Art and the generation question Culture without conflict

Theater audience
Theater audience | Photo (detail): © Corbis Fotolia

Young people make music and theatre for old people. The friction between generations, so it seems to critic Hannelore Schlaffer, has given way to a general understanding.

The importance of art and culture for a society cannot be measured by the number of artists or art galleries, or the number of novels that are written, or the number of compositions commission awarded by opera houses. If these things sufficed to show that cultural education is still a fundamental element of society, Germany would be the proof of it. Nowhere else are writers, museums and theatres so lavishly supported. Even children and young people are encouraged to devote themselves to traditional cultural values.

A glance at the people who take their places in concert halls or board busses that transport them to cultural events, however, must inevitably raise the concern that young people are seeking their entertainment in areas other than those of classical culture. A high percentage of the group of culture vultures consists of older people; one often seeks in vain for a young face. Youth, one gets the impression, has drifted off to pop music and computer games, to art forms outside the old cultural canon.

Orchestras are rejuvenating themselves, young art historian heading museums

This observation seems to be contradicted by the fact that at the same time orchestras are rejuvenating themselves, young art historians are more and more frequently heading museums and young directors staging plays. Culture has become a conversation that engages minds differently, depending on age. Some make culture into a profession whose mission is to guide, teach and enlighten others. The law holding sway in the cultural scene is that young people make culture for old people.

This kind of communication between the generations, which sees culture as part of the care and maintenance programme, is probably the real reason for the dwindling commitment of younger people in cultural life. Unless their profession obliges them to attend classical cultural events, the young avoid places where people go who are older than their parents. The more popular lectures in the humanities become for senior citizens, the fewer the students who attend them.

This situation is new, for middle-class culture arose from protest: as long as culture was the privilege of an aristocratic upper class, the production and reception of art served as a weapon in the struggle of the social classes. The revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were accompanied by revolutions in art and culture. From the encyclopaedists, stormers and stressers, Paris, Schwabing and Berlin bohemians to the modernist avant-garde, youth has dedicated itself to progress in art and, it believes, thereby also to progress in life.

The battle for “true” or “real” art is over

It was this provocation that moved young artists and art-loving daughters and sons of the middle-class to devote themselves to their artistic inclinations with a now unimaginable intensity and consequence. Students from the lower classes tended to adopt cultural ideals as a means of ascending the social ladder; the daughters and sons of the upper class in turn used culture to articulate their rebellion against the existing society. This conflict between the avant-garde and the establishment was the stimulus that emboldened young people to grapple with tradition and modernity. The struggle between youth and age over what should be considered “true” or “real” art continued into the student movement. Senior citizens still quit the theatre productions of modernist directors with slammed doors. Modernist painting was regarded as the product of irresponsible jokers into the 1970s, and modernist music was a stranger to the concert halls.

Today the conflict between the generations has given way to a general understanding in which all aesthetic passion has been extinguished. The recipients of culture forestall the provocation with friendly alacrity. Their understanding for the latest creations of art is unshakeable: no concert that does not end with music by Arnold Schönberg, Helmut Lachenmann or Wolfgang Rihm and is applauded by an audience that is at heart conservative. Theatre that performs plays as they were written by the “classical” author is considered boring; directors alienate, not to say dismember, the works. The older theatre audience sits embarrassed before the latest artistic experiments, but beaming good-natured approval.

The funding of grants, lectures on poetics, awards and writers-in-residence produces a large number of artists. Every attendance at a cultural event is an encounter with something new – whether this is a book, a theatre production or an exhibition – and so with cultural progress. In fact, however, nothing is taking place save a small celebration: the peace festival between the generations.