“Europe Needs English Tea”: The EU Referendum And The Arts

With the UK’s referendum over EU membership coming up on Thursday, artists and curators express their thoughts and feelings about Europe, the Union, and the prospects for Brexit.

This Thursday, 23 June, the people of the United Kingdom will go to the polls to decide upon their future membership of the European Union. They may vote to Leave or vote to Remain. There is no third option and they will not be asked to give their reasons for their choice, though the many polls that have found fear of immigration to be the top priority for the majority of people intending to vote Leave will undoubtedly steer the way a vote for "Brexit" is interpreted by politicians.

So far the debate has rightfully focused on economic questions and perhaps rather more dubiously on questions of national sovereignty and border control. But the European Union is not just a political and economic project, it is also a cultural project. The EU funds many artistic projects throughout the UK. But more importantly, the EU’s rules about freedom of movement facilitate the increasingly nomadic practices of artists and curators all over the continent. In its absence, it seems safe to assume, the artist would be present a lot less.

It therefore felt right to ask artists and curators for their thoughts and feelings on the impending referendum.

Oliver Osborne, British artist

"In the context of almost unbroken war in Europe over the past three thousand years, the past seventy years of relative peace should not to be taken for granted. Given the similarities, differences, historical disputes, and more recent disagreements between the many small and large countries that make up Europe and the EU, the productivity and creativity of Europeans should be celebrated. The attempt to lead Britain out of the EU would be the result of the most desperate kind of small minded short-termism, initiated by the most privileged in our society, for whom equality can represent oppression, inspired by something they call independence and self-determination.

For me, to be independent, is to be able to move freely among a people of 500 million, to choose where I want to work, which cultures and languages I want to discover and learn. The EU gives more people, in more countries, and from many more backgrounds, religions and cultures the opportunity to determine a future for themselves."

Wolfgang Tillmans, Turner Prize-winning artist

"The reasons why I felt compelled to get involved in the UK-EU referendum are personal – my lifelong involvement with the UK, my love for the UK and its culture, music and people, my career’s groundedness in Britain and the always warm welcome I felt here as a German. I see myself as a product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace and exchange.

However, the more pressing reason why I morphed in recent months from an inherently political, to an overtly political person, lies in my observation of the larger geopolitical situation and an understanding of Western cultures, as sleepwalkers into the abyss.

The term “Sleepwalkers” comes from the title of the book by Christopher Clark which describes Europe in 1914, when different societies ended up in a world war, which none of them wanted. Today, I see the Western world sleepwalking towards the demolition of the very institutions of democracy, negotiation and moderation which allow us to live the lives that we are living.

In the US we are currently observing a rage which is threatening to wash away great American values, which anchor the world as we know it. These people claim to make America great again, but they embody the opposite. In the East of Europe, we see a surge in nationalist fervour, which wants to sweep away freedoms won only some 25 years ago. In western Europe and Britain, we see a wave of discontent with the outcome of globalisation, which turns its anger from the real perpetrators, say for example the tax-evading billionaires, to the weakest in our societies: refugees from terror and war.

The EU is a scapegoat in the midst of all this. For decades press and politicians have loaded blame on it, when in fact it does its best to deal with the fallout of the tectonic shifts in world politics. The EU takes upon itself the task to negotiate the affairs of 28 member states. This can never be an easy task. I admire that this even works so well. We can exchange goods without having to probe product safety each and every time between the 28 countries. Brussels bureaucracy deals with that, and actually quite efficiently. People can move and work in whichever EU country they like. In fact, 1.5 million Brits enjoy this right just now, and due to deregulation of air travel millions enjoy cheap air travel to Europe.

We have in the last decades become a European family, with much less dividing us than connecting us. EU laws, making up only 10 per cent of laws made in the UK, enshrined rights like four weeks’ paid holiday, health and safety and much more. The EU enforces standards that protect the environment. Water pollution doesn’t respect borders, and here especially Brits benefit from rules that span across the continent. There are frustrations with the very nature of compromise and shared decision making.

The EU is well aware of its shortcomings and David Cameron has secured a clause for the UK to not part-take in a move towards a European States. This is no longer on the cards. There is no longer a danger of giving up British sovereignty. I feel that the forces driving towards the UK leaving the EU are disregarding a most crucial point – the values the EU stands for are fragile in this world of extremism. The anti-democratic forces in eastern Europe, the Islamist forces around the Mediterranean, the big business interests in North America, are all poised to wash away the EU’s laws of moderation.

The EU protects your rights against these enemies of freedom. To leave the EU now, in these dangerous political times, is not patriotic, it’s simply foolish and it would send the wrong message to the enemies of European values. The EU is not perfect and it never was designed to be that way. The very way of it being a negotiating chamber of 28 nations, is the key to its success. It is not in the security interests of the UK to weaken the EU at this point in time. Whatever your feelings towards the EU, be aware that voting for Brexit has catastrophic repercussions for the whole of Europe and the world."

Sally Tallant, Director of Liverpool Biennial

"What perhaps most defines and marks the art that is being created today is its international outlook. This is a very good thing. In Liverpool we benefit hugely from being able to invite artists from other EU countries, as well as from further afield, to come to our city and create work for our public spaces, our museums, and our galleries. Likewise, in order to sustain a career in an increasingly global world, British artists have to be able to work, exhibit and sell their art internationally. Could we still do all of this if Britain vote to leave the EU? Probably, but it will be a hell of a lot harder and more expensive.

All of this is not to say that contemporary art can’t still be British. I’ve never understood the argument that being a part of the EU somehow means that we are losing our heritage. Being a part of a wider international community can only be of benefit for us as a society, and will continue to allow us to create a rich cultural heritage to pass on to future generations. This is why I am IN on 23 June."

The Liverpool Biennial opens 9 July

Laure Prouvost, Turner Prize-winning French artist

"I think I will feel quite lonely if we leave. In these challenging times we need to stick together not split. It is the worst thing to do. Grow stronger, not smaller. I am not English, and I will feel pretty disconnected if the UK leaves the EU. I feel so European, that’s what made me come to theUK and develop my practice there. The UK is a wonderful, eccentric part of Europe, so without it Europe will be damaged badly and feel a bit snubbed.

Europe needs English tea! And my work needs it too…!"

Laure Prouvost is currently creating new work for London’s first Art Night festival, taking place on 2 July

Anne Duffau, Curator

"#VoteRemain / being a #EUcitizen means being a #citizenofpeace, supporting #freedom and #freemovement / being part of a bigger picture – #citizenoftheworld – #Britainisnotanisland #donotunleashdemons #EUUK @GBisNOisland

Needless to say that if the #sourbrexit takes place many artists and creatives would leave the UK – a large number are not necessarily from here but also for British citizens this would mean fleeing by bitterness from a narrow-minded and xenophobic place. It would complicate and exclude artist exchanges, travels, commercial ventures and so on. We are all hoping for a positive #StayIN vote #KeepFreedomofmovementsandthoughts "

Anne Duffau is curator of A—Z and and Special Projects Coordinator at the RCA School of Fine Art

David Blandy, British artist

"This referendum has become about one thing – do we fear the future, fear the world and people outside our borders, or do we hope that we can make a better world together, changing the system from within? The EU emerged as a reaction to war, and its disintegration scares me, as does the rise of fascism in this country and across Europe. Let’s stay together."

David Blandy will be performing at Wysing Polyphonic on 2 July

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