Ageing Democracies? Political Participation and Cultural Values among the Elderly in Europe

May 8th, 2017 No Comments

From Brexit to the rise of Viktor Orbán, Marine LePen and Geert Wilders, Europe’s political crisis is often viewed through the lens of an intergenerational conflict. According to this view, the rise of authoritarian political projects, the deterioration of democratic values and hostility to European integration are a consequence of the continent’s ageing population. This idea is sustained by a series of myths and deeply held prejudices that depict the elderly as an easily manipulated, fearful and selfish group. But this view is not supported by the facts. Political analysts have repeatedly shown that there is no relationship between ageing and reactionary politics, and that our views are entirely the result of our political experience and education. To share this knowledge and confront these stereotypes about the elderly, the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona and the Open Society Initiative for Europe have teamed up to produce the Ageing Democracies project, in which five fellows produce works that challenge our assumptions about the politics of ageing.

We are at a critical moment in history. Liberal democratic values are now threatened by the rise of authoritarian politicians like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Marine LePen or Geert Wilders. Xenophobic political parties like Alternative for Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria or the Law and Justice Party in Poland treat principles of human rights and social solidarity with scepticism or even outright hostility. Meanwhile, Brexit and similar referenda have shown that the integrity of the European Union can no longer be taken for granted.

These dramatic changes are taking place alongside what is likely the most profound, long-term change in Europe’s social composition since the expansion of access to education: accelerated population ageing. Powered by the continued growth of average life expectancy, population ageing is one of the most tangible results of social progress. However, it is often treated by pundits, analysts and other commentators as a problem and a source of intergenerational conflict.

The idea that the degeneration of liberal democratic values is somehow related to Europe’s older population has absolutely no grounding in the facts. It is the result of uncontested assumptions about ageing and the elderly. Yet time and time again, the idea and the myths that sustain it are repeated and reproduced in public discussions. To confront these prejudices and provide a more thorough reflection on the politics of ageing, the Centre for Contemporary Culture and the Open Society Initiative for Europe have teamed up to produce the Ageing Democracies project.

The Ageing Democracies project brings together five fellows from various backgrounds, disciplines, and European contexts. Its multidisciplinary research team includes a political scientist, a philosopher, a photographer, a filmmaker and a playwright. For the last year, they have analyzed the politics of ageing from a variety of angles, always with a firm basis in the empirical facts, and produced works that tackle common misconceptions about the elderly, their political and cultural views and their role in society. Today, May 8th, we mark the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe by presenting the project’s conclusions and their implications for a more just and democratic future.

YouTube Preview Image

Population ageing is a blessing, not a curse

All EU countries are experiencing accelerated population ageing. According to the European Commission’s demographic projections, the European Union’s population is expected to peak at 526 million people in 2050. By then, nearly 30 percent of the total population will be over 65. By 2060, the proportion of people aged 80 or over will be roughly the same as that of people under fifteen.

Much has been made of the far-reaching economic and policy consequences of population ageing. Public discussions usually highlight the pressure exerted on the welfare state by a larger elderly population through increased public spending on health care and pensions. Indeed, media accounts of population ageing often pose the phenomenon as a threat to the very existence of the welfare state for future generations, effectively pitting Europe’s elderly population against the youth.

As a result, the generational dimension of politics has taken on a new sense of urgency. Because population ageing is a very long-term trend, the question of whether and how the views, needs and political behaviour of older people differ from those of other age groups will likely influence democratic processes and deliberation over the next several decades.

The rise of authoritarianism and xenophobia cannot be blamed on the elderly

Immediately after the Brexit vote, many voiced their frustration at the result by suggesting that old people should not be allowed to vote. Over the next several days, the idea of limiting the voting rights of elderly people made its way from the social networks into the mainstream media, including Time, GQ, Huffington Post, VICE, Forbes and El País. Commentators have also blamed the resilience of relatively unpopular governments or the rise of right-wing populism on the growing number of elderly voters.

Blaming the elderly for reactionary, authoritarian or otherwise undesirable political outcomes seems almost like a reflex, and the ageism it implies often goes uncontested. Age-based prejudices are propped up by the widespread, deeply held assumption that people naturally grow more reactionary with age. But is this assumption actually true?

Empirically, the idea doesn’t seem to hold up. For instance, the suggestion that support for far-right parties in France and the Netherlands is higher among the elderly is actually false. According to an I&O poll from December 2016, support for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom was highest among young voters and declined dramatically with age. Less than 5% of voters over 65 supported his xenophobic campaign. Likewise, Marine LePen’s National Front was the top electoral choice among French voters under the age of 50, but among the elderly it was the third choice.

Brighton Pride. Ivan Bandura, 2014.

Older people being less inclined to support authoritarian or xenophobic politicians may go against assumptions, but it is not too difficult to understand why this is the case. Europe’s elderly today still remember World War II and the rise of fascism, and European integration was largely premised on the idea of preventing the horrors of that era. Alarmingly, a recent study by Harvard researcher Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne showed that while more the majority of older Europeans believed that military takeover was never legitimate in a democracy, only 36% of millennial felt the same way. While only 5% of Europeans over 65 believed that having a democratic political system is a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country, 13% of millennial felt this way. Finally, older Europeans were more likely than European youth to believe that civil rights are absolutely essential to a democracy.

