Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Morality of Art, and the Artist

By Hadleyblogger Drew

I know, I keep meaning to get to the pieces I’ve promised on the relationship between art and artists. In particular, I meant to write on the moral dilemma posed by the Nazi era and the artists who were, willingly or unwillingly, part of that movement.

The Nazi angle is the one most interesting to me, since the word Nazi itself has become one of the most pejorative terms we can use against someone else. Nazism, along with Communism, is one of the defining ideologies of our time. As an accusation it’s often used indiscriminately and incorrectly. I ask myself whether most of the people who use it even understand what it means.

Besides, that’s the topic I’ve been asked to write about, and I try to deliver on my promises when I can.

But I keep getting sidetracked, and in the meantime Terry Teachout has another excellent piece that really capitalizes on the areas most of interest to me, and even though I wind up interrupting myself I can’t help but stop and interject his comments, since they’re so much a part of what I’m looking at.

Last week I wrote about Günter Grass and the revelation that he’d been in the SS during WW2, as a segueway between discussions on Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Leni Riefenstahl (intended to be my next piece). Teachout picks up on the Grass discussion, and leads to the broader points I’ve been intending to write about. He begins with a question offered by a reader:

Apropos your post on Günter Grass, here is a question for you: are there any circumstances under which an artist's personal failings must require him to forfeit his art? Extreme example: what if Tristan and Isolde had been written by Hitler himself—should it ever be performed? And if not, where is the line to be drawn?

After considering the question, Teachout reframes it as:

is there any act so absolutely heinous that the works of a great artist who commits it should be permanently banned from circulation? Asked in that way, the question admits of a wide and interesting range of possible answers, but what I find even more interesting is the fact that it’s impossible to come up with a real-life case that fills the bill.

[…] So far as I know, the only classical composer ever to have committed murder was Gesualdo, who killed his first wife and her lover. Though Richard Wagner was by all accounts a first-class bastard, he didn’t send letter bombs to music critics, and his anti-Semitism, gross and despicable though it was, never led him to advocate the use of Zyklon B on European Jewry, or anything remotely approaching it.

[…] Having said all this, let me return to the thought experiment originally proposed by my correspondent: I wouldn’t have any objection to placing a permanent ban on performances of Tristan und Isolde if it were to be revealed tomorrow morning that Hitler, not Wagner, had composed it. I wouldn’t support such a ban, but I wouldn’t actively oppose it, either, any more than I oppose the informal Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music.

[…] Yes, Wagner was a great composer, one of the most important and influential figures in the history of Western music. You don’t write people like that out of the history books—you can’t. Like it or not, his music will always be played. But I don’t think music is the most important thing in the world. [Emphasis mine.] Music doesn’t inspire people to commit mass murder—it takes ideas to do that. And for that reason, I think it’s fitting that in at least one part of the world, Wagner’s music is rarely played in public because of the ideas of the man who wrote it. What’s more, I think Wagner himself might have understood. After all, he took his own ideas seriously, and he of all people would surely have appreciated the fact that so do the Israelis.

To answer that, we might look at a secondary issue to that posed by Teachout, but one that logically extends from it: whether or not we allow the particular political affiliations of those artists to influence our judgments on their art. Previously, I offered the opinion that former Nazis tends to be much more harshly judged than, for example, former Communist (unless they’ve become virulent anti-Communists. John Dos Passos, for instance, saw his literary star diminish considerably in the mid-20th century as the one-time liberal moved more and more toward the right side of the political spectrum and against Communism. Was his writing that turned the critics off, or his alienation from their precious progressive politics?)

I think the key sentence in Teachout's piece is this: music isn't the most important thing in the world. Put another way, in a broader context: art doesn't forgive everything. And while that certainly applies to Wagner, it has to work both ways. Too many times liberals are only too willing to forgive the politics of one of their chosen - Günter Grass, let's say - because of the ideological content of his art. Do we allow Roman Polański's art to forgive the crime he committed, the crime that keeps him out of this country to this day? On the flip side, does Mel Gibson's recent action condemn his art, a kind of guilt by association? And what do we do with artists like Aaron Copland, who were at one tine associated with the Communist Party?

Can pure art ever override all other considerations, or does it become merely a pawn in an ideological discussion? Is such art compromised even if the values of the artist aren’t explicitly represented in the art itself? Broad questions, ones that I can only take a stab at in the future.

I only have two problems with Teachout: he's a better writer than I am, and he works quicker than I do. But I'll keep on trying.


  1. There must be some strange alignment of the planets today. I know! Pluto is gone so this interesting topic has been raised by you, and Terry Teachout, AND, somewhat by Sue of Clairity's Journal:

    Her issue is an artist who was ordered by Josef Mengele to paint portraits of Auschwitz Gipsey prisoners under the threat of death. The Gipseys were killed, but the artist still lives. Her paintings are on display at Auschwitz and she wants them back. Auschwitz wants to keep them.


    You have lots of interesting questions that I'll have to think about and come back.

  2. Hey there,

    Love the site...I linked your site to mine. Would you mind doing the same for me?


    I look forward to reading yours from now on...

    Thank you!

    Take care,

  3. Mark,

    Absolutely! Love your site, and I'm linking to it tonight. I seldom get the opportunity to blog about sports myself anymore, and your site is a hit. Thanks!



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