Art and Politics: The Wagner Question

  • November 10, 2011

Blame the art or the artist? What to do about geniuses with noxious beliefs?

By Ronald Goldfarb

Old Joke:
Q: What is the question to which “9W” is the answer?
A: Do you spell your name with “V” Mr. Vagner?

There are more profound questions about Richard Wagner, of course, and in a provocative article in TABLET Magazine, David P. Goldman raises them. Wagner’s music is unofficially banned in Israel because he is emblematic of Nazi anti-Semitism. But Goldman asks, why single out Wagner when there are many other anti-Semitic composers? Wagner was not Hitler’s favorite composer (he wrote before Hitler reigned), Anton Bruckner was. And Tchaikovsky was reportedly more anti-Semitic, as was Liszt. In Goldman’s words, “Why shouldn’t a free country allow musicians to play whatever music they like?”

The question about dividing an artist from his art is an interesting one. Should an artist (or an athlete or actor or celebrity) be judged by standards having nothing to do with the skills that brought them admiration and success? I think so. As members of the human race, they can and should be judged by two criteria.

I booed Pee Wee Reese, the shortstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers when I was a New York Giant fan; but I respected him at a more important level when I learned how he befriended Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier in baseball. French entertainers who collaborated with Nazis in World War II deserve our vilification and condemnation for their misbehavior which eclipsed their singing skills. French designer, Coco Chanel prospered during and after World War II despite having served as a Nazi agent and having had an affair with an Abwehr officer according to a recent book. However, the French fashion house Christian Dior recently dismissed its chief designer, John Galliano for his public anti-Semitic outbursts, prompting actress Natalie Portman to say she wouldn’t “be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way.”

Why shouldn’t Israelis, all Jews, all judgmental people for that matter, decide to turn a deaf ear on Wagner’s music? If people want to make a statement about a controversial person, why should they not?

One can not divide a person’s work from the rest of his or her life. Hollywood condemned Elia Kazan for his public position during the McCarthy era and the black list, despite his success as a film director. Woody Allen regularly writes entertaining movies and extremely funny essays. We can enjoy his work product, while being critical of his social life. Ezra Pound was considered a genius by his literary peers, for his poetry and his publishing mentorships, but was incarcerated for treason in a psychiatric hospital for his wartime fascism, and later Aryan prejudices.

The question is – how far is it appropriate to go in one’s bifurcated views of artists? You don’t like Philip Roth’s views about suburban Jews, don’t read his books. If you consider Norman Mailer a sexist beast, boycott his books. If you despise Wagner’s Nazi image, don’t listen to his music. Laud Lindbergh for his aerial bravery and lambast him for his pseudo-patriotism.

During World War II, for moral reasons many artists fled Nazi Germany – Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Walter Gropius, Thomas Mann, Berthold Brecht, Otto Klemperer, among others. Those who stayed either assisted the Nazi machine – architect Albert Speer is the best known example – or became part of “inner emigration”, Erik Larson reports in his In the Garden of Beasts. Mann deplored them, arguing that those books written between 1933-1945 were worthless and should be pulped – “a stench of blood and shame attaches to them.”

For a state to forbid the playing of music is equivalent to a state ban on an author’s books. Both are too drastic a response to evil or censurable acts by artists. Even in Israel, apparently. Professional musicians there won’t perform Wagner’s work, but an Israeli ensemble of Chamber musicians performed Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll at a concert in Germany. The conductor, Roberto Paternostro, a child of Holocaust survivors, remarked, quite sensibly: “Wagner’s ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but he was a great composer. The aim in 2011 is to distinguish between the person and his art.” In a recent commentary about an organized attack on a theatre in D.C. because it presented a play whose viewpoint the organization deplored, actor-musician Theodore Bikel pointed out that art and culture have different values. “Debate what you don’t like,” Bikel stated. “Mount counter-arguments…but do not silent voices.” Distinguish between the person and the work.

Ezra Pound belonged in a psychiatric prison, but his poetry belongs in libraries. As the imitable, quotable Oscar Wilde instructed, a wise insight then as now: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.”

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