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May 12, 2021

The show must go on

Let us imagine, following in Gogol’s footsteps, a small provincial town. Not just any town, because it takes pride in an Opera House (at one time imperial) and the mimetic temptation to organize a ball lives up to local ambitions. The beneficiary (or better put the protagonist) is the town’s elite, supported on this occasion by society’s main “institutions.” The Police for instance will, based on a subtle score, direct traffic so that taxis (these contemporary carriages) will follow one after another at an ineffable rhythm in order to bring the evening’s privileged on the red carpet. The Press, in its turn, will play the role of welcoming host, through a local representative (by chance one who has just been close to taking over the leadership of the public television channel). Who, knowing well the “merits” of each and every one, will touch every guest with well-aimed words of gratitude.

The Art will also know how to answer the social command, presenting to the eyes and ears thirsting for beauty a fruit of another imperial hieratism – the Russian ballets. The gracious and strictly codified movements of the well-restrained dancers (unlike the chaos of “folk” parties) will be in line with the dream of a harmonized and wisely-led society. The “minor” arts of fashion and gastronomy, after all the most certain clues of social hierarchy, will not be missing either. “Tell me what you eat and what you wear and I’ll tell you who you are.” A well-known stylist will stress the elite’s desire for high-life differentiation through his “haute couture” offer. And the rhythm of Tchaikovsky’s delicate swans will give way to others more suitable to release the tension of souls burdened by important social responsibilities. A versatile very fashionable “band” (extremely active on TV, at corporate cocktails and “stylish weddings”) will smooth down the elite and spur it to dance. The School will be present too, since the rector of the local university (the biggest in the city and the country), lately meant not just to mold youngsters but also to sanction the “boyars of the mind,” will hand over decorations to the “city’s seniors.” The decorations are, in fact, another imperial specialty, as Chekov ironically reminds us in “Anna on the Neck.” As a crowning of it all, the ball will produce a scenographic revolution: the seats of the Opera House’s usual spectators will disappear in order to make room for an extended salon parquet of truly imperial dimensions.
Such an image however is not just common for the high-life chronicle of a small provincial town. In fact, it expresses a far more significant reality. And worrisome. Because society is a spectacle. Here is what Guy Debord wrote almost half a century ago: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a ‘Weltanschauung’ (a worldview) that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.” In other words, the aforementioned “ball” can be considered an image of social functionality. Of course, an ideal one desired by its main beneficiaries. The law enforcement authorities meant to render traffic “fluid” in order to spare the elites from annoying traffic jams (not just auto but also social). The TV press hosting lengthy talk-shows, conferring special publicity to carefully selected personalities. Ideas inevitably become secondary in relation to the aura that the simple presence in TV studios confers, as if the said guests already have a legitimated status and criticisms can be circumstantial at most. It’s more of an “honor” that they have honored the invitation. After all, either you undeniably “exist” or you no longer “exist.” Media lynching deals with this denial of status, but it too functions as a form (manipulated, of course) of alleged spectacle in which the masses of TV viewers emotional participate. On the other hand, aren’t social aesthetics a combination of snobbism and kitsch? It’s not by chance that classical ballet (and artistic skating – its sports counterpart) attracts more than the conceptual and problematic contemporary dance does, and the musical arrangements (not just Bach ending up in the hands of Edvin Marton, but also Johan Lennon’s “Imagine” lose their nerve in a symphonic variant) adapt anything to a doubtful taste. The art has lost its stakes far too much, stakes that do not boil down solely to aesthetizing the social spectacle, conferring narcotic virtues to it. Art should not irresponsibly put a gun in the hand, nor should it be nothing but pleasant frankincense that legitimizes the status-quo. And instead of contributing to humanizing a world that is far too morally impoverished, adding taste and charm to it, the new cultures of gastronomy and fashion have ended up participating solely to a new snobbism. The opera, Wagner dreamt, should cumulate the virtues of all arts. But all that is left of the ideal of this total art form is a piling up of aesthetical expedients meant solely for a pseudo-elitist “entertainment.” A kind of a Swedish buffet with pieces of art for easy consumption. In what concerns the social imaginary, the main aspiration thus seems reduced to the access to such a “select company.” Like a “church” for those “delivered” from social failure. And those meant to form personalities, to prepare for the confrontation with ossified societies, namely the “teachers,” now also assume the right to establish the hierarchies of prestige. Gratefulness is a virtue, but in certain conditions respects risk becoming only simulacra of popularity. A prestigious “scholar” should retain the freedom of being able to reproach a former student that has reached the top of social hierarchy for his “betrayals” in relation to the ideals imparted at University.
Neomarxists would say that this “ball” is directed by the evil genie of neocapitalism. Others, imbued with a certain religious culture, would say that the master of ceremonies is none other than the devil himself (something akin to the atmosphere in “The Master and Margarita,” although Bulgakov preferred a more playful tonality). But maybe at fault is only man’s conformism, which transforms this world into a ball room, mixing art, politics, university, mass-media and fashion into an irresponsible carnival.

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