Conference ”Reseau Varése 2006-2008”
When the Ultima Festival phoned me and asked if I could make a short statement on ’Why does art matter?’, I was standing in a book-shop in Amsterdam with a book in my hand having just read the following lines:
’One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.
In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, ...’
The book I am referring to is written by the moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, and it has the title ’On Bullshit’.
So there I was, with the book on bullshit in one hand and Ultima on the phone in the other, and I thought that, yes, I would like to say some words about ’Why does art matter?’. Because art does matter. Art is, in fact, one of the most sofisticated tools we have in order to fight bullshit. And by making art or by being confronted with art we can prevent ourselves from becoming bullshiters.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:
In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.
Frankfurt comments this motto in the following way:
’The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.’
So there was no bullshit and there was no fakery. Bullshit is in fact not a matter of falsity but of fakery. A bullshiter is faking things, not lying. And as we are more tolerant of the fake than we are of lies, we tend to accept bullshit more easily. This, I think, is why bullshit is such a tricky matter, and why there is so much of it.
And this is where and why the attitude and function of art becomes extremely necessary: By dealing with art we are forced to plounge profoundly into depth. All art of importance is born here, in the depths of slow, careful and conscious thinking, where we again and again attempt to approach the essence of our existence. In these realms bullshit and fakery is left behind. Art matters.
Art versus entertainment, is gaining insight, versus seeking experiences. The one does not necessarily exclude the other, and sometimes they even mingle. But if one looks at how they are presented in the various media today, one can really start to wonder. Media’s role in democratic countries should above all be to bring forth the widest possible spectre of variation from the purest art to the purest entertainment. It is evident that this is not happening. The media is becoming gradually more one-dimensional and gradually more filled up with trash.
It seems like the media is being a vehicle for people who want to become famous, not because they have anything to tell us or convey to other people, but merely for the sake of fame itself. And the more ordinary and trivial you are, the more you mingle with all the onlookers, the more the onlookers identify with you and the better are your chances of succeeding. It seems like we are living through an era where the agenda of cultural politics is governed by feelings of inferiority and lack of self-esteeme.
So, in this huge common room called the media, where a manifold of expressions should be presented and prosper, we are choosing triviality instead of talent, quantity instead of quality and money instead of mental profit as an overall goal. Europe has today one of the world’s most highly educated populations, and what do we do? We embrace, consume and celebrate stupidity.
What is, in fact, the mental condition of Europe?
And what does all this trash in the media mean to us? Why do we think we need it? Has there always been so much junk around? Or is it just spread more effectively today? It seems like not only art but also some of the most important features of democracy are drowning in this overwhelming tsunami of mental garbage.
A society which does not accept nor enable its artists and thinkers to be a counterpoint to all its bullshit and bullshiting is, I would say, a poor, unhealthy and vulnerable society. It is an uninterested and, thus, uninteresting society because it is self-satisfied and self-contained. When a society starts to ignore its own intellectuals it is a serious sign of possible decay. All alarmclocks should start ringing.
One of society’s most profound ways of understanding itself is through thinking in terms of art. It is necessary for every society to digest itself by continuosly questioning its own condition. Therefore, art is opposition and art is criticism, art serves as our mental digestive system. If the society we live in denies or ignores this fact, then we are all in deep shit. And this is not bullshit. It is human shit. Selfmade, so to speak.
To be civilized means to respect differences, it means to enhance what is out of the ordinary and to seek manifold. This is of vital importance for a society if it does not want to degenerate and loose its sanity. And it is of vital importance to democracy and the further development of democracy.
It is tempting to ask: Is our notion of democracy changing without our proper awareness of it? Where will such a development lead us? Democracy is a very fragile and vulnerable condition. It is something we have to fight for every day and never take for granted. Here art can and should play an essential role by always looking at society with fresh eyes and from many different angles, without prejudice, with provocation, encouraging manifold and investigating into unknown expressive possibilities. This makes art one of our main protections against barbarism.
Democracy is about equality, but equality can be defined in various ways. A democratic society can encourage its inhabitants to strive upwards, to strive downwards or to remain the same. When we are forced to think the same, the result will always be that we stop thinking. Art matters because it can prevent us from doing this. It can prevent us from becoming homogeneous and it can enhance tolerance by encouraging different and new ways of thinking. The balance between individual art on the one side and mass entertainment on the other has become distorted. And this is a serious problem concerning democracy. In a healthy democratic society it is of the utmost importance that as many qualitative different voices as possible are encouraged to be present.
What is, in fact, the mental condition of Europe?
I would like to end this talk by drawing the following comparison:
When a culture starts to crumble it looks similar to an old person becoming senile or dement. Dement people lose their ability to orientate in the present, in the here and now. Only the long term memory is left as they re-enter their childhood, raving around without direction. They know who they once were. They do not know any more who they are. When a society no longer is interested in what is contemporary, when it looses its short term memory, it becomes senile. A culture can not function without both short term and long term memory. Therefore, contemporary art matters.
Oslo – 14.10.05