An Our Word Roundtable
Yesterday we introduced a four-part roundtable discussion of politics in the arts. (See the beginning of yesterday's post for the quote that started it all.) Part two continues the discussion. Remember, we're not necessarily experts - just opinionated.
Judith: Let’s talk some more about the inspiration for art. Camille Paglia had a very interesting point in a speech she gave at Colorado College last month – that people need to return to religious roots in order to produce art that is truly inspired. And this from a self-avowed atheist! Granted, someone can have deeply-held political beliefs and the talent to display them artistically, but anything – art or politics – means little if it doesn’t have something deeper than humanism or materialism as the outcome.
Mitchell: As far as I’m concerned, that’s the problem with this so-called “political art” that we’ve been talking about – all that’s really backing it is a political vision. There’s no artistic vision involved. It’s like we keep saying – they’re just preaching to the audience. Their first priority is a political one.
Judith: Remember last year when the Minnesota Opera did The Elephant Man? You mentioned it at the time.
Mitchell: They had this stuff about hosting a forum to discuss the disabled in America, something like that. Again, I think they were using the opera primarily to transmit a political agenda. And again, let’s see if fifty years from now, or even twenty, if The Elephant Man is a part of the standard opera repertoire.
Drew: But your point is that music has always been political, just not as overtly as it is now?
Mitchell: Yeah, there’s always been a political element to music. Mozart wrote The Magic Flute about Freemasonry. Beethoven’s Fidelio had this theme of freedom, the resilience of freedom and how people will always fight against injustice, and that struck a cord in the 30s and 40s when you had these dictatorships in Europe. It was kind of adopted as a theme by people fighting against totalitarianism.
Judith: But the key to these pieces is that the politics was never allowed to overshadow the art. Fidelio contains universal truths, and they’re going to be relevant no matter when it’s performed. But most people are going to appreciate it for the music, for how it sounds.
Drew: You could argue that The Magic Flute is the most heavy-handed of them all, with all that Masonic symbolism they have all over the stage.
Mitchell: And I have to admit that The Magic Flute’s probably my least favorite Mozart opera. You listen to the opera quiz on Saturday afternoons, that’s always the one opera most of them are saying they could go without for awhile.
Drew: But as long as we’re hanging around Germany, we probably ought to talk about Wagner. What about him?
Judith: The Israelis certainly consider his music to be political.
Drew: Yeah, they still don’t allow it to be played in public, although that’s been kind of flaunted in the last few years. I think, what’s his name from Chicago, Daniel Barenboim, performed Wagner in a concert there a few years ago. But you’re right, officially I think it’s still taboo. And there’s certainly no question that Wagner was political, and his politics are pretty odious. But some of this comes from what you read into an artist’s work. He’s bound to show some of himself in his work – he wouldn’t be an artist if he didn’t. And the Nazis certainly adopted him as their Kapellmeister. But here’s my point, and I’ve made this in the past, you can listen to Wagner purely for the music, the shear artistry of the man, and not be overwhelmed by whatever message he might be pushing.
Mitchell: Of course, you’re a big fan of Wagner, as I am.
Drew: Very big. Sure, he’s an acquired taste. You know, Mark Twain said that Wagner’s not as bad as he sounds. And I don’t think that was meant as an endorsement of the man personally, from everything I've read he was a miserable human being, but he wrote some of the loveliest pieces in all of classical music. You shut yourself off from a lot of beauty when you clamp your hands over your ears every time you hear the name of Wagner. And yet I don't blame the Israelis for their attitude.
Judith: The point again is that his music lives outside of the context in which it was written. It’s timeless.
Drew: I wrote this piece about Leni Reifenstahl, the German documentarian, last year. Even though we’re talking about music here, you can’t really talk about Wagner and the Nazis without getting into her. And there are those who see her films as nothing but Nazi propaganda. But if you look at them, they’re captivating, they tell an incredible story. And her techniques were legendary, the kinds of things that she pioneered. You can see her influence in filmmaking all over the place, movies like Star Wars. Again, there’s that timelessness that allows it to continue to be relevant. Maybe her movies were propaganda, although she would have argued that. But they were art as well, and she wasn’t going to make some shrill piece for Hitler that was nothing but clips of him screaming into the microphones and didn’t have any artistic value at all. Maybe people would have watched it back then, because they wouldn’t have had any choice, but we wouldn’t still be talking about it today.
Mitchell: I’m really reluctant to get into The Grapes of Wrath, the Minnesota Opera piece Alex Ross mentions, because we haven’t seen it.
Judith: Didn’t want to see it. Steinbeck’s too preachy in his work. I never cared for his novels when I had to read them in school.
Mitchell: I agree. I think the best thing he probably ever wrote was Travels With Charlie. And I still don’t think there’s any reason to be commissioning a piece like that when there’s so much good stuff out there that’s underperformed. But although people are talking about it like it’s a piece of Americana –
Drew: It is a classic, you have to admit that.
Mitchell: Sure, but there are a lot of classics I don't care for, like The Great Gatsby. Judie’s right, Steinbeck's got a leftist message that must be very attractive to the arts crowd. Would they have been willing to stage an opera based on one of John Dos Passos’ novels?
Judith: Of course not. Once Dos Passos turned to the right, they ostracized him. That’s why he never won a Nobel.
Drew: But that’s something that Ross is talking about, or maybe it was another critic, but Grapes is full of American music, telling the American story. Capturing the sounds of America, that kind of thing.
Mitchell: Which makes me think that it’s more properly musical theater than opera. But that’s for another time.
Drew: But I think the point is that it appears less threatening that way, and it makes the message more agreeable to people because they can appreciate that it sounds good.
Mitchell: You might have a point there. We’ll just have to wait and see if it catches on, if we still see it being performed 20 years from now. But you don’t deny that it’s got a liberal message.
Drew: No, of course not. It’s one man's opinion of the American story. And I think you’re right, how much of a factor did that play in its selection as a commissioned piece by the Minnesota Opera?
Mitchell: When you’ve got underperformed pieces like Menotti’s The Consul that aren’t performed as much any more.
Judith: I was wondering when you’d bring up Menotti. [Laughter]
Drew: At least from a topical standpoint, The Consul is as relevant as anything that’s out there today.
Judith: As long as you’ve got dictators and totalitarianism, you’re always going to be able to tell a story like that.
Mitchell: And that’s what makes it timeless.
Judith: Again, but that’s why it’s art and not just a political message. Because it can be performed without seeming to be a museum piece. Maybe the music’s dated, although I didn’t think so the last time I heard it, but as far as the story goes it’s as political as anything Verdi or Rossini would have written, and just as timeless.
Tomorrow: part three.