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Liberty, Independence, Freedom, and Art!!

"As for those for whom to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next - as to those, in short, for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet." Michel Foucault

July of course was the very month we inaugurated our podcast, a fitting period in terms of United States history in particular since July was also the founding of the republic.

Accordingly, I should like to discuss freedom more generally, as well as independence, since these are deeply constitutive of the nature of art itself.

And just as we commenced in July we also commenced with a discussion of Isaiah Berlin.

Isaiah Berlin looks studios and thoughtful

Isaiah Berlin's two concepts of liberty is arguably one of the most famous pieces of political philosophy in the whole of the 20th century.

Indeed, debates surrounding Berlin's intent and meaning have never discontinued; they have been most intense as of late. In the time of its writing - in 1957 - communist dictatorship was very much on Berlin's (and the world's) mind, the historian's label the Cold War being a shorthand for the period.

Berlin basically said that freedom was not a single thing. (For we pluralists, nothing is ever singular or without internal departments).

At a most basic level, liberty meant the ability to act without impediment, this has been formulated by Berlin as "freedom from".

Conversely, "freedom to" was the ability to do the right or best thing, something akin to what today we could call self improvement.

Berlin was quite critical of this second freedom since for him it had a paternalistic and authoritarian ring; also he felt that too many people wanted to combine both concepts of freedom into a single thing, which was a version of "freedom to."

However Berlin recognized that we always need both senses of freedom.

At the very end of his life, Isaiah Berlin received a letter from then Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which Blair pressed Berlin on this issue, calling into question Berlin's perceived preference for "freedom from".

Blair had in mind the goal of improvement, especially an activist role for government in liberating others, the very apotheosis of "freedom to" in the best sense.

Sadly Berlin died before he could answer Blair's query.

Berlin, of course, had a long history of close contact with major heads of state; he counted among his friends Jack Kennedy,the Kennedy Family, Winston Churchill,to name a a few.

While Berlin never met FDR though he wrote a long essay on how he wanted to. In his essay, he considers FDR the greatest politician or statesman of the entire 20th century.

In truth Berlin was a welfare state liberal, was thoroughly against Thatcher and Thatcherism on his country.

Berlin never said both could not be forces for good.

But I am repeating myself since I wrote above "Berlin recognized that we need both senses of freedom."

I have letters in which Berlin was worried about Right Wing libertarianism as an abuse of "freedom from", where the wealthy could use their freedom from restrictions to get away with some very bad things indeed.

Most recently historian Timothy Snyder, Isaiah Berlin's student, makes the argument for "freedom to" understood as solidarity in a forceful sense.

I don't write the above notes to exonerate Berlin from any usual charges against him as a thinker, though I do think he is more correct than not and that attacks on him don't take into account his almost Talmudic subtlety.

My mention of him is structural as he was one of the first people I mentioned in this podcast, his "values pluralism" is something to which I, at least in part, subscribe and as we are in July the subject of liberty of course comes to the fore - as we produce this podcast in these United States.

And, above all, all artistic production is an expression of liberty.

One of the best and, yes exceptional, governing ideas of the United States is that it is based not on a person, ("law and not man") but on ideas, and those ideas are most capacious, anything but provincial and narrow - having to do with freedom and human flourishing, most broadly construed.

For most of human history and, unfortunately continuing today, societies were set up under the control of a person or group of people, rather than general goals or ideas.

I see the process of art making itself as throughly intertwined with what you could call democracy, if we are to understand democracy as encompassing far more than what kind of government is present or desired, but above all, a kind of relation among people.

As a composer, many times I have to face a blank sheet of staff paper.

In the fullness of time, I had better get some notes on that paper, symbols of some kind to denote music to be played in a certain way in a future course.

Writers of course always that blank sheet of paper in the typewriter in the analog era; today in the Digital Era they have that screen empty of text to be filled with writing to be.

In that moment between the blank canvas, screen, paper and the filling of symbols there has to be a modicum of liberty to even proceed.

I imagine a case of writer's block is a case of insufficient "freedom to".

Here is an example of what I get down very quickly, the kind of sketch so "I won't forget", really only understandable or legible by me. these first examples are of something I am working on during the time of the writing of this post, most current.

