“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.” — Oscar Wilde
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In these last fifty years, life on the planet Earth has changed so much that our culture, with its roots in classicism, romanticism and the bourgeoisie, can no longer comprehend that life, nor deal with the problems underlying this change: global warming, population growth, energy resources in crisis, atmospheric pollution, electronic technology practically everywhere.
We stand mutely by as the culture declines, while a rampant indifference ensues from the de-structuring of man.
Young people have no tomorrow, no dreams for the future. And where there are no dreams, there are no prospects. The political, cultural and social positions into which we have fallen are such that we are no longer aware, or do not want to be aware, that they are reduced to abstractions and no longer have connections with real life.
All things are born, develop and die, but it is precisely when the death throes are at their peak, that attempts to keep them alive are most tenacious. I have in mind particularly art, specifically music, which continues to employ, over and over, a language whose possibilities have been historically exhausted. We must find the courage to abandon what has completed its course and make way for the force of what is emerging. We live in the uncomfortable position of someone caught between two superimposed roads: one going downhill and the other uphill.
There is no longer a future for art, which has always been dream and anticipation. This certainly holds true at least for 'official art' — that of the galleries, the concert halls and theaters, which continues to express itself in the language (techniques and styles) of a dying culture. But what does the creation of a new composition, be it beautiful or ugly, matter if it is the expression of that language of death? I believe it is absolutely useless to attempt to overcome the impasse we are in by tenaciously continuing to create within the limits of that traditional language. What must be changed first is the mindset of the artist if we hope to achieve a type of art that truly corresponds to the dynamics of the world today. Continuing on the path of tradition simply delays the birth of a different concept of art and the world. The language of the western musical tradition should be left to historians and nostalgia and is not for innovative artists (art has always been innovation and progress).
We now bear witness, disillusioned and impotent, as our predominant colonizing culture, with its age-old history, is falling into disruption. Its excessive certainties with time appeared as uncertainties, its simplicities complications, and other cultures have long suffered from its impositions.
Today, this loss of power permits these other cultures to emerge, revealing their importance and diversity. After centuries of colonialism, we still have not realized that our cultural parameters don’t work for everyone in the same way. Werner Herzog filmed an interesting documentary in Africa** in which a group of native villagers were shown posters representing a large eye, a large fly or common scenes of village life, one of which was upside down. When asked which one was upside down, only a few answered correctly. And even fewer were able to indicate which of the posters showed an eye.
This is a clear demonstration of how our signs and ideas of representation have no meaning for other cultures. At the end of the documentary, Herzog stresses the fact that this test does not demonstrate the stupidity of the Africans, but if anything our own stupidity. It simply shows that these people see things differently, even though they are looking at the same thing. After centuries of colonial rule in Africa, our inadequacy is such that we cannot even communicate in the simplest way. If we really hope to help them, we must first learn to understand.
How can one still conceive of an art based on local cultural canons and propose them as a model for the world as a whole when that world is getting smaller and no longer consists of individual units? How can one continue to make art in the sole classical-romantic-bourgeoisie perspective and believe one is contributing to the construction of a multiracial and multicultural world?
Accordingly, it seems obvious that the value of an art of signs is only partial and circumscribed and that if art is to be a wealth for all of humanity, this must necessarily be transformed from an art of signs into an art of situations, which can be shared by all and not only by those who belong to a determined cultural tradition.
It must therefore be a meta-cultural art, which does not use coded representations mediated by one person for others (the artist for an audience), but one that allows everyone to play an active role.
The responsibility of the artist today is no longer that of interpreting the world through his work and showing it to others. His duty is to create instruments that put everyone in a condition to do so.
Take Meeting by James Turrell, for example. Here, the artist has created an instrument that lets you see, through an opening in the ceiling of a specially prepared room, the changes in color and form of the sky, that same sky always there right above us, but which we have lost the ability to see. I find this a particularly moving experience, of great charm and beauty.
Then there is my music, conceived not only as something to be listened to, but as something that will enable us to listen to the sounds, noises, colors and everything else that is part of the environment around us.
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"In The Tuning of the World [Random House, 1977] I predicted that by the end of the century music and the soundscape would draw together. We are near the end of the century; there is no need to retract what I said. I meant that the reciprocal influences between what we call music and what we refer to as environmental sound would become so complex that these hitherto distinct genera would begin to syncretize into a new art form." —
R. Murray Shafer ***
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The principal difference between the culture of our tradition and the one now emerging is that in the former the idea of Nature is thought of as something detached from artistic creation, something ancillary or indifferent, or rather as something to be used as inspiration for paintings, music, etc.
In the latter, the idea of Nature has disappeared and is replaced by that of Environment and Ecology. In this case, the work of art can no longer disregard the environment it inhabits, because its very existence and completeness depends on collaboration with that environment.
There is a substantial difference between Nature and Environment. The former belongs above all to the Romantic world, where it is seen as a devastating force dominated by the sublime, as a self-sufficient entity (Sturm und Drang) with which man must come to terms. Environment, by contrast, is concerned with context, natural or artificial, where everything that forms it, including man, is in continuous active interaction.
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* Essay written after a series of talks for the public library of Orvieto, Italy, on the theme: "the work of art outside the walls."
** The Flying Doctors of East Africa, 1969
*** Shafer, Murray R., Voices of Tyranny Temple of Silence. Arcana Edition, Ontario, Canada, 1993