di Samuele Vignoli 4^Elsa
Starting from a consideration by Giorgio Agamben regarding the importance that the Greeks attributed to music and its everlasting bond with control and politics, a discussion sparks around the innate power of not just music, but art as a whole. Traveling through history, from the ancient Greeks to the modern days, it’s simple to find examples of how art has been used not just as a form of entertainment, but also an insidious instrument of manipulation, exploiting its apparent innocence to drive away any suspicion. How is it that art, one the greatest tools to open one’s mind and allow one to think outside the box, is so great at enclosing a mind in the proverbial “box”? The Greeks knew the answer to this question and they decided to pass it on through their greatest political works. Though today we wish to ignore it, the truth stands unaltered and many desire to take advantage of it. With this in mind, the text explores the nature of music and art in its entirety and ponders over how they can be both the expression of the will of the people and its manipulator, how they can be both freedom and its bane.
Music and minds: how freedom fights against freedom.
In a world whose foundation is that of politics and politicians, laws and regulations, dos and don’ts, there must be a way to free oneself from this seemingly inescapable grasp. Escapism, as it’s called, is the practice of using a tool, generally some form of art, to free one’s mind from all of the regulated chaos of the real world. Many people seek time to escape, because it is one of the only moments in their busy lives when they can truly feel free of all the shackles that bind them to their duties. A few fleeting hours or minutes when they feel at ease with themselves. Moments when, in colloquial terms, they can relax and enjoy themselves. This is a part of society that is most often ignored and, at times, even entirely neglected. In fact, the word that the majority of people connect to “society” is not “freedom” or “culture”, but rather “politics”; the laws that govern society hold far more power than any other of its aspect. And yet, “society” is not synonymous with “laws”; it is instead a greater machine, composed of many moving parts that all work in unison, efficiently or not, to power the whole. All the components have different purposes, but all of them are necessary for the machine to properly activate and function. But then the question that comes to mind is: “Can the components interact directly with each other?” This small question holds many more answers than its simplicity would make one believe and is, in fact, at the core of explaining the behavior of the great machine that is society.
Seeking to explain the intricacies of this question, philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls back to the society of ancient Greece. He explains that Greeks knew that there was a connection between music and politics, a link so evident that two of the greatest Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, even chose to keep discussions about music limited to their political works. They knew that music held power and that it could be used to manipulate the population in the same way words could or, often, even more effectively. This eternal bond that connects music and politics, two parts of the same machine, is one that stood the test of time. On the other hand, our consciousness of it didn’t resist and it faded into obscurity, until it was rendered unrecognizable and unknown to most; even more eerily, others intentionally ignored it, probably hoping to chase away a fear they couldn’t control.
Regardless of what our minds believe or want to believe, this connection still stands to this day and it only became more prevalent in the contemporary society. Music speaks to us in a way that words can’t and it creates emotions in our bodies that change us from within. Our music defines us and, in return, we define our music. Just like how we can choose who we want to be, we can choose what our music says in its unintelligible and yet perfectly clear language. Songs and melodies are extensions of our being, a musical representation of who we are and who we want to be that anyone, unlike with words, can hear and understand. Music genres aren’t just different types of music, they are different types of people and personalities that choose to express themselves and that want to have a metaphorical banner to stand under so they can unite themselves with like minded people that feel the same as they feel. History proves this and one doesn’t need to look far back to understand. A few decades ago, the punk rock movement shook societies across the world like an ephemeral earthquake. Its young members were decisive and they wanted change, but they were too young and inexperience to make a difference in the proper, political way, so they did the only thing they knew could unite them: they made music. Its aggressive tones and rough lyrics refused to hide anything as they wanted to portray what the world really felt like, removing all barriers between them and reality. This decisiveness had a major impact on society, spreading like a wildfire among those who wanted change and lighting up souls with a burning passion for freedom of expression. This new-age rebellion, composed not of brilliant intellectuals and extraordinary politicians but of ordinary people whose sole intention was to create a better world to live in, shaped society into something new and it did this through the power of music.