Later on when a piece is getting closer to its final form I create an equally handwritten but much more legible and clear blueprint.

And finally there is a computerized score meant for any musicians to read and interpret it.

I like to combine musical languages in my scores to include the option of improvising over symbols as this excerpt from a concerto of mine shows:

Now though this is in the realm of music, the actions taken here might have parallels to other things humans create, even things that you might at first glance consider far different, like a television series or restaurant kitchen.

When I am working on things like this music it might seem in large regard as respite from the world. It seems very intimate and personal. Yet it is completely and utterly dependent on the world, the developments of ancestors in terms of sound in my case, the "auditory imagination".

A lot of these things are for me relativistic.

I am old enough to remember the 80s and 90s as living resources of current understandings; my view of the world is not and cannot be solely informed by, say, 2008 or 2016, (you will not theses dates are not arbitrary) nor should it be, as important as these later two dates are for so many.

When I say relativistic I do mean that in the full force of all that concept brings, even given that we are in a time where objectivity is in fashion and relativism is seen as the main culprit (as well as the traditional/classical ideas that usually go along with such objectivity).

I do not accept these belief systems, or, more accurately in their entirety.

I have a cafeteria approach in which I think we are compelled to evaluate on an ad hoc basis, and as the word relative entails, the underlying proviso that current standards might not be "progress" in an objective sense but rather the fashions of the moment we happen to find ourselves in.

I watch as ever increasing fellow citizens do accept some kind of overarching system and I include both the Left and Right sides of the political spectrum, and I can't see myself being all in. I want to make very clear that the persistent threat is from groups, usually quite large in number, that want to impose their wills upon those on the outside of the groups.

Even leaving aside the extreme cases of fanaticism and terrorism, I still know of no organization, however pacific, including those that do some good that cannot be free of the critical charges I bring to them, at the very least of not falling temptation to trying to impose through their will on society overall.

Of course it is made doubly complicated by the additional truth that some imposition of will is absolutely necessary for our very survival, (in health/science etc.)

The Covid time has revealed that.

But as I always offer as a reminder; we are not made for survival alone. Humans want to thrive and create.

We are sort of built that way.

It is up to us to be conscious that we can realize both freedom and necessity; that we pit one against the other is much more choice and habit than compulsion or necessity.

As for what is to be done about this, the answers are not very satisfactory since they rely on the very traditions that I feel in part brought us to the problems in the first place.

I do not say there is no good in any tradition; of course there is. Indeed all of this music I discussed is in large part all tradition: staff paper, and musical scales and temperament and music I learned to love, and without reservations.

But I do say there is as much bad as good ion anything among from the past such that any wholesale public request for any return to this or that school of thought or type of society usually finds some kind of dictatorship, even if only an emotional/psychological one, not far behind.

To be quite blunt about it, I usually prefer what we have called modern to anything traditional.

n fact some of those things that traditionalists want to call tradition are even quite recent and thus more modern than they would have us believe.

This is my bias.

I should think that universal suffrage, indoor plumbing, the "germ theory of disease", family planning, and universal reading would be grounds enough for us to prefer the modern. But even these can and will be condemned in various quarters.

Thus we live in a time in which, in the deepest paradox, the freedoms that do exist are used or more accurately abused in something like the most indulgent manner but in the often unconscious effort to take away some freedoms further down the road.

We suffer from both too little and too much freedom at one and the same time. (To be precise, bad actors have had a great deal of freedom).

Never before have so many human beings suffered from the stress of being reduced to survival alone, which is a genuine kind of tyranny, even if it looks like an economic issue alone. And never before have so many taken it upon themselves to form new organizations to push through this or that extravagant program for action and requiring some enforced consensus in which to implement it.

Then there is the scientific and spiritual question of freedom of the will, of which there are many and intense opinions in our moment. I am tempted to say that it doesn't matter.

"If you want to be free be free because there are a million ways to be", as Cat Stevens sang in Hal Ashby's masterpiece Harold And Maude.

He says millions and not a hundred.

And then he goes on to say "you know that there are."

Additional Learning links to enjoy:

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