Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Value and success

"Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives." Albert Einstein

What would be, in our days and in music life, the relationship between value and success?

In a world where value is eroding, chances on success are slim. Chasing success then inevitably means: neglecting value, because worldly success requires that one gives the world what it wants, instead of what it needs - that would be value. But there are quite some musicians who square the circle and are successful by dedicating themselves to value. How can that be? In those cases, it becomes clear that it is not the conventional trajectory that has been followed, but an independent one expressing the artist's innate individuality and identity. Inevitably, they arouse both enthusiasm and controversy. But they have been able to convince enough people that they offer something that they need, and that is an instinctive, not a rational or worldy process. But how can that be, in a world where value is eroding? In music life, the existing repertoire trains the listener and the performer in value, because that was the reason this music survived the ever changing, superficial historical circumstances and ephemeral fashions. And this training is entirely instinctive. Thus it forms an emotional and aesthetic learning trajectory, relatively independent from worldly concerns.

Obviously, I am talking about performers here, not composers.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Music education: an invisible loop

How does commercial materialism destroy human capital? And how is it related to the erosion of culture? A good example is the contemporary way universities are, in general, run. The university’s relatively new status as a business means that it desperately needs students, and that it will feel the need to make it as easy as possible for everyone, anyone, to enrol. This results in lowering standards all around, the neglect of subjects which don't promise future quick financial profits (but which are crucial for the development of a mature, sophisticated, educated person), and the inevitable devaluation of degrees. Instead of the formation of educated and cultured people before they enter society - 'Bildung' - universities produce more or less functioning cogwheels in the big machine of 'the market', the 'place' where everything in life is measured according to its price and nothing to its value. In the market place there are no 'goods' that are an absolute value in themselves, but there are only prices.

Culture can only exist as a value in itself, otherwise it is not culture. Value in itself presupposes distinction, the notion that there are things that are better than other things, not based upon their price but upon their value; on this idea the whole concept of human civilizational development is based. The conservatories and music faculties in the West, offering musical education in both practical musicianship, theory and composition, are thus facing a dilemma: producing more musicians than can find a position in the central performance culture or the new music circuit, is necessary to keep the institution on the rails, and producing many more composers than can ever make a living on composing or/and find public recognition through performances, may seem to safeguard the art form's status, but on the expense of young lives getting stuck.

While young performers can, with great effort, possibly find a place in ensembles or orchestras, young composers who are supposed to contribute to the art form are left in the dark, unless they find a way into the community which makes-up, in every country, the 'new music circuit' which is kept upright by artifical means: state subsidies, special community programs, private donations by people or businesses interested in a touch of 'contemporaneity' to enhance their status or brand. Within the circuit, aesthetic and ideological myths form the filter which makes sure that aspiring newcomers conform to the indoor climate, which needs to assert itself against the 'bourgeois, commercial' classical performance culture; here, modernism and its watery progeny mixed with pop is of great help. Here we see a connection between materialist market forces and fake idealism: the low level of 'totally free' modern music mores makes it easy to teach at the educational institutions which need as many students as possible, who - after their educational trajectory - flock to the island of the circuit which is the only place where eager young composers could hope to find a safe haven, but where they will have to conform to aesthetic standards which are nowhere explicitly stated but are nonetheless functioning as they are functioning in any community which feels threatened by an 'indifferent or hostile world'. So, the more easy musical education is made to allow great numbers of young people to enter the institutions, the more members will populate the modern music circuits, which will increasingly give the impression to the outside world of a florishing art community, without any means to assess the real artistic value because all the forces at work are determined by market forces, overtly or covertly. The irony is, of course, that the usual contemporary music aesthetic is supposed to be an expression of pure artistic idealism as a contrast to the base, bourgeois and materialist society; in reality it is a product of the very market forces that it claims to counter.

How could this situation be improved or solved? I think the only possible way to reduce market forces is to tackle the problem at the beginning of the trajectory: education. An artistic framework is necessary to create a mental territory where artistic, and not market forces determine a student's development. Then, there has to be a link between the educational period and the practical one, which directs the attention to the only musical place where artistic standards are still in place, albeit beleagered by the very same market forces: the traditional, central performance culture. The logical conclusion is, that education of budding composers can only be functional if related to this culture, in the same way as instrumentalists are prepared for concert life. In this way, an alternative could be created to the meaningless loop of useless, market-driven mythology that still defines so much  contemporary music in the 21st century, and the central performance culture could then be injected with new life in accordance to its own culture so that it may develop and create connections with real, contemporary life.

