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Friday, 31 July 2015

Above the Sea of Fog

The traditional start of the summer holidays is marked in even-numbered years by international football tournaments. In odd-numbered years it is marked by a Martin Kettle article in The Guardian insisting that politicians should develop a more extensive cultural hinterland, ideally centred on an appreciation of Richard Wagner. I don't know if this is just the lazy recycling of the same piece while he is otherwise engaged at the Bayreuth Festival, or whether it's an idiosyncratic rider to his contract that he should be allowed to indulge this particular hobbyhorse every couple of years, but I do know that his philosophy is as depressing as it is familiar.

In 2011, Kettle greeted the Israeli State Orchestra's appearance on the Bayreuth fringe as a welcome step in the rehabilitation of the composer of The Ring Cycle: "Wagner was indeed an antisemite and a composer. But that does not make him an antisemitic composer, whatever that means, any more than being a reactionary ant-Dreyfusard makes C├ęzanne a reactionary painter. I confess that I do not understand what antisemitic music is". This is historically tone deaf, as the categorisation of music, or any other cultural product, as either halal or haram is clearly a political judgement. Wagner is the antisemitic composer supreme because the Nazis (abetted by his family) made him so, not because of his antisemitic essays or any questionable tropes in his operas. Kettle almost concedes this point in his own contradiction: "None of this means that the ban on the playing of Wagner in Israel and by Israeli orchestras is anything other than utterly understandable". Well, quite. It's a political decision.

What this shows is Kettle's desire to demarcate areas of life, but to then use the resulting dichotomy (art versus politics) for instructive purposes: a pointer to better political behaviour. This compartmentalisation is one of the chief legacies of Ancient Greek philosophy, with its alienation of gods and men and its distinction between personal ethics and communal politics (Greek tragedy, and biography - e.g. Socrates, addresses the tensions this gives rise to). It stands in obvious contrast to the totalitarian approach of the monotheistic religions, in which scripture and clerical interpretation extends to all aspects of the natural world. The great irony is that Wagner's "transcendence" (i.e. overwrought romanticism), as much as his conservative vision of an ordered and organic world, was taken as supportive of the Nazis' totalitarian ambitions: the Gleichschaltung (coordination) of society. It is precisely the quality that Kettle praises in Wagner, his ability to stand outside of politics, that makes him such a favourite of politicians, particularly those of a neoliberal persuasion who see a similarly transcendent (and instructive) role for the market.

In 2013, Kettle observed that "Politics may seem to rule the public roost much of the rest of the year – but it is a striking fact that politics has no power against the summer. ... This, after all, is the time of year when politics can no longer keep up the pretence that it is all-encompassing". But Kettle isn't going to fall into the trap of sports administrators down the ages, claiming that sport and politics don't mix and have been separate spheres since the sacred truce of the original Olympic Games (which actually mixed sport, religion and art, including the political skill of rhetoric). The singling-out of politics as an area of life that must be restricted is too obviously a reactionary impulse, so better try something a bit more sophisticated: "So it is therefore also an opportunity not for suspending all thought about politics but for trying to put politics into a more life-enhancing balanced context. ... I know this from watching and listening to Wagner, and I know it with absolute certainty too: I know that political engagement and a sustained cultural life are twin necessities of the civilised condition, twin embodiments of the belief that the world can be a better place than it is".

In his latest post from the interface of politics and high art, Kettle sums up his worldview thus: "I’m fascinated by politics because it embodies life as it is in reality. I’m fascinated by music because it expresses life as it might ideally be." It might be a little glib to simply claim that I'm the opposite, but I certainly don't think that politics should be reduced to a pragmatic managerialism that stultifies imagination and reinforces conservatism. Politics must embody aspiration at the social as much as the personal level, otherwise it is reduced to the transactional, utility-maximisation of neoliberal lore. Equally, the idea that music gives us access to a higher realm is just religiose, po-faced nonsense (the traditional corollary of the idea that "primitive" rhythms are bestial). Kettle needs to muddy his Apollonian elitism in the Dionysian moshpit. Much great music succeeds because it provides a thrilling perspective on reality, not because it "takes us to a better place". I suspect Kettle's distaste for genuinely popular music reflects a fear of that mundane, unsettling power.

The recurring theme of Kettle's pieces is the "philistinism" of British politicians, which has long been shorthand for their isolation from the continent and reluctance to embrace the European project. The summer months, when well-paid columnists decamp to their spiritual homes in the Dordogne, Tuscany and various Mediterranean islands, is an opportunity to recharge cultural batteries in the warm south before re-engaging with the recalcitrant denizens of these misty, northern isles. For some, like Kettle, it is also a chance to reaffirm the "higher project" of neoliberalism, which has a well-known weakness for Alpine mountains, from Mont Pelerin to Davos. Wagner, and the festival setting at Bayreuth (pan-European, exclusive and with the faint whiff of transgression), offers an emblem not only of a syncretic European culture but of a higher power that animates our collective will, ensuring good order and common sense through its political personifications (Frau Merkel to the fore) while vouchsafing a hint of the sublime to the adepts of the invisible hand.

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