themes / Alien Europe

Global Polyphony

Interview with Jonathan Mills

The director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills, talks about cosmopolitanism, cultural education, and the global challenges facing Europe.

The Edinburgh Festival is older than the Scottish health care system. It was founded in 1947, based on the concept that art could play a positive role in reconstructing a unified Europe. Has this project succeeded?

The post-war period was a very unique time in history. It was a kind of pause. People had doubts about the future of the continent, and the question was “What next?”. The creators of the festival immediately accepted the challenge. They knew that the festival had to be about more than just the Scottish highlands and kilts. In hindsight, it would seem that the Edinburgh Festival played an important, though obviously limited, role in the unification of Europe. The very fact that we can share a cup of coffee here in Warsaw, in a modern Western international chain hotel is ―to a certain degree ―a result of the festival.

You claim that no single culture or ideology today has any prospects for domination. Is there any point in holding the European Culture Congress if there is no room for cultural unity in this networked world?

There’s a difference between Europe as a supranational concept and particular European cultures that have made some contribution to what we generally refer to as „Europeanness,”as opposed to Asian philosophy and aesthetics, for example. One of the challenges of the European Culture Congress is to reflect on what constitutes “Europeanness”in the general sense. What role can European culture play in the discourse on globalization and multiculturalism, although I don’t care for the latter word ―I prefer cosmopolitanism.

What Europe needs is initiative. The growing economic influence of such countries as India and China will soon have an effect on global culture as well. Although I don’t think the processes currently under way will lead to one dominating culture being replaced by another, we still need to think globally. Instead of thinking about whether or not Europe’s losing something, we should be thinking about the role it can play in a world where other culture centers are growing in strength. This is where the congress can play an important role.


It can help us understand the limits of the European project. If it succeeds in doing so, it’ll be a cause for celebration, because that’ll be the first step towards big changes. And big changes are only possible with a firm foundation, a foundation such as a solid European structure. What I think is crucial for these changes to occur is for us to understand that we speak with one and many voices at the same time.

We need a much more cosmopolitan approach to culture, and we need to recognize the uniqueness of each particular local culture. Diversity applies to every country in Europe.

As the initiator of this congress, Poland represents the challenges that contemporary Europe is facing. The idea of “Solidarity”is a very meaningful testimony for all of us. You have great, deep traditions, and your culture has managed to survive centuries of subjugation, oppression, and being torn to shreds.

But we also need a sense of community in culture. Nowadays, everyone lives in their own world ―we don’t have a common system of values. Artistic and cultural messages are becoming more and more incomprehensible.

Is that the fault of artists?

Perhaps it’s because popular discourse doesn’t account for the imagination and creativity of the audience, even though watching and listening is, in its essence, a creative act. But the problem goes even deeper: We can’t decide if we share common values if we don’t share a common language. In order to learn about each other’s values, we need to share a way of communicating, one that enables basic dialog.

One of the greatest problems I face as a trustee of an important European cultural institution is answering the question of how to remain relevant to audiences, where to find them, and how to think about their problems. The answer is to look for a new language.

Perhaps we should go back to when we communicated better?

But that’s impossible! We’ve passed the industrial and postindustrial ages, and we’re now living in the information age. Wanting to go back to a time when we all knew and understood everyone around us is pure nostalgia.

In that case, is it even possible to overcome communication barriers through art?

Let me give you an example. About ten years ago, the musicologist and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Alan Jabbour started a musical series at the Library of Congress called the “Endangered Music Project,”an archive of songs and rituals from all over the world. The two of them dig up unique recordings that bear witness to endangered or extinct cultures. Hart came up with the idea when he realized that when we describe the consequences of logging in the Brazilian and Indonesian rainforests, we only talk about the dropping oxygen levels in the atmosphere or about endangered animals. That language is utilitarian and technocratic, and it’s based on things that are quantifiable and measurable. But the destruction of the rainforests also causes the immediate destruction of a part of our cultural memory. What is lost is our unique experience of a place, expressed in poetry, song, and ritual.

The question is, how do we translate that into the social reality of Europe. How do we apply that way of understanding humanity and communication in an institutional environment?

We need to start by understanding that there’s no such thing as isolated culture. Culture is a process that is a part of a much greater whole. That’s why politicians and bureaucrats are the last people who should be initiating cultural actions aimed at social change. We need to abandon this mindset that assumes that everything can be quantified. We now know that man is too complicated a being to be approached that way. If we don’t take this multidimensionality into account, we can invent all the amazing strategies we want, but not only will we fail to achieve anything permanent, we will end up reinforcing the old paradigm.

The key is a proper approach to education. The last general reform of the education system in Great Britain took place in the 19th century! Our knowledge about man has changed completely since then, but the government structures seem oblivious to this fact.

I think that if we were to conduct an experiment and give every European minister an analysis of the educational activities conducted by cultural institutions compared to those run by schools, we would find that young people participate in culture not because of their schools, but thanks to the educational programs of museums, theaters, and festivals. These institutions know that without education, they will have no audience.

Your diagnosis of European culture is critical, but at the same time you believe that it is possible to regain lost unity in our visions of the world and culture.

Not entirely. The idea is for these visions to produce polyphony, not for them to be consistent. They may match sometimes, and differ at other times. The educational system shouldn’t reduce this polyphony in the absurd way that it often does. The point is to teach people how to live in and navigate a multidimensional world. I hope that we’ll have enough time at the European Culture Congress to discuss these issues and come to some common conclusions.

Interview by Marcin Malicki
Translated by Arthur Barys