European capitals – General introduction to the seminar

By Françoise Taliano-des Garets, contemporary history professor at Sciences Po, Bordeaux, researcher, and member of the CHS (Centre d’histoire sociale) du XXe siècle, Paris 1.


This [December 4th, 2015] session is dedicated in part to outlining the seminar’s goals [“European capitals and culture since 1945: Berlin, London, Madrid and Paris”] in addition to offering a diachronic recontextualization of the political and administrative frameworks of culture within Berlin, London, Madrid, and Paris since 1945. The series gathers the following participants: Jeremy Ahearne (University of Warwick), Lluis Bonet (University of Barcelona), Janet Merkel (City University London), Laurent Martin (ICEE Paris 3) and Françoise Taliano-des Garets (CHS du XXe siècle, Paris 1).


I. The seminar’s missions


This conference is inscribed in the framework of a three-year research program (2015-2018) financed by the Aquitaine region, gathering 20 researchers from the local region, in addition to academics from Paris, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain. The Comité d’Histoire of the French Ministère de la Culture et de la communication is a program partner and also wishes to encourage the creation of a three-year seminar bringing together the CHS du XXe siècle, Paris 1and the ICEE (Intégration et Coopération dans l’Espace Européen). The conference begins today at the CHS du XXe siècle, Paris 1 and will then be hosted by the CHS du XXe siècle, Paris 1 and the ICEE. To foster the regional development of the project, partnerships were finalized with the University of Warwick to explore London as a European capital, as well as the University of Barcelona for a study of Madrid, the Spanish cultural capital. German researchers, such as art historian Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper (Tech University of Berlin) and Janet Merkel from City University London, also expressed an interest in the project and are from now on participating in the program’s first year seminar. The majority of the interdisciplinary research team in France is composed of academics from the CHS du XXe siècle, the ICEE, the université de Bordeaux, the Centre Émile Durkheim de Sciences Po Bordeaux, the université Bordeaux-Montaigne, and the université de Pau et du pays de l’Adour (UPPA). With this three-year project and seminar, we hope to start a new movement by forging an interdisciplinary, European network, starting with a situational analysis of our topic and then launching an ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche) program or European program. This conference and regional project dedicated to four capitals represents the first inevitable step to a more in depth exploration of European capitals since 1945.

This cultural history project examining certain major European urban landscapes as of 1945 did not happen by chance. It emerged in the continuation of previous comparative work on cities, focusing on the post-World War II period until the second half of the 20th century. Three main reasons motivate this project. The first explanation refers to the present. “History is a representation of its time”, wrote Lucien Febvre, “Better yet, there is no History, there are historians”, historians who are anchored in their time and are thus constantly solicited by the present. This is certainly not a utilitarian conception of History solely in the service of the economy, but is rather an understanding of History born from a continued reexamination of current events, which can often compel researchers to look to the past. Thus, we are studying but the “froth” of these transformations, to reference a Braudelian term, making our research topic all the more interesting. The opening of borders in the dual context of European construction and globalization has multiplied the flow of people and ideas, thus prompting a new focus on identities. This phenomenon has exacerbated competitions between cities, and the stakes are higher than ever for country capitals. I believe that cultural history can contribute to the study of these modern processes, through a targeted study of cultural life and policies.
The second explanation for this three-year project stems from the desire to grant these city-capitals’ cultural history a continued growth. If previous research has shed light on certain cultural sectors, within the city of Paris for instance, contemporary research has yet to be compiled and be extended to other less-explored sectors. These efforts must be sustained in parallel to a comparative study of all four chosen cities, whose destinies merge and diverge simultaneously. Such a comparative study has not been attempted to this date. Though this is a cultural history project, our intention is to pool other disciplines and collaborate with international historians with other specializations, such as economics, geography, political science, and sociology. Ultimately, this project aspires to achieve a cultural history of Europe based on the examination of all major cities on the continent.
The third explanation for the project is driven by the fact that our research might well reveal new metropolitanization phenomena within the European continent, and thus contribute to the development of urban history. “The city is a total phenomenon, where the economic merges with the social, the political with the cultural, the technical with the imaginary, and thus any categorized study focused on one discipline rather than others would be irrelevant; on the contrary, a holistic reading – as historical analysis claims to achieve – takes into account the effect of interrelations.” Jean-Luc Pinol highlights the whole purpose of History as a discipline, so as to better understand the city. In addition, by understanding cultural history as a social history of representation, we are able to widen our spectrum of study, without excluding the necessary interdisciplinary approach to better grasp the referenced “interrelations”. The notion of culture will be examined through its anthropological definition, so as to integrate the phenomenon of historical expansion anchored in the 20th century and most notably accelerated in the 1980s. Numerous sectors were affected by this expansion, be it cultural heritage, music, the visual arts, while new sectors gained in legitimacy, such as comic books, fashion, the circus, and street art. The flexible concept of culture thus compels us to not focus solely on high culture, and we will thus tackle cultural practices, institutions, and representations through the lens of cultural democratization. With regard to public policy, culture has more often than not been diluted by larger urban policies. Indeed, contemporary cultural policy is articulated in the lines of urban planning policies (urban renovation through repurposed art centers) and tourism (UNESCO labels and large events). Furthermore, culture is generally assimilated to the “creative economy” or even to “sustainable development”. This tendency to dilute culture fascinates the cultural researcher who will seek to disassemble its mechanisms, while explaining its causes and consequences.


II. Our research topic

1 – The choice of time frame
We propose to study the period from the Liberation in Europe to today, as this interval is characterized by three parallel movements. This first of which is explained by political division on either side of the Iron Curtain. From 1945 to 1989, two Europes promoted different conceptions of culture and cultural policy. Berlin was directly affected by the division, serving as a showcase for both models. One might safely say that the similarities between Paris and London were stronger during the Cold War than those between these two cities and East Berlin. We must nonetheless confirm this hypothesis by examining the possibilities of cultural transferences between each side of the wall. The second movement is characterized by the European construction process. This was a long process, which did not place culture at the heart of its ambitions, yet nonetheless allowed for a more homogenized space, through the opening of borders, thus encouraging cultural exchanges, dialogue, and travel. Finally, the third movement is defined by the globalization process stemming from the third industrial revolution and the prominence of the Internet. Mass access to the Internet attained within the final decade of the 20th century increased the number of international contacts and the circulation of ideas; human beings are more mobile within even greater distances than before. Consequently, the cultural history of these four cities should provide some insight on cultural globalization.
Indeed, European states were not equally affected by the same speed and scale of these three movements. Indeed, Spain was less affected by the Cold War and did not participate in European construction until 1975. The United Kingdom stayed on the European Union stoop until 1973 and even after unification, kept to itself. Since 1945, Europe as a whole experienced the Cold War, European integration, and globalization. It is around the European project that the continent was able to rally, by embracing a liberal democracy and a market economy. A democratic Spain joined the Union in 1986 and the city of Berlin did the same in 1990, becoming the capital of a reunited Germany and a pillar of the European Union. It becomes clear that these city-capitals, due to their concentrated power and exposure to international exchange, were directly affected by these three movements. A new openness within Europe and onto the world led to undeniable cultural transformations which we hope to target on the scale of the four major cities we have chosen to study.


2 – The choice of four capitals, a territorial approach to European cultural history

This cultural history research project proposes to anchor our approach in a specific geographic region, by studying four city-capitals – Berlin, London, Madrid, and Paris – from 1945 to today. This choice was informed by their geographic positioning, so as to cover a large surface of the European continent, from East to West, North to South, as well as by their age and cultural outreach, by their political and administrative structures varying with time (devolution, decentralization…).
The term ‘capital’ is to be understood in its political and metaphorical sense. The capital is a place of power, of powers even: administrative, political, economic, financial, and cultural. Furthermore, regardless the political regime or administrative system, a capital is endowed with symbolism, placing the specific city within an urban hierarchy, above other cities. In a similar fashion to other sectors, the capital has a commanding role within the cultural sector, congregating heritage sites and objects, institutions, transmission channels, information, as well as important men and women within the cultural sector. The capital is a space in which activities, humans, and resources are polarized, as demonstrated by Fernand Braudel’s work on “world cities” or even Saskia Sassen’s more recent work on “global cities” (New York, London, Tokyo). According to Sassen, the capital has a leadership position at the peak of the urban hierarchy, and is a place of intense contact and intermingling within the greater context of globalization. Thus, the city-capital is able to define cultural tastes, and even norms. The capital produces different forms of representation. Christophe Charles and Daniel Roche’s pieces on cultural capitals will of course be pivotal to our research. Their analyses, stemming from collaborative work launched by the Institute of modern and contemporary history over the course of ten years, focuses on modern and contemporary periods.
These publications provided in depth examinations of these cultural capitals’ symbolic domination over the course of several centuries and within numerous European countries, including those targeted by our project. Their work granted an important place to questions of politics, discussing these issues through several sectors: publishing, music, museums, fairs… that could be compared to the time period we have selected. In addition, these studies focus on the notion of cultural outreach. By definition, city-capitals extend their influence within their respective nation, as well as throughout the world. These two scopes are situational. When faced with strikingly dissimilar situations, a social history of representation prompts us to examine the concept of cultural capital through comparative and diachronic perspectives.
This territorial approach is justified by cultural history, as well as by the old age of these cultural hubs and their important role in the context of globalization. The approach is also justified as these cities are spaces of experimentation and an incubator of diverse projects, where significant transformations take place: “These two aspects of the city, material and social, interact so as to give birth to newly imagined cities, those of our mind and dreams”, writes Lluis Bonet.


