Cultural workers are again under attack, as if we don’t have more pressing issues at the moment. Some time ago, Romana Tomc, a Slovenian MEP, advised them to sing some traditional national songs instead of tiring us with their “morbid” enthusiasm, or something similar. Ljubljana’s “cultural elite” jumped into the air, or more precisely, lay down on the ground in front of the Ministry of Culture, and many online commentators took advantage of the scandal to think highly of contemporary art; like that friend at the party who is a mechanical engineer, but for some unexplained reason he wants to convince you that Jackson Pollock really isn’t any good.
Recently, the same ministry evicted several non-governmental organizations and associations from the premises on Metelkova and changed the rules on the composition of expert commissions that decide on the distribution of public funds in the cultural sector. The cultural public again organized a symbolism-filled protest, which supposedly makes the competent minister Simoniti feel threatened, while most of the rest of Slovenia either does not have time to deal with it, or even indulges in the protest because these artists get on their nerves anyway. They are too loud and presumptuous and they lack hard work, some would say, at least judging by online comments and the aforementioned debates with mechanical engineers.
This response of the general public to cultural issues is interesting, especially the fact that the issue of art and culture is politicized and placed in our increasingly polarized public discourse in a rather unconstructive way. I don’t know how to achieve national reconciliation, I can’t reconcile Homeguards and Partisans (or whatever they are called?), but it seems to me that we could possibly unite on the importance of national culture, especially for a small nation like Slovenia. But what kind of culture, that’s the question.
My engineer friend, to whom, by the way, I had never started to explain how an internal combustion engine works, likes to say that modern or avantgarde art (used synonymously, although the terms are not synonymous) makes no sense, does not require any skills, etc. All nice and right. But who understands art these days anyways? Some stick bananas on the walls of galleries, others eat these bananas, and they are all supposedly artists. To put it bluntly, I sometimes agree; when I get an invitation to an obscure installation, I also start imagining excuses like my brother’s birthday or a friend’s wedding falls on that day.
Personal preferences aside: avantgarde, ie. art that seeks new ways of expression, often by violating established rules and norms, has a key function both within the traditions of a particular artistic medium as well as the wider society. Violation of established rules develops tradition over time and allows art to articulate aspects of modern society that may elude traditional approaches. The avantgarde is thus in a rather ungrateful position because it is often misunderstood and / or incomprehensible, and its value is only revealed in the rearview mirror of history.
This is true of the whole bunch of artists and art movements we today read, listen to, admire in museums, and so on. Do we really want to be the modern equivalent of that part of the Parisian public in the 19th century that came into so called Salon des Refusés to ridicule the exhibited works of the early Impressionists? Or all music critics who saw jazz as an unacceptable degradation of classical music? Of course, we can debate how the problem of modern or post-modern avantgarde is essentially conceptualism (for example), not experimentalism itself, but I have not yet witnessed a non-academic debate that would manage to frame the problem so specifically. No, but the power of this kind of argument can be heard right among the artists themselves, who, you won’t believe, also think about problems within their profession and have more knowledge than non-professionals. Just like my interlocutor at the party knows more about the internal combustion engine so I just won’t interrupt him in the middle of an explanation, saying that my car also goes brum brum.
Another unfortunate feature of avantgarde art – or art in general – is that it will fail in most cases. It is in the nature of any creative and innovative activity that out of a hundred attempts, perhaps one will be successful and therefore receive the attention of the general public. But without those 99 mistakes, there wouldn’t be that one success. A desperate investment, you will say pragmatically, especially if this success is only revealed in some uncertain future. But we do not say this in the case of science or sport, although even in these areas we are investing in innovation and the promise of future successes that most attempts will never achieve. But even though there is only one Luka Dončić, it still makes sense to invest in all basketball clubs of all age categories, even if only the parents of the children come to the matches and the whole activity is not even intended for profit. Okay, basketball may be popular enough to survive without state support, but not the many Olympic disciplines that we hope will cheer us up every four years and would not survive without state funding. Analogously, scientific research does not always bear fruit, but even unsuccessful experiments strive for something that will be beneficial to society, and at the same time pave the way for future successful experiments.
I still understand the skepticism. The thought that your hard-earned money will go – through taxes and government subsidies – into the pocket of some artist-installer (or whatever they are called?), whose installation you will never see, and even if you did, you wouldn’t like it anyway. I believe you would find a better investment of your money on your own, including a ticket to a blues concert or a donation to a local basketball club. At the same time, it does not help that this hypothetical artist then appears in the reports from Friday’s protest (where did he get the time?) and addresses you with a tone of intellectual superiority. Not to mention how he feels categorically entitled to funds that, we have not forgotten, the state deducts from your monthly salary and / or capital returns.
All of the above is, of course, a pure straw man argument; a projection of some political affinities that have little to do with the simple fact that as a society we want to have high quality national culture, or with the fact that we need to invest in this culture, or with the fact that part of this culture, especially the most innovative part, without state support – which in an ideal world is based on professional judgment – just can’t survive. And it pays to invest, even though we may not like the end product, we don’t understand it, we don’t agree with it, and even if the investment pays off in less tangible and measurable forms and only in the long run. And even though the entire Slovenian cultural sphere believes that there are 63 genders, and this seems to you to be the culmination of leftist madness, this political disagreement is neither here nor there. Let’s not mix apples and pears, or whatever.
So: even though one visual artist once told me that “my conception of art is typically pre-industrial,” I still disagree with those who pour toxic comments on the internet about how artists should grab a shovel, and dedicate the afternoon to their “hobby” at their own expense. There is nothing different with art than with everything else; the more time you devote to something, the better you become at that thing. If we want Slovenian culture to stand shoulder to shoulder with other national cultures, we probably want more than just a handful of hobby artists who are skilled with a shovel. In fact, we want as many artists as possible who will have the freedom and opportunity to fail them so that they will fail better next time, as Beckett’s aphorism says.
It may seem a bit absurd to speculate at all about art at a time when more than not all key social institutions are under attack, but still: it is at this time that the politicization of art and the polarization around what kind of art we like is completely pointless and unnecessary. Supposedly we can agree at least that the nation needs culture and that it makes sense to leave the distribution of funds to experts in a given field, instead of feeling called to judge, even if the end result will be even more poorly attended performances where someone crashes into the wall. Who knows, but perhaps our descendants will find that crashing into a wall for no real reason is a perfect metaphor for our time.