Saturday, 20 June 2015

Established modernism

The celebration of the end of everything, the nihilism of absolute despair, the emptying of hope and perspective from human existence, has become establishment in the performing arts. If anyone would doubt it, here is a telling example:


http://www.staatsoper-berlin.de/de_DE/calendar-2014-2015/footfalls-neither.12261615  

The Berlin Staatsoper is one of the great opera houses in Europe, and of course it does present much of the core opera repertoire - thank God, in spite of the often 'modernized' presentations of 'old' works. But when a 'modern work' is produced, the magic box of postwar nihilism explodes with enthusiasm. But why is that so? Nowadays, in spite of the economic and political upheavels, and the many crises to be overcome, in comparison with the period 1914-1945, or even up till 1989, Europe is an affluent, reasonably quiet and relatively secure place. One would assume that the typical postwar moral and cultural hangover would, by now, have subsided. Of course it is clear that ackowledging the failure of Europe to maintain its own civilization is the only way possible to be able to build something new and better upon the ruins, but establishing the mourning as a structural piller of contemporary creation is something really strange. Europe was restored after WW II, but not its moral malaise. What happens if breast-beating self-accusation becomes establishment? It looses its free position of a cultural critique and becomes merely moralistic and patronizing. Have another look at the video and note the stage director's adoration of a study in despair, and the tone of triumph in her enthusiastic description of Feldman's 'Neither' as 'bleak, dark, formerly radical, and despairing'.

Here we have an excellent example of the transformation of a cultural critique which was - in its time - genuine, into the putting on a pedestal of established celebratory nihilism. When genuine despair turns, as despair, into enthusiastic pleasure, it has been transformed into masochism, which is an abnormal perversion of emotion and morality, something utterly destructive, and therefore rightly labelled as a psychiatric disorder. When masochism is presented as high art in an important opera house, we have the world upside-down, inside-out, and an experience very far from what would be expected from a normal, healthy civilization.

Of course modernism after WW II offered a platform for moral positioning: if you celebrated modernism, in whatever form, you were on the right side of history and on the moral highground. More than a half century after the event, established celebration of what could only be a moment in history, can only be understood as conservatism, and in this case of a quite bizarre kind. It should be stressed that Feldman's 'Neither' is - in its own way - very good: it is not music but sonic art, in the form of quietly flowing, aesthetically-polished chords from nowhere into the void of nothingness. Thus it feels if you believe in nothing, hope for nothing, and are as dead as you can possibly be. It is the underworld, maybe, as the old Greek envisaged it: a shadowy world of regret, without time, without place, without hope. So, who is going to buy a ticket for the production if the works obviously are not meant to do you any good? If taken seriously - and we hope the Staatsoper would want to be taken seriously - there should be warnings going with the marketing. But no, the video makes it clear that the audience is in for a triumphal confirmation of nothingness, and that this is a good thing, because of morally 'right'.

It is very sad that in Germany, the 'Nachkriegsschuldbewältigung' is still celebrated as a moral obligation. What talent is buried under such attitude? Would there not be something better?

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