Speech by Monika Griefahn at the Festival de Poesía de Medellín in Columbia
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Friends of poetry and the Festival de Poesía de Medellín,
As part of a delegation of Members of the German Bundestag, I would like to begin by thanking you very warmly on behalf of myself and my colleagues for the invitation to this festival. This festival is the focal point of our trip to Columbia and it is a pleasure to be here, having heard so much about Medellín and its poetry festival. Yes, the festival's reputation precedes it right across the globe, and this was the case even before the festival was awarded the Right Livelihood Award - the Alternative Nobel Prize - last year.
German author Hermann Oeser once said, succinctly, but correctly, that "it is good to be able to talk. It is dangerous not to be able to"
It is in this spirit that the festival's initiators created a wonderful project, well worth imitating: a project which, on the one hand, presents authors and poets with an opportunity to enter into dialogue. On the other hand, the festival also does a great deal for those who visit it. Here, literature becomes an exchange of ideas, a critical and warning voice accompanying one through life. Literature can highlight the blind spot in our perception; it can advise and guide the way to new paths. Culture, and thus poetry, help us to understand what makes us tick.
People unable to experience art and culture, who lack access or opportunities to enjoy culture, or are even forbidden from seeking access, are not only being denied a part of their personalities; they are lacking an important pressure valve. When Herman Oeser says that it is dangerous not to be able to talk about things, the significance of this quotation in the context of the reality of dictatorship, censorship and control of art and culture is extremely clear.
The Festival de Poesía de Medellín is a shining example of enabling people to access the potential of art and culture. Here, poetry becomes a weapon, able to combat real armed violence on the streets. I was absolutely fascinated to hear that this poetry festival had actually led to a drop in violence here in Medellín.
This is a message which should be heard the world over, for it can help people to regain trust in the unbelievable power of literature, as well as music, painting, theatre and film.
But what role does politics play in this relationship between art and society? In Germany, we have an important principle, which applies not only for Parliament, but also for all other political institutions: policymakers do not produce art, they enable art.
Direct influence and manipulation of artistic activities and individual cultural projects is not a task for politicians, but one which must only take place in the framework of artistic freedom. For only in this way can the positive effect of art and culture on society be engendered. Yet, aside from direct influence, there are numerous areas in which art urgently requires state support. This ranges from financing of the organisations which run projects and independent institutions, to safeguarding the welfare of artists; and it also extends to support for an education policy in which cultural education is one of the main focal points.
In addition, international cultural exchange and commitment are important to us. This is what our foreign cultural and educational policy stands for - and literature is a central element in this context.
Here in Columbia, this work can rely on several important institutions. These include, for example, the four German schools in Bogotá, Barranquilla, Cali and Medellín; it also includes the lively exchange amongst students and academics, along with the Goethe Institute in Bogotá and, in particular, the three joint German-Columbian cultural institutes in Cali, Cartagena and Medellín. We do not want to use the activities in this framework solely to make contact with people who are already interested in Germany and our culture. Instead, we also want to bring together Columbian culture and German culture in a fruitful exchange, an exchange which can be extremely inspirational and beneficial for both sides.
Support for culture at the level of both foreign and domestic policy is vital in order to maintain a lively and diverse cultural landscape. Negative examples exist in some countries; these show how great the danger is of cultural monotony and tedium taking hold where art and culture is left to market forces alone. In such a situation, cultural provision rapidly reaches a very low level, due to the fact that only culture aimed purely at the mainstream can be financed. And, at the same time, this culture is barely accessible to the less fortunate in society. I believe that politicians have an immense responsibility to prevent this.
Protection of cultural life and, in particular, protection of cultural diversity, has long ceased to be a purely national issue in our globalised world. In the era of WTO and GATS, an era in which economic logic is becoming ever more dominant, in which, therefore, there is a danger of culture being seen more as a commodity than as cultural property, politicians have a responsibility to act as guardians of culture. Cultural property transports identities, values and meaning and cannot be viewed merely as wares and commodities.
For this reason, I am very pleased that Columbia and Germany, together with the vast majority of UNESCO member states, have given their support to the „Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions“. This convention is an important milestone on the path to improved protection of art and culture.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Alongside the European Union, over 60 states have so far ratified the convention and I very much hope that Columbia too will soon join the other signatory states.
Yet action taken internationally can only protect those aspects of art and culture which are enabled at domestic level. Without the great personal commitment of the initiators this festival would simply not have been possible.
Yet, at the same time, such a major and exceptional project is also dependent on support from national government and local authorities. I hope that this wonderful festival will continue to receive this support in the future and that, with this help, it will be able to develop and grow further. This is particularly important if one thinks of the history of the project, which began in an atmosphere of hatred and fear.
The positive development of the festival is a step on the path which will hopefully soon lead your country to the end of the long war and usher in peace.
Against this background I very much support reasoning behind the bestowal of the Right Livelihood Award. The festival was awarded the prize „for showing how creativity, beauty, free expression and community can flourish amongst and overcome even deeply entrenched fear and violence.“
Ladies and Gentlemen,
UNESCO may have declared Bogotá „World Book Capital City“, yet it is undoubtedly Medellín which earns the title of Poetry Capital. On behalf of the whole of the German delegation I wish you all the best for this festival and for the festivals to come and hope that people in Germany, and right across the world, will hear much more from you.
Thank you very much