Saturday, 27 May 2017

High culture as commodity

"Die große Herausforderung für Kunstbetrieb und Kulturpolitik in Deutschland besteht darin, die bestehenden Institutionen gemeinsam mit neuem Publikum, neuen Nutzern, neuen Akteuren zu verändern. Zudem müssen dem institutionalisierten Kulturbetrieb neue, flexiblere Organisationsformen entgegengesetzt werden, die auch kulturelle Interessen zukünftiger Generationen und Kulturschaffender berücksichtigen."

Thus Mrs Birgit Mandel, Professorin für Kulturvermittlung und Kulturmanagement der Universität Hildesheim in an interview on the website of the Goethe Institute. After claiming that high culture forms a structural part of Germany's national identity, she observes a decline - in Germany - of public interest in this type of culture, and foresees the necessity to change the cultural institutions (orchestras, opera houses, theaters, museums) so that they will also answer the interests of future generations and creators. Of course such perspective is defined by the increase of pop culture as offering in public space and the increasing numbers of immigrants who could not care less about Goethe, Beethoven and - who shall we name? - Thomas Mann. Let alone 20C culture figures. Suggested is the function of cultural institutions as merely providing service to a clientèle, as on a market. In fact, professor Mandel treats the subject as commerce, and not as the formation of cultural identity. Namely, something like identity is not a commodity, the price of which is determined by demand: it is the center of a being, or a culture, or a nation, and a value in itself. Where identity is sold, it becomes prostitution. Germany has understood itself always as a Kulturnation, but if its self-understanding is treated as a commodity, it throws away its greatest asset and its strongest means of creating an important part of a European identity.

Here we look into the dark heart of the identity crisis of the West, under the pressure of populism, pop culture and immigration. Because, this is not only happening in Germany but everywhere in Europe and America. Who are the culprits? Wild capitalism, populism, the egalitarian world view where there is no value distinction, relativism which claims that culture is merely a human construct which can easily be replaced by some other (non-cultural) construct, and postwar guilt about colonialism and exploitation of the Third World. Added can be: modernism in all its forms, from glass and steel buildings destroying, like a cancer, traditional urban fabrics, to concept art which is merely an offence of intelligence and sensitivity, to sonic art as a state-subsidized playground for eternal toddlers. In Germany the hangover of two world wars and the holocaust adds extra weight to the pressure to give-up the family jewels and replace them by plastic and ephemeral bubbles.

And yet, a renewal of Western culture, and especially art music, should start at the location where the concept of culture is still an important part of most national identities - Europe, and especially Europe's heart: Germany. If Germany wants to be Europe's real and respectable leader, instead of a war-mongering psychopath, and become entirely European, it should - as an example - invest in cultural Bildung instead of commerce and create, through Bildung, the new audiences and practitioners that will preserve and further develop the heritage that has remained the best that the West has given to the world.

Friday, 26 May 2017

European art as the nazis envisaged

"Europe has always been a grand idea. But it is more flexible than we realize. We must deliberately invest it with the meaning we wish for it to have. If we don't, others will."

A new book about the history of nazism, now focussing upon its art policies, offers a warning that seems to be quite apt in these days.

The nazis rejected both democratic cosmopolitism and modernism, and wanted a European culture rooted in the 'Volk', and purified from 'decadent elements' among which the 'Jewish element' was, of course, the most conspicuous. They believed in 'purity' along ethnic lines and authoritarian directives, as a solution for the mess Western societies had got into after WW I, with their economic crashes and general confusion, also and especially, in the arts. (The resemblance with the rise of rightwing parties in Europe today is obvious.) The traditionalism that the nazis advocated was, of course, a perversion, and from their rejection of modernism should not be concluded that traditionalism is inherently fascist; if this were so, eating meat and heavy smoking and drinking would be necessary proof that one does not cultivate fascist sympathies - Hitler was vegetarian and did not smoke or drink. The entire project of a fascist European cultural reform was a sickening pipe dream of amateurs and diabolical nitwits.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Symbolism, terrorism, urinalism and value

The diabolical atrocities we are witnessing in these days, are to a great extent the result of Western free society letting salafist ideologies blossom in muslem communities, which somehow legitimizes them. At the heart of this problem lies, of course, a cultural conflict: islam being both a religion and a culture, without division of religion and state as has developed in the West, can only be integrated in Western societies if it accepts the same limitations and restrictions as other religions in the West have been forced to implement under the pressure of secularist Enlightenment values as far as they (the latter) are supposed to regulate public space and thus, politics. Only within the framework of a secular society where religion is a private concern, different religious world views can live next to each other. This does not mean that religion is not important, but that religious world views which claim truth over other religious world views, are not allowed power in the public realm, so that religious freedom be maintained.

Culture operates often with the means of symbolism. The arts are strongly symbolic, as Duchamp's urinal demonstrates as clearly as Tintoretto's 'Deposition of Christ'. There is a deep instinct in humans to seek the support of symbolism under the pressures of life, hence the strongly symbolic nature of religious rituals. The more immigrants feel they are not allowed to share the benefits of Western society, the more they will cling to compensating symbolism, which creates the humus on which perverse ideologies can foster their hatred.

