Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis on the prospects of Western culture

Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis, who has announced policy against political correctness in his theater, took part in Gaidar Forum with professors from U.S. (Yuri Slezkine and Michael Kimmage) to discuss the prospects of Western culture. Here is speech of Hermanis that was published in his Facebook profile.

Several years ago, I was staging an opera at the Royal Opera house in Brussels. And our conductor was at the same time the musical director of Seatle Simphony orchestra, in the USA. Knowing that among the residents of the Washington State there is not only Jeff Bezos but also Bill Gates with all of his Microsoft billionaires friends, I told my conductor that he must be a very lucky man with all these rich donors and sponsors coming to his concerts. His answer surprised me. He said that all those IT people have zero interest in classical music. We know that in the USA there is no Ministry of Culture and the opera houses and orchestras, which represent the tradition of the Western culture in that country, were operating historically only thanks to the so called – old money, the rich part of society which was allways supporting culture. Now by accident we find out that the wealthy people who are making money with new technologies are not interested in Western culture anymore. Very interesting. If that’s true – then I have a question: do they identify themselves with Western civilization or not? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that they already belong to a different civilization. What do we know about the laws of nature? Entropy is an inevitable process. And in order to build something brand new – you must destroy the old. There is no way to avoid it. Simple physics. Even children playing in a sandbox know this reality.

It seems to me that the roots, the origin, of globalism come from Western civilization and culture. Globalism itself is the next level, the next stage in the evolution of Western culture. All that the globalists are doing – they are expanding and developing some old Western values – rarionalism, the free market, in a certain sense they are even modifying the Christian vision of equality and brotherhood of man. But there are people who believe – that on this way they are abandoning some other values of Western culture – national identity, religious freedoms, traditional values and cultural traditions. Western or I would say – European civilization in the past set up two mega-scale laboratories were to experiment with their more radical and brave ideas – how to improve the human civilization? Those ideas were born and created in European minds but materialized and experimented with on other territories – I mean North America in one case and communist countries in the second. In both cases we know the results. The new experiment – the concept of globalization – we can probably call a mixture of the previous two. And it will be very exciting to follow the work of this new laboratory which in this case takes place on a planetary scale. And nobody will be able to hide. Regarding the Western art and culture in this context: The history of any culture, not only Western, is – about tradition. Like it or not. Tradition inevitably means – something very very old. I am sorry but I must stress this word. Because this word itself – “old” – nowadays on the territory of professional artists has only a negative meaning. Being old automatically means being bad, outdated, something that must be abandoned and fought against. Today’s art market is constructed in such a way that in order to survive you must position yourself as a modern and innovative artist. And by the way it helps if you are not familiar with the history of art – because then you are living in happy ignorance of the past – for example that something you invented this morning was probably already in existence some 100 or 50 years ago. So – in short – Western professional art today is ashamed of its own history and tradition. Its like being ashamed of your parents and grandparents. To respect the tradition now is simply a very bad taste in our bussiness. And young artists learn and adopt these rules incredibly fast. Of course Western artists (starting from Monteverdi and Leonardo da Vinci) were allways trying to be innovative but their creativity was based on a dialog with tradition. Nowadays you can skip that part, its just a waste of time.

A few years ago, I staged a theatre play about the last day before the resignation of the Catholic Pope Benedict XVI with Misha Baryshnikov in the title role. We did it before the Hollywood version came out and our message was very different as well. When the former Pope was asked why he chose the name Benedict? He answered that the saint he had in mind was St Benedict in the Middle ages who decided to hide from barbarian wars and established a new rule for monastic life. Which, in a certain sense, became the prototype for the European town and European or Western civilization in general. The central part of this monastery after the church was the library. If somebody from outer space were to ask me – please, explain to us in one word – what is the metaphor, the keyword of Western civilization? I would answer – books. The cornerstone number one. If you are working in theatre you can easily witness the change of audience that has taken place over the last 20 years. In former times the theatre art always was a reference to literature. In fact, theatre itself was an extension of literature. Not anymore. If you work on our side of the stage, you can see that theatre spectators mostly do not read books anymore. Their perception is focused not on the texts but on images. In order to communicate with them you must transform the whole system of codes. Just like emoji are replacing words on our smartphones. Because in today’s theatres we are dealing with differently constructed brains. For example, I believe that the biggest contribution to human history made by Steve Jobs is not Apple but – Pixar. The animated cartoons company Pixar – which Jobs was leading in-between the Apple years. Because that was A REAL revolution. To invent a completely new way how to steal and program children’s brains. I don’t want to sound like an angry grandfather. In fact – Steve Jobs if he were alive – would be older than most of us. And the new generation of today is only a side effect product of the reality which was invented by those who are now in their 70ies. But his heritage is obvious – human brains today are used to perceiving visual information of high intensity and are functioning very differently from human brains which used to read texts and imagine the reality behind the words. In the first version the thinking part is skipped. Because brains are not trained to do this. The speed of visual information simply does not give a chance or time for thinking because – here comes the next piece of information and so on. So – if we agree that the crucial point of Western civilizations faith are the brains of our children – than the outcome is clear. They are sitting already on a different train. And nobody knows – where it goes. Don’t ask the passengers.

Regarding future prospects of Western culture:two options? Surrender unconditionally or resist at least on your territory a little bit longer? Pope Benedict for example chose isolation in order to preserve the essence and not compromise it. I can imagine that even in some distant future there will be small groups of people who will practice the traditions and rituals of Western culture. The way folk groups wear ethnographic costumes twice a week. A little pathetic but at least something. Although we cannot exclude the possibility that globalism will fail and we will witness its bankruptcy. Nobody knows how it will develop. Maybe problems created by globalism – unemployment, economic crises and human catastrophes – will change the direction backwards. As we see in the context of Covid-19 – national states and communities are suddenly taking full responsibility back and nobody cares about international institutions.

Another observation – the speed of change now is so crazy – that one unpredictable little new circumstance can easily turn everything upside down. Like Gorbahev 35 years ago or this famous virus a year ago. And in such a case our former experience may be useless. And Western civilization may come back renewed. What is for sure is that the most challenging thing in the future will be the freedom. In all kinds of its manifestations. Our lives will get more and more controlled and limited and the Chinese example is another good laboratory which gives us some hints about our future. Human nature is going to resist all this. Again – laws of nature. For example, – when Joseph Brodsky got the Nobel prize – he was asked by a Western journalist by the way – how is it possible that a person who grew up in a communist country, in a communal apartment in just a few square meters – has reached the Nobel Prize? Brodsky answered: If your physical freedom is limited, then you must proportionally compensate for this with your inner freedom. Yes, freedom will become the biggest challenge and the most precious thing in the nice bright future which is expecting us. I am not sure that you can rely on artists too much. A typical modern artist is a kind of businessmen who fully depends on the market and does not go against the mainstream. And he is such a well-behaved prisoner that you don’t need prison guards anymore. By the way, – have you heard anything about rock music recently? Thank you for your attention. Alvis Hermanis. 15.01.2021.

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