As published in Contemporary Music Review: ‘Leaving the Twentieth Century: Ideas and Visions of New Musics’, Volume 15, Parts 3-4, 1996
THE DESTRUCTURING OF SOCIETY
and the Restructuring of Art
In the West and increasingly around the planet, artists face a crisis that threatens not only their livelihood but also their concept of what, how, and with whom they communicate. Before considering the implications, an elementary review of modern social history is required which, only a generation ago, would have insulted the reader’s intelligence.
In the optimistic 1960s, the New Left believed that destructuring was a positive virtue rather than a threat to social stability. The process was thought to be inherently constructive, as in Ivan Illich’s sanguine plea for educational reform, The Deschooling of Society. A quarter-century later, we are continually reminded that the original meaning of sanguine is not just confident, but bloody confident! In the Balkan pseudo-nations cynically cobbled together by the superpowers from historically warring factions, the brief euphoria of liberation from the Soviet Union is being destroyed by a return to civil warfare. Into the entire ex-Soviet arena has poured a greedy invasion of multi-national corporations and stateless mafias which are mutually supportive and impossible to differentiate. The ‘new capitalism’ has demonstrated that the defeat of one kind of oppression is, in the Jesuits’ useful phrase, ‘necessary but not sufficient’ for the triumph of liberty.
Ethnic mayhem fueled by poverty is not limited to the former Russian satellites; it has become a global phenomenon. The Western powers, anxiously diagnosing the illness, seem oblivious to the fact that the laissez faire virus they have so diligently spread is even now destroying their own social fabric. Like a vampire risen from its coffin, ‘social Darwinism’, once thought by the optimistic to be safely dead and buried, still draws its obscene nourishment from the very throats which a just economic system would protect. The health of society is measured, not by the well-being of it members, but by arbitrary and discontinuous fiscal yardsticks: greed is tautologically its own justification.
In a barren social landscape, the ameliorative structures painfully begun in the nineteenth century are being destroyed in a frenzy of false economies. During the industrial revolution it became apparent that, so long as the new laboring classes could expect nothing from society, they would put nothing into it. Having little or nothing to lose and much to gain from social chaos, the more enterprising poor became professional criminals and the rich, unable to venture outside their walls without protection, found themselves prisoners of their own prosperity. Accordingly, the welfare state was born from the ruling classes’ enlightened self-interest.
It soon became apparent that there were also profits to be reaped from a prosperous workforce. Henry Ford, for example, shrewdly calculated at the beginning of his career that his fortune would be made if his workers could afford to purchase the cars they manufactured. For a time, rapid industrial expansion, together with the painfully won recognition of the trade union movement, brought about a rough equilibrium of production and consumption, at least within the West.
Today, through so-called ‘free trade’, multinational corporations are rapidly exporting the demand for both skilled and unskilled labor to impoverished areas where there is no semblance of power sharing or even elementary justice. Cause and effect are now so geographically diffuse that the self-corrective tendencies of the laissez faire market, limited as they were, no longer operate. The stranglehold of world monopoly, more powerful than any nation because ungoverned by law, ensures that ‘market forces’ can no longer produce even an approximate equilibrium. The inevitable decline in the prosperity and security of the Western labor force has produced a crisis of consumption, such that the multi-nationals must increasingly revert to peddling inferior products and occidental addictions to the newly ‘liberated’ but impoverished masses. Tobacco and caffeine, the New World’s historic contributions to Europe’s drug culture, have come full circle and the heirs of the traders who sold trinkets and booze to the natives now push butts and cola.
With taxes shifted down the social scale from income to purchase, this decline in Western consumption has produced a parallel reduction of tax revenue, such that the welfare state, which was always intended to be financed by its beneficiaries, is disintegrating because of rising costs and falling income. Workers of the West are rapidly joining workers of the East and South as members of the exploited Third World. The multi-nationals, marginally answerable only to their stockholders, have no interest in the welfare of their workforce, of whatever nation. Everywhere, at all points of the compass, the casualization and fragmentation of the labor pools and the destruction of smallhold farming by agribusiness, together with the slashing of welfare state safety nets, have made urban squalor the new economic revolution’s most significant product.
Countries which would resist these forces have been made impotent by their consistent policy of deregulation, motivated by both greed and dogma, which has been eagerly pursued by the world’s financial capitals. Even once-powerful governments who wish to reclaim a measure of control over their own destinies are now helpless in the face of massed financial power on a mind-numbing scale. When the collective turnover of the world’s money markets exceeds the combined governmental expenditure of all the world’s states, what hope is there for a rule of law, national or international? If a country attempts an economic policy of which its corporate creditors disapprove, they immediately launch a raid on its currency, and the World Bank tightens its control. All nations, large and small, are governed by instant referendum; however, the votes are cast, not by legitimate electors, but by the occupying forces of their financial dictators.
