Story behind the Passage
This passage is from a book that I picked up at a huge Middle Eastern conference three years ago. It was actually the last academic conference I attended, I think. If it will remain the last academic conference I ever attended, I do not know. What I do know is that the title raised my curiosity. After all, you get picky about taking home all kinds of heavy books from conferences, even if they are offered for free. Well, as you can imagine, I do have a hard time sticking to this mantra. But I try. So, I say “no” to some books but I said yes to this one — which is actually more of a long report, not a “real” book.
I have never read the entire thing but today, since I talked about the current influence of artists in the political and social sphere to someone, I kind of felt it might relate to what I wanted to write about. The thing that I asked my conversation partner was: “Why do we not have artists that have real influence anymore?” You know, during Covid, yes, most politicians, obviously for the first time in their lives, learned to actually listen to scientists — a shame in and of itself. And, yes, some of the talk shows also hosted artists. But they were not really there to give serious policy-making advice. They were there to voice their “opinion,” their “criticism,” and their “worries” about the future of the creative collective.
You might argue now: It is not their job and not their intention either to actively participatein political “consulting.” But how can you make sure that their usual means of expression, of opening up different perspectives, could be heard in times when there practically was no culture — i.e., no concerts, museums, etc.? Also, I am not so sure that no artist at all wants to mess with everyday-politics. We both agreed on the fact today that, back in the old days (whenever that was), there was no division between the artist and the intellectual, between the philosopher and the scholar — they were all one.
I know that you might be getting sick of me writing about this, but I will continue addressing this issue of polymaths. It is my topic. And I do find it a pity that we do not have these people anymore. The artist as the person who actually has a say, who is listened to by people who are in positions of power, who is respected and even feared to a certain extent because of his knowledge and the possibility to influence decision making. Maybe this is taking place behind the scences somewhere. But I doubt it. The results of political decision making tell us that most decisions are made by stupid people — that is not what artists are like, usually. To Goethe, the artist was the incarnation of the educated human being.
Oh, boy, how things have changed...
“By definition, artists need freedom to experiment not only formally but also symbolically, that is, to appropriate and recombine images and codes.” The author here is mostly worried about the pressure artists face in illiberal and undemocratic societies. What I am more worried about is how this plays out in stupid, i.e., stupefied societies. Experimenting with symbols that trigger criticism and run the risk of being misunderstood is part and parcel of art. This is why it is the way it is. It needs to be interpreted and escapes definite explication in order to have an effect on the observer. But even conflict and misunderstanding require some form of understanding.
What if society is already so stupid that none of this exists in the first place?
Seriously, whenever I turn on the news or listen to the radio, they have at least one piece about some Instagram star who has one million or so followers and is saying this or that about some contemporary issue. Most of the times, these are some rappers or women putting their boobs into the camera because they are advertizing some new skin care product. They would not be there if they were not successful, no doubt. And, at least according to their definition, they are putting much work into their popularity, their visibility, their range. But the fact that they often go as “artists,” that they even call themselves artists, does bother or rather worry me a bit.
As you know, I am struggling a lot with this term “artist” and I have not understood where exactly the dividing line between the artist and the academic is. What I am coming to understand more and more, however, is that I definitely think we need a new Renaissance. We need a fresh start and a rejuvenation of cultural life in general. Thereby, I do not mean the arts only, I mean everything — everywhere, we need an overflow of new energy and creativity in all our institutions. Above all, we need all this to have an impact on education. Only this will ensure that there is an end to this lamentable state of stupidity and the lack of taste when it comes to culture.
The question is:
Are we prepared for this?
If yes, who can do contribute?
1) Do you think artists should have a louder voice in the public, particularly when it comes to “advising” politicians?
2) Are you worried about the collective state of intelligence in your country? Why/not?
3) If you compare the status quo of culture (as you define it) to the one of 30 years ago — what is your opinion?