The True Meaning of Culture
And what 2020 told us about the importance of arts.
by Jochen Ressel
With only a short interruption in the autumn, the cultural life stands almost still since March 2020.
There are no live concerts, no theatre or opera performances with public attendance, no public readings, no comedy shows, no museums open, no galleries – but only just some sad attempts to provide whatever is possible via various digital channels. Thousands of artists with minimal income – if any – and many institutions at the economic abyss. This is this situation, in which 2020 leaves the cultural world behind. But who cares? Should we even care, taking into consideration the thousands of people mourning their lost beloved ones whose lives were taken by this mysterious virus? Does culture really matter in the context of a pandemic?
It wouldn't be me if I'm not stating very clearly: Yes, it matters – more than ever for numerous reasons – and all of them are directly related to the situation we all have to cope with.
As we call it, culture often means what happens in opera houses, theatres, galleries, concert halls, and so on. But these are expressions of our culture – so-called "arts". Culture in its true and full meaning is the shared treasure of experiences and the agreement of a group of people on the definition of concepts and terms. We understand honour, courage, passion, love and virtue differently from people of other cultures. The understanding of these terms is based on a narrative of experiences and stories that have been lived over thousands of years. And more than ever, what we are currently experiencing is adding new aspects to this narrative – even more importantly, as this is not solely national but on a global level as the entire humanity is affected by the current pandemic. We have to keep in mind, that there are only very few occasions in centuries, where all women and men share a common experience and have to cope with globally – and we are in the midst of one!
All our narratives are manifested in different cultural expressions: what music we listen to, what language we speak, how we live, what we eat and drink and much more. The more people understand that there are different treasures of experience that constitutes different expressions of culture, the greater the chance of meeting each other in peace and respecting each other. This turns difference into an opportunity for enrichment - and cultural institutions contribute to this dialogue extensively. Therefore, if cultural institutions stand still or not, it makes a difference, especially when current narratives form new narratives.
Our country, in particular, has benefited from cultural diversity throughout the ages. Located at the intersection of Romanic, Germanic, Slavic and Magyar cultures, people's diversity has made extraordinary expressions of culture possible – in music, paintings, opera, theatre, sculpturing, architecture, and much more. However, we will be well on the way to losing this advantage if we now miss the opportunity to integrate the Covid experience to what we are as humans – as we will never again be the same human society as in pre-Covid times.
Therefore, the resurrection of our cultural life as soon as possible is of importance beyond imagination – particularly as numerous forms of artistic expressions contribute arguably to the mental well-being of society as well, which has undoubtedly a significant impact on the physical health – and our community is suffering from both health factors because of the Covid-19 crises.
Ultimately, comedy, theatre, opera, music, painting, lyrics, writing and various other forms of arts have always had to play an essential role as an adjusting factor for politics. It's an inevitable and irreplaceable way to criticise, support, question and even convict political decisions and point out which alternatives are accessible.
From a very personal perspective I can say that from the 39 concerts I planned to perform in 2020, only 7 took place. The music itself and the cooperation with hundreds of singer colleagues, with soloists and conductors, is an essential part of a currently dreadfully missed contribution to my “joie de vivre”, to the lust of life, vitality and groove, a source of energy, which is not accessible for the time being. For this reason, it is a deeply felt concern of mine to revitalise arts as soon as possible, to be able to make a small contribution to ensuring that we can remain a cultural society that consciously perceives new impressions, appreciates them and uses them symbiotically to be able to live in peace and tranquillity with ourselves, our fellow human beings and nature.
Let us have your thoughts. We are looking forward to receiving your comments!
Jochen Ressel is a Board Member of the Austro-British Society, is tenor and speaker of the Men's Choir of the Wiener Dommusik which performs in the Vienna Stephansdom and is singing with the Wiener Singakademie, the chorus of the Vienna Konzerthaus. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely his and reflect in no way the views of the ABS. He worked several years for a UK company and its HQ in London.