3 – Contextual diversity

These European cities have not known the same destinies since 1945, which explains the need to study their wealth and complexity. Some of the cities were particularly shaken by History, such as Berlin following the fall of the wall, or Madrid under Franco’s dictatorship until 1975. Between 1949 and 1990, Berlin even lost its title of capital of West Germany, a title transferred to the city of Bonn. However, the city was able to keep its status of capital of the eastern part of the country, and undoubtedly maintained its title in the minds of West Germans and the rest of the Occidental world. “With regard to History”, writes Boris Grésillon, “Berlin is intermittently a cultural metropolis”. West Berlin, while deprived of its juridical status, did not fail to become a bastion of developed occidental culture.
The political and administrative systems evolved within all four Member States, including France with the launch of its decentralization mission at the beginning of the 1980s. Paris’ political autonomy was recognized only after 1977. The Greater London initiative grants the city control of cultural affairs, as well as autonomy within the United Kingdom conferring as of 1997 significant power to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Madrid succumbed to the centralist and authoritarian Franco regime, then gained recognition from autonomous communities in a post-Franco context. Barcelona emerged as the Catalan capital, proving to be a worthy advisory to the nation’s capital. This great diversity of situations will be analyzed through the perspective of cultural life on one hand, and cultural policy, on the other. This choice can be explained by the fact that we would like to analyze the impact politics and policies have on these cities’ cultural evolution. Does cultural policy prompt or react to change? In addition, the case of Paris deserves to be compared to that of other capitals, particularly with regard to centralism and the role of public policy. Finally, we will not exclude the hypothesis that the city-capital of all four analyzed countries maintains a specific relationship with its respective State.


III. Three main areas of research

1 – Comparison of cultural changes and periods within the four regions
The changes affecting cultural life that took place in all four cities over the course of 70 years will thus now be examined. We will present the content of these transformations, their rhythm, and highlight moments of hiatus. Furthermore, we will analyze which musical, literary, and artistic forms nourished these capitals and whether they are the same from one city to the other. We will also examine how certain cultural practices emerged or disappeared, at what speed and in which temporal context. The cultural sector is very fractioned and thus not all sectors will be thoroughly studied over the course of our three-year project. Certain sectors cannot be overlooked due to their seniority and internal transformations. We will thus focus our seminar on heritage (year 1), and visual and performing arts (year 2). We will examine the “in” (institutional culture) as well as the “off” (new forms of art). Throughout the third year, we will study cultural industries.
This panel, already wide in scope, offers the possibility to understand both public and private cultural sectors, as well as the changes in cultural practices, the cultural landscape, and between the key male and female leaders and creators. The personal paths, as well as the national and international networks, are all noteworthy. Capitals are places of transition, of favorable encounters – we will interpret them as both pulsing centers for new cultural affairs, as well as places of influential mixing. Borders open, migration increases and cultural diversity ensues, echoed within the capitals, which become increasingly cosmopolitan. It is interesting to analyze how these cities react as a consequence to this change, and whether they perceive such diversity as an advantage or a problem. On this subject we can mention the publication, Les politiques culturelles à l’épreuve de la diversité, overseen by Lluis Bonet and Emmanuel Négrier.
A chronological study will further allow us to highlight these moments of communion and separation. This approach will of course be crossed with the work of national historians so as to propose in fine a specific periodization. In addition, this methodology will raise the following question: does the chronology of these city-capitals change from one city to the next, or on the contrary can we distinguish from these specific places a European cultural evolution? Would such an evolution follow each nation’s respective chronology (democratic transition in Spain, German reunification) and/or international chronology? Certain dates might be more significant than others, with regard to a more general international political context: 1947, 1956, 1968, 1989, 1992… Are they important in the cultural evolution of these territories? A chronological study might also show certain correlations between cultural evolution, and that of the economy (2008) and technology (history of the television and the Internet).


