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Education: Rotterdam Conservatory, Cambridge University // Activities: composition, writing

Thursday 6 July 2023

Progressive? Conservative?

 In the culture wars concerning modernity and tradition, concepts like 'modern', 'tradition', 'conservative', 'progressive', 'value' and so forth, appear to have different meanings in different contexts, with the result that meaning is often blurred by political motivations in the background. In fact, their meaning is shifting all the time, and thus become tools for other meanings which are different from their origins.

Tradition: simply the sum of successful solutions to problems of aesthetics, practices, value. 'Our heritage has come down to us without a testament' (René Char), which means: we should never stop being critical of what we have inherited of our civilisation. This critical stance is the motor of development and keeps traditions alive and accessible.

Progress: anything which means an improvement. This is entirely dependent upon context.

Modern: that which is contemporary, which is 'now'. It is a historical category and has no meaning as to value.

Modernism: the ideology which has, in the last century, created a world view which is very different from most of the past, and in which technology, science and progressiveness for its own sake have taken priority over humanist values as were developed since the Renaissance. It is a prescriptive ideology (hence its nature as 'ideology') and often not open to critique, which is discarded as 'conservative'. But attempts to recapture successful solutions to problems, which have been discarded because of not fitting within a modernist world view, can be progressive in terms of improvement, when a civilisation has developed towards extremes which undermine its capacities for development. With conservatism in the sense of wanting to freeze historic moments, it has nothing to do. Nothing has done classical music more damage than the misunderstanding that this art form is a 'conservative' one.

The well-known architect and theorist Léon Krier has formulated the important distinction between 'modern' and 'modernism' as follows:

I use the terms Traditional and Tradition in contradistinction to Modernist and Modernism; not in contradistinction to Modernity.

At present, artists, historians, critics and the public endemically confuse the terms modern and modernist. This is absolutely central.

Modern merely indicates time and period, whereas modernist has unequivocal ideological connotations. When historians write of "The Modern Movement" they clearly mean "The Modernist Movements" as opposed to "Traditional Movements". Traditional and modern; tradition and modernity, are therefore not contradictory notions. One can be a modern person of tradition.

Traditional (artisan) cultures are concerned with the production of OBJECTS for long-term USE. Modernist (industrial) cultures by contrast are concerned with the production of OBJECTS for short-term CONSUMPTION. These produce very different worlds for us to inherit or to live in.

In such antagonistic or complementary philosophies, INVENTION, INNOVATION, and DISCOVERY have a different status and meaning. There is, of course, the claim that in a traditional culture you can't have innovation. But this statement is simply not true; it's mere slander.

In traditional cultures, INVENTION, INNOVATION, and DISCOVERY are a means to improve handed-down and time-honored systems of thinking, planning, building, representation, communication, etc. ... in the Arts, philosophy, town-building, language, sciences, industries, agriculture, etc. They are a means to an end, namely to conceive, realize and maintain a solid, lasting, comfortable and beautiful human world. That is the goal.

Fundamental aesthetic and ethical principles are considered to be of universal value, transcending time and space, climates and civilizations. This is where the controversy lies.

In traditional cultures, industrial rationale and methods are in a subservient role. They are subordinate to larger themes, to larger concerns.

In modernist cultures, INVENTION, INNOVATION, and DISCOVERY are ends in themselves. It is claimed that constantly changing socio-economic and political conditions necessarily revolutionize all concepts. It is further claimed that there are no universal ethical and aesthetic categories, and hence traditional values are but accumulations of life-impending and regressive straight jackets.

In modernist cultures industrial rationale and methods tend towards dominating all aspects of life; education, culture, recreation, all polity and politic.

(From a ‘Statement’ prepared for the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Architectural Institute. Published in Architectural Design, volume 57 (1987), January/February pages 38-43. Revised portions included in: "Eisenman versus Krier", Architectural Design, volume 59 (1989), September/October pages 7-18.)

Only if notions like modernity, modernism, progress and tradition are understood in their original and true meaning, can a vision be developed which offers a perspective on improvement: the only serious meaning of progress.

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