Arts and the Colour of Politics

I have long been puzzled by the accusation often levelled against the higher arts, particularly in the UK, of being elitist. Perhaps it is my upbringing in Germany, where matters of social elitism are dealt with more discreetly, or just my own strong belief in the value and openness of the arts that cause this lack of understanding. The idea that classical music is a toy of the aristocrats designed to rob the populace of the livelihood it has earned by the sweat of its brow just does not sound true to me. Recently though, my ideas about arts and politics have undergone some change.

There has always been a strong humanistic tradition in the higher arts: whether in Beethoven and Schiller’s celebration of common humanity in the Ode to Joy, the more earthy passages in most Shakespeare plays or the loving portrayals of common life in the works of the great Spanish baroque painters, the arts have consistently attempted to reflect the realities of humanity, not merely of the rich and famous. There are reasons why much of the ancient and pre nineteenth century arts use the characters of kings, queens and princes as subject matter, but nobody should be so naive as to think these characters are genuinely all the art is about. From the nineteenth century on, much of the material of the higher arts was explicitly intended to focus on the poorer elements of society, the oppressed and the discriminated. What more powerful populist propaganda tools for social equality could there be than the novels of Zola or the paintings of Van Gogh? Music is by its nature more abstract, but the use of it to promote nationalist feeling, for better or for worse, or to join the other arts in portraying life for the poorest – La Bohéme or Wozzeck – music has definitely played its part. On top of this, the vast majority of great artists have come from modest or poor backgrounds: Bach was certainly no aristocrat, Tintoretto was a dyer’s son, and Wordsworth was taught to read at a village school.

During the twentieth century, the arts occupied a central role in the battle for the working classes. Communism, whether in its Soviet embodiment or in its more abstract theories, always gave the arts a vital part to play in the life of the working man – in fact, one of the main charges levelled against the ruling society was that it conspired to rob the poor of access to these soul enriching experiences. In the UK the arts have also had a wide social function at times: Myra Hess did not put on concerts at the National Gallery during the Second World War to amuse and distract Dukes and Viscounts – the music by Bach and Brahms, as well as of the countless other composers performed there, was meant to console and inspire “ordinary” citizens of London, which it did in their thousands.

The various movements fighting for a better life for the poorest of society always had two aims: primarily the right for everyone to live without existential want, i.e. the right to a decent wage to enable people to live in dignity. But alongside this also came the right to further one’s mind, to share in the greatest achievements of the human spirit, to nurture one’s spiritual life. This is why the Stalinist Soviet Union, even in its most oppressive moments, always gave such importance to the arts; it might have merely been propaganda, but the fact that Stalin considered Shostakovich such a valuable propaganda tool underlines the point that symphonies were considered an integral part of an ordinary life. The cost of this support from Stalin to the Soviet arts is not the issue here – only that he was hardly an elitist advocate of class society.

As a left-leaning classical musician, I was of the conviction that the arts and a left wing government should be friends – now that the existential wants are largely resolved, attention could move to making the life of all in society more meaningful, richer in content as well as in cash. To recall the film “This Sporting Life” by Lindsay Anderson, in which the life of factory workers in 1950s Britain is presented as working for 12 hours every day, then going to the pub to spend it all on drink – the idea would be to make sure that the same people today do not end up doing the same, just adding an hour on their Play Station to the daily routine. This is not to belittle the fact that most people are now free of real existential danger, just to suggest that starvation of the mind is also a type of starvation.

The difficulty the arts face is that, with few exceptions, they do not come that easily. It is so simple to switch on the radio and listen to the latest chart songs, hum along to something that is meant to be hummed along to, identify with some lyrics that give one the satisfaction of sharing the common troubles of everyday life. The more sophisticated the art, the more it transcends these problems, not in the sense of ignoring them, but in the sense of digesting them and transforming them into something wider. This is why realism is never in itself a prime concern of art – we see realism every day in our lives and in the newspapers. What art offers is a view of the world that has been inextricably blended with personal imagination, where the form of the expression is identical with its content, where each encounter reveals new perspectives and realisations. To achieve this, the artist requires a language, a technique, some sort of medium, which in turn has to be understood by the recipient. The recipient also must be willing to step out of personal circumstances and absorb the vision of the artist, something that we are not always willing to do.

This combination of factors provides a formidable hindrance to delving into the arts. Whatever one may say, it is undeniably true that the more you know about art, the more you gain from it. One may dispute what exactly is more helpful to know, whether a technical knowledge is essential or not, or whether mere exposure and sympathy are sufficient, but the very nature of depth is that it does not reveal itself all at once. Do we wish to spend time learning about art, in order to gain those deeper insights? Do we have somewhere to help us? Are we surrounded by people who encourage us? Listening to the best bits of something may be a way in, but it is definitely not there yet.

The demands of everyday life are plentiful, and often leave little time and inclination to give time to something a little more difficult. It was said in the past that after a long day in a coalmine, the last thing you would want is to listen to Wagner – nowadays we could say the same for an investment banker, a doctor, or even a politician. Do our lives allow us time to devote to learning? This was one of the accusations against societies of old: they exploited people and left them no time to develop themselves – have things changed that much?

Both of these factors have in the past favoured the wealthy: better education allowed them to absorb knowledge early in life, and less time spent in a coalmine permitted a quick visit to the Albert Hall. Today, these factors are less clearly divided along financial lines, but the legacy of the past remains: if your parents were interested in the arts, it increases the chance that you will be; if you go to a private school, you are more likely to be exposed to Mozart than at the local comprehensive. This is of course a gross generalisation, but it lies at the root of the claim that the arts are elitist. Perversely, this perceived elitism in fact has most of its roots in the much more recent past: the moment when public education began to abandon interest in higher arts was not that long ago, within the last forty years, in the same time in which living standards for the poorer in society began to radically improve. The reality is that the marginalisation of the arts is a product of recent times, not of the past, and that growing social equality and democratization have been causes of it, not weapons against it.

Perhaps one could then argue that this proves the arts to be elitist, as originally claimed, but one would be obliged to accept that it is certainly not financial elitism. It is the product of those who see no value in these arts and see no purpose in supporting or promoting them. Of course, the arts have always been a marginal domain in society, financed by wealthy individuals for their own complex reasons - but wouldn’t the world be a poorer place if they hadn’t! Imagine no renaissance paintings, no Bach Mass in B Minor, no Divine Comedy. These things will always be dependent on money being made available for no return, but as a result they are there for anyone to delve into, in their own way and own time, for very little or no cost. Whether you are a road sweeper in an inner city, or a wealthy duke with a vast estate, your experience is yours alone, and your personal contact with a painting, a novel or a work of music depends on you alone, and your willingness to believe in it.

© Béla Hartmann 2009



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