The problem with Western-born terrorism is not immigration or islam in itself, but education. The better Westerners understand their own society, the more chance newcomers will become, over time, Westeners and will no longer be immigrants. But a Western society which has lost its belief in itself and in its values, a society which cultivates egalitarian relativism and nihilism (as symbolically represented in the museums of contemporary art and at new music festivals), and which celebrates its creativity in the form of pop and commerce, will find it very hard to help people from other cultures where such self-defeating ideas have not as yet taken root, integrate. The West should not merely present its urinal to newcomers, but something of the best that has developed here.

How come that an over-developed society neglects the growth of such potentially dangerous ideologies in its midst? Recent history demonstrates how important it is to keep an eye on mental abberations that seek to destroy civilization, as in the thirties. I think there are at least three conspicuous, interrelated reasons: the notions of freedom, relativism and multiculturalism.

Freedom: as we know, human life is per definition not 'free' but limited on all sides by physical and circumstantial restraints, and whatever freedom there is to obtain in life, has to be created, to be striven after and often to be fought for (as any conductor knows all too well). As long as too many people in a society are incarcerated in circumstances not of their own making and don't have any means to overcome them, living in 'the free West' becomes meaningless; they may decide to vote for Trump or Le Pen or a brexit or to opt for a world view which promises them an unimaginable number of unspoiled virgins in heaven as a reward for fighting these circumstances.

Relativism: the idea that values are merely human constructs and do not relate to some objective truth, of whatever kind, denies a deep human need to find meaning in a world seemingly determined by blind natural forces which in themselves don't provide any meaning that can be experienced as such. To some extent values are indeed human constructs, as the many different forms of culture are, but underneath there is a universal basis which is related to how the human mind works: we can call them 'universal values', operating on universal dynamics defined by biology, as expressed in the 'holistic nature of human perception' (Steven Semes) and which is currently being confirmed by neurobiological research. The reason that so many migrants come to the West, otherwise than for pure survival as war refugees, is because these deeper inner needs are not answered in the areas they come from. Being fed with mostly misleading images in the media about Western life, the infantilism of which may relate to underdeveloped people in desastrous circumstances, migrants naively assume that once arrived in Europe, by whatever means, they will be able to share the normal life of the West, with a normal house, nice job, nice clothes, cell phone and possibly a blitzy car. The thought that 'they' might actually be like us, sends the European rightwing extremists into the curtains, but it does not automatically follow that the West should open the doors to the millions of the world. The only conclusion would be that the West - next to controlled immigration - has to contribute to improvement of other areas of the globe out of a sensible sense of selfpreservation, strengthening and helping to liberate the above-mentioned underlying universal values. It will be clear that a self-defeating relativism and lack of confidence in Western universal values won't be of much help in such policies.

Multiculturalism: Western imperialism in the past, which tended to view other cultures as 'primitive' and open to exploitation, has created a strong backlash of penitence so that immigrants from non-Western cultures are encouraged to keep their own home culture as much as possible when living in the West, which unintentionally hindered integration in society and the development of understanding of Western values. It is the old story of the child and the bathwater: some of these Western values are mere culture like dress, hand shaking, hair grooming, traffic rules and eating habits, and others are universal and were thus feeding the wish to migrate at all. Hence the continuation of certain entirely unacceptable cultural traditions like genital mutilation, the suppression of women, forced arranged marriages, the condemnation of homosexuality, family violence, sharia law etc. etc. - that is: unacceptable according to Western values and not values as a mere human construct, but as universal, civilizational values. The wearing of a head scarf or turban, or avoiding porc, or keeping the ramadan or the sabbath, are phenomenae on the level of culture (however religiously inspired), but the mentioned abberations are in conflict with the level of universal value, they are primitive and need to be overcome, wherever they are practised, not only in the West. The blindness to this distinction, in the understandable penitential mood of the 20th century, has had enormous consequences which are now surfacing in the disruptive violence which is now so often in the daily news. But this does not mean that the idea of a multicultural society is a mere pipe dream. Different cultures can live perfectly well within the framework of a relatively (!) free society where the rule of law is based upon these deeper civilizational values which are longed for by all human beings, and at large such a multiculti world is already functioning well, proving the point. Civilization is not dependent upon culture but can outgrow its cultural roots and become universal. Therein lies our hope.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Failure of intellectuals

With the rise of populism, as seen with the election of a buffoon in the US, the success of rightwing extremists in France and the Netherlands, and the appearance of an extremist party in Germany (where also neonazism raises its ugly head again), as well as the brexit drama apparently stimulated by irrational nationalist identity instincts, I got the feeling that Western free democracy demonstrated it could destroy itself entirely legitimately within its own system and method. So, I began to suspect that it would be better if the unthinking simpletons of society would somehow be filtered-out from the election system, to protect democracy and the fundament of a free society: the rule of law, from this central flaw: that everybody has the same right to vote, entirely irrespective of understanding, knowlegde, moral development, etc. Maybe some sort of exam as a precondition for the right to vote would be better, as to make sure that some knowledge and understanding of the values of society and the meaning of democracy would underpin the choice made in the cubicle. Building-in an intellectual barrier to keep-out self-destructive stupidity seemed a logical conclusion.

