Acceptance Speech

Good morning.

Thank you so much for this beautiful occasion and this powerful citation and award. I have to begin by thanking in Holland the many organizations that have made it possible for my work to be seen by the Dutch public. First Ritsaert ten Cate who brought me here many years ago to the Mickery Theatre, a place that was for twenty five years devoted to ‘no one knew what’ and therefore you can invite someone who no one knew. And we all just said, what is this, what could this be, what can we create? Twenty five years of an organization that was permanently open-ended. The Holland Festival which has through several generations and directors (Ad’s de Gravesande, Jan van Vlijman, and now Ivo van Hove) presented my work at such a high level, right in the center of town and as part of a sense of national excitement and a taste for what is progressive and path-breaking. I am very grateful for that. And of course the Opera here which under the direction of Pierre Audi will, in the next few years, be the first opera house in Europe that has a repertoire primarily of contemporary works; as it was in the time of Mozart and Verdi, what should be normal. I have had the honor and personal pleasure of collaborating with Rudi Fuchs and Dorine Mignot at the Stedelijk Museum on the extraordinary 25 year survey of Bill Viola’s work with extraordinary financial and spiritual support. I am very grateful to the Filmmuseum, which is a beautiful place for showing my work, which is almost unseen otherwise, in film. To the television here, the VPRO in particular, for really making space for something that is not the usual. To the Nexus Institute, run by Rob Riemen, for attempting to engage in intellectual dialogue across the lines, economic, political, cultural. Congratulations, it is thrilling to be part of this cultural scene.

I have been treated really well in Holland, which continues this morning. I am very, very grateful.

The sense of Holland as a model society is really powerful for me, coming from America. I know in Germany for example, frequently your country is looked to for an enlightened approach to serious social, cultural questions. So, to be recognized here means a lot.

Of course I neglected to mention the generous response by Dutch journalists to my work across many years and in particular the minor conflagration over the most recent piece, the Rake’s Progress, which was really detested in the local press in a way that was truly heartwarming and I felt young again. It is nice to be official but it is also nice to remember: the film you have just seen of the younger me rehearsing Don Giovanni, that production which went on to become quite a classic, was attacked ten years ago as nearly worthless by most of the New York press and so I would take the genuine debate provoked by the work as another kind of badge of honor. At the same time I should mention that I was very touched by the ‘American go home’ tone to the reviews and I should say why it is that I work here: one reason is of course to have marvelous collaborators and to be part of a scene, but also because I really do feel as an American you have to have an early view what is underway. Right now so many things ‘a la americaine’ are being imported wholesale to Europe, and you should really see firsthand what the consequences are, the social consequences; they are very serious. And if there was outrage that American was spoken at the opera I would only suggest that far more dangerously American is spoken in your corporate boardrooms and in your parliament. That needs examination even more than the American ideas at the opera. My country is a wonderful country, but also not necessarily making all of the most wise decisions, may we say. Please check before you buy. And the reason I am working here is, quite frankly, I can’t work there. This is the first year of my life I am unable to get work in the United States because the nature of my work is too unpleasant for the people in charge of major institutions. Because these institutions are not devoted to asking questions, they are devoted to going through gestures that have a kind of nostalgic value that nobody actually believes anymore, but it is more comfortable than acting on what you believe in. That is serious. And when official culture becomes a conduit for an empty gesture, well that’s the government, because the government is even more official than the opera and if the gesture is empty, we have a problem. So what does it take to find a way in which the gesture is not empty? If it is a gesture that was made once, can we still make it? Maybe, but under what conditions and with what types of awareness of what we are inheriting? This beautiful room for example, built with the resources and profits of the Dutch East India Company, brings quite a legacy and as we are surrounded by these fabulous mermaids looking at the cosmos we have to ask ourselves what it means to inherit this, the three hundred years of history of this building and relations with the rest of the world. It is serious. You can’t just say, oh we own it now, isn’t that nice. It has a legacy, which is very very dark.

