I believe that the 20th century was a century of unwavering barbarism. And as this new century dawns, it too is already characterized by barbarism: a modern barbarism, an industrialized barbarism, mass barbarism. Yet the 20th century also gave rise to other hopes: one of its most striking characteristics was the belief in the ongoing progress of human beings. Today, our disillusions are commensurate with this belief in the inevitable advancement of humanity toward peace and happiness: we have learned that we are cannibals, that we are assassins; we now know that we are not simply building paradise on earth.
So what happened to cause the notion of universal humanity to sink into a vast and radical oblivion within the very civilization where it reached its pinnacle of development? In such a context, artists can be little else but resisters, calling with their very souls for the insurrection of hearts and minds. Before it’s too late. Our future depends on it. What society do we hope to leave to future generations? What example? A society that says “eat human flesh, it’s good”? The legacy of Auschwitz ? September 11th? Baghdad?
Happy is he who can convince himself that culture can shield a society against violence. So wrote philosopher Franz Rosenzweig following the First World War. Today, we can still make that same wish. I am not naïve; I know full well that artists alone cannot shield a society against violence, but they give us hope, they remind us of the need to be open to the Other, they scorn withdrawal and overcautious nationalism. They facilitate dialogue between cultures, help to break down solitudes by encouraging others to stand up for humanity. In this sense, artists cannot be subject to the forces of the marketplace. Productivity and ratings dangerously transform culture into a passing fancy, a perishable commodity. Every day, we witness the disturbing evidence that social bonds are being cast aside: an explosion in delinquency, new forms of violence, new forms of sacrifice, a new kind of acting out. These are not accidents, nor have they been invented by the media. They are troubling signs that are affecting one particular segment of society that is most exposed: youth.
Morals are no longer the solution. There are no more benchmarks, no longer is there one voice expressing a collective will. Who, today, speaks on behalf of the School, the State, Knowledge, Justice? The individual subject is no longer subject; he becomes easy prey for “head shrinking” and tribalization. Now more than ever, artists have a key role to play in the reconstruction of a new humanism, a new symbolism; they are messengers of essential values to ensure harmony through respect for diversity and greater knowledge of the other, beyond tribal cultures and languages. You are artisans of peace. It is the responsibility of democratic societies to respect you and protect you. Without a doubt, we must tell our children that in this world, there is a light side and a dark side. And that nothing is ever won. Humanity is a fragile conquest, a battle that must continuously begin anew.
Art is an ongoing battle, a tireless resistance, between darkness and light. Every inch of humanity is won through the advancement of thought and creation. When the world seems at an end, when life is no longer worth living, when innocent people are killing each other and torturers escape justice, artists remind us that there is indeed free air, in the quiet of the dawn.