Thursday, 28 July 2016

When the new becomes old: Bayreuth's predicament

In an interview with Deutschlandradio Kultur, the German stage director Hans Neuenfels, notorious for dressing-up the chorus in a Wagner production as laboratory rats, has accused Katherina Wagner - who leads the management at the Bayreuth Festival theatre - of lacking vision. There were 'no artistic visions and sensations' any more.
There were ‘no artistic visions and sensations any more.’ - See more at:

It is very easy to accuse the Bayreuth management of 'lack of vision'. In its first decades, it was a unique theatre where model performances took place, as an example for other opera houses how to do Wagner. Meanwhile, every opera house can do something with these operas, and the 'model performances position' of Bayreuth has lost most of its meaning: only the famous acoustics remain an exclusive asset. Given the crazy presentations everywhere of Wagner operas - the notorious Regieoper - it is no longer 'schocking' and 'original' when Bayreuth does the same. It is the result of the attempt to try to be as original and nonconformist as everybody else. The requirement of 'vision', in this case coming from a stage director, has thus to be treated with the greatest suspicion, to say the least, especially if such a director thinks that dressing-up the chorus as laboratory rats will contribute to the meaning of the work (these ideas are always very nice on paper, in the quiet of a study, but on the stage they mostly fall completely flat). Staging an opera is not about creating sensations, but about revealing the nature of the work, and if the result is sensational it should be because of the work is sensational, not the stage director's ideas. Staging an opera is revealing the work and not using it for your own ideas.

In the light of Bayreuth's history, and the current trends of Regieoper, the most original and explorative vision Bayreuth can come-up with is to produce the works as loyally as possible to the original intentions of the composer, which can be quite a challenge in itself, and where the pitfalls of Wagner's original stage directions can also be avoided. Regieoperproductions of Wagner are, meanwhile, thoroughly conventional, stale, and juvenile, in desperate attempts to avoid what elsewhere is done and thus arriving again and again at similar results, and what was considered 'oldfashioned' in the seventies and later, can now be seen as new and forward-looking.

'Kinder, schafft neues!' said Wagner - but what to do when the new has become old and stale and conventional? Then the old becomes new again.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

What is progress?

What is progress? Making things better. So, progress as understood as a qualitative category. But what is 'better'? This can only be established in comparison: we are dissatisfied with something, and want to improve it. Here, invention and experiment come into play and - as a spontaneous byproduct - originality, which is always a result of a way of looking at things, which again is the result of how the person who is looking at things, has developed, including all the individual streaks that this process may include.

The improvement of something implies the existence of something that was already there, and the dissatisfaction connected with it. This implies the past: we live surrounded by a world stemming from 'the past'. It is on this point, that the last century's utopian thinking went off the rails: by denying the past, in whatever context, or treating it with contempt (as postwar modernism did), the attempt to improve things is undermined, since the evidence of dissatisfaction is no longer there, or is no longer considered seriously. This denial inevitably leads to re-inventing the wheel over and over again, without any hope it will be 'improved'.

In art, such considerations have serious consequences. 'Improvement' in art can only happen on the level of material means, not in terms of artistic vision, as will be clear when considering masterpieces of ages bygone. On my website there is an article on the myth of progress which goes a bit deeper into the subject:  

In art, the urge to transcend existing boundaries and limitations in search of 'something new', whatever that may mean, will always bump into existing limitations of given possibilities. Where existing art, i.e. products of 'the past', is denied, rejected, 'made invisible' by will or ignorance, it is impossible to transcend existing boundaries because they don't seem to be there, and in the happy cloud of nothingness, any step seems 'progress' and 'invention' to the juvenile mind - because of the lack of comparison and thus, value judgement.

I found an interesting review of a new publication which seems to confirm some of the outcomes of these meditations. 


“Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.”


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Scruton on the Ring

I tried, in vain, to place a text upon an essay by Sir Roger Scruton on this blog, but the link to the original publication did not work well, so I refer to my website where the text is one of the 'posts':


Saturday, 16 July 2016

Culture and society: the meaning of elitism

Interesting review of a biography of Klaus Mann, one of Thomas Mann's sons: 


"Of the recent books on the family, the most original is Evelyn Juers’s House of Exile, which deals with the exile of Heinrich Mann and his second wife and, in passing, tells the story of a generation of Germans who tried to make a home in America. Instead most of them lived in exile, often penniless, on the edge of despair, destroyed by the knowledge that the very culture they, in all innocence, had helped to create had meant nothing against the unspeakable cruelty and violence which seemed to have won the support of the majority of their compatriots."

What can a high culture do in a society where a majority is not ready to understand its implications? And not interested in it, anyway?

The Europeanization of Europe

In a column in Der Spiegel, one of the German news magazines:

"Es gehört zu den Zielen des IS, dass sich Muslime in Europa ausgegrenzt und stigmatisiert fühlen, weil es so wahrscheinlicher wird, sie eines Tages zu rekrutieren. Wollen wir den Dschihadisten ein Schnippchen schlagen, müssen wir die Willkommenskultur gerade jetzt beibehalten und so viel in die Integration dieser Flüchtlinge investieren, damit diese für die Radikalen unerreichbar bleiben." One of the aims of IS is, to get Moslems in Europe feeling excluded and stigmatized, because in that way it will be easier to recrute them for terrorist actions. If we want to get ahead of the djihadists, we should especially now maintain the 'welcoming culture' and invest much in the integration of these fugitives, so that they will remain inaccessible to the radicals.