So of course I have to work here, because you allow me to work here on a scale that I am not permitted to work on in my own country. But please before you decide that culture is really what works on the market, please notice that in fact classical culture is something that outlives the market. Thank God. You have a fantastic structure of serious cultural support, do not mess that up! As artists we were told we always had to enter into the new economy. As cultural workers we must imagine and participate in the development of a new social ecology as we creatively engage the new economic realities. But as importantly I would please ask the business world to adjust their world to the cultural realities, thank you. Can we begin to notice that beyond the profit line there is another category called human cost. How do you calculate that? What does it mean what Martin Luther King called four hundred years of unpaid wages, which are coming due in our generation. How do you pay those back, because by now it is gone beyond money. The international debt structure is very heavy and I am not talking about the World Bank. I am talking about human debts, and you have to find a way in your lifetime to begin paying those with honor.

I am very moved at the citation of my work but I must emphasize that there is no such thing as “my work”; in honoring Mauricio Kagel you have honored a great individual and his fantastic “oeuvre”. In fact I don’t do anything, in fact everybody else is who you are honoring, all the other people in the room, because my work is nothing without everyone in the room. And that is indeed our task now: to move beyond the image of the individual genius and begin to understand that all culture is based on systems of reciprocity and democratic participation.

We have all got to be very creative about inventing and sustaining new democratic structures, because the old ones are in trouble. There are many parts of the world where people are literally dying for the right to a meaningful vote, I come from the world’s most financially successful democracy where only 37% of the population cared to vote in the last election, which therefore could be won with 19% of the population which then of course creates a very strong right wing. We have to say, why aren’t people more engaged, why if you have the right to create a democracy, why is the discussion not richer, why is the discussion not more intense, why are the stakes not understood to be higher in public dialogue, why do we have the same trading of clichés? Obviously the political world and the way the political handlers are now working, it is virtually impossible for genuine personal content to be felt in politics. It is now up to a generation of artists to reinvest the discussion with the high stakes that never went away, but that are still looking at us and waiting for us to wake up. But we are living in a moment where the temperature of business and the temperature of the media is just a little chilly; successful but a little cold. What does it take to generate the heat, the warmth, the intensity of full engagement and participation? it is a cultural question. Restoring political and economic systems to genuine democratic vitality is a cultural question. So it is up to artists now to begin working as creatively as possible in new combinations with businessmen, and with politicians, and not just to think that we are the decoration, or the dessert after the meal. No, we are the basic nutrition, that is the heart of the meal. There will be no meal until cultural workers create a table at which we can all actually sit down at together. We live in an age of Nelson Mandela, of a previous laureate here Mr. Havel, who have amazingly against all odds set out to make new societies based on creating a government with your enemies and working across areas of differences and pain that are unbearable. They are unbearable. I must emphasize that right now the media is not equipped to discuss the level of pain, dislocation and injustice that we are living with on a daily basis. There must be another language for that, and that language has yet to be developed. Dostojewski got a good start.

So of course I am ashamed to be honored at such a young age, when, I think, well I have hardly done anything yet. So I am personally taking the message of this award as: make your work a lot better from now on.

But at the same time I have to emphasize the fact that we are in, at best, a period that is awkward, where the transitions from these forms we have inherited to something else that will be the shape of a society that we don’t yet understand, is going to be awkward. We have to be willing to be awkward in order to at least make our first contact and to be willing not always to be right, but to maybe get it wrong. And understand in getting it wrong at least spectacularly, we might begin the conversation that has a hope of some healing energy. The arts are coming through a period where the highest value was complexity and obscurity which I understand fully in a world that is dominated by advertising, where the message must be as simple as possible and is so unbelievably dominant that it becomes meaningless. Artists naturally decided to take the opposite path and say, o.k., truth and beauty are in fact hidden. You will never see them on daytime television, because the real things that motivates our lives of course are hidden, and you don’t know someone based on how they are dressed. Everything that is really going on is going to take a while to discover. But maybe if we are willing to move through the difficulty instead of around it or away from it, we will learn something about each other.

