This book is intended for those who never considered wine of any remote interest.
But it’s intended equally for wine lovers.
If you’re among the former, then I’ll ask you to imagine wine simply as a radical (that is, deeply rooted) metaphor for culture, art, and politics. If you’re one of the latter, I ask you to disregard what you know (or think you know) about the aesthetics of wine and look at it as a radical metaphor for . . . culture, art, and politics.
I’m a film director, so my first concern should be cultural. But before that I’m a citizen— technically of the United States and Brazil—in upbringing a citizen of France, Italy, Greece, and England. For any twenty-first-century citizen anywhere, beyond the cultural lies a deeper concern that necessarily has to condition and supersede any other: the ecological-existential.
In looking at a paradox—how the doomsday state of agriculture has provoked a joyous response from a utopian fringe of wine farmers—this book proposes a reimagining of aesthetic, political, and cultural questions as essentially ecological ones.
And the reverse: how no environmental question should be considered separately from culture and aesthetics, as well as politics.
The New Cultural Hell (Cast Out of Purgatory)
In 1974, a year before he was murdered, Pier Paolo Pasolini, taboo-busting filmmaker, poet, novelist, journalist, relentless antifascist, and one of the last genuinely public intellectuals anywhere in the world—was invited by RAI, the Italian public broadcasting company, to narrate a visit to the model fascist town of Sabaudia.
Though the producers were expecting a violent denunciation of fascist-era city planning, they should’ve known that Pasolini was above all a free man, free even from his own biases: the clearest sign of intellectual courage. In the televised report, we follow him through the streets of this coastal town, sixty miles south of Rome, and we hear him explain: “In fact, there isn’t anything fascist about this model city. The buildings here are all built on a human scale. You feel in harmony wherever you go.”
The TV film crew, surprisingly attentive to his subtlest gesture, follows him onto the sand dunes. As the February wind rakes his hair dramatically, Pasolini turns to the camera and addresses the viewer. But he also speaks to the television crew, whom he clearly considered his colleagues. This is not a famous intellectual condescending to technicians and “the public.” This is a profoundly compassionate poet terrified by the world, urging every sentient being around him to rethink what they see. His intensity and instinctive egalitarianism produce an intimacy between viewer and onscreen actor unlike anything we’re accustomed to from the sterilizing lens of a TV camera.
“The fact is, the fascists even screwed this up. At the end of the day, they were just a bunch of criminals who came to power. They failed to leave a lasting stamp on any aspect of Italian life.” His gaze then seems to bore into each one of us.
“Today, in 1974, it’s the opposite. Our government is democratic. But this consumer society has managed to homogenize culture in a way the fascist government was never able to.”
What would he say today, over forty years after his death, about the state of culture? Is there any national network anywhere that would put a renegade poet in front of a prime-time audience? And are there still artists and intellectuals who can raise their voice in a forum that commands an audi- ence as complete as television did in 1974? Or as the agora—the marketplace of ideas and commerce in Athens at the inception of a democracy—did 2,500 years ago?
What has happened to the status of public intellectuals? How can they address the general public today? How can they bring culture to life as an affirmation of subjective freedom? What popular venue is left for them to express culture as a joyous invention of aesthetic forms, as a way to question the mechanisms of power, as a guarantee of our collective freedoms? The infinite compartmentalization of the Internet is one of many guarantees that this has become virtually impossible.
The dream of every totalitarian state has been to silence artists and make them invisible. By the nature of their activity, artists are uncontrollable. This makes them the truest counterweight to any exercise of power. Pasolini was prophetic in his understanding of how an omnivorous consumer society has managed surreptitiously, even unintentionally, to accomplish what the fascists only dreamed of.
American-led Western consumer society—decisively implanted in Europe through the Marshall Plan following World War II and transformed into a global reality by the 1980s—is the only society to accomplish the totalitarian dream of eliminating cultural actors from the public stage, reducing them to a largely ornamental role in the spectacle of entertainment, of cultural consumption, that consumed culture itself even before Trump. Or rather, the existence of Trump and the authoritarian contempt for culture is the logical result of this process.
