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.
We have all more or less conceited, high-pitched hopes and wishes with regard to changes in society, and people naturally keep asking the painful question: ‘What influence can songs have on the social process?’ Is it not ridiculous? Is it not—as it says in the Bible—vanity and a waste of breath? What can songs do? I believe that if tomorrow, in the German Democratic Republic, the most popular brand of cigarettes were sold out in the shops, the shock society would suffer would be greater than if ten poets hanged themselves. That sounds a little too overwhelmingly gloomy. What I am trying to say, in drastic terms, is that one cannot move the world with songs. But when the world itself moves, songs can be born, and when songs are born which give political and poetic expression to passions and hopes and feelings, then a song can have an extraordinarily reinforcing effect. It confirms. It brings individuals
But there is another way of looking at how we listen to songs. People in any case do not sing so much any more. The explosion of techniques for the reproduction of sound has, in a certain sense, made people dumb. But on this level too, songs have the effect of producing solidarity. The rulers, our reactionary rulers, always want to persuade the men and women whom they artificially isolate from each other that they represent no political power, persuade them that they are alone, a forlorn hope in the war for freedom, as Heine calls it. A song also has the function of a shout of encouragement: ‘Hey, I’m here—we are still here—we are still alive—have still such and such hopes and expectations—we are doing this or that, can you help?’ Or else: ‘Watch out that nothing happens to you’—these are warning songs, in which we give warning as birds do of a predator. There are songs to bring people together: ‘Come with us.’ There are all sorts, including sad songs, which have the interesting effect that they help men to discharge their political task of mourning, so that they can bear the mountain of sorrow, so that they are not overwhelmed by it. Sad songs cheer people up. Most folk songs are sad. That is not because ordinary people are a tear-sodden lot where their basic feelings are concerned. They are not cry-babies—but sad songs are good for making you feel happy and getting your sorrows off your back. You sing with a full throat and listen to what the throat has to say; that is another function of songs.
* * *
Protest songs? I think ‘protest songs’ is a trendy expression. Admittedly I have not thought about it much, but if I turn it over in my mind, then I feel that I am not a ‘protest’ singer. I have a suspicion that this is a trendy word for a fashionable tendency. You see, the attitude of ‘protest’ has something pharisaical about it. The singer gives out bad marks—for what we already suspect to be a bad society. If I am trying to make fun of the idea, I am not aiming my remarks at that protest which is contained in every political song, directly or indirectly. To hear this, of all things, from my mouth does sound a bit cheeky, since I am known precisely for the fact that my songs are critical.