Invisible for audiences, and often also for the musicians, the orchestral circuit is under many threatening pressures: the financial one (market forces), the political one (state subsidies being dependent upon political programs), the ideological one (classical music 'no longer being relevant enough for contemporary society'), so that the subject of contemporary music seems to be entirely futile to the orchestra's survival. Focussing on the core reason of its existence: its value as an absolute good to the benefit of society as a whole, may open the doors to the awareness that new music which relates to its performance culture and its artistic values, can actually help the institution to survive in difficult times. The same goes for the educational institutions, but there, the idea that standards have to be independent from the number of students that enrol, will inevitably require serious sacrifices which may have unwelcome consequences for staff and institution. As is now the case, often the existence of the educational institutions is based upon the sacrifices the students are unwittingly making - not to speak of the art form itself - but the location where sacrifices have to be made, is obviously at the institution.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Stoking fear

"11 November 2017. Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. The police estimated that 60,000 people marched in the largely young crowd. Many chanted ‘Fatherland’, their banners read: ‘White Europe’, ‘Europe Will Be White’ and ‘Clean Blood’.  The Wall Street Journal reported that some of the marchers had flown in from Hungary, Slovakia and Spain, and waved flags and symbols that those countries used during their wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Polish state television called the procession a ‘great march of patriots’."

A populist neo-nationalism based upon ignorance of history is bubbling-up at many places in Europe. This shows the importance of knowledge about history, understanding the past, and learning from it. Also, the fact that so many immigrants have become Europeanized, showing that culture is independent from ethnicity, nationality, religion even, is not understood enough. It merely takes a couple of generations to completely diffuse any strongly anti-European feelings among immigrant communities, and this has nothing to do with wearing head scarves.

This is where culture and the understanding of what it is, becomes crucial, as well as the understanding of what European civilization is supposed to be. Rightwing extremist parties in Europe lay the groundwork for fascist outbursts and the destruction of the European idea: its civilizational and cultural unity, and its ability to build bridges and to accomodate differences between groups.

"The fear of immigrants threatens to destroy the very social and political fabric, culture, tradition, religion and way of life that Europeans want to protect."

Culture, in the sense of offering a humanist narrative, should counter these tendencies wherever it can.



Addendum 20/2/18:

An interesting review of 'Europe's Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right' by Liz Fekete throws further light on the issue. The author convincingly asserts that the dismantling of the welfare state has put a strain on all Europeans and, instead of questioning the policies that brought this about, they have joined rightwing politicians in blaming people they see as “scroungers.” (quote)

These strains are felt strongest among the people who did not share in the economic 'boom' before 2008 which benefitted 'the cosmopolitan elites', so: the poor 'whites' and the disenfranchised populations in the countryside who feel their 'normality' being threatened, vote for extremists as a protest and hope for reform.

What we witness here however, is the lowest of the lowest sentiments, crawling like rats from their holes where they have been lounging for decades - when being marginalized by the world above - and now, with the help of the new communication gadgets, demand power in the public arena:

When New Right leaders promise a return to the strong welfare state of the past, they do so under the condition that it be ethnically and racially bounded. With this modification, they enforce a range of patriarchal, racist, and homophobic values that draw on “noble” ideals of purity and national honor, whether they look to the Third Reich, the dream of a Greater Hungary (that would stretch into Romania and Slovakia), the male-led family “uncontaminated” by gender equality or tolerance for gay and queer people, pre-Ottoman Balkan Christianity, or pure-blooded Viking masculinity. Such visions are often, it seems, accompanied by torch wielding men and border militias with attack dogs. (quote)

The barbarians in our midst. The only remedy is a) a much stronger civilizational and cultural instruction and information effort across the board of the educational systems; and b) the strongest possible enforcement of law based upon the modern Enlightenment values of social democracy like equality and civil citizenship, which have been established in the West, with ups and downs, but with the greatest efforts, over the last two hundred years, and which have not been finished and internalized enough in the lower strata of European society.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Academic speaking out

"Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences. What is formed in colleges and universities over decades shows up for better or worse in the character and quality of our public servants, political campaigns, public-policy debates, citizen participation, social capital, media programming, lower school education, consumer preferences, business ethics, entertainments, and much more. And the long-term corrosive effects on politics and culture can also be repaired only over the long term, if ever. There are no quick fixes here. So I do not speak in hyperbole by saying that our accumulated academic BS puts at risk decent civilization itself."

Thus Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame (USA), at the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

It will be clear that art music, being part of what has been called 'the humanities', is part of the same context, not only in the USA but also in Europe.


Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Classicist challenging

“A painting by Titian is like a Leningrad, holding out against the forces of the world. Even if they’re having to eat rats in there, they still will never surrender to it. Whereas the art of Tracey Emin is a complete capitulation to the world. Cutting a shark in half and putting it in a tank of piss is just art giving up. I find it very odd when they describe art as challenging, because I always thought art was meant to calm you like a lullaby, not challenge you like some skinhead in an underpass.”

Thus Alexander Stoddart, the Scottish national sculptor working in a classicist style. His art is a subgenre of sculpture: civic monuments for public places, and brilliant in its appropriate vision and technical realization. But also: cool and impersonal.

