C & I accepted the offer to be jurors along with a couple of others at a modest film festival in an off-season, seaside town 25 minutes outside of Lisbon. For me it’s a way of taking a forced vacation, as I dove right back into various kinds of work and projects as soon as my year-long tour ended.
We had dinner with some of the other festivalgoers, along with a classical pianist who was visiting. Some wondered what was to become of music as filesharing and illegal downloading becomes more prevalent. I offered that yes, it is a huge problem for record companies and for some types of musicians — but it seems that not coincidentally, the illegal downloaders are the same people who spend the most money on music and music-related “products” (concerts, etc.). More than anyone else, these “offenders” are passionate music fans and consumers. I suggested that maybe if buying music online had been encouraged sooner, and if the process didn’t have so many catches (like DRM-hampered files), things might not have gone badly so quickly for the record companies.
I mentioned that this digital technology gives many types of artists more power over the means of production, and even distribution — which might not be such a bad thing. I then began to speculate about other media beyond music that are going digital — films, books, television — and that the “view on demand” technology that Netflix uses, or something similar to it, might allow indie filmmakers to take charge of their own distribution (not via Netflix, but through their own sites, giving them a larger income percentage). The communal theatrical film experience might be lost, but that seems to be the case for those small films anyway — so there isn’t much of a trade-off. There’s little downside in trying out a non-theatrical kind of distribution.
I could sense the eyes glazing over as I talked excitedly about various possibilities and somewhat optimistic scenarios for the near future. The conversation then turned to European cultural history, and the patronage that supported Mozart and Bach. Our fellow juror, choreographer Rui Horta, mentioned that André Malraux had been innovative and influential in this regard in the last century. Malraux was, from 1959 to 1969, the Minister of Cultural Affairs in France under De Gaulle, during which time he developed maisons de la culture in several small French towns. These were the first state-supported culture centers in France — basically performing arts centers with rehearsal rooms attached; the latter implying that new works would be created on-site. This aspect was the innovative and radical part, as it meant that creation would be decentralized — that more than a few officially sanctioned organizations and artists would be allowed, theoretically, into the fold of cultural production. Rui had been artist in residence at one of these centers in France, and had more recently initiated a similar center in the Portuguese countryside.
Malraux was also a novelist and anti-colonialist activist in Indochina and elsewhere. I’ve read his book The Voices of Silence — an amazing art history book in which he proposes that art has replaced religion in the West. Here he is editing Museum without Walls, in which he argued that art books are portable museums — again a move towards decentralization, putting creation in the hands of folks all over the country.
Days later, during a magazine interview with Inês de Medeiros, the senator for culture in Portugal, I put my foot in it. I suggested that it was more important that children, and everyone really, be imbued with a sense that they themselves might make things — that the things they might make have value — as opposed to learning mainly to appreciate the great masters, whether they be Bach, Picasso or the literary canon. I proposed that the value of art might be of more use to society in that regard, rather than focusing on supporting, well, museums and symphony halls. Naturally, to a senator who has made it her noble mission to argue for more support for the arts, this is slightly heretical and, as she said, “very American.” America’s lack of state support for the arts and skepticism of the value of fine art is legendary.
I qualified my opinion by saying that I myself love a lot of “refined” contemporary art, and some highbrow or academic music as well — but I don’t assume that everyone should. Those who enjoy that stuff are not all wealthy, but they do constitute an elite, rarified world. By this definition, comic book fans and heavy metal fans are elite bunches as well. Every subculture is, in a way. I don’t presume that my tastes or those of my friends require lots of state support — although a little more in the US would be nice — and I would argue that supporting the arts and culture in schools at all levels is worth a lot more to our future quality of life. Encouraging students to write, to make stuff, to cook, design, to draw, play an instrument, record music, sing, edit films, etc. — all of that creates a sense of self-worth, curiosity and experimentation that has applications way beyond each of those disciplines. I would argue that this is where the greater percentage of state funding should go. Of course in the US, it’s the part that has been eliminated almost completely.
A couple of days later at the hotel breakfast table, I overheard FF Coppola at the next table espousing the merging of live performance and film as where the future of film might lie. C and I thought that he must not be aware of many of the performance groups we know who already do this — the Wooster Group has been doing it for years, and Big Dance Theater just did a short run at The Kitchen in NY that was a seamless blend of live projected video and live performance. But yes, other than in isolated scenes it hasn’t caught fire in a big commercial way just yet, although arena rock concerts do it all the time.
I noted to myself that we North Americans (and I’m not even native born) tend to get excited (with reservations) about future possibilities. We are curious about what is to come, good or bad, and how we might be part of it, and possibly find our niche or avoid the worst. Here in Europe, where admittedly things are often more “civilized,” the weight of the past consumes people’s thoughts. While a European sees oneself as part of a continuum — a long line of culture receding into the dim and distant past — North Americans can only feel in their guts that they are standing upon a thin veneer of history. They are both excited and stimulated by the idea of what can be imagined, what might come into existence that never existed previously — sometimes stimulated to the point of dangerous insanity. This is, I guess, a bit of a cliché, but here I was having examples thrown in my face. There might be a grain of truth to it at least.
In a recent New Yorker article on murder, German sociologist Norbert Elias is mentioned as promoting the concept of the idea of a “civilizing process” that encompasses many of our behaviors…a process that requires increased self-control and restraint. The growing dominance of the state, especially in Western Europe, is seen in this view as part of this process, whereby the application of justice is entrusted by the people to the state. It involves the “replacement of a culture of honor [and honor killings] with a culture of dignity… Duels replaced feuds,” resulting in fewer casualties.
In much of the US, it might be argued, this process has a ways to go, as many North Americans are loathe to give power to the state, and prefer to exact revenge and justice on their own (and to take responsibility for their own medical costs and health — or lack of it). This is one possible explanation as to why the US has the highest homicide rate of any affluent democracy — we are the least “civilized.” Our wildness is often a well of creativity and gumption; it’s a font of opportunity and hope, a draw and seduction for immigrants, and maybe equally an explanation for the extremes and prevalence of stupidity that exist in the US as well.
In the end, I wondered to myself, if we assume, cliché though it might be, that Europe focuses on the past, and North America on the future, then does it follow that there is another continent that is more oriented to the present? Africa? The line of reasoning is ridiculous, but I’m curious where it leads. I wonder if each continent might have a temporal focus. And if so, does this mean that there are more kinds of time than past, present and future?