Not that short time ago, I was a little boy from Moscow who was struggling with German case endings in a Hamburg suburb and who was trying to become as German as possible. However, case endings are not a prerequisite for this, otherwise some German patriots would no longer have a nationality. But I also learned, and that was more my Russian influence, to play the accordion. And do you know who taught me, the boy from Moscow, the first Russian folk songs? An elderly German gentleman who had trained them as a Soviet prisoner of war. When he intoned “Katyusha” or “Kalinka”, a truly Siberian melancholy covered his face. And when he talked about the time he was a prisoner of war, you might have thought it was the most beautiful thing in his life. At that time, he said, he found true camaraderie. And the music.
Art can arise in and out of the greatest need, even in war, we all know that. But real art can never be created for war, for division, for misanthropy. That may sound banal and pathetic, but it is true. Real education in art is always education in peace and freedom. For this, however, art must remain free from all intended purposes – not least from this educational purpose itself. Otherwise it degenerates into a clumsy didax, degraded to a more or less artistically disguised moral instruction.
A culture and art tied to educational purposes prevents works of art from triggering specific aesthetic modes of experience. If a drama in the school interpretation only conveys a clear moral message, which one neatly transcribes from the blackboard into the exercise book and then turns to the next object for interpretative utilization, one is like a tourist who photographs the pantheon with his iphone and immediately to the Jardin du Luxembourg. Because the simplified, bite-sized preparation of cultural snacks encourages prevailing consumerism. But cultural education also means dealing with the complex, the ambiguous and the painful. It is in all of us, whether we are aware of it or not. So we should be more aware of that.
It is similar with political education through art. Participation in art always means participation in the democratic process. We are therefore told: Art should be political. So far so good. Only: What does “political” mean? Apparently, art today can only be considered political as long as it remains directly related to current political events: by »questioning«, »commenting«, or better still »intervening«, or at least presenting a clear »message«. That is too short-sighted.
Why should art that grasps, penetrates, moves people in their innermost being, that shakes their existence to the foundations, tears the veil of their worldview from their eyes and makes their thinking receptive to what is important – why should this art not be political ? The idea that art as such must constantly be involved in day-to-day politics creates an art form that does not educate people in the long term, but at best puts them into a short-term turmoil, into a conformist hustle and bustle that lacks deeper orientation. In the end, artistic work becomes identical with political activism and journalistic editorial production. If art is based on criteria alien to art to such an extent, it reveals its innermost being. It renounces its own legal and a priori right to exist and loses its very own formal resistance, so that it can ultimately be taken over by political agendas. In this way, supposedly political art becomes a mere cue recipient of politics. It is therefore important to protect the special character of the artistic world and self-experience.
Like any other human good, art needs not only peace, but also freedom, freedom from all appropriations, indoctrinations and claims to purpose without exception. Only then can it do what only it can do. However, increasingly, and especially in times of the pandemic, we are seeing how ubiquitous utilitarianism is also putting its nasty fingers around the neck of art. Politicians spread the short-sighted criterion of systemic relevance: culture is by no means essential to survival, they say, for example, that theater can be done without for a while. Certainly, closing the theaters for a few months will not lead to a mass death of notorious premiere-goers. And we can now hope that the closings will soon be a thing of the past anyway.
However, the question remains: what conclusions, what lessons do we want to draw from all of this? Do we want to dismiss the – even if it is only temporary – loss of public cultural life as a trivial matter that is no longer unfortunate? Do we want to leave the clumsy anti-culture of politics and its rhetoric of ignorance unanswered? It does not necessarily mean that one wants to discredit the appropriateness of the measures themselves if one emphasizes the value of cultural practice over and over again. Because, as is so often the case in such matters, ideal, symbolic aspects are in the foreground.
The “Culture in the Basic Law” initiative is an important and urgently needed response to these anti-cultural tendencies. It demands that the high constitutional rank of culture be complied with just as unconditionally as the legislature provides. This raises it to a different level of argumentation than many other protests by cultural activists. Often they work with well-intentioned attempts to legitimize the cultural industry: For example, they underline that art and culture are important because they fulfill an educational mandate, provide awareness-raising work, have an edifying effect in difficult times, strengthen the sense of community and promote the personal exchange that is currently missing – in short, that they are relevant and systemically relevant.
That is correct in a trivial way, and it can only be sad that one has to express this self-evident fact at all. At the same time, these arguments are not entirely harmless. Because to a certain extent they adopt the pragmatic logic of the so-called decision-makers who are outside the cultural sphere and for whom the fundamental necessity of culture is evidently anything but evident. As understandable as this legitimizing procedure may be, it sells art far below its value – by reproducing an erratic value system.
Art is not there for anything else, for politics, democracy, the environment, education or health – even if it can achieve great things in all of these areas. No: Art is one of the few aspects of our life that are constituted outside of its requirements and constraints, i.e. that do not derive meaning from them, but are able to create real meaning in the first place. We don’t need art for something – we need art for ourselves. Any other justification is nothing but a concession to horizon-restricted purposeful rationalities.
The existence and meaning of culture do not have to be justified; conversely, anti-cultural tendencies in a cultural society should be under pressure to justify: If culture is not relevant from the point of view of a system, then one should urgently ask about the relevance of this system from the point of view of culture. In such discourses, culture is always a kind of secondary component. Culture as a car radio, so to speak: Nice to have it, but the car can drive without it.
The extent of this self-deception can hardly be overestimated. What threatens us when culture and science are devalued is nothing less than perfect deprivation. In order to have a humanizing effect, art, as I never tire of emphasizing, has to be free from all constraints. Spiritually unfree art pursues purposes that are assigned to it from outside. It becomes the carrier of an ideology, a religion, a political program.
Of course, the art has been practiced for millennia to rise to the greatest freedom, even when it is appropriated. This is exactly what shows their ability to create freedom and to educate them towards freedom. This striving beyond the boundaries set before us makes it clear that the will to freedom is essential for art. It is both their condition and their result. People pursue very different goals – and mostly their own interests. Therefore the logics of the purposes tend to divide and only connect in a particular way. They lead us to perceive other people as means or even obstacles and to classify them according to whether they suit our purposes or not.
Liberation from the constraint of ends not only relieves our thoughts and feelings, but also gives us the chance of community. We know that our purposes are different, that we set different priorities, have different worldviews, so that we can never agree on many things. This has become particularly clear during the pandemic – it has dug deep trenches between friends. Accepting this is difficult. But humanity means seeing people free from purposes. And it is precisely this thoroughly humane liberation from purposes that belongs, as I said, to the essence of art.
I remember what my accordion teacher told me: It was the completely “pointless” music that gave the soldiers back the freedom to see each other for what they were. And even the unbridgeable distance between the unfathomable Siberian soul and the brittle disposition of the East Frisian may at this moment have shrunk, if not gone. By becoming receptive to free art, people free themselves from the dictatorship of ends and open up to the basic human experience that unites us all. Even if the forms, the modes of reception and the chances of participation can be very different, this basic experience is ultimately universal, regardless of nation, gender, position and class. So if art is to achieve what only it can do, it must come from freedom and lead to freedom.
Alexander Estis, born in 1986 in a Jewish artist family in Moscow, moved with his parents to Hamburg in 1996, studied philology and has lived as a freelance writer in Aarau, Switzerland, since 2016.