Regularly the accusation of ‘conservatism’ is thrown at me, in the way a shoplifter is caught with his hands in the jewelry box, but without arguments and without consequences, so that the occasion passes like a cold draught on a sunny afternoon. But delving deeper into the possible motivation of such burbs, may contribute to the understanding of one of the more urgent questions in the field of culture today.
In the West, we live in a society where the idea of an egalitarian, democratic, relativist society has become ‘the’ general consensus, codified in political systems, education, media, and culture. In this context, the word ‘culture’ can mean anything from needlework, cooking, painting, sex habits, interior decoration and prison rules. In politics, this consensus assumes that ‘the left’ is humanitarian, enlightened, progressive, and the driving force behind the liberation of the masses from authoritarian elites who, so the story goes, had no other intention in their perfidious mind than suppressing, exploiting and foltering the proletariat. Now that the masses had been liberated, following recipes which came down to us from the Enlightenment, they ‘rightfully’ set the trends in society, chasing remnants of ‘reactionary elements’ in all corners of public space where they were hiding and cooking their evil plans to undermine our beautiful egalitarian paradise. Alas – the demise of the communist block took away the need to prove that a free society can take care of the masses’ needs as well as the communists, and a rampant free market thinking gradually began to erode the welfare state and its consensus. While rightwing thinking became associated with jungle mentality, the leftwing consensus was left with the self-congratulating idea of guarding the shrine of civilization through state-directed initiative – as far as there still was left room for such enterprises. Since any awareness of cultured values had evaporated on both sides, they both tended – in their extremes – to a shared totalitarian mentality. The arts, caught between two equally unpromising alternatives, continued establishing the cut between a stiff museum culture (old art and music) and the cloud-cuckoo-land of modern art (both the visual arts and music). Meanwhile, the notion of what makes-up a civilized society, unmoored itself from the dross – both left and right – and turned into itself, seeking the answer to the question: what is culture, what is art, and what is their meaning to society and to the world at large, and to the individual?
Independently from each other, many people went on a search for the very thing that got missing in the field of culture: value and meaning. And often they arrived at answers, not inherited from their background, but personally discovered, found, tested; and logically many of these answers had been found and tested in the past since the human race does not develop as fast as its science and practical skills. Hence the striking fact that the ‘conservative’ philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton, a kind of Renaissance man active in many different fields, stems from a working class background, and that the brilliant Dutch philosopher of law and author Andreas Kinneging began his adult life as a weight lifter champion, and ‘flashy’ young ‘conservative’ Thierry Baudet as the son of a piano teacher. In an egalitarian society, where class divisions have almost completely disappeared and organized religion has lost most of its authority, there are no longer elitist platoons dictating value to the masses. But individuals looking for a meaningful life find the same values which, in former times, were ‘possessed’ by the elites, and are now open to all who seriously want to create value and meaning in their lives. Within an egalitarian context, many ‘old’ values are currently floating to the surface again, purely on the basis of their intrinsic quality and substance, ‘hardened’ by age-long use and empirically proven to be workable. This disappearance of a pre-fixed framework is a good thing…. value can now be recognized without its associations with entrenched interest groups in society, thriving on privilege.
Contrary to what some people seem to think, on the basis of my preference of sporting a tie and jacket, I am not the product of an academic, elitist milieu. My family was a bohemian one of painters and a rather disorganized existence, never really poor but also never capable of investing in modern luxury habits. Classical music, books about painting, sculpture and art history, literature, outings into museums, were all natural ingredients of life. There was a piano in the sitting room, touched by anyone with the skills to make it speak (and part of daily life when I was a child). The radio played classical music non-stop during the day. There were spontaneous visits, sometimes parties, with music making and lively discussions. It was totally non-bourgeois while equally non-modernist: abstract and concept art and ‘modern music’ were noticed, and respectfully but indifferently passed-by, because it ‘said’ not much interesting in comparison to so much other, often ‘older’ art. Value was not taught, but the adults instinctively assumed that children would live by example after testing its meaning. There was not a strong consciousness of tradition, of authority, of elitism, and – looking back half a century – the life style of this milieu was close to that of the French artistic bohemianism of 19th century painters: friendly, not intellectual, strongly visual and artistic – but in this case without the ‘really great’ painters emerging from this humus. In short: there was no oppressive value framework being forced upon the children, they had to find-out things for themselves.
My development – only seriously beginning at the Rotterdam Conservatory – started with Schönberg, not because of some urge to ‘be modern’ but because the expressionist, sombre music of his second, ‘free atonal’ period made – of all the contemporary supply – the strongest impression upon me. But quite soon the entire modernist project seemed to me too flawed to be of interest in the longer run, and the discovery of the music of Szymanowski showed the way to a vision of contemporary music, where elements from different sources and different periods could find an expressive synthesis. Later-on I discovered that the concept of ‘tradition’ was not some sort of prescriptive orthodoxy but a dynamic, free process, and this opened the door to liberally using whatever sources could be found to create a personal musical language, thoroughly traditional but free from any dogma. It was like wearing a tie and jacket for the right reasons and not because of some dictated custom. Choosing a major triad free from any pre-conceived framework does, in fact, come closer to how composers like Mozart and Beethoven worked, than to the academic notion of rules, limitations, and the like. When a culture is something that is lived rather than artificially applied, whatever rules are directing the dynamics are internalized, form part of the creative personality, and then operate under the stimulus of subconscious ordering where both emotional and rational factors find a happy confluence. This has nothing to do with ‘conservatism’ because nothing is ‘conserved’.
In 1989 I organized, with the support of a big sponsor, a chamber music festival in the old Dutch town of Haarlem. During a week, international top musicians played programs around the theme of ‘Tradition and Renewal’, highlighting both elements as part of a healthy musical tradition. Although the locals – in spite of extensive promotion and marketing – had not much interest in such a musical event at their doorstep, the festival was a success, which could not be repeated because of the sponsor’s merger with a company without any interest in cultural projects. The festival opened with a panel discussion about contemporary music in relation to traditional concert life, where – apart from tonal composers, journalists and critics – also some modernist composers were invited. No single modernist composer accepted the invitation – but one of them, Peter Jan Wagemans, sent me a message in which he accused me of right-wing fascistoid leanings as associated with Richard Strauss’ collaboration with the Nazis. Any publication by me in a newspaper or magazine was equally followed by irritated reactions which tried to put any alternative to modernism into the box of ‘conservative, reactionary, elitist’ defence against progress, as if such alternatives inevitably meant a descent into the pit of the notorious exhibition of ‘Entartete Kunst’ under the Nazi regime. Also in my recent court case against the Dutch music fund, supportive documents by Roger Scruton were dismissed as merely ‘conservative’, as if this were sufficient proof of meaniglessness of the said opinions. I disagree on some points with Scruton’s ideas, but on culture and the arts he is, in my opinion, most of the time just right on a very fundamental level. And where his opinions are different from the reader’s, they are always well-argued and a strong stimulus to further exploration. I consider myself not as a ‘conservative’, because I conserve nothing, but I regret the phenomenon that a deep understanding of history and culture, when found with thinkers of a ‘conservative signature’, is suddenly mistrusted, as if tainted by crime. This can be no more than a primitive, unthinking prejudice…… I will always defend Scruton, because he is one of the great thinkers of our time, and if some of his ideas are considered ‘conservative’ – if they are good, viable, and workable, I don’t care a damn if they are ‘conservative’ or not. In contrary, so many of Scruton’s ideas are not ‘conservative’ in the conventional sense at all, like his ideas about the environment.
The meaning of the word ‘conservatism’ in a philosophical/political sense goes back to Edmond Burke, who had a couple of perfectly common sense criticisms upon the French Revolution, which – as we all know – combined highminded utopia with enthusiastic bloodshed. His understanding of society as an imperfect but workable organism and his awareness of the chain of generations where responsibility stretches-out to both the past and the future, was informed by a heightened sense of civilization, which always depends upon moderation and the refinement of emotions and ideas. It would be regrettable if this sense of civilization could only be found with people with a ‘conservative’ signature; civilization is neither ‘conservative’ nor ‘progressive’ but belongs to all humanity. The urge to protect valuable things from the past so that they can live-on in the present and the future, is not ‘conservatism’, as the comparison with dentistry amply shows. If this common sense mentality is mainly found in ‘conservative circles’, it is to their credit, and proves the importance of their contribution to the discourse about how our civilization should develop. We should appreciate and value everything that may improve civilization, wherever it is found.
The notion of a ‘dismissive conservatism’ as the enemy of progress stems from a period when political and otherwise thinking had clear delineations: now half a century ago. But the world is more complex than the distinction between leftwing and rightwing thinking. Metaphorically speaking: carefully choosing a triad or a tie, cultivating one’s intellectual abilities and manners, as well as one’s taste in cultural matters, are – next to so many other things – part of the process of civilization, the very thing contemporary Western society so obviously needs. The human condition is not a thing from last year but from millennia of experience. In the course of numerous generations, man has discovered values which enhance life and the life of the mind; it would be wise to not reject but embrace the wisdom of so much experience and apply it, where possible and appropriate, in our own life and time, adapting it to our own condition. This has profound consequences for our arts: what had been damned as ‘conservative’ half a century ago, may now emerge as the most progressive pool of ideas of today.
John Borstlap / 2013