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What are we fighting for?

Transcript of a speech held on the “Foreign Experts’ Seminar on Guangxi’s Development” in Nanning, China on 25th of December 2015

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When Winston Churchill was suggested to diminish the state expenses for culture during WW II – waging wars costs a lot of money! – he just replied: “So, what are we actually fighting for?”

Having been working in the sphere of culture for almost thirty years, this very question has become more and more urgent to me. Let me para-phrase Mr. Churchill with my own words: What are we actually taking responsibility for, how much do we ultimately value the accomplishments of our civilisation? You all know that Europe is currently facing rough times – some even spot the European Union on the verge of breaking apart: we suddenly see ourselves overrun by hundreds of thousands of refugees, who desperately need support and shelter; the threat of terroristic attacks by Islamic fanatics impends to turn open-minded democratic countries into grim surveillance states; the credibility of our common currency, the Euro, is suffering from the fact that our national governments are not able to agree on any common financial strategy at all. Not to mention the effects of global warming, which already are hitting us more than we want to admit to ourselves (we still tend to believe that climate change is more a problem of third world countries)…

Strangely, in midst of all those hot political discussions about how to respond, how to twist around, how to act, how to try, how to whatever, no one comes up asking the most obvious question: how much do we ultimately value that what we have got (and what we are for heaven’s sake responsible for!) – our cultural heritage?

When contemplating about Guangxi’s goal of building a moderately prosperous society, I can’t help myself being first of all captivated by the adverb “moderately” – in case it refers mainly to economic prosperity, I gladly recognise the obvious denial to excessiveness and greed. Consequently, the immediate question arises, whether there are different kinds of prosperities, which can be diagnosed separately? Psychologically speaking, most probably not: the actual state of sensitivities – may it be individual or general – is a puzzle of countless particles of awareness, physically as well as intellectually or emotionally. In addition to that, does it make much of sense to strictly separate economics from arts or from education – aren’t they in fact closely intertwined? Isn’t it rather so, that every achievement of the human mind can be referred to as culture – may it be agricultural skill, which makes our soil feed us, may it be a Diners Club card, or may it be a symphony by Beethoven? (Very likely, you wont be surprised to hear that I feel most competent for the latter…)

I am supposed to present answers with this speech; however, I am just introducing more and more questions. However, I genuinely believe, much more important than finding right answers is asking the right questions (and it definitely is much more difficult)! To any query, there are many possible answers, which all to a certain degree may be correct – the (one and only!) right question, on the other hand, will establish the track that enables us to eventually live into the right responses.

So, what reason for does our state of sensitivities in Europe seem so less pleasant? We are definitely economically prosperous enough to feed refugees (even many of them), we should be mentally strong enough not to panic from terroristic threats and our history teaches us very clear lessons about the damages, which the fatal lack of solidarity between our nations has been causing. We literally have everything, nonetheless we apparently are not willing to give any credits to that – because we don’t ask ourselves the decisive question: how much do we value our cultural heritage? Do we care for it at all?

An attitude of caring establishes something like “common sense” – which in my opinion is the indispensible basis for any community, ultimately for society altogether. Lacking of caring therefore stands for lacking of respect and consideration, lacking of compassion, lacking of generosity – and that’s definitely not what a prosperous society looks like! Of course, it is nice to have some cash in your pocket, as it can buy you a lot of pretty things, but money is nothing that can make people care for – they might chase after it (especially the greedy ones), but that is not caring, not at all. Money serves our physical needs, it buys us food, shelter, clothes, medicine – in other words, it satisfies the cravings of an animal. As we are humans, money alone obviously won’t fill us.

There is a very dangerous misconception, which has been unfolding in Europe: that of culture respectively arts being some kind of jewellery of society’s output. So, first it has to be expensive – free things always hurt, as the saying goes. Second, “business before pleasure” – if we do not accomplish enough, we just cannot afford to celebrate. This weird assessment puts cultural work into a very odd role: that of more or less sophisticated entertainment. We apparently forgot, that culture is placed at the very core of humanity – we surgically removed it from there and exhibit it like a relic. However, foremost culture – or more precisely: art (being a highly sophisticated form of culture) – introduces the approach to dignity.

Forefeeling of the sublime is as old as mankind itself, this forefeeling we constantly foster within our minds and hearts. Basically, art and religion are nothing else than crutches, which help us to access to the sublime and this option of accessibility is what we ultimately care for (we just aren’t aware of it, apparently). As much as we all are enjoying the immense technical advance of media entertainment, Netflix or WeChat will not turn us into more respectful, or compassionate, or generous people – Beethoven definitely will, on the other hand, and Goethe and Confucius, too.

So, when dropping new development anchors, make sure to drop some of them at the core of humanity: support education institutes, which not only teach kids to juggle with numbers but make them receptive for the beauty of arts; install libraries, for the magic of the written word is opening up incredible worlds to the reader’s mind; establish theatres, which will become places not only of cultural but also of personal encounter.

Be proud of your symphony orchestra and show your pride by supporting it’s urgent needs for new instruments, for inviting established musicians from abroad to come here to Nanning to work with the orchestra. You know, an orchestra needs to reach out to the people, it needs to develop and to educate its audience, and that is quite a long process. No need to mention, that the success rate of this process cannot be measured by the number of ticket sales solely – it will start to pay off after years, when attending to symphonic concerts will have become a matter of course for many people living here!

You anyway quite frequently emphasize the term “regional”, which, in my understanding, stands for reflecting on resources at hand, resources that in fact are available. Too often I had to witness hindsight having present – regional! – resources degenerate, while dreaming of, oh well, glorious internationality. Being an artist, I do not necessarily refer to mineral resources or to prosperous agriculture or to high tech firms that you might have got, but to human hearts and minds (I hate the ugly expression “human resources”) – those you want to foster, as they will after all be the ones actually caring for.

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