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.  

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:

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Why high culture?

Why should high culture be important to society? Why paying for it, why funding its institutions? Isn't it immoral to use tax payers' money to fund things which only seem to be to the benefit of a minority?

"We are interested in high culture because we are interested in the life of the mind, and we entrust the life of the mind to institutions because it is a social benefit. Even if only a few people are capable of living this life to the full, we all benefit from its results, in the form of knowledge, technology, legal and political understanding, and the works of art, literature and music that evoke the human condition and also reconcile us to it."

The erosion of this kind of awareness has concrete implications for the arts, it opens the doors to nonsense and fakes and clichées:

"Hence for a long time now, it has been assumed that there can be no authentic creation in high art which is not in some way a ‘challenge’ to public culture. Art must give offence, stepping out armed against the bourgeois taste for the conforming and the comfortable, which are simply other names for kitsch and cliché. The result of this is that offence itself becomes a cliché. If the public has become so immune to shock that only a dead shark in formaldehyde will awaken a brief spasm of outrage, then the artist must produce a dead shark in formaldehyde — this, at least, is an authentic gesture. In place of the late American art critic Harold Rosenberg’s ‘tradition of the new’, we have the ‘cliché of the transgressive’ — a repetition of the would-be unrepeatable."

If the arts, as presented by the established institutions, only consist of fakes, there is no longer any justification to support them, since they no longer serve public interest, and forfeit their position in public space:

"In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown."

Thus Sir Roger Scruton in an essay on the website of Aeon:

Friday, 24 November 2017

The fragile future of music

The attacks upon the 1st edition of 'The Classical Revolution' did not surprise me, knowing - while writing - that descriptions of the totalitarian and nonsensical nature of musical modernism would not be welcome in certain established new music circles. But what did surprise me, was the myopic way in which the book was read by people, who are supposed to be used to reading books, and feel somehow committed to the musical art form in one way or another. For instance, where the book was merely condemned as a reactionary rant, drenched in bigotry, and as a failed attempt to present a very narrow, flawed taste as something objective, such interpretation seemed to come from people entirely ignorant of the realities of music life, of music history, even of general art history, so that the suspicion arose that these were people from outside music life or even, outside the cultural field altogether.

Such 'reviews' missed crucial points of the text, like: the obvious observation, with a history of ages of experience behind it, that music is more than organized sound and that an art form which wants to present sound as such without any other meaning is better considered a different art form altogether; or the crazy modernist assumption that there exists something like 'progress' in music; or the real nature of progress in music: the accumulated availability of means - on a different level from that of purposes; or the totalitarian, aggressive ideologies which have created havoc in music life where the damage is still very much present for all to see (or rather: to hear); or the invitation for juvenile nonsense to parade as 'new music'; or the fallacy of the 'lack of understanding' of 'conservative audiences'; or the link with cultural relativism and cultural identity, where awareness of 'the past' plays a crucial role. All these points could be easily verified by reality, other expertise writings, cumulative experiences of performers and listeners; they were not subjective, paranoid fantasies but rooted in the real world.

If the book were completely wrong, something like this would not have been possible - the presentation of a recent 'work' at the Darmstadt New Music Courses, well-known hub of established modernism in Germany:

In my opinion, the most important part of the book is its chapter 'The Search for Meaning' which connects music (and especially, new music) with the reality of the world and the surrounding culture. Here, a holistic vision is presented in which the many problems surrounding new music are illuminated as if from outside. With bigotry and reactionary conservatism, this has nothing to do - which should be entirely clear for everybody with a minimum of intelligence and cultural awareness. As the iconic monuments of the past are still with us and still have something meaningful to say about the human condition, one could clearly see that the preservation of their precious tradition is always part of any modernity, not for the benefit of the past but of the present - of any present. New creation illuminated by such tradition is - in a world where it is treated with contempt - related to this world in the sense of a necessary altenative, as a subversive exploration of a vision which may throw another light upon the present. Therefore the book is titled, with some irony, as a 'revolution': only revolutionary in relation with conventional ideas about modernity.

Classical, serious music ('art music', 'ernste Musik') has a repertoire that is, almost entirely, a product of the Western past, and mostly the European past. This cultural past forms Europe's cultural identity and by extension, a part of the cultural identity of the Americas. The price which has been paid for a dynamic, progressive technological and scientific society, is the loss of memory, a willful collective dementia, which means: erosion of identity and increase of alienation. The psychological misery and shallowness we see all around in the West, which are painfully reflected in current political developments like the surge of populism everywhere, betrays the lack of understanding of the past with the result that fundamental lessons have to be learned again and again. If we look at Chinese culture, which has survived thousands of years and serious upheavels and disasters, then it is a surprising discovery to see that the inner strength of this very specific culture can be explained by its commitment to 'the past' and 'the dead': the past is kept alive in memory through its art, poetry, literature, mythology. It has even survived the communist degradation and - under the surface - it is still alive, under the thumb of a totalitarian regime that treats its citizens with contempt. Western classical music is now increasingly popular in China, where it symbolizes development and modernization - with the advantage that its nonconceptual nature does not pose a threat to the political status quo. In the West, classical music shrinks, and new music has written itself out of a cultural paradigm altogether (in Europe only being kept alive through careless state support). The West should try to learn from the Chinese holistic attitude towards the cultural past and understand that its past is alive and not locked-up in a museum. All this was explored in 'The Classical Revolution', no doubt insufficiently, but necessarily, as a correction upon a paradigm that has shown itself to be entirely destructive and hostile to art.

Also I have often been criticized for writing music that is 'too traditional', mere imitation music and not original music, and that its language is entirely derivative and impersonal. But any musically-perceptive listener can easily hear that this is not the case: the language is a combination of different elements of existing music, but the mix is mine. Also, the way this music is structured, is newly found with every work: there is no repetition on that point. This type of critique can be compared with the attacks upon the book, and - apart from being superficial and unsophisticated - it is characteristic of a mindset where extremely narrow-minded ideology has replaced musical considerations and perception. The complaint that this music is 'too traditional' sometimes came from classical performers, whom you would expect the last to dislike tradition - but also here, the idea that contemporary music should 'reflect its time' is related to a certain average soundscape without realizing that there are alternatives possible. Modernism, when it entered the curriculae at universities and conservatories, seems to have damaged something in the brains of young people, who then entered professional life with their handicapped vision and in a world where such ideologies have either crumbled or have been petrified into establishment notions of a conventional, ugly past - as if there were only one type of past which is acceptable and other pasts, better ones, more inspired ones and certainly ones having produced masterpieces, are taboo. So, my book merely punctured an entirely feeble position, and the many thoughts about the modernist fallacies were necessary to point-out the full extent to which the idiocies of the modernist paradigm have damaged a fragile art form - fragile because of being dependent upon audiences, performers, and the cultural climate of societies.

No doubt the 2nd edition by Dover will also produce some attacks, and as long as the remnants of modernist ideologies are doing their destructive work in the mind of people operating in music life, this art form will be under threat, inviting further exploration of alternatives which may - at some stage in the future - restore understanding of classical music's enduring values.

'Classical art is atemporal, like mathematics'. This saying by the brilliant and pioneering architect Léon Krier points towards the 'holistic nature of human perception', as Steven Semes quoted Richard Cytowic (“Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), July 1995). This is not a 'conservative', anti-modern position but in contrary, the most necessary point of departure in the quest for understanding the nature of classical music and its value and meaning in the modern world. Ironically, such awareness is true progress, in comparison with postwar modernist ideologies: the point is, where the notion of progress has to be localized.

Steven Semes' admirable essay about relationships between the different arts can be found on the website of the Future Symphony Institute:

I remember that it was quite a discovery when, after writing some atonal Schönbergian pieces in my student days, my first serious exploration of the tonal tradition - not as an exercise in style imitation but as personal creation - immediately showed me that when you tap into a reservoir of relationships as exist in the tonal tradition (tonal in the widest sense), you enter a network of references which creates its own variations and appearances, and you connect with some deep layer in the collective subconcsiousness. It was the grave intellectual crime of postwar modernist ideology to insist that this connection was related to war, decadence, corruption. Restoring this connection is, I think, the challenge of art music in this century, and I hope such awareness will spread across music life and inspire a revival of a truly great art.