These turbulent times may inspire our culture’s evolution

February 23, 2017

How will we humans develop as a civilisation? Will our shared progress and cultural values continue to grow and expand? These questions seem particularly pertinent now, when many around the world are harking back to a simpler age, and seem in favour of erecting boundaries around themselves.

I was thinking about the limits we place on ourselves when American opera singer Renee Fleming came to speak at The Pureland Foundation at China Exchange recently.

While it might not be unusual for a singer or artist to allow themselves to become pigeon-holed, that can be stultifying. The artist is trapped by their own success into doing more of what they are good rather than developing additional skills or following their instincts.

Not so with Fleming. She has been breaking the boundaries of opera singers, and redefining what is expected of a classical soprano. Instructed to sing the standard Italian operatic repertoire of Puccini and Verdi if she wanted a major career, she trusted herself enough to understand that the timbre of her voice – and her nature – led her to Mozart and Strauss.

She also sings jazz, has released an album of indie rock called Dark Hope, and her new album contains songs by Bjork alongside 20th-Century American “classical” music and a new work composed for Fleming by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, debuted in 2013.

Fleming is part of a long traditional of artistic iconoclasts. Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor was noted for his innovation and stylistic diversity, pushing the boundaries of musical design. I think too of TS Eliot’s poetry with its lack of structure and jazz tempo, and the stream of consciousness found in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. More recently, it is difficult to imagine a more extraordinary innovator than David Bowie.

Of course, breaking the rules is risky business. TS Eliot was called wilfully esoteric and incomprehensible by some critics. The vivid works of the impressionists caused uproar in Paris when they were first shown. Post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh’s art was deplored in his life time. The Surrealists were despised by the Establishment.

Yet unless artists dare to shock and to break the accepted boundaries of taste, the development of culture stagnates. Art as a whole feeds on the variety and bravery of the individual artist.

But can progress go on indefinitely? Ceramicist Grayson Perry thinks not, warning three years ago that art is running out of ways to be innovative: “We are all bohemians now, the formal possibilities of art have been worn out…The system co-opts rebels, that’s what it feeds on.”

There are of course a range of views. Perhaps our turbulent times are the very impetus that art continues to need. The shock of world events could surely inspire a whole new generation of musicians and artists. It may be uncomfortable at first, it may at times be incomprehensible, but as long as there are sopranos and sculptors, playwriters and fine artists with a determination to keep experimenting, I believe our culture will continue to evolve and excite.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation