norbert blei | night notes

19 02 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.169 | February 19, 2009

NIGHT NOTES: 2/19/09

It’s a line I heard late last night on public radio, the BBC overnight news. About 2:15 A.M. I noted it so I would not forget, come daybreak. I noted both the time and the line–a line I wish I had come up with.

How could I not have thought it? Seen it? Said it? Made the comparison?

The BBC reporter was in Canada, discussing Obama’s visit there today, relating some of the reactions amongst the Canadians. And suddenly there it was, coming over the darkest airwaves at two in the morning in my own living room…there was the line, hanging there… glowing in the dark.

I memorized it immediately. And for safe-keeping, turned on my reading lamp, reached for pencil and paper, and wrote it down:

“Obama is the Miles Davis of politicians,” I heard the voice say.

Jesus! Of course! Of course! Perfect!

KIND OF BLUE…(I reached for my old LP copy)…all the while visualizing the dark man with the bright horn on stage, alone (he was always all alone)…”So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, “Blue in Green”, “All Blues”, “Flamenco Sketches”.

I switched to the stereo, set the old LP on the turntable, put the arm and needle down on “All Blues”…let the sound envelop the room.

I turned the record jacket over to an incredible little ‘jacket note’ penned by no other than Bill Evans (“Improvisation In Jazz”) …and swallowed the first three paragraphs like a poem:

“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.

“The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.

“This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.”

Obama…the Miles Davis of politicians.

–Norbert Blei/night notes/2/I9/09

hatto fischer | politics and the arts

4 02 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.131 | February 2, 2008


(A long letter, yes. But worthy of anyone’s attention in any way associated with the arts…worth running off and reading and thinking about at your leisure.) More about and by Hatto can be found in the archives at and in the anthology OTHER VOICES, Cross+Roads Press.


Athens 31.1.2008

Dear Grace and all,

Since my last assessment of the Obama campaign went largely unanswered, allow me to ask why cultural initiatives e.g. Obama’s proposal for responsible fatherhood and the impact of cultural policy on the arts and culture in general is left out of the general discussion?

Is here to be noted again a classical neglect by the Left even though known to stand for a linkage to creativity based on a definite political affiliation to some political ideals such as ‘for the good of humanity’, ‘equality’, ‘integrity of memory’.

When speaking about cultural policy, I would refer to a position by Michael D. Higgins, former Minister of Culture in Ireland and now member of the Irish Parliament. This position can be linked to people of not being defined solely as consumers. (see )

His position can be summed up as follows:

“Cultural policy should in his opinion stay focused on creating ‘cultural space’ which the arts and the people need for their creativity and creative expressions. There is a danger that everything is being consumed by a consumer society with the arts and culture becoming commodified products while the ‘cultural space’ vanishes. Hence criticism is not enough. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that the cultural space is wider than the economic space. Moreover the cultural space stretches further back in time but to heed this, it will require three things:

  • • ethics of remembering
  • • integrity of freedom
  • • realization as to what cannot yet be imagined, but which people want to share

All three factors combine to constitute the public world. Here is where the most important thoughts are articulated. But the public world is under threat by privatization. The odd thing is that there prevails insecurity of the private while it can be observed that out of this insecurity there develops the tendency to claim ownership in private over things which would otherwise be shared in public. As a poet Michael D. Higgins would even admit there comes a moment when we have nothing to share.”

Morality of creativity

Cultural policy reflects one basic fact: no creativity can be sustained if there is a morality guiding artistic expressions as much as to what purpose money is being put to. Creativity is linked to sustaining life. Women bear children as highest act of creativity. It has nothing to do with destruction of life. This includes killing of the imagination by destroying the memory of people as done by armies when they invade foreign lands and destroy first of all the cultural heritage.

It means furthermore that creativity safeguards the integrity of freedom as being really free to say what one wants to say on the basis of a free conscience.

No such morality of creativity can be imposed although over centuries the church tried to define what is art ever since the picture dispute broke out in the fifth century to censor those paintings which address the senses. We know also about the conflict between Diego and Rockefeller; when the latter did not like the mural since it showed the plight of workers, Diego destroyed it rather than express himself within such a political constraint. People threw stones into the window behind which was displayed a painting by Otto Dix with the argument this is no way to show respect to the older generations since the painting was a portrait of his parents.

Such conflicts and issues reveal how people wish to be seen rather than how artists telling them what they see. As Max Schurr, the doctor of Sigmund Freud, would say, “all would like to hear the truth but only few can live with it.”

Political positions reveal themselves when the arts no longer confirm their ideological sentiment. We think of how Picasso was castigated by the Right and the Left for his Guernica painting. The only one who exempted him from such criticism was Andre Breton who said Picasso follows his own morality of creativity.

Often there is little understanding as to how creativity is brought about but surely without morality it cannot be explained.

This makes it crucial that in politics there is endorsed an ethical position since it makes not only individuals, but people within their special posts become creative. If that happens, and there is even talk about ‘cities becoming creative’, it is a way of saying that all have an understanding of truth and can endorse what they are doing. They work and live not in contradictions but are free to release their creative energies in numerous ways e.g. story telling to children, composing a new piece of music, designing a new architectural style etc. Consequently we judge things not only by their words or intentions but in terms of how real outcomes have been brought about to give substance (honesty) to life.

Morality of creativity is linked directly to our search for continuity in our lives. Despite all changes we retain our memories, stay open for future changes and show that we can be consistent, a cultural value related to what we know from politics as working through contradictions.

Endorsement of Obama

In her endorsement of Obama Grace Boggs mentioned two important prerequisites: not to look only for a charismatic leader to lead us, but to become ourselves the leader we imagine we need to become active, and that it is important to recognize that ‘we are a part of the problem’.

I suggested that when talking about change, then also about the need to confront the changes needed inside of ourselves. I tried to problematize this by asking what tools aside from psychoanalysis are known to facilitate this difficult process of self reflection and introspection in order to evoke changes within ourselves. At the same time, it says something about the difference between internal and external changes i.e. outside of ourselves. Whether or not this inner/outer difference can sway politics in crucial moments of endorsements needed before determining who shall become the next President of the United States, I think cultural policy proposals need to be taken into account when talking about meaningful politics.

Consequently I want to pick up two articles and comment upon them: information released by the Obama campaign about his art policy and recent polls suggesting people linking educational needs to promotion of the imagination.

As current cultural policy undergoing reviews, it should be noted that this has very much to do with what has become a buzz word since culture and economy are seen more and more as being interlinked. The buzz word is ‘creative industries’. A contradiction is stated with regards to this new economic sector: while growing the fastest and providing many with jobs, the arts and culture are neglected and under funded. In reality, and especially in the United States where no cultural policy exists at federal level, instruments for promotion of the arts and culture are neither not recognized nor really discussed in a way that in future a cultural policy could take shape in terms of what are cultural needs. Surprisingly the term ‘literacy’ although aim of past movements wishing to upgrade the educational level of the poor and left out has not been kept as a cultural need despite digital technology having altered how people access information and are prone to go to museums and other cultural events. Studies show only those with internet access are the main benefits of the new services provided by all kinds of cultural institutes.

The contradiction can be made more evident when we compare activities by institutes like MoMa, Guggenheim and what so called public institutes manage to do for the arts e.g. National Endowment of the Arts. Of interest is that while the museum sector has become a highly dynamic one with one clear trend, namely to construct new architectural buildings costing a great deal of money, money for art education at schools is barely available or not at all. There is on the one hand expansion with a private world profiting clearly off the arts while on the other hand artists and cultural workers hardly benefit from this trend. A recent article carried for example the headline: a job in the theatre is a one way street into unemployment. Next to bartenders and taxi drivers, artists are working endless hours with little pay or other kinds of rewards. Still they are engaged in making their contributions to the community while struggling to keep a line in their works since consistency over time is no easy task. They look out for art spaces in which they can work and exhibit their works. Of public importance is that artists do need public spaces since only then they find recognition gained makes a difference in how they work. They depend upon public recognition in order to know how to direct their creative energies into new art works. Therefore artists are in tune with public opinion much better than politicians will ever be while the outcomes are not political programs but art works both incomplete and uncomplete since a part of an ongoing learning process on how to use materials to find new expressions about life. All of this adds and contributes to the self understanding people have of themselves.

Politics and the arts do not mix very well. So I need to come back to the ethical position in need of being endorsed. Here George Steiner posed in his book ‘Language and Silence’ an interesting question: why was it that Fascism did not produce any great art works while Communism did? In Detroit you have the murals of Diego and then there is the poet Neruda who even endorsed Stalin. That contradiction can be explained on hand of Ronald Aronson’s thoughtful account of Camus and Sartre when artists or writers differ between what upholds the quality of their literary or philosophical work and what politics they embrace to underline their desire for action. Sartre joined the Communist Party and left it after Hungary was invaded in 1956; on the contrary, Camus who was much more political than Sartre and brought Sartre into politics, in particular that of the underground, but went silent in the case of the pending war in Algiers. Ronald tries to deal with this puzzle and in a way attempts to show that really the entire Left suffers still today negative consequences because that friendship between Camus and Sartre did not last. It would have meant a different link between morality, politics and the arts. A lot can be learned from that book about a failed friendship.

Relevant to the current discussion is that instead of talking in substance about cultural policy, reference is made overtly if not to change, then to the ‘imagination’. This recalls the chant of the ’68 about letting ‘imagination take over power’. Many sober spirits reflected the change in the streets of Paris back then: first it was poetry that pushed out the cars but by September the cars were back again and gone was poetry.

About the relationship between the arts and politics, there needs to be taken something further into consideration. When Sam Hamill said there are Fascists in the White House, I told him to be careful with such a label and reminded him what Gramsci said from jail when he saw his comrades using the word ‘Fascists’ too readily: ‘if you use it too often and generally speaking, you only drive those who are undecided into the wrong hands.” Interestingly enough Richard Bernstein discusses in today’s International Herald Tribune the question “Who’s a fascist now? The tables are turned” (January 31, 2008) when reviewing the book written by Jonah Goldberg who uses the label ‘liberal fascists’ and who attempts to show totalitarian tendencies were shared by many progressives. Recently we have in discussions about influential poets this reference to Erza Pound and his embrace of Mussolini. Pound influenced heavily among many other talents Eliot. But to Goldberg apparently Woodrow Wilson stands out as one who turned the United States during First World War into “a fascist country, albeit temporarily”. As such it serves the Conservatives who feel relieved from a Left which had put them often too readily into the same camp as the Fascists and to find in this year of elections now a new argument to attack ‘Liberalism’. The latter stood after all for the free conscience of the individual.

When regarding what cultural policies have been adopted in the past, we should not forget what happened to artists and intellectuals during the Second World War. Many came to the United States to seek there exile from Nazi Germany. It invigorated the artistic and scientific community. But then things turned sour. Especially at the start of the Cold War, the McCarthy era prosecuted many with many film directors losing their jobs or else fleeing the United States like Jules Dessain who ended up marrying Melina Mercouri and since then is staying here in Greece. Since then the National Endowment for the Arts has often come under pressure not to fund exhibitions if they prove to be controversial and even offensive to the pro life religious community in the United States.

It is by now very clear that there are many other reasons as to why some political force wishes to evoke censorship in the arts and to a greater extent in the cultural sector, the film industry and Hollywood included. I found very illuminating here the writings by Carol Becker when her need to decide whether to uphold the artistic freedom of expression or the need to observe some limitations in what can be shown when at the Chicago Art Institute a student wanted to show at a school exhibition a portrait of a recently deceased mayor and which the entire Black Community deemed as being a smear of his legacy. That community went into revolt as they felt the painting to be offensive and racist.

We know also how Guilianni played the religious card when the exhibition Sensation was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in September 1999.

So let me repeat, while trying to be sensitive to these issues, how does politics play out the tensions between what is being expressed in the arts world and what certain interest groups in society demand? Surely cultural policy has to be seen as a vibration of such political earthquakes that art works can create in special moments of time. We think about Mozart’s “marriage of Figaro” and know revolts against the taste of the ruling class did not go unpunished. Still, cultural policy must uphold at all times the knowledge that individuals are always best placed to express themselves artistically if they can follow their own free conscience and don’t give up their creative energies.

So surely you will agree that in such a problematic field clarity is needed in order to know where not only Obama, but everyone stands. This means a further discussion about cultural policy is very much needed. Already some information is available as to how the Obama campaign views arts policy. Beside that there needs to be reflected how such proposals are received. Hence the discussion about cultural policy can be sub-divided into

A How cultural needs are perceived and therefore how the cultural policy of Obama is understood and received?

B What further details about the cultural policy of the Obama campaign can be known while the information provided indicates already a main line what would be his future cultural policy approach if elected.

A Imagination

Next to ‘change’ how to evoke and to activate the imagination plays a vital role. It was audible in the endorsement speech given by Caroline Kennedy of Obama and can explain why Senator Kennedy endorsed Obama. After years of disappointment with the knitty-gritty political game deeply out of context due to the Iraq war and eight years of Bush politics, there seems no longer any true political solution in sight. Instead there is a need for hope in order to transcend that ugly and most recent past. It means a wish to return to something inspirational, namely to the imagination.

Such a position risks to negate the immediate past. It oversees moreover the need to become very practical in terms of policy implementation. And it does not show a way how to learn out of recent failures e.g. to stop the going to war after 911. Grace Boggs had said all along learning out of 911 would mean ending to be but the victim of events and instead become responsible for what is being done even in the name of the American people.

It can be said only once everyone is freed in their imagination, then they can all work together. It poses the serious question but what frees the imagination of people and what measures are to be applied so that everyone can experience the imaginative power within an intelligible, equally human reality? People would then understand why and what they are doing, that is not to be alienated. The biggest pain is after not at the top of the hierarchy, but at the very bottom where a lack of imagination can be felt in all daily practices. This is especially the danger with administrative measures being applied on a regular, stupor basis e.g. how border guards treat potential ‘illegal immigrants’ or teachers children from broken homes. To give a creative answer instead of seizing upon punitive measures is not easy in a country at war and ready to invoke even the death penalty out of vengeance.

Like the term ‘change’ so the term ‘imagination’ requires much more consideration. They should not be seized upon as if self-explanatory. Only very few have done research about the imagination and the impact different educational and socialization courses have upon those growing up in a country feeding the next generations with all kinds of digital images, but rarely with some true stories. It was fore mostly Sartre who wrote a book about the imagination and later applied it in his Flaubert study with the intention to understand a creative individual beyond any social determination. Obama does appeal to stop blaming others which goes very often with such labeling the other, but if such appeal is to be heard, then a general uplift in how people relate to one another is needed and that is impossible if there is imagination taking everyone out of a given reality which cannot be changed.

Of interest is that a poll finds schools and education in general does not address nor affect the imagination of children and youths in any positive way. Obviously there is a need there.

It seems ‘imagination’ shall be an issue in need to be addressed from different angles, including how the arts and culture in general is taught in schools.

Philosophers like Adorno were more skeptical if all the truths can be imparted to people if caught up in all kinds of contradictions; rather he wanted to convey that what can be recognized as valid truth to the ‘imaginary witnesses’ capable of seeing how these times are truly lived and experienced. They are meant to pass on that knowledge to future generations. It says something as well about upholding truths is no easy matter.

In citing above the position by Michael D. Higgins, he recommends, politically speaking, to relate fore mostly to what people cannot yet imagine, but want to share. This pre-imaginative phase should not be neglected or be underestimated when it comes to formulating cultural policy principles.

All this can be summed up with the song ‘Imagine, we the people’ by John Lennon.

Imagine, we the people are becoming active in politics for the sake of freeing the imagination from hierarchies standing in the way and which prevent that people organize themselves and work together. Here then lies the crux of the matter: the unresolved question of hierarchy. It does entail what Grace Boggs recommends, namely not to look towards the charismatic leader, but to learn to work together without needing a leader. This no society has yet learned to implement in practice. Besides the military, the religious orders are the most strictly hierarchical organizations and together they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to seeking a new way to govern lives in cities and states while relating to a world under global pressures hardly resolvable if we do not understand our different cultural backgrounds when trying to communicate with each other.

B Obama’s position: arts policy

Here we can read further what his campaign has issued (see attachment), but right now I just want to say first of all most of the positions mentioned by Obama’s are clearly main stream. All topics touched upon are more or less a part of contemporary conventional wisdom as to what is in need to be dealt with. His positions do have, however, some very serious implications when he advocates further private-public partnerships to finance the arts. Such a position leaves out the importance of public space and public responsibility for the arts. Obama’s position embraces in my judgment too readily what I call ‘privatization of politics’.

To name but one controversy being discussed nowadays is the fact that a private collector can purchase a painting of public value and keep it at his house. He prevents thereby the general public from enjoying the art work. That then has implications as to what has private, what public value and how are these differences handled? Or to take the other case, if the art work in the possession of some private owner is to be shown then the public has to willing to pay a huge prize for that show. This is, however, not self evident. We had in Berlin recently the controversy about the Flick collection which was finally shown at public expense but which entailed an upgrading of a collection brought about by war money earned during the Hitler era. Handling of these issues shall never be easy. Moreover we have the violation of ethical principles designed for museums, libraries and other educational institutions holding art works, collections of books as part of public values when parts or entire collections are sold just to satisfy the financial accounts of that institute.

Obama’s position touches upon tax exemption when making donations for the arts, but he does not say anything when artists themselves make donations. Of interest is here that in recent discussions about tax exemptions for artists it is pointed out that when an artist makes a contribution of his painting to let us say a local library, then it is charity but how to establish the value of that donation. Right now the practice is to just equate value to the prize for the materials needed to bring about that art work, but in reality the creative potential of that artist is not included and for which a prize can only be established when the market value of that painting is established. It is proposed to let this latter value be quoted by the artist in his claim for tax exemption.

That may be a practical detail but sometimes these details make all the difference in how policy matters with regards to the arts are handled.

Cultural policy altogether has been neglected in the United States. There is no equivalent to a Minister of Culture as in France. We have here in Europe a lot of discussion about the future cultural agenda for Europe. A special meeting to this effect shall take place in Brussels on Feb. 19th and more public hearings about the creative or cultural industries are being held while experts make studies for cities so that they can realize the values of the arts and culture. A lot is happening in this field. Also many new legal provisions must be made in the age of Internet e.g. copy right or intellectual property rights. Sarkozy wants in future to level tax on transactions made via the Internet.

Unfortunately the public space of free communication is being infringed upon all the time. For example, one of the most controversial bills has been passed by the European Parliament: the new directive for the ‘television without frontiers’. One of the most controversial measures in that directive is to allow in future ‘placement advertisements’ e.g. within a film use of a car is already an indirect advertisement if shown to be a Ford and not a Toyota car. Critics consider this creeping commercialization of everything a way to destroy cultural identities and cultural use. Once all things are reduced to only commercial use, then you have no cultural level of appreciation. That this has ramifications even on how people listen to each other should not be overseen. Kassandra, a young but already quite famous opera singer, said yesterday during a radio interview that she only learned about three weeks ago to listen to the voice of someone singing and that after ten years of training as opera singer. Others realize only after reading Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo that a painting requires a lot of work and does not come about easily. Appreciation of what goes into the arts is a prerequisite for a positive reception and every artist depends upon responses of the audiences, whether good or bad, that does not matter so much as responses of all kinds give orientation. Indeed, culture is about giving orientation. It is not politics, but wisdom given, provided we understand also the changes in the receptivity of the arts. When someone listens to a singer dissolving poems into just vocal sounds, then one interesting observation was made by a woman listening to the singing by Savina Yannatou: she felt the emotions trapped by wise poetic formulations were liberated.

If you read the statement made by the Obama campaign with regards to the arts, I would look forward to some further going comments as only those living in the United States have a better understanding about the plight of artists and cultural institutions, including those who work often for them on a voluntarily basis since many museums survive only with ‘friends of the museums’. Stacy in Chicago told me that alone the Architectural Institute uses countless volunteers as guides when showing visitors the rich architectural history of that city.

One thing I don’t understand and with that I shall close my comments: the use of the term ‘cultural diplomacy’. Like in Europe efforts are made to use artists as ambassadors abroad, but if tied in with the traditional diplomatic methods and more so becomes a part of ‘branding culture’ as if the American, German, Mexican etc. one, then damage is caused to the artists quest for universal understanding. We are then back in the nationalist fold especially if ‘cultural diplomacy’ is really a way to sell a positive image of one’s own country abroad. It is pure marketing but with different, that is cultural means. More so cultural diplomacy can be linked to the public diplomacy practiced by the Bush administration insofar it is nothing but propaganda and has nothing to do with being truthful nor with the desire to level with people about the realities they live in. The arts and culture should never be instrumentalized as propaganda tools but there is a clear danger that this will be the case. They are too often abused in order to blind people about the true state of affairs.

In saying this I want to come back to the ethical position to be endorsed, for when is it possible to speak about the creative arts, there is a need for some optimism in the future and a lot of confidence in people. At the same time, there need to be related to all those people who are fretting away their existences in jails or else hover in silences so that no human word touches them. Cultural work would mean to liberate people from these inhuman conditions of survival. It is done best when people sing songs which have saved well rhythms (Louis Armstrong). That is a part of the integrity of memory. In Greece, entire audiences can sing along deeply moving songs created, for instance, during the years of dictatorship as a sign of resistance. Most of these songs are originally poems to which composers like Theodorakis and others have written the musical score and then they were interpreted by now very famous singers. That means the ethical position for the arts and culture is what allows things to be expressed which go with the people so that they see realistically the world as it is and counter it by invoking as counter argument their own sense of beauty. It is not abstract once not to be forgotten as it is a sense of truth humanity has been able to create and to articulate.

Best regards,