My work is about setting a task of maximum difficulty for a group of people and then we try and just go in there. From night to night you don’t know what the results will be but you should give it everything you have got.

When I came to this room months ago the beautiful “milky-way” carpet was not yet out. Underneath this carpet are beautiful maps of the world, of the universe, that are inlaid in the floor, and it is very moving to see in 1650 what people thought the world looked like. It is very exciting, the age of exploration, and also the age of exploitation. But you look at these maps and you have this double reaction. One, amazement of what this kind of aggressive business policy could accomplish but also a sense that these maps are incomplete. In fact the world does not look like that; that was people’s best idea at the time, but we know a whole lot more now. May I suggest that we are still operating with the same partial information? May I suggest that it is our task now to appreciate the craftsmanship, the ambition that created these partial maps, the enterprise. Let’s say that it is going to take more than sending our business team and the World Bank to the rest of the world to be of help, to ourselves let alone to others. If we talk about the Indonesian legacy where as you know today it is very difficult to find rice in Jogyakarta, the devastation in that country in the last eighteen months, if we ask ourselves, what have we learned from Indonesia.

One of the things I have learned from Indonesia is a very moving approach to art practice. In Bali, the senior dance teacher on the island, a beautiful elderly gentleman, explained the difference between a good dancer, an excellent dancer, and a great dancer. A good dancer understands the music, knows the moves, knows the words, is technically proficient. An excellent dancer understands the music, the words, knows the moves, is technically proficient and realizes the inner meaning. But a great dancer understands the music, knows the moves, is technically proficient understands the inner meaning and is a farmer. Because part of our job is to feed people in any way possible; part of our job is to emphasize growth, natural processes; part of our job is to remain connected to the world and I must emphasize the next generation of artists needs this connection. It is not art in its own universe, it is art in the real world with people’s needs meeting specific areas of hunger. In Bali last year I assisted at a cremation ceremony where the music was there on a third night to bring the spirit of the dead person back into the room so she could talk with her family, let them know she was allright, and that the entire village could come together at the feast and weep and for the last five hours laugh. The music was a metaphysical healing action and as such was scientific. It was not entertainment although it was hugely entertaining, it was repairing something broken in people’s lives.

Our task is to accomplish something and to be of service but not necessarily in the terms of the new tyranny, the new totalitarianism of the market that is being imposed globally. But to stop and look around and see all of the pain people are carrying with them, try and touch that pain and to engage in serious healing practice. That practice is about understanding the primary condition right now on our planet which is exile, refugees; there are more refugees on the surface of the planet earth than in any previous time in history. What does this mean, that I am getting an award for services to European culture and I am from America as Mauricio pointed out. It means we are exiles from our own culture, it means strangely we are all foreigners, it means strangely that we have to rediscover ourselves through others and in fact it is only the possibility of others that permits us to understand what we have and who we are and who we might still become. Please, please as a leader of nations, open the borders. In art as in society: keep the borders open! Understand that we all need each other. You cannot shut things down, not now, not in history. Right now it is the deepest level of engagement across the lines, a generosity of receiving people, and then in the process of struggling with difference, you learn what you are made of. You learn things about yourself you would never have known otherwise. And you open new possibilities for your society and of course when I am doing Strawinsky’s Rake’s Progress setting it in an American prison let me be clear the question is: is European culture over with, has it done all it has to do, or is in fact the very point of European culture this radical openness that is inclusive and is it deep and large and visionary enough to include the next society not just the last one. Is European culture strong enough to be open and move forward and not backward? And when I do an up to the minute version of an opera it is because my answer is: Europe is moving forward, please not backward. Mozart lived and died, so that we might live and die just a little better. And I emphasize the sadness and inadequacy of his death. His music defied those limitations. His music knows no border guards; the radical social, cultural and political inclusiveness of his music remains our example.

In our age of the triumph of science, with our social sciences and our political sciences, the sciences that we are missing are the sciences of the heart. Can we be as ambitious in culture in the next generation as we are in business and in science? I hope so. Thank you very much.