But then, I hit upon this review about the treason of so many intellectuals in the past, and had to conclude that intellectual capacities do, in general, not garantee protection against self-destructive stupidity, and that such protection may be found in some kind of religious / spiritual awareness:

These intellectuals sought a spiritual element that would bring meaning into a meaningless view of the world. But then, also religion (that is, organized religion) brought some desastrous trouble into society, as history learns, so it would seem that an element of spirituality combined with Enlightenment ideas would do better - after all, modern Western free society was born from such combination. Obviously, this society is still in development, and this development is of importance for the developments within the field of culture.

Sunday, 21 May 2017


"The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility." (Albert Einstein.) In the same way, the music of Bach is comprehensible but why this is so, remains a mystery, that is not explained by musical analysis. The music of Debussy is entirely logical, but it is very hard to uncover the logic, although the sensitive listener feels clearly that it moves on the same tonal dynamics like any other great music, like Bach's. With music, the comprehensibility is located at a level, different from sonic art. For instance, through-composed serialism (an early form of sonicism) is entirely logical but in the same time, entirely incomprehensible - that is, from a musical point of view (from a sonic point of view, the concept of 'comprehension' is irrelevant). Music is aural mathematics, but in a different way from pure mathematics, which is about proportions and relationships; in music, the proportions and their relationships are fluent, shifting, and including both provisional and anchored articulation points, and leaving an open space between lines and points which makes it impossible for the composer to precisely 'calculate' his piece.

Where mathematical method is applied literally, as Schoenberg tried in the twenties of the last century, all those ambiguous and floating qualities of musical mathematics disappear. Hence the impression of both stiffness and chaos of Schoenberg's serial works.... he tried to create a music that would be entirely logical and comprehensible but sought those qualities on the wrong level: on the literal one, and he was followed by a lot of composing people who found such approach less hard to grasp than the other, more fluent and ambiguous logic, which requires not rational but intuitive and sensitive capacities.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The end of Boulezbianism

The French new-tonal composer Nicolas Bacri got an all-Bacri concert by the French Radio Orchestra on 27th of April. This signifies a definite break with the Boulezbian domination of modernism in the French new music establishment:  

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Steiner on the humanities

On the website of 'Standpoint', a review of a new book on George Steiner draws attention to one of the most eloquent self-destructive postwar voices that use the holocaust to finish its job also on the level of the humanities - i.e., claiming that the most abject evil is an organic, natural part of Western high culture.

So, where a concentration camp brute combines his daily murderous job with his love of classical music, it is the art form's failure to sensitize the psychopath which demonstrates music's culpability. But as we know, psychopaths have no difficulty with putting different experiences into different boxes and failing to comprehend what they are doing, feeling, thinking. That is why they are considered psychopaths. Steiner made his claim a Leitmotiv of his career, while defending the elitist attitude of the humanities, including high art.

The accusation that the humanities / the high arts are potentially capable of 'dampen' moral awareness, of 'making us bad', is based upon the misunderstanding that when elites fail to 'fight against barbarism', it is because the humanities are somehow culpable, because of somehow approving evil and destruction. The more obvious explanation is, that the practitioners - where they fail to raise their voice against injustice and barbarism - don't understand the humanities enough.

Also there is the distinction between levels: the humanities take place on another level than politics, and only when the real world threatens to intrude into the quiet study, elites may wake-up and often it is then too late. To make victims culpable is relocating the problem. Steiner's claim that evil and selfdestruction are at the heart of Western civilization, is plain ridiculous and utterly stupid. When you read Steiner's 'In Bluebeard's Castle' you realize he has built an enormous polemical edifice upon most feeble grounds, and it is self-defeating: he wants to defend high culture and is attacking it in the same time.

And his celebration of Jewry is quite nonsensical too: it is entirely irrelevant which ethnicity brilliant people have. Jewry being a combination of ethnicity and culture, gets into scrapes when confusing culture with race, the same mistake Wagner made. As far as culture goes, it is the liberation from orthodoxy, and the cultural training of text interpretation, that contributes to the skills of people of Jewish descent (something that the philosopher Brian Magee has already explained very clearly). The 'Jewish renaissance' that happened since the beginning of the 19th century was made possible because Jews got civil rights and could freely partake in society. It was this sense of liberation and no longer being locked-up, both physically and mentally, within a ghetto, that stimulated people from Jewish descent to develop and to achieve. This, together with the continuous confrontation with antisemitism - mostly based upon envy - made them 'fanatically' over-achieving. Once I talked with a refugee musician from the Soviet Union, who said about his Jewish family that they were raised with the continuous instruction 'to be better than anybody else', to fight for your place in the world because of 'being Jewish' and thus, being discriminated against all the time and everywhere.

Culture is something that can be absorbed and identified with by anyone, as people from Jewish descent have already proven extensively over the last ages. Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Einstein etc. etc. were Europeans through and through, and Steiner's inclination to give them special status as 'Jews', is misplaced and, basically, racist.