The elderly are as diverse as any other age group

The fact of the matter is that the political and cultural perspectives of the elderly are more complex than we tend to assume. This is the overarching conclusion of the Ageing Democracies project’s first outcome, a new report by Dr. Achim Goerres, a leading political scientist specialising in the political participation of the elderly.

The report dispels the myth that the elderly form a single, reactionary constituency, pointing out that the differences between their political preferences and those of younger people in Europe are almost entirely due to the way different political generations grow up, not their age. To the extent that we can generalise, the data suggest that older Europeans are actually less conservative than their younger counterparts when it comes to the economy. The only exceptions to this are in Switzerland and the UK, where they are only slightly more conservative.

In terms of their cultural views, while it is true that the elderly are more conservative in all European countries but the Netherlands, these differences are smaller than generally assumed. More importantly, they are almost entirely attributable to the political generation people belong to. This is something very different than a person’s age. People who grew up during the same historical context share similar experiences that shape them in late adolescence and early adulthood. These experiences are very much determined by national circumstances and political history. For instance, being born in 1955 in West Germany shapes an individual rather differently than being born the same year in Catalonia or in the Czech Republic.

Yayoflautas. Teresa Forn, 2012.

In the end, the report shows that people past the retirement age are divided by the very same social inequalities experienced by younger groups. Specifically, elderly Europeans are divided by differences in attitudes and resources related to gender, health, education and income, among other factors. As occurs with all other age groups, these differences structure not only the social position of older people, but also what they do and want politically.

Let us consider the example of household income. While 73% of elderly people believe that the government must decrease income differences between the rich and the poor, when we divide older people by income groups, we exactly the same pattern we see among younger people. Those with higher income support this notion less often than those with lower income. Among older people whose household income is in the lowest 30% of their country’s income distribution, the proportion that supports redistribution is 79 %. Among the highest 30%, the proportion falls to 62%.

Socio-economic inequality does not just affect the political views of older people. It can also affect the way that they participate in politics. Health inequalities, which are strongly determined by social inequalities, are quite dramatic among the elderly, so much so that the pension age can typically be divided into a “young old” age and an “old old” age, when health problems severely hamper daily activities. Worse health among the elderly is associated with less political participation of any kind or even no participation at all.

The report concludes that politicians are catering to an imaginary constituency of like-minded elderly voters. Anxieties over the supposedly impending age conflicts brought on by a “grey wave” of “greedy geezers”, he finds, are largely the result of media exaggerations with little basis in the current scientific knowledge.

The politics of ageing is the politics of the future

The fact that there have never been as many elderly people in the world as there are today begs a troubling question: have we ever valued the elderly so little? Although the elderly population is growing and the younger population is not, our cultural imaginaries are nonetheless guided by a youth imperative. From the advertising world to the film industry and beyond, our visual culture equates beauty with eternal youth. In pop culture, older people are often depicted as hopelessly outdated, helpless or irritable. Meanwhile, scientific journalism frequently treats ageing itself as a disease to be cured, rather than as a natural part of the lifecycle. Instead of appreciating the tempos of the elderly and privileging their retrospective gaze, society asks that they age “actively” to keep up with the times.

How we age is an inherently political question. We do not age equally, and how long we live is shaped by the social and economic conditions we experience. Life expectancies and quality of life vary both between countries and within them, especially as a result of income and educational inequalities. Thus, the politics of ageing is a topic that goes beyond the electoral behaviour or policy preferences of a given age group. The implications of growing older depend very much on how societies are organised, what priorities they define and what questions they ask themselves.

Ageing Democracies reflects on the politics of ageing with individual works that approach the topic from a variety of angles, extending the discussion beyond the most prevalent tropes and stereotypes. Rather than viewing population ageing as a problem, the project contends that it is the result of undeniable social progress and a democratic challenge that poses a new set of key political questions about how society should be organized for generations to come.

To explore these themes, philosopher Pedro Olalla revisits the oldest classical text on old age, Cicero’s De Senectute. In a forthcoming book titled De Senectute Politica, Olalla positions demographic ageing as an undeniable fact that demands awareness to ensure that society can assimilate, manage and be enriched by its most profound implications. Ageing, he argues, must therefore be understood as an ethical, inherently political endeavour that requires us to question a society that treats the elderly as a drain on public coffers. He proposes instead a new reading of the increasingly popular notion of “active ageing” that dovetails with the democratic ideal of citizen participation and a deep engagement with political life.

But population ageing is not the only major demographic change affecting the politics of ageing. Today’s elderly Europeans are part of a society that has been quite dramatically changed by new patterns of international migration. This is dealt with in a subtle new film by Swedish photographer Maja Daniels titled My Grandma Calls Me Thomas. It focuses on the seemingly unlikely friendship between Taimaz and Barbro. Barbro had never met a refugee before Taimaz came to visit. Taimaz came to Sweden as an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan. His bond with Barbro is his first relationship with a Swedish person. Their story takes place in Älvdalen, an ageing, depopulating village in rural Sweden with an unrecognized minority language that is facing extinction, putting a human face on the complex implications of Europe’s changing demographics.

YouTube Preview Image

The political question of how different communities respond to the current challenges of our ageing society is at the center of Nobody’s Home, a documentary essay by Catalan producer and film theorist Ingrid Guardiola. Adopting an observational, experimental approach, Guardiola examines life in two vastly different elderly communities in two very different places in Spain. The first is Ciñera, a former mining village in León whose economy has been dramatically affected by globalization. The second is a retirement home in the El Palomar neighborhood of Barcelona. In Ciñera, a strong union culture tries to resist the twin threats of deindustrialization and depopulation. In El Palomar, economic growth has given way to a larger urban population, a larger number of elderly people living in retirement homes and a larger number of workers taking care of them. The film highlights the centrality of work in each of these settings and how the lives that make up these communities differ in how they deal with an ageing population.

Finally, Peca Stefan is one of Romania’s most celebrated young playwrights. His new work is an immersive hybrid between a theatre play, a novel and an exhibition. Titled The New Old Home, it is an exercise in empathy that invites audiences to inhabit the shoes of Mrs. D and her millennial granddaughter Gina as they depart on a fantastical journey through space and time. The two women reconnect after several years of separation, only to be faced with a situation that propels them on a quest through parallel worlds. Mrs. D’s fate depends on how she responds to the conflicts posed by the different possible versions of her life as an elderly woman in present-day Romania, Germany, Spain and a distant future version of Europe. As she’s helping her grandmother along the way, Gina must face her own misconceptions and fears regarding ageing, and a series of recurring questions arises. How is an elderly person valued in contemporary democracies? What would the best possible world for Gina and Mrs. D look like?

These are the vital questions posed by the Ageing Democracies project, and they are all the more urgent in light of recent political developments. The Eurozone crisis, the crisis of the welfare state, Brexit and the rise of authoritarianism confront us with future scenarios that we did not expect just a decade ago. These challenges are exacerbating the tensions underlying a much slower but no less profound change in society. And as Europe’s population grows older, the politics of ageing will only grow in importance. Its consequences will not be limited to today’s retirees. The young are tomorrow’s elderly. Whether or not they inherit a democratic culture is being decided today.

28% of people over 60 combine voting with other forms of political action. 

Marta Segarra: “We want to possess the other and end up dispossessing ourselves”

March 2nd, 2017 No Comments

To what extent is desire—which, at first sight, seems to be a phenomenon of the impulses connecting humans with animality—culturally conditioned? How do clichés about femininity affect a woman’s attitude to life and the decisions she makes? How much room have women had to discover their desire in a cultural and sexual history written by men? We speak with Marta Segarra, Professor of French Literature and Gender Studies at the University of Barcelona and director of the Women and Literature Centre.

Marta Segarra a la conferència Desig i subversió © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

Marta Segarra in the lecture Desire and Subversion © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

Desire in accordance with cultural patterns, and not only those which shape education and reading but everything we absorb on a daily basis, more or less unconsciously.

Anna Punsoda: Love is cultural and desire is natural.

Marta Segarra: Yes, love is a cultural construct. Of course it’s not understood the same way now as it was five hundred years ago, or in Barcelona as it is in Dakar. But desire isn’t natural either. We tend to think that it’s instinctive, impulse-driven, or natural, as you say. But we also desire in accordance with cultural patterns, and not only those which shape education and reading but everything we absorb on a daily basis, more or less unconsciously.

For me, the most obvious cultural pattern is that which pushes us towards heterosexuality. We think it’s natural for men to desire women, and for women to desire men when, in fact, things aren’t always like that. Obviously. Culture pushes us into a kind of heterosexuality which some theorists have called “obligatory heterosexuality”. Affections, but also sexuality, are marked by cultural patterns which nowadays are mainly conveyed by audiovisual stories, in films, television, advertising and the new social networks.

AP: Speaking of patterns, in your essay Políticas del deseo (Politics of Desire) you contrast two archetypical women, the biblical Mary and Eve. What do these archetypes represent and who do they serve?

MS: To begin with, they are a clear example of how, in the West, our thought has always been constructed in a binary fashion. Good and Evil. Body and Soul. Pure Love and Sexual Love. Hence, two models have been promoted in the gender of “woman”: the good woman—mother and, moreover, virgin or, in other words, bearer of life without ever having felt sexual desire—and Eve, who would be the first femme fatale in history, the woman who entices the man into materialism, who leads him to damnation through the power of her attraction. Eve is temptation and death because expulsion from paradise symbolises the introduction of mortality into the history of humankind. This pattern, which takes conceptual shape in the nineteenth century, is very old. And it has a very clear message: desire brings disaster. This is the legend of Carmen, the woman who doesn’t fall in love but is so attractive to a whole range of men that she ends up spreading death and pain.

AP: And this idea of the seductive, manipulative woman who is well aware of the effect of her charms, doesn’t it contradict the cliché that presents us with woman as a childish creature dominated by telluric forces?

MS: It certainly does. This latter idea is a commonplace which paradoxically gained ground in the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. We are told that, because of her body, her anatomy, woman is closer to what is natural and this is because femininity is bound to maternity. According to this idea, man is exempt from this and he can therefore sublimate the link with nature through reason and rise above material contingency. 

“The female artist has often been presented as the archetypical bad mother because she devotes herself to art—or her job, or whatever—going beyond the bounds of the role that nature has allegedly assigned her.”

AP: So woman has always been represented the eternal element, the basis of things and man the complement, namely progress.

MS: Yes, and precisely in this sense we have the classical conceptual opposition between procreation and creation. Maria Àngels Anglada deals with this in a poem called “Una resposta” (An Answer). These two activities have been seen as mutually exclusive for many centuries. A lot of women have internalised it and are convinced that their role in the world is first and foremost one of transmission, continuity and family care. The female artist has often been presented as the archetypical bad mother because she devotes herself to art—or her job, or whatever—going beyond the bounds of the role that nature has allegedly assigned her.

Marta Segarra i Merri Torras a la conferència Desig i subversió © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

Marta Segarra and Merri Torras in the lecture Desire and Subversion © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

AP: And aren’t there clichés, like the one that presents the woman as “she who receives (man, children, etc.)” based on biology?

MS: Well, that depends what you want to emphasise. The woman can also be “she who expels”. In fact, Marguerite Duras has a whole theory about giving birth (the first expulsion) as primordial movement. Think about how the social structure would be affected if, instead of having imposed the story of the “body that receives”, it had instituted the one of the “body that expels”.

AP: What space has woman had to discover her desire?

MS: For centuries the dominant discourse has claimed that man desires and woman is the object of desire. Freudian psychoanalysis reinforced this idea. The only role that women could have was passive. In Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century some women—still only a few—demonstrated, through the way they lived, the possibilities of breaking bounds, of living their desire according to their own parameters. But we begin to discover ourselves with the feminist movements of the 1970s. “Our body is ours” is a demand that has to be understood in this sense, as a possibility of shunning stereotypes of femininity with the aim of discovering our own desire.

AP: Unlike love, which has been seen as a means of transcendence, desire tends to be presented as a state of anxiety and yearning to possess.

MS: Yes, but it’s not so simple. Sometimes desire becomes the desire to possess but, then again, since it pushes us into a state of crisis as subjects, it shakes us up profoundly and it is our “undoing”. We want to possess the other and end up dispossessing ourselves. In this regard, the effects of desire are interesting because they lead to a crisis in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the subject whose limits become problematic.

AP: There is ethical desire.

MS: That’s one way of putting it. For example, in Undoing Gender Judith Butler presents sexuality as one of the ways or one of the human domains in which it is easier to “undo oneself”, to break through the limits that isolate us as individuals. We open up to the other, to our difference from the other, which is to say difference in the broad sense.

AP: And the sexualisation of everything, the constant presence of stimuli, how does that affect desire?

MSHypersexualisation is a way of channelling desire within very specific constraints. Yes, we emerged from centuries of repression as European society was very puritan in centuries of the past. But present-day “sexualisation” doesn’t necessarily means that the possibilities of desire are opened up. The 1970s feminist discourse on liberation has been reabsorbed by power and the logic of capitalism in order to boost consumption. Liberation per se is not subversive. Desire per se is not subversive. In fact, it’s possible, too, as we are seeing in many cases, that “liberation” and desire are not causing any crisis in the structures of power but, rather, are reinforcing them.

Marta Segarra collaborates in several debates and CCCB programmes about the role of women in society. You can consult all the contents related to the author on the CCCB website.

Todorov, a CCCB Stalwart

February 15th, 2017 No Comments

John Berger, Zygmunt Bauman, Tzvetan Todorov. These renowned authors who have made extraordinary contributions to culture and critical thought have left us this winter of 2017. With them, we are losing a generation that is central to European history, a group of thinkers who still had direct or indirect memory of the continent’s horrors. They were all united in their denunciation of totalitarian thought, their tenaciousness in trying to understand human complexity, and their resolute defence of democracy and diversity. Last week we received the sad news of the death, at the age of seventy-seven, of the Bulgarian historian and essayist, Tzvetan Todorov. A gentle, friendly man with an unhurried way of speaking, Todorov was a thinker in every sense of the word, one who shunned disciplinary confines and encouraged reflection without dogmatism. Todorov was one of the guest speakers at the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) from its early days and, during the years of forging this relationship, his influence was considerable. He gave four lectures at the CCCB, all of them highly topical today, and available in the BREUS collection.

Tzvetan Todorov al Debat de Barcelona Virtuts CCCB (c) Miquel Taverna, 2012

Tzvetan Todorov en el Debat de Barcelona Virtuts CCCB (c) Miquel Taverna, 2012

In his first lecture in 2004, he spoke of Europe’s frontiers, a subject of all-important relevance today which we tackle in this year’s Barcelona Debate. Even then, Todorov was calling on the European Union not to restrict itself to being an economic and administrative entity, and asking it to take on its “complement of soul” so that it could also become a cultural Europe. Aware that the continent does not have a single cultural essence and that diversity is its identity, Todorov upheld a European project based on shared political principles and a critical spirit as a mechanism of continuous self-questioning.

