Speech by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at the opening of the exhibition “The Art of the Enlightenment” at the National Museum of China

01.04.2011 - Speech

-- translation of advanced text --

State Councillor Liu,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to join you in opening the exhibition “The Art of the Enlightenment” here in Beijing today.

This is an extraordinary occasion in many ways. The three arguably best-known art collections in Germany have come together in a joint exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing, an impressive reflection of Beijing claiming a place among of the world’s cultural hubs.

There has never been a more comprehensive German art collection exhibited abroad. Nearly six hundred of the most valuable pieces held by German museums will be exhibited in China for an entire year.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a dialogue programme on the values of the Enlightenment as well as by a three-year exchange and education programme. We wish to engage in an open, lively exchange with Chinese society. We are expressly looking not only to experts, but to those in the broader Chinese public who are interested in the subject, and especially to young people. We hope to spark a process of discussion that makes an impact beyond this exhibition.

The exhibition is neither strident nor showy. But this is not to say that it is without political meaning. Artistic freedom is the loveliest child of the Enlightenment. And art about the beauty of freedom is part of that artistic freedom.

We speak in retrospect of an “Age of Enlightenment”. In fact, however, the Enlightenment does not denote a precise historical era, but rather a long process of gaining insight, a process marked by repeated setbacks. The arduous triumph of reason fundamentally altered human self-perception in Europe.

The advance of reason turned rulers into governments, subjects into citizens. And artists, who previously had been primarily decorators of churches and castles, became societal actors.

Art and culture reflect the state of a society; often they are at its vanguard, driving its development forward. We do not merely enjoy art and culture, we are also influenced by them - in most cases positively, in the sense of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s educational ideal envisioning free and independent individuals.

Without art and culture a society would lack creativity, an economy would lack innovation, education would be technocratic. It is art and culture which reflect the multiplicity of perspectives in a society.

The power that art can unleash is also seen in the vibrant world of contemporary Chinese art. The Beijing gallery district 798 is well known in the Berlin art scene. China has both a major historical tradition in art and one of the world’s most formidable current art scenes.

We Germans have learned the lesson of our history: artistic freedom is always a barometer of the humaneness of a society. For art is a part of our humanity. Art in the service of power becomes propaganda.

The fact that we are opening an exhibition on the “Art of the Enlightenment” this evening also says something about relations between our two countries, Germany and China.

Our relations go beyond close and intensive economic and political exchange. German-Chinese relations are marked by a strong and mutual cultural and intellectual curiosity. We are fascinated by each other’s cultures. This is seen in Germany in, for example, the great success of the Confucius Institutes. We, on the other hand, have been very pleased by the enthusiastic response to our three-year exhibition series “Germany and China - Moving Ahead Together” at so many locations across China.

It is a tremendous honour to us that a German architectural firm was awarded the contract to redesign this building, which is of such significance for China. We view it as a sign of China’s high regard for our culture that Germany has been given the honour of presenting the first exhibition to be held in this significant space, and we are grateful for this.

We must not underestimate the role of culture in shaping foreign policy. Culture and cultural policy are not niche issues. Rather, they are indispensable to developing and fostering true understanding of one another.

I would like to thank you, State Councillor Liu Yandong, and all of the other participating Chinese partners for the dedication that has made this extraordinary project possible.

I also wish to extend my thanks to the many German participants. As representatives of all of these participants, I would like to mention the directors-general of the three German museum organizations, Prof. Michael Eissenhauer from Berlin, Prof. Martin Roth from Dresden and Prof. Klaus Schrenk from Munich. Thank you also to the sponsors, whose support has made this exhibition possible. Together you have made a major accomplishment. I wish the exhibition great success.

I am looking forward to the exhibition tour, as well as to tonight’s concert by three top orchestras from Germany. The musicians will be performing for us Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica - a piece of music, by the way, that represents the longing for freedom.

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