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Once upon a time the world was round…

April 3rd, 2012 by Ralf Kircher

Berlin is at war, at cultural war: in the course of the city parliament’s debate on last monday, the Piratenpartei Berlin suggested to dismiss all the public support for the Deutsche Oper, arguing that there were anyway two opera houses left in the capital; the money saved by this cut (€ 39 million) should be used to support independent cultural institutions. The highly emotional reaction that followed since then proved to be unusually unanimous – how on earth can anyone dare to question the inviolability of high-cultural accomplishments?

And as if this wasn’t enough, four long-time cultural jobholders published their book Der Kulturinfarkt. Von allem zu viel und überall das Gleiche, complaining of a completely irrational and excessively lavish public cultural sponsorship – thus mere panic arose… Within the last four decades, so they point out, the amount of cultural institutions (theaters, opera houses, public libraries, museums, music schools etc.) have more than doubled throughout Europe, the amount of public support for culture has more than tripled. The – admittedly noble – thought behind that expansion was to make high culture accessible to literally everyone. Sad to say, not everyone took advantage of that offer; and for those of us who did: did Beethoven or Goethe or Rembrandt manage to turn us into better humans?

Art is an attitude, I read somewhere – however, what exactly is this attitude made of? Is it the temporary, unstable result of our daily inner struggle against the elements while striving for the sublime? Or is it rather a near and dear custom, which occasionally has became a way of life? “Objects of art function similar to relics. People just want to be near them”, says the Swiss art historian Beat Wyss…

“The political project of the responsible, self-decisive citizen is contrary to the esthetic project of the culture-citizen, who holds on to certain moral concepts and who has achieved a certain esthetic qualification that is not accessible for everyone, and that must not be accessible for everyone.” (Der Kulturinfarkt)

The “classical” high culture we are so proud of – or better say, the political and capitalistic encroachment of high culture – has seemingly turned into an instrument of social repression: the successful, wealthy, educated people can afford to let themselves be deeply stirred by a performance of Parsifal – the rest of the society is left out! However, there are not left out because they could not afford a ticket for the show (public support guarantees for moderate entrance fees – or does anyone really believe that he gets a Parsifal for just € 30?) – they are left out, because they never had any opportunity to develop their personal intellectual, mental and spiritual access to high culture.

I remember myself attending primary school in a tiny Austrian provincial city: we were two kids out of 36 in our class, who actually learned to play a musical instrument – and I was the only lucky one whom his parents took to listen to a real symphony concert in the major town nearby every now and then. And don’t forget, that were the golden 70’s! The times of quite radical changes, when culture as inner expression of the bourgeois educational canon was displaced by the idea of art as a mode of social critic! Still I was (salary-)bourgeoisie, and it was most certainly my (high-)cultural education which slowly alienated me from my working-class and peasant friends. I learned to experience (high) art as something that elevates – not only intellectually or spiritually, but, sad to say, socially as well! Think about that: people, who normally do not attend to concerts with classical music, get easily irritated when being invited to come and listen: “I don’t know, you see, I’m completely UNMUSICAL…” (on the other hand, even the flabbiest couch-potatoe enjoys watching a downhill ski race, though he definitely can consider himself as completely unathletic)

Some years later that socio-intellectual loftiness shattered into pieces: the 18 years old country bumpkin (der reine Tor…) was terribly shocked at some class at the music academy in Vienna, when the teacher maliciously put up the quest for any ultimate legitimization for carrying on eternally all that antiquated, outmoded stuff we were dealing with: classical music! Studying at that prestigious music institute, I thought myself virtually shifting through the halls of the holy grail – and out of a sudden, doubt arose: is this idea of the universally exhilarating, mind-blowing sacred art just vain delusion?

What a stupid question to ask! (admittedly, one can’t demand from a teenage kid to ask intelligently, can one?) As we know, that very perspective in fact emerged from the social cataclysms of the 19th century (which has been quite some time ago, right?), consequently, contemplating about the inalienability of certain arts doesn’t make much sense any more, does it? Art is an attitude, so we learned earlier, and thus per definitionem impartible! As soon we start to distinguish between “good” art and “bad” art, high culture and folk culture, “serious” music and “entertaining” music, we are going to end up in hell’s kitchen: we demand more support for the “independent” scene and less for the “mainstream”, and so we just deepen the gap between the social classes (this discussion resembles in a way to that one a few years ago concerning possible actions when dealing with terroristic attacks: can we impose a law that allows jet fighter pilots to shoot down hijacked airliners in order to curtail lethal damage? Of course not! Human life is an absolute factor, there is just no way of counting single, personal lives together – five people are not less worth than 500!)

We can – and we should – complain about the social inequity imposed by a “completely irrational and excessively lavish public cultural sponsorship”, that focuses mainly on high-cultural events, however, the demand for mere redistribution is kind of naive – you don’t cure an aching stomach by banging your head heavily against the wall just to make your headache distract you from the pain in your stomach, do you? (it probably works, but before you make a habit out of it, you better go and see a good shrink…) Redistribution, nevertheless, is not a bad idea at all, if imposed on another level: imagine the public authorities giving less support to all the different cultural institutions and more to the people, so that they have to learn to chose by themselves according to their cultural interests and spiritual needs… An illusion? Yes, might be – but wasn’t that political project of the responsible, self-decisive citizen as illusionary just a few decades ago?

Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around. Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there were men women childen dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals. And everybody dogs cats sheep rabbits and lizards and children all wanted to tell everybody all about it and they wanted to tell all about themselves.

(Getrude Stein)

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