At the Kosmopolis Festival in 2008, he spoke about terrorism, decrying the progressive legalisation of torture as a political instrument. At the height of the debate raging around the effects of America’s invasion of Iraq, Todorov recalled that torture has existed since antiquity but now, for the first time, it is no longer presented as a lamentable but excusable infraction. It is becoming the norm. His judgement left no room for doubt: “A state that legalises torture is no longer a democracy”.

In 2009, he joined the writers Juan Goytisolo and Monika Zgustova in a discussion on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a text published in the BREUS Collection, Murs caiguts, murs erigits (Walls Brought Down, Walls Built), Todorov had the following to say: “The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to proclaim the end of other walls built in other places. Twenty years on, we must acknowledge that this hope has not borne the fruit of success. Far from vanishing from the face of the earth, the walls have multiplied. How can this be explained?” A thinker of otherness, Todorov denounced the use of “fear of the barbarians” to justify the proliferation of borders and recalled, “[…] the stranger is not only like us but, at the mercy of the uncertainties of fate, yesterday we ourselves were, or tomorrow we will be the strangers: we are all potential strangers.”

Tzvetan Todorov’s last lecture at the CCCB, given at a time when the economic crisis was having devastating effects among the population, dwelled on the virtue of moderation. A fervent defender of pluralism, Todorov warned of the fragile foundations of democratic societies and the risks of abuse of power. On this occasion, he roundly praised moderation as a political and social principle, while criticising the oversimplifications of monolithic thinking. He said, “Individual freedom is a basic demand of democracy, but absolute freedom is not a desirable aim”, and also pointed out that, “Guaranteeing the material wellbeing of the population is a desirable result but if others are excluded when this goal is pursued, we will end up living in a world worshipping at the altar of a money cult. The prosperity of a country is a means, not an end.” In an interview he gave to the CCCB he warned, “We need to remind ourselves about the importance of fundamental values like moderation because, if we forget them, we will become victims of mechanisms that only favour the most powerful.”

The last document Todorov left us is, without a doubt, one of the most moving of all and that which best shows his warm affability. In March 2011, when we opened the Teatre CCCB, we asked several people associated with the CCCB for their views about it. Todorov agreed to speak about the CCCB in an interview which was recorded in his home in Paris in the winter of 2011. We shall never forget the experience or his words.

Joan-Francesc Mira: “The Mediterranean isn’t a zone of harmony. It’s a zone of conflict”

February 1st, 2017 No Comments

I tell Joan-Francesc Mira that the 2017 “Barcelona Debate”, “Old Europe, New Utopias” discusses, among other matters, whether there is a relationship between the ageing of the European population and the ageing of the European project. He gives me a severe look and says that the correlation might work intuitively but, on paper, it’s not so clear. We talk about identities, of clean people and people who defile, of cities that triumph and fail, of Napoleon, Adenauer and the feats and villainy of Mitterrand.

Joan Francesc Mira al CCCB © CCCB, 2016, Glòria Solsona

Joan Francesc Mira at CCCB © CCCB, 2016, Glòria Solsona

AP: Lyon, Avignon, Ravenna and Montpellier, the cities you mentioned in your lecture “Dante and Llull: Cultures, Languages and Worlds”, citing them as important urban centres in the lives of these two thinkers, now play no role in Europe. Do the political splendour and cultural splendour of cities go together? 

Joan Francesc Mira: On the one hand, they do. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, London was only relatively important on the European scale, and more in dynastic than economic or cultural terms. Hamburg, Amsterdam and Vienna didn’t have the importance they would later attain. Berlin, needless to say, only began to figure towards the end of the eighteenth century. Munich was something else. So was Prague. The more you move down, the more important the urban centres were. Milan began its rise with that of the Visconti family. Venice, yes, was important in every domain, especially in trade with the East. And Florence was a great centre of finance.

The European cities of the north didn’t yet have the power they would acquire after the industrial revolution. But, on the other hand, I also cited Paris, which was an extremely important centre in the ninth and tenth centuries. The French dynasty wielded so much power that it even began to overshadow the papacy. Moreover, with its university, Paris was a great centre of philosophical and theological authority.

Vista de la universitat de la Sorbona en 1550. CC Edward August, Fourquemin, Nousveaux

University of the Sorbonne view in 1550. CC Edward August, Fourquemin, Nousveaux

You need to remember that neither Llull nor Dante thought in global terms, as we do now. For Dante, Naples was something remote. His itinerary took him to Rome, which was important but, demographically speaking, it only had 30,000 inhabitants. Valencia, by the time the Borjas arrived, already had twice as many inhabitants.

So, the answer is yes and no. It’s not that the cities of Ramon Llull and Dante were very important, though they had a lot of autonomy in the political realm and this made them stand out with their intrigues, military pacts and trade agreements. But the active life of these cities isn’t the same as their real significance.

AP: What kind of relations did these Mediterranean cities have?

JFM: Conflict. The Mediterranean isn’t a zone of harmony. It’s a zone of conflict. It was only under the Roman Empire that there was unity among the Mediterranean peoples. The territorial unity came to an end with the barbarian invasions and the expansion of Islam with its religious unity. We are still living in a duality, with a south—North Africa and the Middle East —of Semitic, Islamised origins, and a European, Christian north.

