Monday, 29 May 2017

Art in dark times

Art should not darken the world, but illuminate it. The 20C Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz claimed: “Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”

The same goes for music, which should embody the reality of interior experience, and truthfully so, and not succumb to fashion, careerism, selling-out to a world that does not understand its meaning.

Milosz lived through the worst period and place of the last century's upheavals, but kept his mind free from poisonous ideologies. The price for such authenticity was hughe and consisted of intense mental and emotional suffering. A review in the New Yorker tells us about a remarkable man and artist, who lived long enough to see his work and his ideas about the mission of the artist in troubled times, eventually vindicated and his worth confirmed.

A couple of fragments of the review, with comments:

The belief in reason is unreasonable, according to Milosz.

The assumption that people are, generally, endowed with reason and try to live and act on it, is - as we know - naively wrong. But Milosz meant that believing in the value of reason as something of great importance in life, is in itself unreasonable, since reason is such a rare phenomenon. And yet, therein lies our only hope for the preservation of our civilization, reason fuelled by love of the good and the beautiful and the meaningful. You could equally say that the belief in meaning is in itself meaningless, for the same reason, but that does not mean that we should give-up believing in the meaningfulness of meaning.

Few intellectuals today speak of “the truth” without a certain embarrassment. Isn’t the truth merely an ideological construction, always determined by the power relations prevailing in a given time and place? When truth is invoked, we always have to ask, Whose truth?

Communism and fascism created their own fantasy world determined by power, not by truth and definitely not by civilizational and humanist values, they were mob-mobilizing, populist ideologies which had thrown-out the humanist and religious traditions which had developed in Europe, rewriting history so that their position became 'justified'. Marxism based its ideology on the asumption, which comes from the German philosopher Hegel (early 19th century) that History is some kind of natural force independent of human intervention, but determining the fate of the world, a fate to which man is merely subjected to. So, ideologues identified themselves with this 'historical force' and thus, from a seemingly passive position, tried to push-through their power with the exclusion of reason, free discussion, exploration. Only for people who sided with the Historical Force there was 'justice', power, position, meaning: the rest had to be pushed aside as irrelevant and if possible, to be destroyed because of standing in the way of progress and the realization of the Historical Necessities. For these ideologues, the world held only two types of people: those who are with us and those who are against us. It was tribal thinking on an immense scale since whole nations were moulded according to ideological nonsense ideas, very damaging and primitive ideas. The link with modernism, and especially modernism in music, is obvious: postwar modernism in the fifties and sixties was a fully-fledged product of war trauma and inhuman ideology, and not the liberation from them, as it has always been claimed.

Communism […] exerted a terrible moral pressure, because it claimed to embody historical truth and justice, so that dissenting from it turned one into a sinner or a heretic.

Here we see some crucial psychological elements of Christianity embedded in a very un-Christian ideology, forming a perversion of the function of conscience. I remember the fanatic tones of condemnations in the sixties of composers who would not uncritically embrace atonal modernism, a tone which had a truly Savoranolaesque sound about it, and which excluded all discussion and reasonable exchange. Triads were a sign of adherence to the Devil and his decadent workings and had to be exterminated, like bourgeois remnants of anti-revolutionary thinking had to be destroyed, and like 'Jewry' had to disappear from the earth's face.

“The creative act is associated with a feeling of freedom that is, in its turn, born in the struggle against an apparently invisible resistance. Whoever truly creates is alone. . . . The creative man has no choice but to trust his inner command and place everything at stake in order to express what seems to him to be true,” Milosz writes. The people around him in the twentieth century worshipped history, which is to say, power; but the artist worships truth, which is what allows him to save his soul.

This is the same for the truthful painter and truthful composer. Has this become unnecessary in our own times, since we live in a free and wealthy, pluralist and civilized society? But what to do if the composer, be he ever so successfull with the audience, is bereft of his income because of 'sinning' against the 'consensus' of the modernist establishment? When his commissions no longer can be paid, not because his music is inferior, but because his work does not conform to the party line? When the success of his music is considered the product of a 'false consciousness' (Adorno) and a sign of bad taste and decadence? When no music-related work other than composing can be found, since he represents an element which has become unacceptable, and thus no conservatory, no music school, wants to be 'compromised'? This happened to quite some composers in postwar times, and one of them is the brilliant German composer Bertold Goldschmidt, who had to flee the nazis, landed in England, and after WW II found his music banned again (in a free society) because of the modernist ideology which began to get a foothold in the country. He gave-up writing music, because there were no performances, no feedback, no commissions. But at the end of his long life he was rediscovered, in a period when the first erosions of the modernist ideology became visible, and he enjoyed his vindication. But others were not so lucky, like Walter Braunfels, who got banned in the thirties first and after the war a second time because of not being 'modern enough'. A couple of years ago, long after his death, his music was rediscovered and is now regularly performed. Etc. etc.... In such times, the state of mind of such brilliant artists must have been unimaginable in its tragic loneliness and hopeless absurdity. The British composer Alexander Goehr, who introduced modernism in the country in the fifties and sixties, and obtained a powerful position as the oracle of Schoenbergian thought in England, always denied that there was any suppression of tonal composers after the war, claiming that failed careers were all entirely individual life stories without any connection to something like a modernist ideology. That is like saying: there is no forest but merely a great number of individual trees.

That artists like Milosz can exist at all, is a great source of hope for the human race, and eventually, for the vindication of artistic truth and meaning.