But if culture in the Americas and in Europe is no longer the agent of freedom it once was and if artists no longer have the access to the public stage they enjoyed as recently as the 1970s, a question has to be faced: to what extent have artists collaborated in their own exile? How many of those who work in the cultural sector genuinely call into question, at the risk of their own status, the dominant political, economic, and cultural system?
How much are we responsible for the erosion of our own raison d’être? Filmmakers, writers, jour- nalists, editors, distributors, teachers, visual artists, musicians, booksellers, librarians . . . and even you, dear (poor) reader of this book?
If we lament the gradual decline in readers of books and the abrupt disappearance of major daily newspapers (with the exception of the New York Times, every newspaper in America and Europe has
lost the majority of its readership in the space of a few years) and are dismayed that the audience for independent films is evaporating while blockbusters corner the market; that the CD and DVD industries have collapsed, that no one even pays to download a movie or a song from the Internet, how is it possible that the key cultural actors (who are also the victims) of this catastrophe aren’t also responsible? Pasolini’s assessment of culture, in the end, is closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1931, than it is to George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1947. We are not Big Brother’s victims, we are accomplices. We voluntarily take “soma,” the pill Huxley imagined, that relieves all our anxiety and wipes our memories clean, obliterating our liberty.
Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and other economists who disagree on both technical and moral grounds with the prevailing economic model have maintained that the skyrocketing income inequality of recent decades is disrupting the general mechanisms of upward mobility and of democracy itself. The widening gap between rich and poor has also led to the gradual impoverishment of the middle class and has directly threatened all those engaged in cultural activities. The interests of workers in the cultural sectors overlap closely with those of the middle class. Their standing in the major democracies is tied to the well-being of that class, whose members include the majority of their practitioners: teachers, contract workers in entertainment, artists, writers, journalists. The middle class is the first to benefit from a rich and flourishing cultural life, and its fate is closely linked to the fortunes of those involved in cultural activities. The simultaneous decline of both destabilizes democracy and cripples the ability of society’s most disadvantaged to improve their standard of living. Because a “standard of living” is both economic and cultural.
Today, with conditions in the cultural realm proving disastrous for most of its participants, these effects are becoming more pronounced. In all the wealthier countries, there are massive numbers of experienced and well-regarded journalists who are unable to find a job—or a job worthy of their abilities and experience, writers who are forced to make writing a hobby, independent filmmakers who create “cultural” movies for a public that ages year by year (with occasional exceptions, which the docile remnants of the press corps celebrate as symbols of health) and for whom a future as home-movie hobbyists is the only path that beckons. Those who remain in news, film, music, or publishing can pride themselves on winning the Darwinian contest, but for how long? Just as all elements of a natural ecosystem are interdependent, no artist can survive alone (though his ego often tells him differently).
How many artists are left who manage to be at once popular and exacting, who refuse to compro- mise their civic role? A handful, maybe. But do we even know how to find them in the new landscape that the Internet has created, with its black holes and the digital fragmentation of the res publica?
How many writers, photographers, journalists, actors, painters, editors, and filmmakers have abdicated their role as counterweights to the established powers? With their voices now muted or inaudible, they’ve become self-exiled. The polis no longer needs them. The polis no longer wants to see or hear them. All the polis wants from them is escapist distraction, like the last days of the Roman Empire. But now more than ever, the polis needs genuinely independent and defiant artists, journalists, researchers, teachers, editors, scientists.
The artist who is at once popular and serious, a free agent and a public figure, as Pasolini managed to be in front of the Italian television cameras, has been cast out of the new world order. The artist, the object of too much veneration for too long, has broken into two antithetical figures: the Great Artist and the obscure militant. The first finds ever more elaborate ways to say nothing so that he can trade on his style, which becomes a “signature,” a brand. The second preaches fervently to four faithful acolytes (you, the four readers of this book?). What is certain is that we are all struggling to make a living, even the most established among us. In the future, aside from stars and the makers of a few exceptional commercial successes, few people will be able to live from their craft. It’s of course possible that new economic models will develop thanks to (and in spite of ) the Internet. But for the moment, nothing suggests that a true cultural scene will emerge that is capable of providing even a modest living to a global community of artists, engaged in the serious business of preserving, transmitting, and reinventing our culture.