Though the events that defined the story of the punk genre are inspiring, the influence music has is not just a weapon of the people. Governmental organizations can wield this power just as well as anyone else can and, with enough planning and mindfulness, they are able to secretly manipulate us using a weapon we’re not prepared to protect ourselves from. Going back to Giorgio Agamben’s work, he states that “the sound of the horn or the roll of the drums are just as much or even more effective than the command of the official.” This example succinctly explains how music (intended not just as songs and melodies, but as any sound that makes us feel an emotion) can control us in subtle, unexpected ways. In modern terms, the example’s reference to a military environment can feel distant from the average person, but this technique of secret mental manipulation is even more common now in everyday activities than it has ever been. From the catchy jingles found in television advertisements to the satisfying sound of biting crisps and even to the dry, powerful sound of closing a car door, every sound is closely monitored and finely engineered to activate a specific part of our brain to make us addicted; addicted people mean addicted customers and addicted customers mean more purchases. In the modern era, a time when engineering has reached extraordinary precision and social sciences have taken important steps into understanding human behavior, one must be careful at even the smallest, most seemingly irrelevant of details so as not to be influenced in their decision.
Music is a particularly appropriate topic due to its popularity among modern societies and peoples, but that doesn’t mean that it is the only form of art that can be used as a tool of manipulation. As a matter of fact, art as a whole possesses this power and this is due to the nature of art itself. By definition, art is the expression of a person’s mind, an external representation of the artist’s internal world. As such, any piece of art is supposed to convey emotions and ideally those would be the ones that the artist felt when making his work. The knowledge of this leads people to create works that are specifically built to make others feel a specific emotion, not for the sake of making art. A clear example of this would be satirical drawings and comics that portray certain characters, generally related to politics, with exaggerated proportions and actions to show only a particular side of them. These pieces of art have existed for centuries, but have only become very popular in the late 1700s with the dawn of popular newspapers. These satires aren’t created for the sake of making an inspiring, grand piece of art that will be remembered in the future, but rather to manipulate their readers into believing something that may be irrelevant or entirely untrue. This may be done for several reasons, mainly propaganda by insulting a contender to make another contender look more appealing to the voters. Another example of engineered art is that of war statues. Although these have evolved to become mostly only memorials to remember brave soldiers lost in a war, in the past they were meant to show, truthfully or not, the courage and skill of a general or a king. While the artists who worked on these statues almost certainly had no ill intent, those who commissioned the work had a double purpose. On one hand, building a statue shows power and wealth, while also being a beautiful decoration for a public or private place, but on the other, war statues were meant to set a standard, to elevate the portrayed person above and beyond everyone else. They were built to show superiority and to instill an unconscious fear into those who observed it, forcing an entire people into submission without it even noticing.
Ultimately, if art is so dangerous to us, why do we still produce it? Even if art is the pinnacle of freedom of expression, is it not too dangerous for the modern world when it can be so easily exploited? The answer comes down to two factors, one passive and one active: beauty and balance. The former is simple. Art is beautiful and this is the main reason why it keeps changing and adapting to its society instead of fading away. People want a beautiful world because not just because it makes them feel good, but also because they terrified of the opposite. A gray, dull world with no art is a fear that houses in deepest recesses of everyone’s minds, so deep in fact that most people don’t even realize they are scared of it. And yet, when they think of the possibility of an artless world, a sad, uncaring landscape where there is no space for beauty, suddenly the fear surfaces from the depths, like a predator lying in wait. This innate fear is enough for those who feel it to accept the dangers of art, even if it means being constantly subjected to external influences and not being capable to protect your thoughts from others.
Balance, on the other hand, is the active act of using art to counteract the effects of other art. Just like what happened with the punk rebellion, art can be used by anyone capable enough to produce it and that means that it can be used as a counter to itself. It is a double-edged sword that can hurt the creator just as much as it can hurt others, so long as the opponent is able to protect himself appropriately. It’s a game of balance, a war hidden in plain sight where both sides have a purpose and the weapons to fight. Art is dangerous, but only as much as a weapon. So long it aims at the opponent, it will allow the user to protect himself from harm.
Politics and arts are an everlasting couple, an indivisible union of two parts in the same machine. The words of politics hold great power, but they have little reach. The beauty of art holds less power, but it has incredible reach. Together, they form the two faces of a medallion, opposite and yet flawlessly united. Politics to guide and art to show, even if in a controversial manner. Art is a tool of liberty, one to transform personal, fleeting emotions into public, long-lasting beauty, but it can also be used to fight against this liberty, manipulating thoughts and desires from within. It can act against itself if it created to do so. Art that fights art. Freedom that fights freedom.