This doomsday scenario would play itself out even in a world of infinite resources; within our rapidly self-depleting biosphere, the suicidal impetus is even more bizarre. We worship at the Church of Ecology, nodding piously as we are warned of the crisis brought about by the very policies we spend our working days pursuing. But among the preachers are economists whose sermons are corrupted by cynical ‘cost/benefit’ equations in which the worth of the environment and even of human lives is monetarised and balanced against corporate profit. (One UK government-funded think-tank pegs the dollar value of a Westerner at ten times that of a Chinaman!) These economists, of course, are mouthing scriptures which their employers have dictated; like the ancient priests, they are adept at reading the entrails of the sacrificial victims in such a way as to guarantee their own continued employment. They are forbidden to call into question the useless production and addictive consumption which have produced the crisis. There is no hope of far-sighted decisions when so much global power lies in the hands of short-term investors who move their money wherever the immediate return is greatest. At the highest levels, the world is governed with the restraint of a sybarite, the compassion of a mercenary, and the financial acumen of a compulsive gambler.
Murder, as always, is a central factor in the action as well as the metaphor of the marketplace. The mini-massacres in our Western urban neighborhoods are microcosms of Bosnia, Rwanda, the Middle East, and other focal points of massive societal haemmorhage. New technologies have given even the smallest units of society a destructive potential which is vast and thus far ungovernable: the barriers of cost and complexity between the dagger and the bomb have collapsed. Unless we can evolve an accepted model for behavior to replace the rapacious norm of ‘market forces ‘ which is glorified in our economy, taught in our media, practiced on our streets, and fought to its logical conclusion on our battlefields, we will be sucked inexorably into the black hole of a free-lance atomic Armageddon.
What is the relevance of such global issues to art, as distinct from propaganda? I would suggest that artists who are ignorant of the forces which determine their social destiny are creatively disadvantaged. In an environment where every public utterance, whether from hucksters or from statesmen, is controlled by spin doctors, even the ‘fine arts’ are evaluated, not by their merits, but by their ability to sell themselves to a hostile or indifferent public. The artist who is insensitive to this will measure the success of his work by trivial criteria. ( ‘It must have been relevant—half the audience had purple hair! ‘)
Even among the intelligensia, the rules of the market prevail. Both art and investment are based on reputation: stocks go up and down, artists rise and fall. A dead artist, who can no longer damage his reputation (unless through the posthumous publication of his correspondence), is safer than a live one. A minor work by a major artist is likely to receive more attention than a major work by a minor artist. And if modern art is incomprehensible, there are always the Great Masters. Ultimately, whether investing money or emotion, it is safer to trust the experts than to rely on personal judgement. The parallel was obvious to Ezra Pound, who railed against the debasement of the currency wherever it occured. ‘A man standing by his word’ did not fluctuate with the market.
Within the context of world-wide societal collapse, it is idle to expect the recovery or even the arrest of serious art’s declining status. The British government has announced its Great Leap Backward of accelerating cuts, with the certainty that those targets such as the Arts Council and the BBC who in terror hack away their own flesh, will then be commanded to sacrifice their limbs as well. Meanwhile, as was intended, their brains will have atrophied.
After a brief taste of relative freedom, artists is Britain are again working within a support structure which, though it officially endorses their efforts, restricts the processes of observation, thought and feeling which, left unfettered, give art its validity. Whether the money comes from the state or from private sponsors, there are accumulating unvoiced pressures, as elastic but ultimately as lethal as a spider’s web, which influence the choice of matter and of manner, their interrelation,’relevance’, ‘accessibility’, and finally, whether and to whom the work is acceptable. Fine voices are coarsened by the guided selection of subjects, media and method for which neither experience nor predilection have prepared them; others, with nothing to say, paint by number following the official guidelines and achieve fifteen minutes of notoriety. Thus artists good and bad, who once differed noticably from one another, become, in the process of making the same compromises, as interchangeable as any other mass-produced artifacts.
There is an undeniable attraction in hearing oneself noisily touted as a wonder-product which some large corporation wishes to promote. ‘Intergalactic Detergents presents The Composer of the Year ‘ is heady stuff for a struggling musician with a drawer full of unperformed works. Generosity must be repaid with gratitude, even if it is not expressed obsequiously as in eighteenth century dedications; diplomacy still demands that the patron should not be gratuitously offended. Once accepted, the silken cord of sponsorship binds the artist thenceforth to undertake only pro jects for which such support is forthcoming. ‘I had to postpone it,’ one commonly hears. ‘I didn’t get the grant.’
