Correspondence between my daughter and me about Cities & Cultures:
Amsterdam, May 24, 2010
Even though my birthday was already four weeks ago, I want to thank you again for the magnificent present you offered me. You knew that there is nothing that I like better than a trip to London, and I am so excited to go! You do probably remember that you asked me why I love that city so much, but I was never able to tell you. It was just a certain feeling inside, a mix of happiness and thrill every time I went there. But apparently experiencing certain cities does also help you to understand other cities better, because now I have moved to Amsterdam and discovered the town and all its contents, I think I might be able to tell you what I felt exactly when I was in London for the first time.
Actually, I first got some sort of revelation during one of the earliest classes of the Cities and Cultures course I am taking here at Amsterdam University College. It was when I was reading a text about Creative Cities, written by Richard Florida. I believe you know the text as well, and otherwise you should definitely read it some time, because he exactly explains why people feel attracted to certain cities. He says big cities (such as London) are like the centre of the world because they are full of creativity and tolerance. People living there are free to try new things and to do whatever they want, and exactly these things cause the city to experience innovation and progress, and therefore also wealth. It is because of this feeling of freedom, caused by the present possibility of creativity, that these cities are magnets for so many people. Reading his text made me realize that I was not the only one who felt so much attracted to this idea and I was happy to finally learn why.
However, it was my professor (Arjo Klamer, who you might perhaps know, as he is also involved in the project of making Maastricht Europe’s Cultural Capital of 2018), who put my feelings into words. In one of his classes he spoke about the “buzzing excitement” one could feel when entering such a creative city, and even though he might not have noticed it, he solved one of my big questions. It namely was exactly because of this that I wanted to leave the ‘dull and aging’ Maastricht for a ‘buzzing and exciting’ Amsterdam, and one day perhaps for an even more buzzing and more exciting London.
These Cities and Cultures classes brought me a lot more, though. We read all this interesting stuff and I want to tell you more about it, because I am sure that you would have liked the course as well.
But first, I will explain to you how this whole course was set up, because otherwise you might not understand the whole idea. Cities and Cultures is of course about cities and cultures, but there is also a lot of history, literature, philosophy, art and economics involved. During every class we made a ‘virtual journey’ to a certain city, by studying its characteristics. Because we did not go there for real, we were able to imagine ourselves there in other time periods. So, we started in Athens during the Classical Antiquity, and then went to Rome about the year that Christ was born, to Florence in the Renaissance, Amsterdam in the Golden Age, Edinburgh and Glasgow during the Industrial Era, Paris during the French Revolution, and we finished in Vienna, where modernity started. You might have already noticed that we went through the whole Western history, visiting the cities that flourished most at the time, or to put it in different words, the cities that were most buzzing and being exciting at those moments.
I think it would not be interesting to describe everything we discussed in all these places, but I want to tell you something about a concept that came back in every town, as a main theme. It is the concept of freedom, and I seemed not to be the only one interested in it. Even for the Greeks in Athens freedom was the ultimate goal, even though they defined the concept a bit different from our modern idea. For them freedom was almost equal to knowledge.
Do you perhaps know Plato’s story called In the Cave? He says you should imagine yourself in a cave, in which there is just enough light to see the shadows you cast upon the wall. You cannot see the other people around you, you can only hear them and you have been in the cave since you were born. But then you are able to find the exit, which enables you to see some sunbeams. It will take you some time to get accustomed to the light, but it is worth waiting, because you can finally see what the world looks like. When you come back in the cave however, to tell the others about his findings, they do not understand you, because they are not able to imagine what is out there. This story is a metaphor for the way philosophers were educated in Athens more than two thousand years ago. For them the way to become a real philosopher was by ‘seeing the light’, as you did in the story, and it was only by doing this that your mind could be truly freed.
However, for the Romans the ultimate freedom was religion. In Paul’s Letter to the Romans (not you, but Paul the apostle) he tells the people that the only way to become free from everything, and especially from sins, was when you entered the afterlife. He literally says: “But now, being made free from sin, and having become servants of God, you have your fruit of sanctification and the result of eternal life” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 6:22). If you led a good life and if all your sins could be forgiven, you might arrive in heaven after you die, which is the ultimate place of freedom. However, also before dying the Romans tried to pursue the feeling of freedom. The only way to do that was to be religious and to pray to God, as God could make everything happen.
