CULTURE CAPITAL Antwerp, Belgium, a Great City of the Renaissance, Is Using Its Year in Europe's Cultural Spotlight to Make a Statement about Art's Role in Confronting Xenophobia, Racism, and War

By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 1993 | Go to article overview

CULTURE CAPITAL Antwerp, Belgium, a Great City of the Renaissance, Is Using Its Year in Europe's Cultural Spotlight to Make a Statement about Art's Role in Confronting Xenophobia, Racism, and War


Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE questions start from the moment one descends into the ornate lobby of Antwerp's train station, ducks into a low-ceilinged coffee house, or hops the underground trolley to get a look at the historic Schelde River: Must we suffer for art? What is beautiful, what is not? Must artists be free?

Can art save the world?

The questions, printed in black on posters that feature reproductions of well known works of art, are the heart of the publicity campaign for this historic Flemish city's run as the European "cultural capital." For the organizers of a full palette of artistic activities designed to place Antwerp at the center of Europe's cultural stage, the question mark - with all that it conjures up about doubt, introspection, rejection, and investigation - was the only honest way to approach culture in 1993.

"In a Europe of pessimism, xenophobia, racism, and even war, it is not the time for slogans, but for questioning, and for questions specifically about the role of art," says Eric Antonis, director of Antwerp '93, a nine-month festival that officially opens March 27 with a theatrical production entitled "Sarajevo."

"We want to incite people to think," he declares.

This is not the way Belgium's second city envisioned its time in Europe's cultural spotlight, following Madrid last year and cities such as Glasgow, Dublin, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam. The European Community has had a cultural capital every year since 1985, when Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri came up with the idea and Athens inaugurated the project.

Given its long history and artistic tradition, Antwerp was not difficult to promote as a cultural capital. With the demise of Venice and the discovery of the New World, the city entered its golden age in the 16th century. The site of international trade fairs and a hub of the world economy, Flanders' great Renaissance city was "a merry-go-round of goods," says guide Paul De Wilde, noting that Antwerp was renowned for its intellectual climate, glass and metal works, publishing, and musical instruments.

When city officials submitted Antwerp's candidacy in 1988, their approach to symbolizing European culture was not going to differ substantially from previous cities. Europe's mood was upbeat: A prosperous and stable Western Europe was enjoying sustained economic growth, and the EC was well along in its construction of a borderless economic area.

For Antwerp, taking the spotlight the first year of the EC's single market would be a way to say there is more to Belgium than Brussels, and to be in the vanguard of Europe's leap forward.

But since the confident days of 1988, Europe's economic and political situation have changed drastically, as has its mood. After the fall of the Berlin Wall shattered Europe's postwar order, a short-lived euphoria gave way to a new bout of Euro-pessimism.

The EC now finds itself in a steep economic downturn, and many political leaders are facing popular rejection. At the same time, the broader European region is shaken by a war in the former Yugoslavia, widespread instability, and mounting nationalism.

Amid this upheaval, the Antwerp of Peter Paul Rubens and Renaissance glory has not been left unscathed. In 1991 municipal elections, voters in this city of 465,000 shocked the establishment by giving the far-right separatist Vlaams Blok party a quarter of the vote, more than any other single party. Flemish separatism, strong in Antwerp, continues to wrack Belgium.

"Antwerp is a metaphor for what Europe is tempted by today," says Mr. Antonis, noting the rising popularity of the far right. "This is actually an opportunity to put something like Antwerp '93 to work, to dig into these temptations, help people understand them and maybe even root them out."

That view, while prevalent today among Antwerp '93's young and energetic staff, was not the immediate response to the 1991 local election results. …

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