7 February 2018
Yesterday in the dark of the library KS suddenly appeared beside my daybed where I had been reading Julian Barnes.
“I have lost it all” he said, “both the festival and the PhD.” On a scientific level this had still to be proven. Not all had been lost. The festival had been resurrected by him and went on in different hands. And he was on his way to reconnect with New York University and his ‘promoter’ Richard Schechner. But in a emotional sense it was true. He had given up his PhD for the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Now the Festival was trying to make everyone forget that he had saved it. So his PhD had to be resurrected like the festival before. It was a Sisyphean story.
The artist today, and even more the artistic pioneer, is on his own. Nobody is waiting for him. The artist has not only to create his work, but also his working place and conditions. He may want to make music or drama or literature, but he can only do so if he is supported. This support can be commercial, driven by motives of profit. This support can be public, driven by the political motive of popularity. The commercial motive can be hidden by the mask of the well-meaning Maecenas. The political interest can be covered by the abstract idea of the public good. But just as sponsorship is limited by self interest, politics will always be limited by the need of popular approval. In democratic society politics cannot tell the people to be humble in the face of great art.
Not all societies are of course capitalist and democratic. Many societies have different traditions such as theocracy in Persia, or the dynastic state in China. There official support, if ever, will not be driven by profit or popularity, but by autocratic power.
The flame of art can only survive in these authoritarian states by compromise or exile on the artist’s side. Compromise will mean self censorship or even silence. In this sense power always has the last word.
But here the strange nature of art objects. Art is there to be remembered. The institutions of the state whether powerful or democratic will have to face the immaterial quality of art as remembrance. Powers or sponsors or investors may change, but the slippery nature of art is psychic. It reaches through walls of time and space into the future.
Its potential can only be obliterated by lack of support for the human memory. Humankind is not only wasteful of its art but also unorganized in its task of remembrance.
In this situation the university may help. I recently assisted at an academic session where a PhD was defended. The subject was the work of the Vrije Akademie in The Hague during the sixties and the seventies of last century. Some historians of the city had remembered that this creative centre had existed and its reputation told of its importance to the arts. The doctoral researcher in question had done her work well, sketching the framework of the period and the actions of individuals and institutions. But her main claim to the doctorate was to have preserved the archives of the Vrije Akademie. She had discovered them on their way to the shredder or the garbage heap. She had physically saved the documents and then studied them.
Archives matter to resurrect art if memory only lingers.
Julian Barnes, The noise of time, Penguin/Random House, London 2016
Sakia Gras, Vrijplaats voor kunsten, De Haagse Vrije Academie 1947-1982, Den Haag 2017.