The foundation is shaken but the bloc is still standing after the European Union’s parliamentary elections this weekend.
Voters in 28 member nations went to the polls in a vote that many feared—or hoped—would seal the fate of the European Union. And while some right-wing and Eurosceptic parties, including the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the newly minted Brexit Party in the UK, picked up seats, left-leaning Green parties across the bloc also made substantial gains, meaning that new coalitions will have to emerge for any party to activate its agenda.
But for artists like the pro-Europe photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who campaigned intensely in the weeks leading up to the elections to increase voter turnout, the story is elsewhere.
“The real sensation got underreported: the decades-long trend of falling voter turnout in European elections has been turned around,” he wrote on Instagram the day after the election. “The good news is: Europeans care about their Union.”
A Picture of Europe
According to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, voter turnout was at nearly 51 percent—the highest in 20 years—which has aroused excitement among artist groups.
“We have to continue to campaign for our democratic and constitutional rights for the freedom of the arts and the freedom of speech. We are very happy about how many people showed up all across the European Union and voted,” says Berlin artist Raul Walch, speaking on behalf of the group Die Vielen (The Many), which has been campaigning against the rise of the right wing. In late May, the group was part of a climate demonstration in Berlin that drew a reported 5,000 protesters.
Still, many people this weekend voted for parties Die Vielen would stand against. In France, the National Rally party, which was formerly called the National Front and is led by Marine Le Pen, picked up 22 seats, more than any other group. In Italy, Lega Nord led the way, and in Hungary, far-right president Viktor Orbán’s party won big, securing more the 50 percent of the country’s vote.
Art and Propaganda
Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the vote, the blue-and-yellow EU flag become a potent left-wing symbol of togetherness and tolerance—and a banner for the cultural elite.
At Galerie König’s gift shop, you could purchase a “EUnify” hoodie with an image of the EU flag for €59, and the center-left candidate Katarina Barley wore one while campaigning in the Berlin neighborhood of Friederichshain-Kreuzberg. But it didn’t prevent her or her party, the Social Democrats, from losing seats. (The party, which drew 27.3 percent of the vote in Germany in 2014, dropped to only 15.5 percent.)
Elsewhere, Luxembourg artist Deborah de Robertis staged a performance at the EU parliament on May 20, barging onto the floor with five topless female performers painted yellow and blue. After de Robertis opened her costume to reveal a large, bleeding eyeball, the group was covered in blankets and escorted out. The artist later shared images of the event with the ominous hashtag #EuropeIsWatchingYou.
“Before the actual results, we reincarnated Europe as woman in an artistic performance, because art stays a strong political tool,” she told artnet News. “There are no boundaries in art.”
That’s a lesson the right seems to have caught onto as well. In Germany, the AfD created a campaign poster with an image of French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme‘s painting The Slave Market (1866). The imagined scene, of a group of North African or Middle Eastern men with a nude slave woman, was accompanied in the poster by a shocking phrase: “Don’t let Europe become ‘Euro-Arabian!’”
The Clark Institute in Massachusetts, which owns the painting, condemned the AfD for using the painting, which the group did as part of a larger campaign called “Learning from Europe’s history” that included images of works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
No Calm in Sight for the UK
In the UK, where the political stalemate continues following the resignation last week of Prime Minister Theresa May, the newly formed Brexit Party came out on top with more than 30 percent of the vote. It picked up 29 seats, making a no-deal (or hard) Brexit more likely.
But the vote, far from giving the party a mandate, proved that the nation is still split on the path forward, with the Liberal Democrats and the Labor Party also picking up 26 total seats.
“From a practical perspective, I am not concerned for the London art scene post-Brexit, so long as it has a concrete form and we are not left with the ambiguities of a no-deal [exit],” says dealer Aeneas Bastian, who has spaces in Berlin and London.
Despite the seeming inevitability of some form of Brexit, some people, like art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, are making direct contributions to the European cause. Works from a group show held at his London gallery ahead of the vote will go on up for auction on June 3 with Simon de Pury leading the sale. It is expected to raise as much as £1.5 million ($1.9 million) for various European cultural projects.
“In Switzerland, we are not part of the European Union and each year, in the lead up to Art Basel, it gets tremendously busy at the various customs offices around Basel,” says Sven Eisenhut, the founding director of Photo Basel. “Not being in the EU feels a bit like taking a rather complex, pricey detour. All in all, having different systems within Europe is a hassle and a burden for everyone involved. The only ones profiting from it are logistics companies and the federal tax [collectors]. For the rest, it is costly.”
On top of that, the EU has invested heavily in UK cultural institutions, pumping nearly £14 million (€15.9 million) into the coffers of 96 organizations in 2018, according to a report from Creative Europe, an arm of the EU. For the foreseeable future, Creative Europe says the UK remains eligible to participate in its programs.
“I voted last Sunday in the European elections with a sense of urgency and commitment to Europe,” says Paris-based gallerist Kamel Mennour. “But I am worried about the highest-ever number of populists and nationalists elected to parliament, their anti-immigration policies, and how this will affect the arts.”
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