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 from 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 that is generally considered of great importance in the world, 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 if you look at the world, 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?"

The context of this saying is not the writings of Michel Foucault, who saw only power relations in the world, NB in the free Western world, but Milosz' experience of living under the falsifications of communism.

Of course truth exists, but has to be uncovered by all means of the human mind. Truth has nothing to do with power, but where truth shines through the 'maya' of the world, it exercises authority, which is something different from power. But communism and fascism, only seeing power relations in the world, 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 'neutralized' 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 tone of condemnation in the sixties of composers who would not uncritically subject themselves to 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 the 'bourgeois remnants of anti-revolutionary thinking' which 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 because of being successful? 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 UK 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.

Addendum 26/7/17:

Another review:

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 offered 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 later 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. Investment in an art form which represents cultural identity means: investing - in terms of education and of money - in the material which represents this cultural identity, which should be preserved as a living thing, so that consecutive generations can enjoy it and learn from it. That is where culture is for, and in this case: classical music as a genre. Thinking that classical music has to adapt to market demands, is the opposite of preserving a cultural identity, it is destroying it because in such thinking, demand replaces intention. 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.