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

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. But after long debates, the staff agreed to persevere with the project by reinforcing the program's "multicultural" element.

"We see Antwerp '93 as a unique opportunity to promote a discussion between artists, their work, and society," proclaims the festival's performing arts team in its official calendar of events.

"How should we deal with the various cultures that want to live together in the same city? This appears to be," they conclude, "one of the fundamental questions for coming decades."

A few examples of how Antwerp '93 hopes to promote this discussion: "Zingaro," a circus opera employing a Georgian men's choir, a Berber women's choir, Gypsies, and a menagerie of 12 breeds of horses, donkeys, and geese, all performing together in harmony; "Pigeons and Pencils," a commissioned symphonic work performed by young musicians from Antwerp's Moroccan community; and the Antwerp '93 ark, a performing arts "refuge" that will stage groups of young dancers, musicians, and actors from around the worl d. (See Ark, right.)

`I FOUND my program on the street," says Andre Hebbelinck, Antwerp '93's musical program coordinator. From the city's Renaissance churches, which popularized the Flemish polyphonic musical style across Europe, to 19th-century cafes that once played popular pneumatic organs, and on to the 134 nationalities that make up today's Antwerp, "it's all right here," he says. "You walk around this city and realize it's full of references that make you think of music."

These approaches has not always been well-received in Antwerp. Some Vlaams Blok representatives attacked the ark and the emphasis on multicultural performances, while others wanted the festival to be more of a showcase for Flemish culture.

But it is not just the far right or Flemish nationalists who have been critical. Some of Antwerp's traditional powers have expressed uneasiness with parts of the festival as well - not with the multicultural aspect, which satisfies their political aim to defeat the far right, but with programs that draw attention to some of Antwerp's weak spots. Some organizers say these jitters may reflect fears that Antwerp '93's approach could lead to even deeper questioning of the city's entrenched leadership.

"We quickly learned that some of our ideas were not popular with the [political] coalition that has been in power in Antwerp for over 50 years," says Pieter Uyttenhove, Antwerp '93's architecture program director.

The architecture group decided to focus part of its effort on Antwerp's 19th century belt, a swath of the city between the refurbished and touristy old center and the wealthy residential suburbs.

"That led to a clash with the mayor," says Mr. Uyttenhove. "He said we were going too far into city prerogatives, but what he didn't want was us emphasizing and drawing the attention of international visitors to the part of the city where the worst problems are concentrated." (The mayor, Bob Cools, declined to be interviewed for this article).

Uyttenhove says it is also the 19th century belt that provides a base of far-right support.

"But it's not just because people are racist that they vote for a party like Vlaams Blok," he says. "They are frustrated with seeing always the same politicians in power, with a system where access to social housing and other benefits depends on your collaboration with the parties in power."

In this sense, too, Antwerp symbolizes Europe - a Europe where voters, from Germany to Italy and France, are increasingly frustrated with traditional leaders and parties who have been in power for a decade or more. Mr. Cools is in the 13th year of his tenure, representing a coalition that has held city hall since the 1930s.

Recent polls suggest the Vlaams Blok could take 40 percent of the vote in Antwerp's municipal elections next year. Antwerp '93 organizers hope the nine months of art-driven reflection their festival offers will prompt people to contemplate the dangers of xenophobic, closed-minded thinking.

"Antwerp was once one of Europe's great cities, but it declined when the Schelde [River] was closed in 1585 and the wealth built on access to the outside world was choked off," Antonis says.

"Today this city is tempted to close out the world again," he adds. "I don't know if art alone can save the world, but I hope that by the end of this year the art we have brought to Antwerp will have had a consequence, and people will leave extreme-right thinking behind."

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