But we need to be careful about Christian Europe. Recall that the Turks reached the gates of Vienna at the end of the seventeenth century and that Hungary, which is now part of Central Europe, belonged to the Turkish Empire for centuries.

“Europe is an ideological product of the Enlightenment and romanticism”

AP: There is no millenarian European Christian identity.

JFM: Well, the Turks and the “Europeans” thought in terms of Christendom rather than Europe. Europe was then a geographical reference, as America was to become. Europe is an ideological product of the Enlightenment and romanticism and, above all, of the twentieth century when attempts were made to reinterpret history in terms of the identity of an old project that never existed.

The old project which certainly was important was that resulting from the breakup of the Roman Empire. In the eastern Empire, where Constantine built the new capital in Constantinople—the ancient Byzantium which was later to become Istanbul—they still spoke Greek and had a Christianised Greek culture, which then became part of the Slavic world. This Greek Empire developed a kind of Caesaropapism, a structure in which civil authority—the Byzantine emperor—was also the religious authority. In the Western Empire there was no unified civil authority. This was only recovered with Charlemagne but then it fell apart again.

AP: And this means…

JFM: An eastern Christendom and a western Christendom with totally different characteristics. It’s also explained by the evolution of cities, as you mentioned. In the east there were no urban communes in the style of Florence or Barcelona with, for example the community councils, autonomy, codes of law, statutes, regulated trade and universities. There were no medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment or bourgeois universities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Although they were frequently ruled by a king, the autonomous Mediterranean communes were the forerunners of representative democracy. Or culturally speaking, Dante was a pre-humanist and was interested in the ancient Roman model, an ethical, ideological and aesthetic model which is independent from the Christian model. Here, there is an independence of thought and aesthetics vis-à-vis sacred doctrine, an autonomy which never existed in eastern Christianity.

«Putin ha reactivado la hostilidad oriental contra el occidentalismo»

AP: And where does this western Christianity begin and end?

JFM: Well, wherever there’s a gothic cathedral, there’s been this whole kind of western culture and society. Take, for example, the idea of studying law or medicine at the university. The university gives you a licence to teach, or it recognises you as a doctor or, in other words, it endows you with the capacity to establish doctrine. All of this represents a very specific mentality, kind of politics, artistic expressions and way of living extending from Finland to Venice, and including the Croatian coast (indeed, what is now Dubrovnik was the Republic of Ragusa in Italian culture).

Putin is bringing about a revival of this difference between the two worlds and the Orthodox Church is recognising him as a kind of tsar, as the authority over the church. He is the great backer of universal reactionism. He finances Marine Le Pen, Hungarian reactionism, the adversaries of the European Union and the restoration of the monasteries on Mount Athos. He has reignited eastern hostility against Occidentalism.

AP: Occidentalism is also a strange concept. For many centuries—and, in fact, it seems like a cyclical phenomenon—it was believed that there was a gulf between Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures which was impossible to bridge.

JFM: This has a real basis. In the beginning it was an ethnic contrast: Romans versus Germanic “barbarians”. But the peoples were slowly mixing and, by the Late Middle Ages, the division no longer mattered. But what happened is that there was a resurgence because the two peoples embarked on different forms of economic evolution. The people of the north began to prosper and modernise more quickly. There is a kind of mercantile capitalism that works better there because there is more economic freedom. In the protestant zone, in particular, the activation of an advanced urban culture was faster, with cleaner, tidier and better organised cities. And after the eighteenth century, this gave rise to different ways of life and forms of collective consciousness. Nevertheless, a citizen of Hamburg, or Rotterdam or London or Edinburgh will mistakenly still keep seeing us as a backward people.

AP: And, despite these differences, there has been an attempt to construct a European identity.

JFM: The first to try it was Napoleon but, naturally, not out of any ideological conviction regarding some kind of European culture. What he wanted was to give a historical or cultural veneer to his military empire. After him the Nazis tried it, mainly because of their opposition to the Soviet Union which, for them, represented Asian peoples. During the Second World War, this opposition you noted between north and south was superseded by an opposition between east and west.

The idea of Europe as a political structure built by communal agreement between different peoples made its appearance after the Second World War. Since the eighteenth century with its Thirty Years’ War, we have never stopped killing each other. Europe is sixty years old and it was designed to bring peace.

.

Quadre Entry of Napoleon I into Berlin, 27th October 1806. CC C. Meynie, 1810

Entry of Napoleon I into Berlin, 27th October 1806. CC C. Meynie, 1810

AP: Also, maybe, so that its countries could play a role in the global world. 

JFM: No. You have to see it from within. In 1945, for the first time in two centuries, Germany was totally destroyed and occupied. Only then could it be submitted to a union which—or so the other countries believed—would lessen its power. In fact, the first attempt was the European Cole and Steel Community. Why? Because if you control the production and use of steel, you control the war industry. Without that control, you can’t deploy your own heavy weapons. Hence, this was the definitive proof of Germany’s good faith: steel production had to be submitted to the scrutiny of a supranational authority.

Remember that in 1946 and 1947 the Germans lost more than a third of their territory. That means fourteen or fifteen million Germans expelled from what is now Poland or the Czech Republic or the Königsberg zone—which is now Russian—and subsequently taken in by East Germany. Now we are scandalised by the 400,000 Palestinians uprooted by the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, but the neighbouring Arab countries were never able to take them in.

