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August 23, 2006

TT: Talking a bad game

A reader writes:

Apropos your post on GŁnter 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?

This is a provocative question, and one to which I've given much thought over the years, though I have yet to think it all the way through, perhaps because it can't be answered. To be sure, the Israelis have "answered" it in two specific instances--the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss is not publicly performed in that country--but I'm not aware of any other comparable examples.

If I may, I'll reframe my reader's question as follows: 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.

It's not that artists are an especially well-behaved class of people. (Two words: Stan Getz.) But their misbehavior tends as a rule to fall into two broad categories, which for the sake of brevity I'll refer to as statement-signing and wife-beating. Artists dearly love to shoot their mouths off about politics, perhaps as a way of compensating for the spectacularly single-minded selfishness with which so many of them habitually treat their loved ones, friends, colleagues, and creditors.

While neither type of behavior is edifying, it's highly unusual for a major artist to go further than that. To be sure, I wouldn't recommend marrying a great artist, much less loaning him money, but when it comes to the actual commission of capital crimes, such folk are woefully underrepresented. 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.

As for their political crimes, I'm not inclined to be forgiving of anyone who plays pattycake with totalitarianism, but if there's been a truly great creative artist whose sins against humanity amounted to much more than first-degree talk, I'm unaware of it.

Mind you, I have no illusions about the ennobling power of art. I've spent too much time around artists not to know better than that. Daily megadoses of beauty won't make you a better person unless you were a good person to begin with. What keeps great artists out of trouble is that they're too busy making art to do much of anything but talk. It's the second- and third-raters who end up working for the Ministry of Truth, where they burn off their frustrations by rejecting the grant applications of their betters (or sending them to concentration camps).

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. (It's been broken once or twice in the past, but never without an outcry of public disapproval.)

A few years ago I discussed that ban on NPR's Performance Today. This is part of what I said:

There will probably always be heated arguments over whether Wagner's operas contain anti-Semitic symbolism--but there can be no arguing about the hateful mind of the genius who composed them. He made sure of that. He wanted us to know exactly what he thought, and to do what he said. And that's what the ban is really about. It's not about the music of Wagner--the notes on the page. It's about the man who wrote them--the man and his ideas.

My predecessor at Commentary, the late Samuel Lipman, once said something very interesting about Wagner and Israel: "In the state of Israel there still are people who care about Wagner; indeed, they care so much that they won't let his music be played. Because for the Israelis, Wagner the man, Wagner the anti-Semite, is still alive, they take him seriously." Sam wrote those words eighteen years ago, and they have stuck in my mind ever since.

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. 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.

It's not illegal to play Wagner in Israel: the Israeli Supreme Court has actually ruled on that point. Nor, obviously, is it illegal to listen to his music, or to buy records of it, or play them on the radio. Nor should it be. And when the last survivor of the Holocaust has finally passed on, a day will probably come when the Israel Philharmonic will at last feel free to play it. But that day is not yet here--and I, for one, am glad.

I still am.

Posted August 23, 2006 12:00 PM

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