The Arts and an Open Society

The Arts and an Open Society

December 2, 2014

Let us accept the following characteristics as representative of an open society. An open society is marked by the rule of law that protects individuals and minorities. It safeguards freedom of expression and movement. Governments of open societies are placed into power and removed through democratic means. They maintain an independent judiciary and most often a legal separation from sectarian religious doctrine. The open society is therefore a place in which dissent flourishes, skepticism and criticism thrive, where speech and not violence is the primary instrument of politics, and where there is no such thing as heresy; a high degree of transparency about government also exists, as does a protection of privacy and individual rights. Whether an open society requires a certain minimum measure of social justice in economic terms---the absence of extreme poverty and grotesque wealth—on the assumption that radical economic inequality threatens the stability of a just and open politics, is an awkward but open question. It is clear that in an open society radical inequality can flourish. In short, market capitalism—regulated, to be sure—is compatible with the open society.

But crucial to the open society is the role of language and public space in politics. The state does not possess a monopoly in the formation of civil society or in the creation and control of education or civic entertainment, from sports and the circus to institutions of learning, research and preservation. Dissenting opinions and a pluralism of thought ought to thrive.

In this context, the phrase “arts and culture” refers to those activities that have long traditions, quite variable followings (in terms of numbers), public activities and public outcomes that are not commercially viable in market terms. They are minority phenomena and merit protection and support, from the state, from majorities and from markets. Often the activities of the arts and culture—from poetry to performance art---are linked to so-called “high” cultural traditions that date back to antiquity (to the invention of writing) or to endangered forms of so-called “folk” (and often oral and rural) culture as opposed to popular commercial culture.

It should be understood that the distinction between “high” or genuine “folk” art and popular culture is not one of aesthetic judgment, but sociological. By “arts and culture”, one is therefore not speaking of Bono, Beyoncé or the films that come out of Disney, Warner or Bollywood. These boundaries are as a matter of course blurred. Jazz was once commercially viable, but is no longer. Light opera, operetta and Broadway have bifurcated histories. Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach, Emmerich Kalman and Oklahoma have migrated from the commercial to the realm of culture that requires patronage and subsidy, and they no longer have a politically significant audience. Yet how is one to regard Les Miserables (the musical) or Andrew Lloyd Webber?

The very distinction between high culture and popular culture creates the main problem. The “high” culture practices—from art making and collecting, poetry writing, dance, independent filmmaking, electronic arts and theater to composing and playing acoustic instruments—are   particularly in Europe derived from a history that includes aristocratic and imperial patronage and therefore habits from the era of absolutist monarchy. It is only in imitation of the English aristocracy, learned at Queen Victoria’s wedding, that the continental aristocracy turned away from culture to sports and hunting as the primary markers of their social class.

Just as the aristocracy was abandoning culture during the first half of the nineteenth century, the middle classes stepped in the breach. They were extremely eager to emulate the time-honored habits of the ancien regime. By the advent of fascism, it was clear that the traditions of aesthetic and cultural practice—Bildung and Kultur—had become defining but de-politicized hallmarks of social distinction and self-worth among the middle classes. The middle class civility presumed to derive from the arts and culture turned out to be bankrupt, corrupt or irrelevant; it was entirely compatible with collaboration with radical evil and barbarism in modern times. The education and cultivated sensibilities of the bourgeois not only represented no obstacle to the worst horrors of modern “closed” societies, but they also became prestige emblems within one party dictatorships, particularly in the Soviet Union (and later in the Soviet Empire) first under Stalin and subsequently for the succeeding four decades.

The behavior of cultured and educated elites under Hitler and Stalin stripped all plausibility from the 18th-century conviction that there is must be some connection between the good and the beautiful, and therefore between a humanistic and aesthetic education (as argued by Schiller) and the allegiance to freedom, individual autonomy and the notion of rights and tolerance. In the wake of World War II, an understandable prejudice about high culture surfaced in a sophisticated neo-Marxist form in the West that in turn stimulated a radical modernist avant-garde. The cultural commitments and proclivities of an elite, not an elite of birth or wealth, but an elite of merit, wealth and learning were scorned as marginal phenomena in an unjust world and irrelevant to politics, particularly in the 1960s.

This point of view may now, however, be misplaced and obsolete. Arts and culture may turn out to be more than decorative, more than arbitrary matters of taste and routes to fame and wealth. They may now have a political relevance and utility. Europe and North America are places in which there is a vital life of arts and culture that is inherently dissenting with respect to the dominant politics and mores of the day.

The contemporary engagement with arts and culture, particularly among the young, is in the first instance a reaction to the undeniable fact that the world of mass culture, dominated by massive commercial enterprises of entertainment and communication threatens the values of open society. The threat of tyranny and closed regimes has never been exclusively from above, but also from below, from intolerant majorities. This sympathetic acknowledgment of the validity of pessimistic warnings from a “conservative” intellectual tradition—which includes Plato, Burke, Tocqueville and Burckhardt—seems indispensable if we are to confront the failures of contemporary politics in Europe, the dissatisfaction with liberal democracy in the post-Cold War era and the ease with which not only prejudices but falsehoods dominate and achieve popularity, particularly in American politics.