After Rome we went to Florence, and there we found another conception of freedom again. This time it had nothing to do with knowledge or religion, both are achievable by everyone, but with money, which was only for the elite people. Fifteenth-century Florence was ruled by the famous banking family of the Medici. They had loads of money, which contributed to their power, as many Medici men for example have been pope in the past. Lorenzo de Medici, also called ‘The Magnificent’, liked to spend his money on art. Coincidently he decided that just at the time when Michelangelo started his education in art, so Lorenzo offered him his services as a patron. Michelangelo could live in the Medici palace, which gave him the freedom to only focus on his passion of drawing (Vasari).
A little bit more than a hundred years later, the concept of freedom was also discovered by the Dutch people in Amsterdam. When the city of Antwerp (including its harbour) was occupied by Spanish invaders, a great deal of the trade processes were moved to Amsterdam. The sober Protestants in Holland became in very little time extremely rich because if this, and how the whole idea of birth status changed by that. Before it had always been the case that your status was determined by your family, but now birth inferiority did not matter anymore, as all people were able to become wealthy, just by buying stocks of the East India Company. A whole new societal class was created because of this, which Schama calls the ‘burghers’. They regarded their position as totally free, as they were not bound to the status of their family or to their history.
But then the industrial revolution came over Western Europe and totally changed the economies. It all started in Scotland, namely in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Capitalism started gaining more support and the first tendencies towards globalization made it possible for people to specialize in only one type of work. It was then that Adam Smith stepped forward to explain the first theories about economics. He said that if everyone tried to do what is best for him- or herself, the community would also profit from that. People were therefore not longer limited by the social conventions of doing what was best for everyone, but they could think more individualistic and profit from that. For the eighteenth-century proletariat this was a whole new idea, and they started to work in factories to gain money for themselves. It was also here that the idea of morality came up, also inspired by Adam Smith’s theories of moral sentiments. People had learned now that they should come up for their own rights and rebelled against the inferiority of women, the child labour and against authority. They strived for freedom in the form of equality of all people.
These movements spread all over Europe, but in France there was really much support. I am speaking now of the years just before 1789, when the citizens became so dissatisfied with the existing monarchy that they decided to start a revolution, which should create a republic. Their three goals were liberty, equality and fraternity, which clearly address the notion of freedom. However, they did not only fight for the abolishment of the existing form of authority, they also wanted to gain freedom of speech. Voltaire’s Candide is a good example of that, as it is a satire on the world as the French knew it before the revolution. The story mainly ridicules the idea of the conservative philosophers that “everything is arranged for the best” (Candide). Voltaire wanted to show that that was not true and described the world in its most cruel form, which could be associated with monarchic France. Louis XIV might not have been happy with the book, but Voltaire did at least feel the freedom to say what he wanted to say.
In Vienna, some decades later, there were a few artists, philosophers and politicians who wanted to experience the ‘real’ freedom. They wanted to break totally free from everything in the past, and they wanted to achieve that by starting all over. Gustav Klimt stopped painting like it was always done before, but made more innovative art works, Schoenberg did not want to be associated with Mozart’s and Beethoven’s classical music and tried something totally new and all the people whom they were connected to followed their examples. A Viennese circle of conceptual thinkers was created, people who came together in Salons and discussed their new ideas. It was here that Modernity had started.
But what could come after Vienna? What cities are ‘buzzing and exciting’ today? In class we mentioned New York, but we agreed that this city might have been over its top already. Then someone said Berlin, which I can understand. Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai were also mentioned as growing economies, but we decided that it takes more than wealth to become the creative centre of the world. We also asked our teacher what he thought about it, but he never answers our questions. He always replies with “Yes, that is the question” and then we spend two hours discussing the subject in class. But we never reach any conclusions, because there never is just one correct answer on the ‘big questions’ we are talking about. It fully depends on your own interpretation and motivation. At some days when I left the classroom I felt like I had learned nothing, because I had not learned any new facts. But now we are a t the end of the course, I realize that the search for the answer is much more important than the answer itself and that knowledge does not always come in the form of plain facts.