«The three great ideological and political fathers of the Union were Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman»

AP: Let’s go back to Germany’s weakness? Who benefits?

JFM: Who indeed! The ones who joined the Union as a dominant power were the French who, despite the myth of the resistance and de Gaulle, had lost the war. By means of the Union, they tried to control the Germans and, moreover, gratify their craving for historic grandeur.

The three great ideological and political fathers of the Union were Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman, all three of them from borderlands, or of mixed origins, and all German speakers. By this I mean that Adenauer came from the most French-influenced part of Germany, De Gasperi was a northern Italian born in the old Austria-Hungary, and Schuman was a Frenchman of German origin. Forty years on, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand would represent the spiritual European reconciliation. Mitterrand was a great politician and also a great crook who protected French war criminals who had worked with the Nazis. But he was a great politician who was able to see that the time had come to consolidate the project.

AP: ¿Quo vadis, Europa?

JFM: Well look, first of all, since the end of the communist era there has been an impressive resurrection of the Christian faith right across orthodox Europe. And not just in Putin’s Russia. Don’t forget that Tsipras is in power thanks to an ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious and ultra-Greek party supported by both the military and the church.

In our Europe everything is more uncertain. I wouldn’t say that there is a revival of Catholic religious practice here. There’s a permanent need for some kind of religion but religion has been replaced by absurd esoteric beliefs. And there’s also a wave of evangelical Protestantism coming from South America and the United States. This is very reactionary, totally literal in its interpretation of the Bible, completely divorced from the original Protestantism, and increasingly visible. Then again, there are 45 million Muslims in Europe with beliefs akin to those of the most rigorous Christians centuries ago. And this has a potential for mobilisation that is lacking the values on which our democracies are founded, as is demonstrated by the way we have to confront jihadist attacks. I don’t know about the future, but this will be the linchpin. I don’t like having to say it. But that’s the way things are.

A Journey through the Architecture of Desire

January 26th, 2017 No Comments

1,000 m2 of Desire: Architecture and Sexuality explores how architecture has defined our spaces for sex. With its backdrop of two revolutions, the French revolution of 1789 and that of May 1968, the exhibition traces a historical route through literature, art, architecture, design and mobile apps. In order to make sure that you don’t get lost among the 250 pieces in the 1,000 m2referred to in the title, we have made a selection of essential works which, in themselves, deserve to be seen for their historical importance, and because they are unique, curious or especially constructed for the exhibition. We offer an assortment of books, models, plans and drawings, engravings and reproductions of spaces in real scale so that you can immerse yourself in a different world and, at the same time, make a journey through time in the architecture of desire.

Playboy, a Magazine for Lovers of Architecture?

“The playboy and his magazine are all about architecture,” writes the architect Beatriz Colomina in a text of the exhibition catalogue. The fact is that, although this publication was (and still is) a reference of eroticism, one of the aims of its editor Hugh Hefner was that it should also be a reference of style, architecture and design. The Playboy man had to live in an apartment designed for seduction, in a loft without doors or rooms so as to keep the woman constantly on view. Accordingly, some of the best architects and designers of the day, from Charles Eames to Eero Saarinen, occupied page after page of the magazine, together with naked girls, articles by Truman Capote and interviews with Michael Caine. In #expodesig you will find a space devoted exclusively to Playboy magazine and curated by Beatriz Colomina and her team. Here you can explore models of the Playboy mansion and Hefner’s private plane, stretch out on his round bed, read articles on the architects in vogue, and look at plans of the most amazing houses of the day, some of which were used as film locations, as for example in the James Bond series.

Llit de Hugh Hefner, editor revista PlayBoy © CCCB, 2016

Hugh Hefner’s bed, editor PlayBoy © CCCB, 2016

Pornography According to Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne

Did you know that the word “pornography” made its first appearance in 1769? To be more specific, it made its debut in a treatise by Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne, a writer who, in his work Le Pornographe (a neologism he coined to designate someone who writes about prostitution), describes in lavish detail what an establishment devoted to prostitution should be like, or estimates the worth of each girl according to her age and beauty. For Restif de la Bretonne, pornography was an affair of state and his proposal was innovative and audacious when you consider that he was writing in pre-revolutionary France. These establishments, called Parthénions (houses for young virgins) had considerable influence in the theories of Charles Nicolas Ledoux, whose work is represented by numerous items in the exhibition, including the famous Oikema. The original of Le Pornographe is exhibited here.

The Polaroids of Carlo Mollino

Carlo Mollino was a prestigious Italian architect who was also active in other disciplines including literature, automobilism, aeronautics and furniture design. But, most of all, he was interested in photography. After his death in 1973, his heirs discovered a hitherto unknown collection of photographs: elegantly naked women in a collection of portraits Mollino had been working on throughout his life. The Polaroids were taken in his own apartment, where he had a set which he readied for each occasion. The women were chosen in the street or the brothels of Turin, the city where he lived. There is not a single repeated portrait and every staging is different in a total of more than 1,000 fetishist poses recorded in 8 x 10 cm. which you can discover in a semi-darkened chamber.

