Sunday, 4 August 2019

Accelerated modernity?

"To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’" (Marshall Berman)

The other day a well-informed and intelligent friend wanted to convince me that my work and ideas were fundamentally 'anti-modern', and defining a position walled-in with notions which were produced in a past, in a world, which was very different from ours, and that therefore any attempt to revive aesthetic, artistic ideas which have meanwhile 'lost their relevance for modern life', would fail to connect with contemporary audiences. A deeper discussion revealed that his understanding of 'modernity' remained on the surface, in the sense that people find something 'modern' which is new, and seemingly better, than something which was produced earlier. But that misses the point entirely. To begin with, 'modern' does not say more than 'of this time, of today'. It is not an assessment of meaning or quality. But this is merely a day-to-day usage, while 'modernity' in a wider historical and cultural context refers to the world as it emerged from the 18th century French revolution with all the following upheavels resulting from the gradual disconnection from the many existing traditions in every field, from past practice and past meaning, and the many attempts to 'rescue' whatever appeared to be more universal and not locked-up into history. It can be argued that 'the modern world' was already appearing, in simple form, at the dawn of the Renaissance.

The concept of 'modernity' can be interpreted in different ways, and the process of interpretation can only take place in intellectual freedom and not under the pressure of some overarching predetermined idea of modernity, which is so often the case in our times.  

'When total change and revolution become normal, the present becomes merely temporary and unstable. The future is, consequently, not a prolongation of the present, but something open and potentially radically different. When tomorrow is uncertain, former experiences and forms of wisdom lose their authority as the self-evident point of orientation for how we should think and act.' From an intellectual position of self-reflexive distance from modernity we may look again into the past and find elements which can be recognized as universal and appropriate within a situation of change and revolution, providing a basis of continuity and points of orientation. It seems to me that this is the challenge of culture in our times, and a real possibility, since the human being can reassess his own experience at any time. It was this form of reassessment that inspired the artists of the Italian Renaissance to take ancient achievements seriously and as models for future developments and interpretation: progress as improvement of contemporary conditions, going forward by reviving and reinterpreting historic precedent. Interestingly, it was at the 'dawn of the modern world' in the Renaissance - 14th / 16th century - that this modernity was inspired by Antiquity, a culture of some 1000 old at the time. So, the real sources of modernity in the sense of improvement, lay in a far past.

Very interesting article on the website of Eurozine, wholeheartely recommended:

Where Hannah Arendt reveals the paradox of revolutionary thinking, i.e. the subjection to 'historical necessity', the self-defeating totalitarian nature of such 'idealism' comes to light, which we know - in the arts - from postwar modernism: 'I claim relevance for this or that work of art because of historical necessity' - as if in possession of the ultimate standard, which claims priority over all other art forms. This idea is based upon a nonsensical notion, descending from Hegel, which claims that there exists something like an independent historic force, acting upon humanity who can only obey its directives. Such entirely unsubstantiated idea  destroys the heart of revolutionary thinking: the creation of something new and better which is born from freedom of thought.

The greatest danger of 'accelerated modernity' is that the idea arises, that fundamental aspects of the human condition can be safely left behind and replaced by values defined by technological prowess. Where universals of the human condition are no longer recognized, the door is opened to 'constructed' values which may become destructive of the human species, like comparable disasters of nazism and communism, with their rewriting of history and morality, and to nightmarish visions reappearing in the crazy ideas of 'posthumanism': the synthesis of man and machine in the future.

What has all of this to do with the arts, with serious art music in the 21st century? It seems to me that the arts should remind humanity of their innate being and universal values of the good, the beautiful, the meaningful, in short: the universal human spirit which renews itself again after every disaster. It is not difficult to see that an 'accellerated modernity' is one of such disasters.

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