Democracy, Art and the Promise of Liberty
The Promise of Liberty
Liberty is a central promise of Western civilization. It lies at the core of democratic societies – which developed in Europe as a synthesis of two complementary ethical traditions – of equality and liberty. Liberty means the freedom of choice, which implies not only the objective existence of choice, such as political pluralism and free elections guaranteed by democratic constitutions, but also the subjective ability to make a genuine choice. It means the relative freedom of the individual versus society. John Stuart Mill, one of the great British philosophers and economists of the 19th century, advocated the freedom of the individual as a stronghold against the threats of conformism, uniformism and tyranny, be it the political tyranny of an autocratic State power, or the social pressure of the majority. In his essay On Liberty (1859) he states that “human liberty comprises, first of all, the inward domain of consciousness; demands liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological”. Without this spirit of liberty in consciousness, thought and feeling the historical developments which led to the institutionalization of freedom in democratic constitutions might never have occurred. The same is true the other way around. Even institutionalized freedom may erode if people lose their spirit of liberty. It is within the individual where liberty begins.
The Freedom of Art
Freedom is also the mother of art, or, as the German poet, philosopher and playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote “art is a daughter of freedom” (in: Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen, 1795). So it was not a mere coincidence that art as a free expression of a creative individual emerged from the European struggle for liberty with the rise of democratic values and civil rights. It was neither a coincidence that the first museum of art, the Louvre, opened its doors at the first anniversary of the beheading of Louis XVI, inviting the citizens to what had been previously only accessible for the gentry. The rise of the artist from a dependent craftsman, kept in place by God and the orders of his principal, to a free creator is inextricably linked with two major developments of European history: the Renaissance with its humanistic ideals and the Enlightenment with its secular individualism. The Renaissance was a cultural renewal brought forth by the ideals of freedom of thought, critique of traditions, search for truth, desire for education, which opened the way for the emancipation of the individual from social, religious and intellectual traditions, and the liberation of the artist to his unique creativity. An artistic achievement sparked the historical process of liberation of the artist from feudal dominance – the invention of the central perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi, which placed the viewer for the first time in the centre of a world created by the artist himself.
Excerpt from the catalogue Declining Democracy, published by Silvana Editoriale; soon available online the full text.