The great challenge is, to Europeanize immigrants. To a great extent, that is already happeming for years successfully; it are the mishaps and the critical abberations which reach the media, not the numerous instances where immigrants have built-up a worthwhile life in a European way, in spite of head scarfs, religious opinions or non-white skin colour. The problem with this process is, what exactly means 'Europeanization'. Do we consider it a purely social and educational process, or (also) a cultural one? And do we mean by 'cultural' the broad, anthropological meaning or the more circumscribed, artistic one, in the sense we use the term in 'high / low culture'?

The anthropological meaning points towards the observation that Western/ European culture has evolved into a universal world culture, based upon universal humanistic values as developed in the West after the Enlightment. Its universal nature means also, no longer rooted in and restricted to locality, which opens the way for immigrants to cultivate the culture of the home country, and distancing themselves from their environment, which invokes suspicion and indifference. This explains the existence of the Parisian banlieux where muslem immigrants are left to their own devices and don't participate in French society: giving them special attention and support as a group, would deny the idea that every civilian is the same in the eyes of government and the law, in a secular society. In reality, immigrants in France are often treated as second class people, or less.

Universal values of freedom thus produce paradoxical problems in the area where they had developed, for instance the freedom to dress in a way not customary in Europe, or cultivating unusual life styles which can have alienating consequences. A whole territory of cultural mass psychology is emerging with the current surge of terrorist attacks, inviting debate about what it means to be European, and that is in itself a good and necessary thing.

Academic mishap

For some people, the overwhelming presence of pop music in modern life, spoiling any situation with its auditory manure (as Solzhenitsyn would say) is not enough: it is supposed to need funding and academic attention. 

“Simon Zagorski-Thomas, professor at the University of West London, has used his 15 minutes of fame on BBC Radio 4 to argue that popular music should be given more academic attention and funding.”

This 'professorial utterance' is just another example of egalitarian thinking, product of 20C anti-bourgeois ideology which was under the delusion that classical music was an instrument of cultural class warfare.

There are many people out there who hate high art – the best art of their own culture – because they feel incapable of experiencing it, and instead of making some effort, they try to diminish it, to besmear it, to make it go away – this nagging reminder of their lazy inadequacy. For them, pop music and quasi-academics demanding serious academic treatment of it, are a gift from heaven, because it confirms their own bad, seriously underdeveloped taste. In this way, pop music is like the misuse of religious absolution: the lazy barbarian is forgiven his inadequacy about which he felt so guilty, and does not need to try to improve himself.

There is nothing against pop music, which is simple entertainment for the masses, but where it tries to get its hands at high culture, the motive is always to conquer a place which it does not deserve. It is the attempt of the loser to present his failure as an asset, and to paint any critique as snobbery.

In the Second World War, survivors of bombing scrambled along the ruins to get to the concert hall where the players, in their coats like the audience since there was no heating, performed some repertoire works, and halls were always full: because of the hunger to experience something that gave the people for a short while the confirmation back of their humanity. And in free, liberal and wealthy societies of the West, there are many people who want to get rid of exactly this type of experience.

Simon Zagorski-Thomas, professor at the University of West London, has used his 15 minutes of fame on BBC Radio 4 to argue that popular music should be given more academic attention and funding. - See more at:

The dangers of concept art

Of course it is not surprising to read that concept art can be physically dangerous, as it has already been quite dangerous in a mental sense for people lacking a cultural basis in their psychological make-up:

In 2001, a cleaning lady in an art gallery had thrown away an art work by Damien Hirst, consisting of dirty glasses and a full ash tray. In January 2005 garbage collectors threw a heap of litter from the street in their car, which afterwards appeared to be a modern sculpture.

In his book 'Art versus Nonart' (2003) Tsion Avital relates how a museum director told him that in one of the boxes, which had been delivered in preparation of an exhibition of modern art, nothing else but small pieces of polystyrene could be found, the usual filling material to safeguard transportation of art works. Since they could not find any object, assistents cut the polystyrene pieces, thinking the work was possibly packed inside the polystyrene. But no, nothing there. Maybe the work had been stolen or got lost in some way? When the artist was contacted with the news that the boxes had arrived but without the work, it appeared that the pieces of polystyrene were the work of art, upon which the artist took the museum into court for damaging his work.

In Rumania a man had hanged himself in a park with modern sculpture, and only after some considerable time the public began to realize that he was not part of the exhibition. Maybe this story is not really true, but that it circulates is an indication that there is a consensus that everything - really everything - can be art. Which means that it is impossible to distinguish a work of art from anything else.

(Source: 'Niet alles is kunst', Kraaijpoel, Meyer, Allan; Aspekt 2010, unfortunately not as yet in English.)

It all began with the 'fountain', which in reality was and always will be a pissoir, by Marcel Duchamp, a 'readymade' from 1915. Duchamp was a joker, not a serious artist, and the idea that a 'readymade' could be art opened the door to the immense sea of nonsense which began its crazy trajectory through 20C art history.

Duchamp: 'Fountain', 1915

In music, it was Eric Satie who turned his limitations into an asset and wrote some interesting works, some of them really beautiful (Gymnopedies), and one remarkable work: 'Socrate', a very subdued cantata where absence creates the dreamy atmosphere of an empty room filled with nostalgia. But it was especially his nonsense pieces which were taken-up with delight by postwar nontalents like John Cage, seeing in Satie a legitimization of their lack of musical imagination, skill, and their 'rebellion' against a musical culture where they would never be accepted as serious musicians.

A link to 'Socrate':

With the liberation from any sense of aesthetics, artistic meaning/achievement, and skills, concept art and concept music is the bottom line of decadence, and not even skillful decadence as we sometimes can admire in fin-de-siècle art and music, but cheap, kitschy, puerile decadence, the climate of the playing ground, where people fool around and exploit the gullable for money. Probably the man in the sculpture park was a concept artist who finally understood the non-meaning of his trade.