The idea that new art should be challenging stems from the late 19th and the early 20th century, when resistance by the public to visions of life which disrupted the aesthetic context of tradition was considered an expression of an outdated, conservative attitude and thus hostile to the real creative meaning of art. We know about the mocking and scorn that the impressionists received from the public, while later-on their work proved to be of unassailable artistic value. Since that later realisation, 'progressiveness' and the idea that 'the public' is always 'conservative' petrified into a convention, which ignored the fact that that 'bourgeois public' gradually disappeared and that new generations have grown-up with the accepted idea that there is 'progress' in the arts and that 'new art' always is 'ahead of its time' and that resistance to it, merely reveals 'conservatism'. In general, there is not much protest from the public nowadays against modern art; people think it's fun, and don't feel offended because there is not much to be 'understood' in the works which don't require much aesthetic training or knowledge of art history, and if you don't like it, you simply walk on. This is the reason that modernist artists try to provoke rage with ever more crazy gestures in their work, and try to find ever more boundaries to 'transcend'. Every little spark of public irritation is jumped upon as the proof that the work has indeed achieved the romantic goal of avantgarde transgression into 'real artistic quality', for which resistance is needed in the same way sin is necessary to keep religious absolution intact.

So, any resistance from the bourgeois public, however minor, is welcomed as a proof that the 'challenges' of new art are still in place and demonstrate its artistic value. The irony is, that the 'challenging' quality of new art has become the most stale, conservative, reactionary, bourgeois and nonsensical characteristic imaginable, and art like Stoddart's is - in this context - the real challenge. But a challenge to whom? Not to the public, which has no difficulty in recognizing its qualities, they are there entirely visible for anyone with still a residu of aesthetic sensitivity. But it is a challenge to the extensive conservative network of 'art experts', curators, and theorists, who cannot find a place of such art in their progressive vision of how art develops and resort to simply ignoring it or deriding it as 'kitsch' and 'nostalgic nonsense'.

I think there is, in the arts, nothing more nostalgic - in the negative, escapist sense - than the longing to preserve the romanticized 'breaking of boundaries' of the old avantgarde, all born from the misunderstanding that in the arts there exists something like 'progress'.

While modernism has, by now for over a century, tried to stamp out any remnants of tradition in all artistic genres, through ideology, propaganda, and isolation and exclusion of artists who did not want to jump on the bandwagon of establishment art, the wish to preserve art as a repository of understanding of the human condition has not died and over the last years finds its outlet in excentric individuals outside the shallow circles of the new 'salon art': the 'art' we see in the museums of 'modern art' which is agreed upon by the network of art curators and theorists who want to keep their jobs of infinite explanation to the bourgeois public intact, the public which continues to need expert instruction - because the works themselves cannot penetrate the dumb sculls of the public's ignorance. So, Stoddart is an excentric, but an intelligent and very independent one, appearing at conferences about new art, advising youngsters, giving witty interviews. Obviously he is an instinctive artist who has enough of what he sees and feels, and rightly so: the thing which is much more difficult in the midst of an established art world.

Stoddart's stance is courageous and explorative, and comparable with movements in painting and music - although in music, things happen later, due to the long trajectory from desk to podium. But there is also other contemporary sculpture which revives the classicist mind set. Stoddart's art is public, impersonal, objective (his love of Wagner forms a puzzling contrast), which is appropriate for its purposes: civic monuments. The new classicist sculpture which is, as most art works, a personal expression, is more engaging on a personal level, as the works of Lori Shorin, Matteo Pugliese, Margot Homan and Christophe Charbonnel demonstrate (follow the links below). And these are only a handful of examples.

This art is offering an alternative to a vision of the modern world where the deeper layers of the human condition are denied, ignored or simply scorned. This makes these art forms - sculpture, painting, music - very 'modern' in the sense of relating them to the deeper concerns of what is happening in our present time: the longing for meaning and humanism in a confused and violent world, and the attempt to find beauty, in spite of the ugliness that is all around us.




Friday, 5 January 2018

Concert halls and distance

New concert halls in a modernist style create the opposite impression of what is intended: instead of bringing classical music into the 21st century by giving it a futurist shell, they create the impression of a museum culture, since almost ALL of the repertoire being played in them, stems from pre-modernist times. Pre-modernist music is not merely an acoustical thing, but has a cultural aura, as the style of a concert hall has its aura and its psychological meaning. Listening to Mozart in a modernist hall is like observing an object from antiquity in a modern glass box in a museum: it stresses the distance, sets the object apart from life, because of the deleted context, and confirms 'the past' as 'another country', inaccessible, impossible to relate to.

Since music is the art form most strongly related to actual, direct emotional experience, putting it in a glass box is the worst possible way of presenting it.

Here, we can see the full-blown misunderstandings such halls inspire: