After the storms of 20th century developments in the arts, provoked by changes in society, wars and their aftermath, increasing industrialization and technological advance, and overviewing the multifarious cultural field today in the Western world, it may be appropriate to return to the fundamental question concerning the raison d’être of the arts: where are they for?
In spite of the complex cultural situation of today (which can only be fully understood after having become the past to future generations), the answer may be short and simple: the arts are there to make the world a better place, and in this sense ‘improving’ it.
The world in which the human species finds itself, is – for many people – a wretched place. Civilization is the slow and cumbersome endeavor to create living circumstances in which man can develop his faculties and thus, experience life to the full, whatever that may mean. The pursuit of ‘happiness’ is, most of the time, a superficial and vain exercise, achieving short instances of fulfilment on costs which seem to be out of proportion, but also often appear worthwhile if we can ‘apply’ these instances as ‘fuel’ for further undertakings. People living in the safe haven of the West are often as unhappy as people in developing countries, still struggling for conditions which have been mastered already long ago in the First World. But yet, it is the hope on improvement which keep the efforts alive, and it is here that the arts contribute to civilization. Experiencing meaningful art confirms the deep instinctive feeling that, somehow, we are destined to live in harmony on this planet and should be ‘at home’ here. The works of art which form part of the enduring core of human civilization, often created against great odds and accompanied by suffering, compensate for the suffering that seems to be a structural part of the world at large.
Therefore, the cult of negativism as practiced in the last century, can only be understood and accepted as a reaction to tragedy too great to find compensation for. But it should never have turned into a convention, reflecting a quasi-consensus that the world is bad, meaningless, that human life is shit, that people are bad, weak, etc. etc. The world does not need to be perfect or meaningful to justify the arts as a contribution of meaning in a context which often ostentatiously lacks it; in contrary, the lack of meaning in the world invites for meaningful art.
It follows from these considerations that the arts should occupy a central place within society, as a value which is meaningful in itself and therefore should be pursued for its own worth. How much of the artistic production of the last century can be expected to appear, in the course of time, as merely debris from a confused era? A question not too difficult to answer.
John Borstlap / 2013