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New Left Review I/101-102, January-April 1977

Wolf Biermann

In conversation with Stuart Hood

Everyone is agreed that art is something unnecessary; that it might almost be defined as the expression of immodest, cheeky, arrogant, self-indulgent gaiety, such as can only flourish when rooted in the assured fulfilment of human needs. Yet at the same time we have, almost involuntarily, the comic desire to achieve—by means of this unnecessary art—all that is most necessary, most important and most fundamental for the life of society and for human existence. In this respect art—or rather artists in their own view of themselves—waver between two extreme attitudes: that of excessive modesty and that of excessive arrogance with regard to society’s need for art. These are two ways of looking at things—ways which are in danger of making each other ridiculous, and which nevertheless are very intimately linked. That is to say we want, in almost beggarly modesty, to do no more than entertain; and at the same time, with terrifying immodesty, we want to set the whole world to rights. And between these two ways of seeing things there is a close connection. That art cannot set the world to rights is something that everybody will readily agree, laughing at the very idea that anyone should think so. But at the same time, art always behaves as if it could do just that. It preserves within itself, in a touching way, that dream of mankind that it might bring about those great changes which in our time have become more possible than usual and more necessary than usual; the dream that men might have the confidence in themselves to be able to bring them about. Art belongs to those realms of the human spirit in which man articulates and preserves these hopes and does not lose them.

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Wolf Biermann, ‘In Conversation with Stuart Hood’, NLR I/101-102: £3

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