An Our Word Roundtable
Mitchell: Well, we seem to have gotten a little afar afield here, when the original question was dealing with the leftist slant of political opera.
Judith: I think your point was that just because art is political doesn’t mean it has to be ideological. And even if it is, it still has to have that sense of timelessness in order to be real art.
Mitchell: Look at Stravinsky – what was the ballet he did, the one that caused so much ruckus? Not The Firebird.
Judith: The Rite of Spring.
Mitchell: That's it. Remember the riots that happened when that was first performed? People were up in arms. That was very provocative, because it broke the mold of what people were expecting. So in that sense I’d submit it was a very political work.
Drew: It’s a great piece – a landmark in classical music.
Mitchell: And the point is, Stravinsky isn’t trying to make an ideological statement in the way we’d think of it today. So let’s accept for the moment that “political” doesn’t necessarily have to mean ideological, and it doesn’t have to be bad. That still doesn’t answer the question as to why it seems to belong to the left-wing.
Drew: Well, I think this is something I suggested in my piece a couple of weeks ago about ceding artistic endeavors over to homosexuals. The same goes for non-homosexual driven political art. The question is whether or not the right is going to cede the entire realm of art over to the left. Whether we’re talking about music or movies or literature, it’s very difficult to find something that isn’t agenda-driven. And in most cases that agenda is a liberal one.
Mitchell: People aren’t stupid. They can see an agenda being pushed. And a lot of the time it’s pushing them in a direction they don’t necessarily want to go. Furthermore, the message – and it doesn’t have to be subliminal, it’s often overt – is that if you don’t go along with it, if you don’t see the artistic merit in it, then that means you don’t “understand” it. So if you don’t agree with them, then it’s your fault.
Judith: Part of the problem is that for so much of red America, there’s an instinctive suspicion of things like classical music. You know, the arts-and-croissants crowd that Rush Limbaugh always used to talk about.
Mitchell: The thing is, and I probably sound like an elitist liberal for saying it, but for a lot of cultural conservatives their idea of high culture is NASCAR and country music.
Drew: Gag me! [Laughter]
Mitchell: Although we've got good friends, including people who blog here, who are country and NASCAR fans. I mean, I'll watch NASCAR myself, at least Daytona or Indy. I'm talking about people who view that, often defiantly, as a substitute for culture, rather than a part of it.
Judith: Sure. But Rush was right, and Paglia makes the same point. Even though the art itself might not be political – it’s hard to see how the left is going to co-opt Mendelssohn into their sphere of influence – you’re talking about the people who hang around art. And there are plenty of times when you and I can feel out of our element in a crowd like that. It’s when you learn to keep your mouth shut.
Drew: And you can’t just let them define themselves as the audience. That’s why they’re able to go around with such a smug attitude toward everything.
Judith: But at the same time conservatives have to be very careful that they don’t get iconoclastic about it. That’s the Puritan influence on American culture.
Mitchell: Why shouldn’t conservatives be interested in culture? The bulk of it – several hundred years’ worth – should speak to traditions that conservatives would want to uphold.
Judith: Well, something else that Paglia was talking about in that Colorado College lecture last month was the dramatic cutback of funding for the arts in school, and how that was a reaction to the NEA and the liberal projects they were funding.
Mitchell: Artists like Mapplethorpe, Serrano.
Judith: And conservatives were right to protest against that. But here’s another example where liberals are their own worst enemies, because they wind up antagonizing so many people that it results in cutbacks in arts funding.
Drew: And conservatives have an even greater suspicion of the arts-and-croissants crowd than they did. [Editor: Read what Paglia has to say on this very point, in this piece from 2005.]
Mitchell: Although if you were really cynical –
Drew: Which none of us in this room is. [Laughter]
Mitchell: Heaven forbid! [Laughter] But if you were really cynical, you’d wonder if this is what some of the liberals had in mind to begin with, to drive the conservatives out of the arts field completely so it would be dominated by liberal ideas.
Judith: You wonder how much of the cutback in arts in school is responsible for the coarsening of culture today.
Drew: Certainly they’re not teaching culture in the schools anymore.
Judith: And there’s something wrong with that. Is there any real music appreciation in schools today? I don’t want to sound like a big government conservative, but I’d much rather have the schools teaching about music than they do diversity and multicultural stuff.
Mitchell: Yeah, but then a lot of the great composers wind up getting written off as dead European males. Or Nazis. Or both.
Drew: But that’s what they do anyway.
Judith: I think Paglia may have a point though, that if we’re going to have money put into the school systems it would be nice if they’d teach more music appreciation, get kids involved in it at a younger age. Hopefully you’d have some safeguards on what they’re teaching, though.
Mitchell: There’s something else to this discussion that I want to bring up, and that’s the relationship between truth and art.
Judith: We’re come a long way from that initial statement on political opera.
Mitchell: But I think there’s something else at work here that needs to be pointed out. I did a piece last year on the relationship between truth and art that asked the question, basically, as to whether art that was based on a falsehood could still be considered art. If it’s just opinion, if it’s purely political, that’s one thing. But if it’s based on something that’s objectively false, then is it still worthy of being called art?
Judith: That goes back to what I was saying about timelessness. If it’s based on a falsehood, like you say, then is it going to stand the test of time, or is it going to be exposed for what it is?
Drew: It’s harder to say when you’re talking about music, to find out what it is.
Mitchell: But that brings us back to The Handmaid’s Tale, which was really nothing more than a leftist piece of propaganda. That’s not art.
Drew: No, I’d agree with you, that’s pure politics.
Mitchell: And that’s what it’s going to come to be seen as. It’s a political speech, pure and simple.
Judith: If it was aimed at anyone other than conservative Christians, they'd call it hate speech.
Mitchell: And the author’s got a perfect right to do that, just as I have a perfect right to ignore it. But I’m not going to sit back and have someone tell me that I’m too close-minded to appreciate it as art.
Drew: And you have to ask whether something that’s created primarily to offend can be considered art. Is Piss Christ art? What about The Pope and the Witch?
Mitchell: Well, I have to say first of all that the play hasn’t happened yet, at least when we’re talking about it here [Editor: Shortly after this roundtable, the play was produced in Minneapolis. See here for coverage.], and none of us are planning to go see it, I don’t think.
Mitchell: But you might as well stage that to music, and maybe the Minnesota Opera would put it on. [Laughter] But that goes beyond offensive speech. It’s blasphemy. It’s a screed, pure and simple, and I don’t see any way that can be considered art. Any of it.
Drew: I think the bottom line here is that there aren’t any easy answers.
Judith: Paglia has it right, I think, when she says there has to be a return to religious inspiration in order to create art. And you can’t have art that’s comprised of blatant attempts to antagonize others.
Mitchell: And conservatives have to take a more active role – not ideologically, necessarily, but don’t let the liberal political agenda drive the artistic agenda. Care about it – don’t write it off, don’t cede it to liberals. Recognize the influence it has on the health of the culture. Don’t let liberals define the art and the audience. Don’t let them politicize everything.
Drew: In other words, art for art’s sake?
Mitchell: I’ll say it again – don’t politicize everything. It’s a message both liberals and conservatives need to appreciate.
Judith: This has been fun.
Drew: We have to do it again sometime.
Mitchell: I’m sure we can find something else to pontificate about. [Laughter]