2 – Comparative analysis of the driving forces for change with regard to the political variable

The purposes of today’s session are to thus examine the forces for change and their obstacles, focusing specifically on the political variable. We would like to measure the specific part of the political variable in this cultural history. We will depart from the hypothesis that this variable plays a pivotal role within each city, specifically for Berlin and Madrid. For these two capitals, there is a distinct before and after, beginning in 1989 and 1975 for each city respectively. The effects of separation and eventual continuity in the cultural field will be studied before and after these two dates. With regard to all four capitals, the governance of the cultural sector should capture our attention first and foremost. However, what importance do politics grant this sector, how so and why? A comparative study of legislation, budgets, and political discourse on cultural life within these cities lets us imagine numerous interesting lessons. The relationship between the capital and its region, State, European institutions will be an indispensible step in this study. In other words, how did the relationships between these different scales, local to global, come to be? How did local democracy function? How does the metropolitanization process function (the question of intercommunity arises here)? What place do regions have with regard to these capitals (more or less powerful according to the considered State)? Berlin is one of sixteen landers of the German federal Republic, contained within the Land of Brandenburg – the unification between these two spaces has not yet occurred (the 1996 referendum has a negative outcome).
That being said, the forces of change and their obstacles might also be cultural, economic, social, and technological. Thus, it appears important to compare in the short and long term the degree of their impact with regard to that of politics. Does one of the variables impose itself as the main factor relative to the others or are they all involved in the same historical process? An interdisciplinary approach will thus be essential to our study.


3 – The capitals’ cultural outreach

Globalization accelerated a competition between these urban territories, a phenomenon that is not new to European capitals. We might note that international city rankings take into account the cultural dimension in their criteria.
These four cities’ outreach can be interpreted in terms of their recognition on an international scene (with regard to cultural industries for example) and can be measured by their ability to attract artists, tourists… This outreach must be understood both as a region’s ability to attract, but also in terms of how it exerts its influence. These city-capitals provoke a kind of gravitational attraction while also becoming epicenters of cultural transmission. This subject appears important, if not central, and has been critical for some time. Whether we are referring to the universal exhibitions of the 19th century or of the beginning of the 20th century? Has Paris maintained its position as the European arts capital, as it was at the beginning of the 20th century? Is Paris, “the Greenwich meridian of literature” according to Pascale Casanova, still as brilliant in the second half of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century (in the fashion and luxury sectors)? Is this cultural variable as decisive for London’s outreach, as is the financial variable? How has Berlin’s international cultural outreach evolved since 1945? To what extent has the city suffered from its division? Did Madrid only awake in a post-Franco context?
What policies in favor of these territories are mandated at a time when the division between culture, recreation, urbanism, and quality of life is minimized? London won the organization of the summer Olympics in 2012 against Paris: what were the decisive criteria leading to this decision? Urban events are certainly taken into account (festivals, Biennales, art fairs, etc.), in an equivalent manner to heritage and museum politics. Here, we touch on the relationship between culture and urban development, on the true challenges of the “creative city”. The notion of “creative city” as defined by Charles Landry expresses the intermingling of urban strategies and cultural policies and has become a kind of model for territorial development. This study will put into question this sociological concept. For instance, in 2006, Berlin gained the UNESCO label of “creative city for design”. Such labels are an excellent subject matter to examine. Furthermore, we will ask ourselves which place the cultural variable actually detains in the development of these cities and whether or not the variable is manipulated in favor of urban marketing.


IV. General questions

We hope over the course of our three-year study, to highlight the similarities and differences of these four cities, focusing on significant trends.
Have we witnessed since 1945 a tendency toward differentiation or homogenization? These four regions have all opened themselves progressively to an Occidental influence, but not exclusively, in an integrated European territory. Berlin and Madrid were the most prominently held back in this process. Even though exchanges between these cities existed, prior to 1975 for Madrid and 1989 for Berlin, they were significantly less numerous for these two capitals, constrained and controlled by censorship. Nonetheless, these territories were not entirely isolated and the nature of their cultural exchanges is interesting within itself.
Once a full international openness achieved, did the new modes of communication and democratization of cultural practices diminish the cultural specificities of each capital? A study of their relationship to heritage might reveal the cities’ desire to distinguish themselves when faced by the “mainstream” trends brought on by globalization. Is the impact of such openness as prominent from one capital to the other at the beginning of the 21st century?
Finally, might we distinguish commonalities, even hints of a “European culture”, or did these cities completely revert to the standardized “global city” model at the turn of the 21st century? It will thus be of interest to gage local, national, European, and international spheres of influence in each city throughout our study.

[french version]
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