Saturday, February 24, 2018

Art and Suffering

This is going to be one of those posts that takes a poke at a topic that would probably make for an excellent doctoral thesis! However, since I don't have a couple of years of research at my fingertips this morning I will just do an intellectual drive-by. Sometimes my omnivorous reading ends up by juxtaposing some different things that seem to resonate with one another. For example, I just read a really interesting piece by Megan McArdle who writes for Bloomberg: You Can't Have Denmark Without Danes. It is a long piece and hard to summarize so you should go read the whole thing. What is excellent about McArdle's approach is that she really is not captive to any ideology, but just tries to see things as they are. Let's have some quotes:
On my first day of interviews, I met with Lars Hvidberg, who works as a speechwriter at the culture ministry. Hvidberg has lived in the U.S., so he seemed well qualified to speculate about the differences between the two countries.
“There are basically four stories about Denmark,” he said. Here’s a breakdown:
  1. The social liberal story: Free education, free speech and democratic government have created social trust and the ability of people to take responsibility and to act for themselves.
  2. The social democracy story: Benefits are high and the taxes are high, which creates equality and trust and enables people to plan for the long term without fear of destitution.
  3. The market liberal story: The real reason Denmark is so successful is that compared to other countries, it’s actually very classically liberal. It has free trade, low regulation, almost no corruption, and makes it easy to start a company.
  4. The nationalist version: The reason Denmark has a well-functioning society is that it’s homogeneous, with a lot of people who think the same, and who place a high value on things like work and honesty and trust toward strangers. In other words, Denmark works so well because it’s full of Danes.
A little apologetically, he said, “I believe all of these stories are true.”
Over and over again McArdle makes the point that things work in Denmark that would not work in most other countries because of the very high level of trust.
When I asked people in Copenhagen about the secret of Denmark’s remarkable success, I kept hearing the same thing: “Trust.”
“Trust,” said a photographer, when I asked him the best thing about living in Denmark. “If we agree on something, you would live up to that.” That confidence, he added, “makes everyday life more comfortable.”
“There’s a lot of social trust,” a speechwriter at the culture ministry told me. “Farmers putting out their products by the roadside, and then putting a jar and saying, ‘Put money in this.’ It’s very common here, and it works.”
Las Olsen, chief economist at Danske Bank, said: “We have this high trust, and it is a huge asset. It is very good for productivity that you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money checking everything.”
I don't think Canada has quite the same levels of trust as Denmark, certainly not in the big cities, but in rural Canada perhaps it does. For example, where I grew up in northern Alberta, we never locked the door to our house and, as I recall, my father never even locked the car doors.

The other thing that I've been puzzling over is why some places have astonishingly high levels of artistic creativity and production and others do not. This is where a couple of years of research would come in handy. Actually, I have this embryonic idea in the back of my mind that I would like to do a fact-finding trip to gather material for a book on the state of the arts, especially music, in Canada. In the meantime, here are some mere wisps of ideas.

  • I have long puzzled over what seems to me, after living abroad for nearly two decades, a serious deficit in musical creativity in Canada. Sure, we have a few pop stars and a couple of real musical icons in the form of Glenn Gould and Leonard Cohen, but it is safe to say that Canada has produced a remarkably low number of internationally known composers. As has Switzerland, by the way, despite being sandwiched in between two of the greatest musical nations, Austria and Italy.
  • Many of the best composers of the 20th century (meaning, favorites of mine) seem to come from Russia and the Soviet Union. These include Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and a recent discovery, Sofia Gubaidulina.
  • Another musical superpower that has produced a remarkable number of fine composers, such as Jean Sibelius and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and also an inordinate number of fine conductors and performers is tiny Finland.
  • Prosperous, reasonably homogeneous countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Canada seem to have fewer creative figures than countries with a more tormented history. (Finland, for example, did not become independent until the 20th century--prior to that it was under the control of Sweden and Russia. It also fought a nasty war with Russia.)
  • Countries with dislocated, violent and oppressive histories like Russia seem to have thrown up a lot more creative figures than ones with more tranquil, untroubled histories.
Now I have to reflect a bit on history. If we go back to the 18th century, for example, we find that the leading composers did not come from the more troubled environments, but rather the opposite. The ancien regime in France, a very static if somewhat oppressive environment, depending on your standing in society, produced a host of very fine composers and performers. It was the revolution that ended all that by executing the noble patrons and burning the harpsichords. Similarly, the stability of the Austro-Hungarian empire produced the towering musical figures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

In the 19th century, as democratic and revolutionary movements spread over most of Europe, the nature of composition seems to have shifted from being the product of well-patronized stability, as we see in the life of Haydn, to being the product of the ferment of social division as we start to see in Berlioz, Schumann and even more so in Wagner and Mahler. I am a bit uneasy as I write that, as that is precisely where a lot of research is needed. But more and more what I see in the 19th century, starting even with later Beethoven, Schubert and continuing with the composers I just mentioned, is music that reflects the individual's isolation from society, i.e., social division. This trend just accelerates as we enter the 20th century and the horrible barbarisms of the warring first half of the century.

So it seems to be more and more true that nations with an untroubled recent history, at least, are also relatively untroubled by significant amounts of artistic creativity. Again, while I am fairly sure that is true in music, we would need a lot of research to see if it is true of the arts generally.

So, do you need to suffer a lot to be a great artist? That is one of the edicts of Romanticism, but is it still true? There seems to be some evidence for that.

Please weigh in, in the comments and while you are pondering, have a listen to one of those pieces that is the product of a certain amount of suffering. This is the String Quartet No. 13 by Shostakovich


Christopher Culver said...

Having lived in the Nordic countries and being a big fan of both Danish and Finnish contemporary music, I don’t think it is fair to call Finland a musical superpower above Denmark. Subsidies and the level of regional orchestras are similar, and Denmark has a very rich 20th century musical legacy that continues today. Vagn Holmboe, Per Nørgård, and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen have attracted attention from the classical world abroad. From the generation after that, Bent Sorensen and Hans Abrahamsen are internationally praised, performed (Let Me Tell You has gone around the world), and recorded (Sørensen’s music has been supported by ECM Records, for example). And from the generation after that, Simon Steen-Anderseen seems to be premiering many if not most of his new works outside Denmark.

The Danish national label Dacapo will introduce you to so many more composers you may never have heard of but make fascinating music; in fact, as a collector of that label, I often regret that there is so much music for me there to listen to that I don’t have any time left for other labels!

Finland was very lucky to produce Esa-Pekka Salonen, who could then advocate for performances of his old school chums Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho in other European countries and in North America, and that has created a buzz that younger Finnish generations can take advantage of. If Denmark had got the same fortuitous break, the press would probably be talking

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christopher, for providing some of the research I didn't really have time for. For some reason I have just never really been captivated by any Danish composers, but maybe that is simple ignorance!

Christopher Culver said...

Sorry, my earlier comment is missing from the end "...about Denmark instead". (You can edit my comment and delete this one if you’d like.)

Marc said...

Perhaps being surrounded by violence, traumatic events, social disorder and so on serve as just that bit of added pressure that impels the creative person to attend to the genius inside her instead of going out and about clubbing every night? I realise that may seem just silly but I tend to think that the quotidian and personal matter more than anything meta- in these matters. The four Danish narratives, stories, well, each individual is going to fit into each of them in different ways, at different levels of engagement, with different natural gifts and so on. Hmm.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, thanks. You managed to put my thought into a better phrased expression. A traumatic environment does tend to drive one inside oneself, I think. And good point about how each individual fits into the national narrative or story in their own way. That helps me understand my relationship with Canada, for example.