Wasn’t cultural egalitarianism an aberration that led humanity to mediocrity? Many people regarded everything as culture, and thought that all cultures were equal: Elvis Presley was as great as Mozart, Pop Art as Rubens.
For Istomin, it was clear that we were forgetting the essence of democracy. It was not only freedom and equality of rights among citizens, but also the duty for everyone to elevate their intellectual and moral levels as high as possible. Elitism, in its original sense, must be a natural principle of democracy. However, as a result of the combined effect of the market law and the demagogy or incompetence of the governments, cultural life and media are gradually losing their ambition. Guilt-free, the citizen indulges in the easy way without having scruples: why make the effort to enter the universe of Mahler or Boulez when jazz or pop music pieces offer you immediate pleasures. All the more so if you are implied that they are only equivalent forms of the same art.
… and Frank Sinatra
In his interview with Patrick Ferla, Istomin said that he enjoyed jazz and loved Frank Sinatra’s songs, but he placed these musics in their proper places: “The whole great music is a challenge for the human being. A Schubert symphony, for example, arouses a wide range of thoughts and emotions. The Rite of Spring too, even if they are completely different thoughts and emotions. Both stir up the attention, the consciousness, of those who listen to them. Popular music is not a challenge to the consciousness, it is rather a kind of calming, a kind of release, something nostalgic, something sexual. We sing ”Oh ! Baby !” and get into a sensual rhythm. It’s something simple, pleasant, but it doesn’t go any further than that. While a Nocturne or an Etude by Chopin is not just about the atmosphere, there is something that goes into a higher dimension of the intellectual and sensitive experience. It pushes us, it requires more of us. To enter the world of this art, it is certainly not necessary to become an expert, but it is an experience that we cannot forget, that we will want to repeat and deepen. When we become aware of what great music is, we will never put it on the same level as popular music.” Istomin felt a tremendous frustration at the misuse we make of our freedom in terms of culture: “The people want shit, so let’s give it to them! What else can we do if we are in a democracy…?’’ For Istomin, this invasion of mediocrity was evidence that our civilization was in trouble. The world cannot do well without the influence of culture at all levels of the society.
Although Istomin had abandoned the idea of direct political activity in the early 1970s, he was keeping an eye out for the developments of the world, and always ready to commit himself, as an artist and as a citizen, for supporting all the causes in which he believed. Where he felt most useful and happy was on his major tours across the United States, with his pianos in a truck, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He brought music to places deserted by the usual concert circuit, with the feeling that music should not be reserved for the rich people of the big cities. He had lost of his Beethovenian optimism (which expects that good and justice would eventually prevail) but his ideal had remained intact.