Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Which is the least political of the arts?


Yesterday in another place I wrote, that I was struck by something I read earlier in A. J. P. Taylor's The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918 in which he refers to the alliance of the Habsburgs and the "Counter-Revolution, Taylor writes, "The alliance of the dynasty and the Jesuits saved the Habsburgs and defeated Protestantism in central Europe; it also gave to 'Austrian' culture the peculiar stamp which it preserved to the end.  Austrian Baroque civilisation, like the buildings which it created, was grandiose, full of superficial life, yet sterile within: it was theatre, not reality.  It lacked integrity and individual character; at its heart was a despairing frivolity.  'Hopeless, but not serious' was the guiding principle which the age of Baroque stamped upon the Habsburg world.  Deep feeling found an outlet only in music, the least political of the arts; even here the creative spirit strove to break its bonds, and the air of Vienna was more congenial to Johann Strauss than to Mozart or to Beethoven.  The Habsburgs learnt from the Jesuits patience, subtlety, and showmanship; they could not
learn from them sincerity and creativeness."

Donal McEvoy wrote, “Some might say this is self-description masquerading as analysis: that is, 'if you spot it, you got it'. Would anyone be surprised to find some writing of Wittgenstein's or Popper's, both Viennese, which described the backwaters of Oxbridge "as full of superficial life, yet sterile within: it was theatre, not reality.  It lacked integrity and individual character; at its heart was a despairing frivolity."? Or that their self-styled 'analytical' approach requires some patience and subtlety but very little in the way of "sincerity and creativeness"?
Taylor's implicit view of the relation between art and politics is perhaps equally sterile and superficial. In the narrow sense of 'politics' as a party-programme etc., it is surely questionable whether the proper function of art is to serve politics or even much reflect it. Insofar as art seeks to illuminate 'the human condition', or some such, it is profoundly political - as all dictators and Plato know, which is why artistic expression must be controlled and suppressed in such regimes. That includes the music.
A counter-argument to Taylor's is that it is precisely because music takes its form and content from above the petty day-to-day machinations of the political arena that it is the most political of the arts - in a similar way, perhaps, that it is the most political of positions to decry politics as a necessary evil and not a be-all and end-all.

“Of course, there are more urgent reasons for dictators to suppress newspapers than music recitals: because newspapers contain propositional/factual claims that may undermine the official line in a way a string quartet does not; as a photograph may also constitute a factual claim [e.g. here are government soldiers shooting unarmed protesters] it may also fall to be suppressed more urgently than the string quartet. But this is hardly the only or deepest measure of the political importance of a cultural item: we may say that while news reports of the assassination of the Archduke or photographs from Vietnam had a direct and immense political impact, this impact is of very little longstanding historical importance compared to works of art on our lives and our attitudes.”

Lawrence’s response:  I personally appreciated McEvoy's comments very much. He moves us back into a consideration of a nation's traditions which includes its great ideas, especially its great art. One of A.J.P. Taylor's arguments was that the German spirit or tradition led them inevitably into National Socialism.

Can we pit Austria at the time of Johann Strauss against the Germany of Mozart and Beethoven? Strauss lived later than the German composers, but there is something that rings true in the contrast. I wouldn't try to compare Austria at the time of Strauss to Oxbridge, but I would compare it to France during that period. Roger Shattuck's book The Banquet Years, the Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I, seems to find a similar spirit in France.

Shattuck begins his argument with a treatment of the French anarchists, showing that their influence was greater than might be expected after they were rounded up and eliminated. They may have come to an end politically, but their spirit was transmuted into art. The artists Shattuck uses are Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire. Erik Satie may not have been as great as Johann Strauss, but they were both light-weights compared to Mozart and Beethoven.

And if I could rephrase Taylor's argument slightly, the superficiality of art in Austria and France prior to World War One (and we may as well add World War Two) is in stark contrast to the forcefulness and self-assurance of the German spirit, if not its art. The "Banquet Years" sort of anarchism seems to have influenced quite a lot of Europe prior to World War One. And if pacifism was associated with this anarchism, much of Europe became even more pacifistic after that war. None of Germany's enemies were psychologically ready to effectively oppose her as she prepared to resume this World War, part II. France with a larger army was appallingly inept, and Britain had there been a land bridge between France and Britain would have fallen as well. The spirit at Oxbridge may very well have been as frivolous as that of the Austrian Baroque, but Great Britain was victorious in the end . . . or was it merely that Germany bit off more than it could chew and Great Britain became victorious by default (Setting aside the argument about whether the USSR could have won without the Anglo-Americans and vice versa)?

Did the Anglo-Americans generate more force than Germany, and later on, the USSR? I don't think so. One could more convincingly argue that Liberal Democracy in the form of the American assembly line out-produced Germany's (and during the Cold War the USSR's) ability to fight. Churchill was right when he argued that the allies should begin their offensive against Germany in North Africa, Sicily and Italy rather than directly against them in France.

But George Kennan was also right when he urged (or was imagined to urge) resistance to anything that smacked of Communist expansion during the Cold War.

But reconsidering Germany in the World Wars, have we Anglo-Americans learned our lesson? Would we nip any new Hitler in the bud as we should have done to the original back in 1937? Or will we still show the effects of the anarchists and pacifists and let such totalitarians, whether great or small, have their way?

But perhaps we won't need to confront the next totalitarian. Confronting Saddam Hussein has not been a terribly uplifting experience. Perhaps we should package up our anarchism and pacifism and give it a Taoist slant. Perhaps if we resist the enemies of Anglo-America in very mild ways, while continuing to out-produce them, they will fade into a sort of insipid banality that we can laugh at (or at least dismiss) later on.

No comments: