Professor Lehmann, Professor Schuster, Ambassador Purini, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
“Art needs contact with people.” This is how Heinz Berggruen once described the purpose and task of a museum.
And for me one of the many things which we in Germany and particularly in Berlin owe to Heinz Berggruen is the fact that we can once more place this contact between art and the people under the theme of Beauty! – with an exclamation mark, just as the State Museums Berlin have done for today's exhibition and just as the Museum Island itself, part of the world's cultural heritage, is an “exclamation mark” of beauty.
And perhaps, in view of the current debate on the alleged contradiction between beauty and usefulness, it is not inopportune to remember that the preservation of the Museum Island is seen worldwide as an example of how to reconcile that supposed contradiction. The basis for this is the sterling work of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the State Museums Berlin, and their cooperation with the Federal Government and UNESCO.
The exclamation mark behind the concept of beauty points us towards something else. Evidence of this is provided in a particularly “beautiful” manner by Umberto Eco in the book he edited entitled “History of Beauty”. Precisely because there are so many different concepts of beauty and because so many theoretical discussions have been and still are being conducted on the concept of beauty, perhaps the exclamation mark is appropriate – as a metaphor for the aesthetic imperative under which we should place our cultural actions.
I therefore see today's exhibition as a call for us to become aware of new levels of recognition and experience though contact with artworks from various centuries and regions, and to gain new insights from this variety and constant change of perspective!
Europe provides the best environment for this, as people from all over the world and almost all cultures have influenced Europe, its art and culture. The variety of what we, in this contact and exchange, describe as our “own” European culture is so large that we Europeans can see ourselves as simultaneously being part of a national culture.
This unity in variety is for me one of Europe's vital strengths, one which should give us the courage to tackle our current tasks in the knowledge that together we have greater room to manoeuvre and to shape events than each one for himself. The courage to recognize what is common in what appears to be strange.
Many European artworks – let us merely consider the works of Matisse or Giacometti – demonstrate this courage to enter into an artistic dialogue, and they demonstrate the extent to which the culture of dialogue determines the beauty of our European culture.
Let me point towards a second aspect in which today's exhibition seems to go far beyond the museum framework: I sometimes feel that Europe has something in common with the concept of beauty. Whereas the abstract definitions, theoretical concepts and philosophical discussions make Europe appear highly controversial and impossible to describe, the immediate impression and personal experience of Europe make it much clearer.
I don't mean to say that the European texts, buildings or institutions could be presented as “beauty”! What I mean of course is that, no matter how much the experts quarrel about what Europe represents, the best way of experiencing it is in our daily lives.
In my speech yesterday to the Bundestag I said that if we, during the next few days, remember that the peoples of Europe no longer wage war on one another but rather, together and free, work to achieve peace far beyond Europe's borders, and make economic and societal solidarity, social and ecological responsibility a reality, then we will realize what Europe means in practical terms.
And perhaps these concrete, day-to-day experiences are closer to what the European Union really is than the best theoretical discussions.
If we then see beauty as a reflection of truth, then perhaps European unity is not only a real and often gratifying experience but truly “beautiful”!