We are not having it too good
We are not having it too good
Last time I asked the question if our general well-being and over-saturation in Europe and other rich parts of the world is creating more and more uninteresting art. The reaction of my readers was more or less: “well off? Me? I’m suffering for my art, I’m poor, I’m ignored, why should I be decadent!”. Others pointed at other (non-European) cultures and expressed hope that new impulses may come from truly understanding them (I agree wholeheartedly, but I just wish we had the guts to create change from within our own culture, or that encounter will be too onesided).
Biographies of artists were compared with respective own biographies, and there seemed to be a competition to prove that certain artists were not personally suffering and still creating great art.
Of course my question was partly rhetoric, and the discussion of biographical suffering or the effect of living in “interesting times” is probably moot. The concept of “suffering” was also not my point, but instead I wanted to show that the long-lasting peace in Europe – as welcome and positive as it is/was – has created a certain laziness in art. This does not mean that the art itself is bad, or that there is no talent. But I find that there is a lot of navel gazing instead of attempts to consciously influence the times that we live in. Is our art still “relevant”?
Behind this lies a much darker and scarier question that I have to ask myself as a father of children – I have not personally experienced war (and for this I must consider myself extremely lucky on this planet) and I most certainly don’t wish that my children experience it. On the other hand as an artist I long for a discourse and an involvement with current society that goes beyond the wish to be part of the new music festival circuit, if I may put it like that. Every time I think about it I experience a growing unease at the fact that contemporary music is mostly concerned with the continuity of its funding instead of reflecting the things that are wrong with this world.
Let’s imagine for a moment that New Music had endless funds and unlimited performance possibilities. Would this guarantee that the music would become better and better and that everybody would be happy? I doubt it. Or would – and this has certainly happened in several state-funded situations – music lose its will to communicate and be more and more removed from society? We all live with the formula “more music funding = better compositions” in our head, and we never question it. And even though in times like these I fervently fight for the support of our musical culture I am not so sure if this formula is always right. But that is a topic in its own right.
What I really ask myself is: do we really have it that good? Superficially yes – we live in a happy, pampered, shiny, white world of unlimited consumer possibilities. We can go wherever we want, buy whatever we want, be whatever we want. There are no limits except our credit rating, but even people living in the poorer ranks of society have access to wealth and personal comfort that is still not imaginable in most parts of the planet. We are free. Or at least we think we are free.
But are we? The question for personal freedom raises many doubts in me. It is a particularly European question, as Europe has been the location of the most severe wars, upheavals and revolutions, practically constantly for the last 2000 years or so, in the name of freedom. Countless people have died upholding their personal principles of freedom, they have died for the French Revolution, for their religion, for their race, for their political views, for their sexual preferences even…the list is endless.
And now – at a time where we have seemingly unparalleled personal freedom and tolerance reigning in the “First World” – we give it away deliberately.
I don’t want to fall in the trap of declaring “consumerism” in general as evil. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories or secret doctrines of the Gnomes of Zurich or the Illuminati. But I can see the slow rise of a new ideology that deeply, slowly and permanently (?) erodes the principles of freedom that were so important for the many generations before us.
The dictatorship that we experience is not one that promotes suffering – quite contrary. It doesn’t even see itself as a dictatorship. It is a democracy of fleeting tastes, fleeting fashions and fleeting desires. It wants to keep us warm, safe and happy. But it most certainly wants to control us. “1984” – the so often cited manifest against the complete control of society through surveillance and indoctrination – got it wrong in only one point. Big Brother tortures his people so they are willing slaves to his system. We are not tortured – instead we are drugged into willing submission. And we welcome it with open arms.
Our daily lives are regulated in a way that was inconceivable 30 years ago. Everywhere we go our moves are recorded. We use apps and smartphones and social networks that constantly monitor our every move. They know where we are, what we eat, what we read, what we like, what we buy. And by monitoring us they invent new things that we might want to buy, and then they offer them to us. And we buy these new things and again this creates new signposts by which we can be judged.
And it is not that easy to remove yourself from this system – to be part of today’s society you are in some way or another connected to the internet, even if you make a point of not using it. I know composers who refuse to use email or computers but are smartphone addicts constantly conversing via SMS and similar means. What they don’t seem to realise is that their phones are computers as well. In the end it is the same. There is no escape.
Right now we are not suffering physically because of this. But there has been a visible trend to increasingly control general opinion in our world, sometimes very successfully, like in Berlusconi’s Italy, simply through the nearly complete control of media and news. In general journalism and news services feel much less independent than decades ago. The internet on one hand creates a “wild space” in which theoretically every opinion can be uttered, but in the end it just becomes a hotbed of more and more confusing conspiracy theories, some of them probably even propagated by spin doctors who want to obfuscate the real issues.
It becomes more and more difficult to really judge current politics or world events, and most people don’t even try but simply react to the most simple of signals, like “vote for this candidate because he has a nice smile”. And the people trying to criticize these developments are forced to use exactly the media they are criticizing – they have to tweet, they have to post videos, they have to write mass mails. They become part of the big data cloud that slowly encompasses the planet.
There are people who drop out – they go to monasteries, they go to some from of seclusion or a life in the streets of Bangladesh, helping the poor, they sell their personal belongings and escape consumerism. Good luck to them. Sadly they are not visible anymore, nobody can listen to their wisdom, they just vanish from the communication stream.
All of this makes the question for freedom more and more relevant, also for art. And not only freedom – most certainly individual freedom, but also freedom of the individual. How can I be individual today, in a time where everything is “liked” and then “disliked” as quickly, where teenagers already experience the crassest peer pressures regarding the brands they use, where everything is judged in the most superficial manner, where everybody wants to be a star but nobody is a star anymore, just an exchangeable packet of consumer data instead?
All of this might sound pessimistic, but in a way it actually fills me with hope. And the wish that art might look more at exactly these themes, the vanishing of the individual (some might say “good riddance”, but I say “over my dead body”). In a way we are in a similar situation like Beethoven, we live in a time where the search for the individual voice has become an unparalleled epic quest, where it could be a battle that needs our complete attention, our complete energy, our complete devotion.
Eccentricity, inscrutability, irrationality, unpredictability, and last but not least creativity are the weapons in our fight for the future of the free individual.
This is the art that we should strive to create, this is the music that we should strive to write.
As it is I’m kind of hopeful – as an artist at least.
Because I truly know that we live in very interesting times.