Also learning all these different interpretations of freedom during the journey shapes your own idea of the concept. When I left Maastricht, for me freedom meant that there were no limits; that you could do always whatever you wanted to do, and I thought I would find that sort of freedom in big cities like Amsterdam. But when I arrived there some days before the school year started, and found myself not yet bound to any social obligation or school work, I realized I was immediately bored. I could go to the city centre and no one would notice that I had gone there, which did not make me feel free at al. Now I realize that it is just these interactions with the people around you which are real freedom.
As you can see my knowledge (and therefore my freedom, as the Greek would say) has expanded over the last four months, but did not only learn facts and names, I also learned a new way of thinking. And most important of all, I have seen how valuable discussions can be. You should not keep any knowledge for yourself. Moreover, you can read the best literature there is and you can appreciate the story, but you will not learn much about it until you discuss it with someone. Only then you will see new points of view, and for me that is perhaps the ultimate freedom: to be able to think differently from how you used to think.
It is because of this insight that I sent you this letter. I hope you got some inspiration out of it, some new views that lead to new ideas and perhaps this might boost your creativity. If you can find some time to return a letter that would be great, as I am really curious to your thoughts about it.
I hope to see you very soon in Amsterdam!
P.s. I found a nice quote some time ago and I think it totally suits you. It was on the cover of a post card and it says “Creativity is a choice, not a gift”. What do you think about that, do you agree?
Hello my dear Stella,
It’s good to hear that you’re inspired by these lessons about Cities and Cultures. As you know I have a natural passion for this subject too. My activities for “Pecha Kucha Maastricht”, for “Maastricht CC 2018” and other cultural activities are connected to that passion. My very first individual experience with discovering the buzzing excitement of a city was a trip to Paris at the age of 15. The vibrating complexity and ongoing dynamics caught my awareness in an instant. From the very first second Paris gave me the feeling that this city would have unexpected answers on questions I even still had to discover.
Inspiring cities always offer a diversity of attitudes and opinions. You can feel that variety in people, in dress codes, languages, shops, buildings, in advertisements and foods. All this diversity represents a resource of ideas. And so it is inspiring to hear other music, to smell different recipes, to taste exotic fruit and talking to colourful citizens. I think all this inspiration has to do with the differences in mindset. The feeling that there is maybe something we can learn from others. Something useful, that contributes to a better insight, a happier life. In that way my visits to cities were usually rewarding and stimulating. And that’s why I support Maastricht for the title Cultural Capital in 2018.
Now that I am a lot older my perspective evolved from the question ‘what is here to explore in this life’ in the direction of ‘how to improve life for all… with a new, different approach’. And besides that I think that the enormous problems we have to cope with in this world, require answers that grow out of new perspectives and changing points of view. A process that only can take place in creative cities is my belief. But let’s face the troubles first.
We shaped a world with a fatal mindset. The eagerness for obtaining wealth – houses, cars and luxury – is the universal leading motive. So doing we created a worldwide high-speed fuel consumption of almost 1.000 barrels per second. That’s an amount of oil you can compare to the discharge, the water stream in the river Severn in Great Britain: It’s obvious that this excessive use of oil has to drop as soon as possible. At the very same time billions of others still want to join us in this wasteful way of life.
The shortages of water supplies are even more urgent. The use (and waste) of drinking water without solutions for the future will cause major problems in almost all parts of the world. Many big American cities are already in trouble with the lowering ground water levels. The same happens in Mumbai and many other fast growing cities where the consumption of water is increasing every day. These processes are extraordinary visualized in the free film Home, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
These fundamental problems can only be solved with multiple solutions. But at the same time it is too simple to say: “we have to stop driving cars, and stop keeping cattle for meat consumption. We should stop flushing our droppings with drinking water. We should stop the maintenance of irrigated lawns.” If the answer really consists of all these keys, even then we have to work together worldwide as one united community, step by step, hand in hand changing our habits. In the way our world is organised such a process is a hell of a job.
In the very first place – in spite of detailed solutions – we need a new, inspiring goal to aim for. And we must create a new vision on happiness and the quality of life. We should develop another perspective on nature, on education, on achievements, on ownership, on resources and many other topics.
I think the world is ready for a fundamental transfer in perception. Your generation Stella, is not convinced of the positive outcome after centuries of constant moneymaking efforts. It’s no freedom at all that the economic system is offering us. It’s an increasing dependency. More and more people will discover that happiness depends on social accomplishment and a healthy, stable and sustainable world. And they will develop new lifestyles and a social environment that is independent and self-supportive.
