The Stadt Theater in Bern
Barbara Bader, who had heroically joined the opposition at the last minute when Sibylle Omlin was unable to take part, started her argument by citing recent news in Swiss cultural politics. One prominent person in the primary arts funding organisation seems willing for this funding to be decimated – but who is he to judge what Swiss culture is? And how important is his organisation really? It’s budget of 35 million CHF is equivalent to that of the Hochschule der Künste Bern (HKB) or the Stadttheater in Bern. “Imagine,” she suggested, “auditions at the Stadttheater. They’re blind auditions, there’s a curtain behind it is a person who is a good artist or not such a good artist. The person who chooses doesn’t really care whether it’s a Swiss artist or not, because what they want is that the show on stage is good art.” The same is true when the HKB are recruiting staff or students; what is important is quality of the culture produced, not the nationality of the artist. “Where culture really happens is in towns, is in cantons. That’s where culture comes from and I don’t think that many people care who does the art, who does the culture if it’s good culture.”
From the outset Raphael Urweider’s defence was provocative. He identified Swiss culture as “a fragile, endangered species” which we would ignore at our cost. Swiss culture can be identified for its modesty, discretion, finesse and underpinning by hard work and Protestant values. “Foreigners who visit Switzerland are often offended by Swiss people staring at them because they have not lived here long enough. What they don’t get is that the staring is neither offensive nor hostile. Swiss people have a friendly look at each other, they are aware of their neighbour; everyone is treated as a next of kin. Foreigners often think is that the offensive, accusatory, but it is only part of the openness and awareness that is a big part of Swiss culture. Think of an innocent, curious child, when someone in the bus is looking at you with eyes wide open, think of empathy and concern, not of a judgemental stare.” And at the heart of this is the essence of Swiss democracy. “That is true Swiss culture, compromise, but a compromise is not a flashy or exciting thing, a compromise is a fragile small common denominator that makes Switzerland a true model of democracy.” But these values are not always perceived, and thus they must be defended. From the outside (brash neighbours to the north being picked out in particular) and from the Swiss that do not recognise the wealth they possess. “Swiss culture is like an endangered flower in the mountains, like the edelweiss. It doesn’t smell, it has no alarming flowers, but it has a noble whiteness that is soothing the eye and pleases the mind.”
Luzia Hürzeler’s rebuttal of the motion was based on her experience as an artist. She started by quoting Ben Vautier’s 1992 work La Suisse n’existe pas, and wondered how something that doesn’t exist can be defended. What would she do if her own work were to be defended on nationalistic grounds? “An artistic work tries, in my eyes, to see or combine the world in a new way, to invent a new system to capture the world, to place us in it. I don’t believe in the idea of an international art, I think that the place and the way we live and we grow up conditions cultural practice in complex ways. But I don’t believe in national art either. I find it very reductive to put artistic or any cultural practice or works in the box of a nation.” Not to mention that the idea of nationhood is ever more outdated: we live in a time not of powerful nations but of powerful axes and routes. And how do you define any person’s nationality? “How can I be sure to belong to a place, to a culture? The American sociologist Troy Duster is investigating the development of contemporary genetics and ancestry testing. He says that to put ancestry testing in perspective we first have to ask the question ‘when do we come from?’ rather than ‘where do we come from?’ Because all of us go back centuries upon centuries upon centuries, the question is at what moment we stop to locate our belonging, and the further back we go in the family tree, the more the origins multiply. Otherwise said, at some point in history, everyone comes from nearly everywhere.” She concluded by saying “not Swiss culture must be defended but culture also, but not only, in Switzerland”.
Many thanks to Béatrice Brunner, Jacqueline Baum and Ursula Jakob for the invitation to debate in Bern, and many, many thanks to the participants for their enthusiasm and ideas. Please do not quote the participants from this debate - each was playing a role they had been assigned for the event!
Art + Argument will now take a few months' break, but will be back. If you'd like to know more or receive emails about future events please contact aoiferosenmeyer (at) gmail.com.