely how culture and arts can or cannot lend a helping hand in such a scenario.
The Czech essayist and lecturer Tomáš Sedláček, author of the bestseller book Economics of Good and Evil, is saluted as one of the most groundbreaking voices in contemporary economics, especially because of his inspiring ideas about “economics as a cultural phenomenon.” Far from considering stock markets and indexes a mere system of an addiction to numbers, Sedláček’s conception promotes a reconceptualization of the whole ratio about macro-economics, leading to a realm where economics is the endemic factor of societies, closely attached to the collective production of myths, religions and philosophies.


Showing a fundamentally positive attitude, Tomáš Sedláček admits that certain “regulatory mechanisms” might not be perfect — still incapable to avoid bloodsheds and wars — but they are in fact guaranteeing a stable situation. And yet, in such a view, the relatively stable situation of societies is not regulated by the “invisible hand” of economics: that presumed eminence grise, silent and mysterious, is in fact the result of a complex net of material relations, it’s a product of our own culture. The society itself reacts almost spontaneously to certain drifts of economics, giving birth to “a generation of hippies” that counteracts a too profit-oriented economy or to a Kafka that stood up against an excessive fascination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire towards bureaucracy. Another bright example comes from Sedláček’s homeland, with the “Velvet Revolution” in which arts saved politics from a total collapse.
The key to this mysterious balance seems to then lie in the awareness of such interconnections between areas that react to one another following a subterranean turmoil of an action-reaction process. The Czech economist poses the core of such turmoil in cultural movements, stating that the actual role of intellectuals and thinkers is “to keep these channels clean for communication.”
“European / American civilization is based on democracy and capitalism”, Sedláček continues, “two things that, so we were taught, are supposed to go hand in hand. And yet, the Western world has managed to export capitalism but not democracy”. This turns out to be a huge failure. Even Karl Marx argued that “capitalism is the strongest machine to make nations rich”, but the mere act of exporting capitalism is not enough to bring wealth, and can be extremely dangerous when it doesn’t come with the “handbook” of democracy.


One should not trust a totally deterministic definition of economics as “a technical analytic science/physics-oriented area”, while it is in fact “ideology covered in disguise of mathematics.” Those very ideologies end up autonomously defining the good and the evil of certain attitudes in administrative and governmental policies.
One of Sedláček’s powerful examples is corruption, which historically used to be considered bad practice because of being directly associated with the act of stealing. Today, instead, it needs an economic reasoning to be seen as wrong. This is because — and here is the other major statement of Sedláček’s above-quoted book — the greatest part of our evaluations on economic phenomena is nowadays confronted with GDP growth.
Quite evidently, the most dangerous risk is to use GDP growth as a touchstone for all socio-cultural manifestations. As the speaker underlines, arts were never supposed to speed up the economy of a nation, but they can slow down the pace of a profit-driven society and give people the extraordinary opportunity of a pause, a hiatus that favours the blooming of thought and knowledge, of emotions and understanding.
In other words, while Gross Domestic Product measures the material growth or decline, arts and culture mark the time of a spiritual florescence. As a matter of fact, the explosion of totalitarian and anti-democratic regimes as foreseen by dystopian literature found its root in the ban of arts and culture, which are to be considered as a barometer for the integrity of societies; a function which is very hard to visualize, because art in some ways escapes the responsibility of being directly useful. Nevertheless, it holds the innate ability to produce meaning, when confronted with the effective expectations of growth claimed by the individuals and, consequently, by the social structures that they compose.
Sedláček’s point is that we are living in a world that is totally based on the act of producing. Nothing around us can be called “natural”, everything is “artificial”, everything was built by humans: even the possibility to travel the world is submitted to artificial material processes (technology and identity regulations).“Our work”, Sedláček says, “is never done, it keeps on growing and growing with no reaching a point.” Finding its way through this chain-reaction of implementing reality, art may be a sort of bell that announces a ceasefire.


An example from contemporary mythology is brought up to explain this process. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Mordor, the villain, created the ring putting “so much power in it that its destruction brings destruction to Mordor himself: the Lord of the Rings is the ring itself” This is very similar to what has happened with economics: we have defined our lives by economic standards, so much so that they have taken complete control over our lives; essentially, economics has become the master of humans. In this sense, putting one’s faith and, more importantly, one’s mind on the things that can face and balance this absolute power is crucial: in a crisis such as the one we had in 2008 and 2009, “if a certain help hadn’t arrived from the area of politics, finance would have destroyed our civilization, exactly because it is based on it.”