Back to the city now. City life differs a lot from life in the countryside. Big cities are always multi-cultural. Rural areas are often mono-cultural. The mono-cultural social order is about traditions and unchanging habits. If you go with the local flow such a society feels protective and steady. In that way the mono-cultural society reinforces itself. You know everything about that Stella, because you lived for more than 10 years in the rural community of Hoog-Caestert, at Eijsden. Year after year you saw the same patterns of behaviour and customs. And of course those rigid patterns were also somehow in the heads of most inhabitants. One could recognise that by their jokes, their everyday topics, their regular solutions and the aiming for the usual goals. There is nothing wrong with that.
But your mother and I made the decision to leave this community and start another life in Maastricht, a town with 117.000 inhabitants. Honest: we wanted to offer our daughters a multi-cultural preparation for the real life. And at the same time we wanted to give our own lives a little more alternation and take part in new social movements.
Compared to Amsterdam Maastricht is a minor city, you know that. But it is not mono-cultural. In Maastricht you find 20.000 students, many employees from Belgium, overseas foreigners, coloured minorities, North-African communities, people from Maluku, Indonesia, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, artists, homosexual groups, squatters, mentally disabled people, tourists and several other cultures. And though Maastricht is not a pressure cooker, like New York or Hong Kong, the city has its platforms for discussions, creations, exhibitions, workshops, performances and fusions. That means that even in a small city like Maastricht groups and individuals find a podium for their views, convictions and passions. Artists and creative intellectuals gather and form movements. And many of them have connections with national and international associations. But at this point I want to distinguish the meaning of the words Art and Creativity. Those two subjects are connected in a strange way. But at the same moment they are mixed up all the time. Creativity is the gift of finding a connection between two domains that are basically not related to each other. For instance, a golf ball and a TGV train. Watch the last Pecha Kucha Night I organised in Hasselt and you will find out how. Art, on the other hand, requires a more profound orientation. Art is about the change of view, the exploration towards a new perspective.
I do totally agree with the expression: Creativity is a choice, not a gift. But we still have to learn that creativity has an enormous value. And how one can develop this ‘choice’.
The funny thing is that we need both, Art and Creativity, to make this world a better place. And in cities you find art & creativity in cooperation, in the activities of architects, filmmakers, designers, writers, painters and concept thinkers. There are associated artists who organise meetings and ventures. In cities you find answers on everyday issues and worries. In cities you see frank judgments and outspoken beliefs. And that’s the arena in which you will develop your own ideas to a high standard.
And then you write about freedom. The concept of freedom has many shapes, seen from all kinds of perspectives. For all the different cultures freedom is a flexible notion. After my visit at the Maastricht squatters I wrote about their perception of freedom. It was inspiring to me, unless I’m still happy in my own house.
Besides that we have for the first time in human history a global stage on the field of science and philosophy. With websites like www.ted.com and many other platforms we can share knowledge and insights in a completely free and honest way. Like for instance this Rory Sutherland who I shared with the visitors of my website. And also the ideas I write about in my blogs. And of course Maastricht is now in the position for a huge step forwards. And I hope to contribute to that in this process. So that we can share the attention of being the cultural centre of Europe for a relevant time.
It is also for the first time in human history that mankind is no longer delimited by geographic boundaries. There is a 24 hours active digital ‘city’ with people like Seth Godin, Jeff Jarvis, Richard Florida, Charles Landry, creative’s, artists, cooks, singers, writers, philosophers and many others. Those people can be seen on the web every day. Their blogs and video’s are always up to date and you can take part in their discussions. Forty years ago there was only one single hotline (telephone) between Moscow and Washington. Today Linkedin directly connects millions of people to Barack Obama personaly. So I’m curious if cities will stay the hotspots of development. Maybe we started already a sort of “Atlantis Online” and gathered important vibes and buzzing excitement that we can login to each morning. It will be more and more a virtual city with a number of Vimeo and Youtube stations, with TED lectures, with Lifehackers and blogs, tweets and flickr-news, coffee corners like MSN. Who knows what that city will be like in 2018.
I hope you had a great time in Madrid, and we’ll meet soon,