Truth, however provisional in the natural sciences, is often counter-intuitive, and capable of being understood only by a comparatively narrow segment of society. Its capacity to win the hearts and minds of all citizens, no matter their education, has proven weak. Education through the extension of literacy has not made the body politic more immune from the politics of fear or inspired more critical reflection on matters of national identity and the notion of the “other” and therefore immigration. Some other persuasive means of galvanizing the body politic on behalf of the values of an open society is needed. Just as a way must be found to communicate the consequences of science, might we not explore a way to influence popular sentiment and culture using the extensive traditions and contemporary existence of arts and culture that inherently underscore cosmopolitan sentiments, curiosity, and the embrace of novelty? Do the arts and culture not offer an alternative to a quite uniform diet of entertainment and commercial culture whose political impact is rather to secure the status quo?

It may be then (by analogy to science) that although the activities of artists, writers, musicians and scholars are not viable in a commercial sense and reach only small segments of society, they nonetheless have the potential (as in the past) to develop a symbolic and influence in politics and society. Do they not then deserve patronage in the name of “open society”, not merely from the state but also from non-governmental sources? One of the singular ironies of Europe today is that it has a continuing tradition of high art creation and consumption, albeit every more under siege in terms of funding, that represents a counterweight to national frameworks. A high percentage of the makers of that art and culture, and their audiences represent those who are among the most determined and loyal citizens of an international order, and of the idea of Europe. They represent a powerful antidote to nationalism.

Consider the subversive potential in the quite valid claim that the tradition of art and culture has been crucial to the development of national identity. Consider Hungary, for example. The musical tradition of Hungary as represented by Haydn, Liszt, Bartok, Kodaly, Dohnanyi, Ligeti and Kurtag—for all its self-conscious appropriations of emblems of national identity—has been at the same time a disruptive source of cosmopolitan allegiance in direct conflict with xenophobic chauvinism.

The vital presence of a literary, visual and musical art and cultural community becomes inevitably a fact of dissonance to the “illiberal” in a nation. Bartók fled Hungary in response to the fascist misuse of his research into folk music and the attempt to co-opt his compositional debt to Hungarian materials. The ostentatious re-interment of the remains of Hungary’s most celebrated composer from New York to Budapest during the last days of communism indicates the lingering prestige and fear of the potentially destabilizing influence of the high art and culture tradition. For all the official effort to appropriate Bartók (and his recalcitrant modernism) in Hungary, even today, on behalf of an illiberal definition of the Hungarian—(and comparable efforts regarding Shostakovich in Putin’s Russia)—as well younger composers in the Bartók tradition, the end result, as in the Soviet case (consider the career of Schnittke) is failure. Bartók and Ligeti represent today a resistant and dissenting element of national pride that can and is made to work against intolerant populism.

The Hungarian example of long traditions of high art and culture that possess the potential of resisting provincialism, uniformity, conformism and reductive nationalism and also invite a cosmopolitan and international sensibility on behalf of the individual, freedom of expression, unpopular causes and unconventional views, has a parallel in each of the European nations, primarily in their major cities. Why is that potential on behalf of a post-nationalist international politics and a truly non-trivial cosmopolitan civic spirit not being cultivated? Would it not be proper, on behalf of an open society, to attempt to connect the art and culture traditions to the dynamics of mass democracy, and seek to use the traditions to broaden, within a populist framework, the values of dissent and rebellion against imitation and conformism? It is time to revisit, perhaps not in a normative philosophical manner (i.e. asserting an ideal of beauty) but in an instrumental sense, the possibility of forging a connection between art and culture on the one hand, and public life on the other in a manner that influences positively conceptions of national identity, attitudes to minorities, respect for dissent, the beauty of nature and the sanctity of the human. Let us abandon the vulgar Marxist contempt for art and culture as little more than superficial emblems that grace the façade of exploitative individualism. Let us not let the failures of the twentieth century blind us to the power of art and culture in the twenty-first, especially within younger generations. Part of the task, particularly in the visual arts is to counteract the influence of the buying and selling of art, at the very high end, through the act of collecting of art as financial assets, as well as the power of centralization in the production of film and popular music.

Therefore, artists and society must forge a link between aesthetic freedom and ambition to political freedom and dissent. Social foundations and agencies must utilize the exceptional power of the imagination and the imaginative within communities and thereby underscore the sanctity, through the broadened encounter with arts and culture, of the life of the individual life and the importance of civility.  This will create new constituencies for the use of language (written and spoken) in more than routine and journalistic patterns, thereby exposing the limits of the current political discourse, particularly on the question of identity.