After such a prolific theoretical introduction, it’s perhaps interesting to compare the contributions of the Mayor of Porto, Rui Moreira, on one side and the Director of a national theatre such as the Piccolo Teatro, Sergio Escobar, on the other, to understand some of the strategies carried out by two crucial actors in this scenario.
Escobar introduces the concept of the “improbable” to focus on the role of the arts. Quoting the French composer, writer and programmer Pierre Boulez: “Culture is that human activity that makes inevitable what is highly improbable.” In Escobar’s view, a reply to the refrain that “art is useless” is that “criteria for usefulness are self-referential towards economics”, while the role of culture is namely to put in crisis certainties and stable knowledge, “which are able to freeze the probable”. It was Edgar Morin who said: “The unexpected is possible, the metamorphosis is possible. Hope is the possible not the certain.”
Culture seemed to be at the center of mayor Moreira’s project when he was running for the elections in 2012, and it’s his concern to underline how finances have been growing through the current mandate, not without completing some important tasks as the creation of the Rivoli Municipal Theatre, a playhouse of and for the city.
In Moreira’s political perspective, culture has to be put next to two other accesses: economics and social cohesion, capable to “free the genie from the lamp and lead to a rebirth of the city.” The key seems to be in a basic change of attitude, from being mere “spectators” to becoming “actors in the change”, not following individual agendas, but rather acting as a collective, as a community of individuals. If Moreira says that “the city itself can be an actor”, Escobar talks about the “sensibility of citizens”, a very subtle category to take care of.
For both speakers, and referring to Sedláček’s talk, the question of bureaucracy is certainly crucial, because all contemporary democracies are going through hard times in terms of the functionality of an institution and a deep crisis of political representation, two themes that are responsible for a civic application of cultural conscience.
Escobar doesn’t believe that bureaucracy is the cause of the faults of the EU, most likely a sort of closure towards international relationships that produced “fear, then egoism, then nationalism”, a situation that is also reflected in domestic affairs and particularly in cultural management. Moreira still looks at bureaucracy as a barrier towards a healthy and correct perception of democracy, and he argues that a better understanding of the current media and communication environment might be a key to at least locate the centre of the problem. “With the end of traditional forms of communication (newspaper, TV, radio) and the advent of social networks, we are hitting disinformation. Using devices that can execute everything we want exactly in the way we expect it, we no longer need representative democracy.” And here’s the most dangerous obstacle to social cohesion.
“Culture is then going to replace what was served to us through the media and information.” Moreira underlines how Europe, no matter what the GDP states, still can boast leadership in the cultural production and heritage: a collective act of preservation should be the starting point to prove to the rest of the world that this record doesn’t come from a false perception.


If before “the business of business was business”, according to Tomáš Sedláček, the role of economics is changing. If one wants to sell beer, a brewery won’t be enough: the business of a brewery is now most likely “to harvest beer culture.” Culture is free to produce beauty and richness for the soul when one realizes that it’s first of all an act of harvesting.
Nuno Carinhas’s quiet and discrete voice brings up a strong allure of passion, that in some ways introduces his latest production of Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind, when it presents theatre as “a space for the free movement of people’s ideas and meanings”, “a democratic taste for sharing in opposition of the fashionable representation of unanimity of taste.”
Thus, theatre can become a useful instrument against a neglected memory, to organize a more aware idea of the future. But, as an “art of time”, it must represent the opportunity for a change of pace, a moment of reflection that injects a different time in such a voraciously rapidity-oriented everyday life. “When the world is nothing but silence, there will be narratives for clandestine listening”, but we need to awake our needed time, a special momentum entirely dedicated to listening, instead of a frenzy search for permanent virtual connection. In a media-filtered reality, Carinhas invites everyone to remember the Europe of the Rome Treaties, signed 60 years ago, “before fear” and suspicion of the other.
One might argue that looking at the past as an era with no fears is dangerous: the tensions were profound also at the dawn of Europe. However, Carinhas’s talk goes beyond that; it is a quest for a contemporary model based on the power of free speech in the first place, in these very months where we feel a certain threat by certain politics of repression.
“My Europe”, he argues, “is the Europe of authors, because it is through them that I can perceive the present time. And then, how can we accept that authors are still censored and persecuted in Europe? How can we admit that the other, the different, the foreigner is put into question and negated? We know that negation will haunt us in coming times as a labyrinthian network of walls supported by the complacency of the cynics. So, let’s get to work: Europe is a favourable ground to built communion and usury, fanaticism and freedom of thought, destruction and remorse, populist rhetoric and poetic indignation. We will all have to understand how to live together before a series of collapses defeat us.”



Published on 13 December 2016 (Article originally written in Italian)