Europeans are living through an extraordinary historical moment. Great contemporary works of art help them grasp it.
The European Union is not always adept at communication. In 2021, it gave its flagship emissions-reduction legislation the baffling name ‘Fit for 55’. Its public relations are prone to moments of excruciating awkwardness. In 2022, the European Commission directorate-general for international partnerships threw a party in its Metaverse space—which had cost €387,000 to create—and only five people attended.
Yet the EU has strong reasons to communicate its identity and actions to the public: it is a sui generis polity with significant powers, still (relatively) young, complex and evolving. After next year’s elections to the European Parliament, the new commission will need to produce concrete, deliverable outcomes, alongside initiating rafts of legislation.
In 2024 the EU should tell the world what it is and wants to be by establishing a European prize for art. Each year this should offer a handsome sum and a citation for a visual artist who has lived or worked in Europe.
An EU literature prize already exists, as well as one for architecture. It does not follow that there must also be an art prize but it is good reason at least to consider it. And, once one does, it looks like a good idea.
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In fact, such a prize should have been established 20 years ago. It could then have been awarded to Christo, Cy Twombly, Christian Boltanski, Louise Bourgeois and Lucien Freud. But the second-best time to do things one should have done before is now and many artists worthy of continent-wide recognition are still with us, including Gerhard Richter, Frank Auerbach, Bridget Riley and Marina Abramović.
The current commission has talked a lot about identity, explicitly and implicitly. Last year, for instance, it created the ALMA (aim, learn, master, achieve) programme, to help young people not in education or training get work experience abroad—and, according to the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, ‘forge their own European identity’.
More widely, it has sought, post-‘Brexit’, to give the EU a new and stronger, ‘geopolitical’ identity, for example through the common procurement of arms for Ukraine and the Global Gateway programme. The college of commissioners includes one tasked with promoting ‘our European way of life’.
Endowing an art prize—a celebration of non-industrial culture—would mean promoting a benign form of identity, as against the negative, exclusionary ones which are always available and seem especially close at hand today. The conscious and practical expression of identity by institutions is always as much about what we want to be as what we are. And the notion of a continent on which interesting, important, moving, surprising and powerful art is made enjoys widespread support.
The idea of art—mainfest implicitly in most great works—as something that lives on, addressed to posterity, is much older than the nation-state. It goes back at least to the early-modern era, when (as now) the greatest art transcended borders: Leonardo, Dürer, Holbein, El Greco and Bruegel the Elder all made work in corners of Europe far from their origins.
It is reasonable to think that this idea, and some works currently being created, will outlive the nation-states of today. Indeed great works are greater than the modern state’s only rival in wealth and power, the multinational. To put the case in the EU’s own language, considering ‘subsidiarity’: a national prize for art, even of a large European nation, looks a bit small-time, whereas a European art prize would have scale and gravitas akin to a Nobel or Pulitzer prize.
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It will be objected that this an elitist and exclusionary project. This is half-right: prizes promoting the best in a particular field are by definition elitist, in some sense, but they promote the work with the assumption that all are capable of engaging with it. And while it is true that such projections of an ‘imagined community’ imply borders, the borders are arbitrary, matching those of the union, and the award would have nothing to do with ‘race’ or even citizenship.
The best reason for the prize is that there is an unrecognised resemblance between the EU and artistic production in the modern age: both are creatures of the market but also stand against it. On some level the EU was merely an expanded market with common rules, but it has also always had a utopian aspect and was the creation of public authorities, not market actors.
The EU often tells us that it is a historical project, serving to promote peace and prevent genocide. As a such it should promote a corpus of works which think through their historical moment.
These are works which, as Theodor Adorno wrote in his Notes to Literature, act ‘as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history’. In a time of war and global heating, uncertainty as well as hope, and faltering but continuous integration, they should be recognised with a European art prize.
Ned Hercock is an editor, researcher and consultant, mainly for the Swedish Institute of European Policy Studies and the World Bank. Views expressed are the responsibility of the author alone.