Polaroids de Carlo Mollino © CCCB, 2016

Polaroids of Carlo Mollino © CCCB, 2016

The Original Plans of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Universal suffrage, the separation of church and state, abolition of slavery, animal rights, sexual freedom, women’s lib, and decriminalisation of homosexuality: Jeremy Bentham was a trailblazer championing ideas which are nowadays on everyone’s lips. Among his great contributions is the idea of the Panopticon, the architectural figure of power in modern society, an “inspection house” applicable to any institution—for example, prisons, hospitals or schools—which enabled constant monitoring of inmates. The structure of the Model Prison in Barcelona is based on the Panopticon as defined by Bentham in 1791. However, Jeremy Bentham was not an architect but a philosopher, so the original plans of the Panopticon shown in the exhibition are by Willey Reveley. By the way, if you care to know what Bentham (literally) looked like, you can go and visit his fully-dressed mummified corpse at University College, London.

The Sketch of Charles Fourier’s Phalanstery

The utopian philosopher Charles Fourier was a contemporary of Jeremy Bentham’s and, like him, was a revolutionary, though he was also a utopian who believed in human goodness and that it was possible to create a sexual paradise in which every passion could be recognised and satisfied. This blissful place was called Harmony and the phalanstery was the setting for the gratification of all passions. Occupying five square kilometres of cultivable land near a forest and a big city, it was designed with three floors and three wings, each one for fulfilling sexual desires. The idea was adopted by hippy movements of the 1960s, but there are further examples in architecture such as the Walden 7 building by Ricardo Bofill (the form of which, by the way, is reminiscent of a vagina), geodesic domes (like the one at the creation centre of the theatre group Els Comediants in Canet de Mar), and also the utopian cities designed by the Archigram architectural group. In “1,000 m2 of Desire: Architecture and Sexualityyou will find the original drawings of the phalanstery and also the original model of Bofill’s building.

Maqueta de l’edifici Walden 7 de Ricardo Bofill © CCCB, 2016

Original model of Walden 7 of Ricardo Bofill © CCCB, 2016

Engraving of the Sacrifice of an Ass in Honour of Priapus from The Dream of Poliphilus

This is every bibliophile’s dream. An enigmatic book, of uncertain authorship, bringing together all kinds of medieval knowledge from mythology to chess, astronomy, liturgy, epigraphy, archaeology and the art of pruning brambles, The Dream of Poliphilus (https Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), published in 1499, tells the story of Poliphilus, who dreams of recovering his beloved Polia as he crosses imaginary landscapes of fabulous architecture. This is one of the first examples of a work combining architecture with eroticism. It contains 171 of the author’s woodcuts, among them “Sacrifice of an Ass in Honour of Priapus”, which is shown in the exhibition. The book, dedicated to the Duke of Urbino, was financed by the aristocrat Leonardo Grassi, Apostolic Protonotary, an architecture enthusiast and the man responsible for the fortifications of Padua, and printed in Venice by Aldo Manuzio, one of the most renowned printers of the day. It is almost as if Planeta had published a book dedicated to Count of Godó and financed by the Güell family!

 Nicolas Schöffer’s Centre for Sexual Leisure

 Imagine a space devoted solely to pleasure, pampering all five senses. A space where light, smells, and colours are intended to stimulate your senses and prepare them for sexual intercourse. This is the Centre for Sexual Leisure which the plastic artist and sculptor Nicolas Schöffer designed for his cybernetic city (1955 – 1969), a utopian city project inspired by Fourier. Like other utopian ideas, it never materialised but in the exhibition you can see a real-scale reproduction of this space: a closed room in which light, textures, geometric metal sculptures and music appear as the lead players so that the visitor can experiment with all the senses. This is an experience which requires an open mind.

 Nicolas Schöffer’s Centre for Sexual Leisure reproduction

Nicolas Schöffer’s Centre for Sexual Leisure reproduction

A Second (Virtual) Life

 Imagine a space where you can live life as you wish. Where you can give free rein to all your most perverse desires. Where you can imagine your penis taking on impossible shapes, or that you yourself have an impossible form allowing enjoyment of unknown pleasures… Second Life started out as a virtual world in which, by means of an avatar, users can interact with other avatars and construct their own world but this has become a territory without norms and without taboos where users can organise sexual encounters in settings that reproduce the architecture of their sexual fantasies right down to the finest detail. Well, this all happens in a virtual space. In the exhibition you can see a video showing one of these digital spaces designed for sex.

Captura del vídeo de Second Life

Second Life video sceenshot

Rem Koolhaas’s Baths

 Centre of London. Spreading out from the wall that delimits it, a level space is divided into eleven zones, among them a ceremonial square, the Park of the Four Elements, with temples for sensuous experiences, the Square of the Muses (where only the British Museum survives), and the baths. Inspired by Ledoux’s Oikema, these baths have zones of observation, exhibition, seduction and meeting (the pools) as well as cells for consummation in which photograms from a pornographic film The White Slave are projected. This utopian dream of the architect Rem Koolhaas, Pritzker Prize winner and designer of the iconic China Central Television tower, dates back to the early period of radical architecture in the 1970s. The exhibition shows the original drawings and plans of Koolhaas’s idea.

12345...102030...»