The alternatives are painful but salutary. The visionary English economist Robert Theobald, who in the 1960s outlined his proposal for a guaranteed income, foresaw the formation of ‘consentives’: small groups whose interests would bring them together to pursue activities which other like-minded people would encourage and support. Theobald saw this as an outcome of the leisure time produced by economic security; but paradoxically, such alliances were historically the product of desperation. During much of this century the most fertile seed-beds of art have been the self-generating enclaves of miraculous productivity in the European capitals, driven together from all over the world by lack of local support and companionship. The need for reciprocity extends to all of life, even the lonely pursuit of solitary creation: the electric current of social intercourse is AC, not DC.
Those who witnessed the new musical events of the 1960’s, on either side of the Atlantic, will remember that some of them took place against odds which today would be thought insurmountable. The works were often uncommissioned, the performers unpaid (usually the composers of the other works on the programme), the venues shabby, and the income from ticket sales miniscule or nonexistent. But the lack of official recognition was also an advantage: the concerts could take place because the entrance was not sealed with yards of red tape.
Today in the West, events so casually organised would require the secrecy of a midnight rave party. Otherwise, the battalions of bureaucrats who would have to be satisfied, at enormous expense, that more than a handful of people could come together in an unestablished venue without causing a fire hazard or a threat to public health would ensure that the cost of such a gathering would rival the collective expenses of a prizefight at Madison Square Garden.
There is, however, a bonus of the communications revolution: global electronic networks of instant accessibility, such as Internet, which would have made those earlier artists green with envy. Anticipated and anatomised a quarter-century ago by Marshal MacLuhan, they have thus far been exploited principally by science and industry, together with various mediocre talents such as the technology’s self-salesmen and the hobbyists for whom the medium is excusively the message. The ‘Information Superhighway’ is travelled largely by juggernauts and pogo sticks.
Major artists still appear in established venues such as the concert hall, the theatre, and occasionally film and TV. But for how long? The increasingly monopolised ownership of the commercial channels of communication is bringing about the levelling of standards, together with the banishment of those who are unwilling to accept aesthetic and intellectual emasculation. The CD has made serious music more a private than a public experience. In the future, respected artists who today enjoy prestigious exposure may be reduced to exploring alternative channels of communication which they would presently regard as beneath their status. As the digital exchange of ‘verbi-vocovisual’ information accelerates, its technology may finally become more than just a control mechanism or a plaything. (Will it still be freely available? A modicum of optimism is essential.)
There is even an alternative to the fast-disappearing BBC which has never been attempted in Britain—chiefly because, with all its faults, the BBC has served its purpose so admirably. But in the United States, where the head of the Federal Communications Commission once described the airwaves as ‘a vast wasteland’, there have existed since 1949 a small number of listener-supported, non-commercial radio and TV stations, paid for by voluntary subscription. Their income is miniscule, their staffs skeletal (sometimes from lack of nourishment), and their program participants unpaid; but miracles keep happening, because there are those who insist on being heard, whatever the obstacles. When the BBC’s last channel goes up for public auction, perhaps some benefactor will endow a modest copy of its American imitators.
Not that it would be much more than a museum of obsolescent values. Today the BBC is frantically diversifying in an amoebic proliferation of separate enterprises with unashamedly commercial aims and methods. While intellectuals and politicians bicker over the cost of the nursing home where Auntie should live out her days, she is engaged in a heroic but futile struggle to retain a piece of the global action, in which mammouth cartels are introducing the peasants to the joys of consumer addiction. As the satelite networks, with the blessing of GATT, swamp the third world airwaves, handfuls of struggling teachers in crumbling classrooms find themselves shouting into a whirlwind of hi-tech interactive communication systems. As William Burroughs has warned, the end-product will be a legion of willing zombies, in which the pusher, the product and the consumer flow into an indistinguishable unholy trinity.
So what of the societies which are being destructured? What of the swelling armies of those who can no longer afford to live, let alone ‘consume’, and whose meagre resources allow them no consolation from art, or from anything else? In the new streamlined state, cynically indifferent to the needs of its citizens, might they not be tempted, even driven to violent protest, culminating yet again in armed revolt? In the words of a notorious quasi-fictional UK prime minister, ‘You may very well say so; I couldn’t possibly comment.’
Nil desperandum . ‘Only the artist, for centuries,’ wrote Ezra Pound, ‘has succeeded in detaching the idea of work from the idea of profit ... ‘ In a world in which profit has become not merely obligatory, but indeed the sacred incentive for all of human activity, artists who are able to follow Pound’s program, thereby sharpening both their self-motivation and their self-discipline, may, as they have done throughout history, serve as the antennae of the race’, the early-warning signals which can help to make life on this planet not merely possible but even pleasurable. In the meantime, those artists who form themselves into flexible, interactive, self-regulating alliances may rediscover the exhilaration of uncompromising, habitual honesty. If you can still scrape a living, it’s worth all the grants in the world.
John Whiting is an international sound designer and recordist, and Honourary Treasurer of The Global Commons Trust.