On this anniversary of the Praemium Erasmianum, my thoughts go back to the first Erasmus Prize which I presented forty years ago. I expressed the hope, on that occasion, that this might be the beginning of a long and fruitful tradition. I am happy that this hope has been fulfilled and that we can now celebrate an anniversary on the theme of ‘experience and expectation’.
I have had the honour of presenting 57 Erasmus Prizes over the past forty years. When I look back, I see that they reflect the multiformity and creativity of European cultural life. It is this multiformity of domains, the diversity of persons, traditions and nationalities, which has always fascinated me as Patron of this Foundation. It has given me a sense of involvement in relation to the many leading figures from the field of the humanities.
As you all know, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts and to promote appreciation of these fields within society. What always strikes me in this connection is that the humanities and the arts – unlike technology, medicine and physics – are not characterized with reference to the latest state of our cumulative knowledge: they are not characterized in terms of a concept of advancement in which previous attainments are of little consequence. Instead, in the humanities and the arts, the past is still very much alive; there is also no question of a progression, as in technology. Sophocles, Rembrandt and Mozart are not less relevant to the modern world than Pinter, Mondrian or Kagel; neither are they inferior. Our society would be much the poorer if they had not existed.
In the humanities, human beings interpret the world and ascribe significance to their environment. Culture provides us with a context and an ethical framework for our actions. This is what Goethe meant when he wrote “Bezüge sind das Leben” – Relationships are life. They are the meaningful, invisible links which we establish with our families and friends, with things such as our house, our country, our language; or with nature, and with less tangible concepts such as compassion, justice, loyalty. But above all, we need to believe in the meaningful connection between the present, past and future. It is our reflective consciousness which gives meaning and significance to these relationships. Without this consciousness which always has to do with values and significance the world would be totally meaningless. This is the essence and importance of the humanities and this is what our Foundation stands for – a perspective which is nowadays often neglected. So much is determined by outward appearances; so much is expressed solely in terms of money or – even in education – judged in terms of social usefulness.
The two laureates who are being honoured by us today are a shining example of what I have in mind. Artists are those who give form to the above mentioned relationships. Their work gives a new content and meaning to the world around us and to our relationship to our surroundings; it stimulates our thoughts about art and society, however bizarre and bold their creations may appear at first sight. This is the power of the artist: “Das dichterische als Lebensmacht” – the poetic as a power of life – as Hugo von Hoffmannsthal so aptly put it.
Your chameleon-like mastery, Mr Kagel, characterized by permanent variation, surprise and parody, constantly catches the listener out. You sow doubt and take nothing for granted. Your aim is to make the public listen in a new way. In order to save the true content of music and to rid it of clichés, you wage war against fossilized ideas, the glamour of the concert hall and the aura of the conductor. You use every possible means to achieve this. Your work ranges from the visual arts, film, radio plays, theatre, to anything that can produce sound. What may seem to many people to be radical and iconoclastic is, in reality, a continuous critical dialogue with the history of music and with tradition.
You, Peter Sellars, are possessed by the same constructive, positive spirit, but in your case it is in the field of the theatre and opera in particular. In your work too we witness the tension between tradition and the modern world. Under your direction – which opens up new horizons in a modern-day approach – our cultural heritage is brought to life again. The past and tradition, however, are not there to be passively admired by us; they are there to be actively experienced. “To crack the code and recast it”, as you call it. It is the moral content in particular that you seek, since you see it as the purpose of the theatre to rouse the moral and spiritual consciousness of the spectator and to show the injustice and lack of understanding in the world.
Sometimes both of you go very far. It is not surprising that your interpretations have also provoked criticism. However, an interpretation by a poetic mind is always fruitful and an enrichment, since it is in itself a creative act; it has an inspiring effect and manifests the many-sided qualities of every great work of art. You are driven in every aspect of your work by your great love and passion for the past and for your fellow human beings, or, as Wordsworth wrote in the foreword to his Lyrical Ballads “In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and nuances, of laws and customs – in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.”
Ladies and gentlemen, you are aware that within the framework of the Festival of Contrasts the two laureates complement one other. But at the same time it is true to say that both are rebels; both enter into a specific relationship with the public; both seek to promote interaction of the arts; both have a modern-day approach to our cultural heritage; both wrestle with the contrast between tradition and renewal: between experience and expectation.
Finally, we are giving the prize not only to a theatre-maker and to a musician; we are giving it to two people who have a clear message for us. Firstly: it is only by having a meaningful involvement with the past that we can have a vision of the future. And the other way around: if we have a relationship with our own time and with contemporary art and culture, this will enable us to perceive the merits and significance of art from the past.