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We must enjoy the contact with art or, Why the Wagner concert in Tel Aviv should never have been cancelled

History was nearly made, and the ability to enjoy Wagner, whether Jew or non-Jew, was once again disturbed – not by Nazis, but by Tel Aviv University.

A seven-decade unofficial boycott will continue thanks to the academic institution’s decision to cancel a performance by the Israel Wagner Society on the 18th of June.

In defence the university has said that it has received angry letters at the inclusion – but instead of challenging opinion (not even prevailing opinion I might add) like universities should, it just buckled, and gave Hitler what he would have wanted – exclusivity to certain very good works of art and expression.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened either. Last year, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra were criticised for playing a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner, with the Conductor, one Roberto Paternostro – who lost many members of his family in the Holocaust – arguing that this was an attempt “to divide the man from his art.”

At the time, the great granddaughter of Wagner, Katharina, who was to visit Israel to formally invite the orchestra, called it an opportunity to “heal wounds”.

Like so many artists with foul beliefs, I feel it necessary to be allowed to enjoy their art, in spite of them. Art, after all, is something merely facilitated by the artist; your subjective evaluation and judgement is not only important to that art, but vital for its existence.

The artist doesn’t forgo their subjective beliefs in the creation of their art, but rather their art forgoes the artist and empowers the reader/viewer. To this end we should ignore the tyranny of guilt that is somehow embedded in our enjoyment of such works of art as Wagner’s.

Like how Stephen Fry put it once: “You can’t allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He’s bigger than that, and we’re not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.”

Furthermore on art, Wagner and the anti-Semitic context, in a piece called Why is Wagner worth saving? philosopher Slavoj Zizek vents his criticism on what he calls the “historicist commonplace” that says “in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context”.

Zizek notes “too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art”.

He then claims that there is the temptation when listening to Wagner to imagine that every sub-text is anti-Semitic, but, using the examples of Parsifal and the Ring, tries to prove this isn’t always correct. In the Ring according to Zizek, it is not Alberich’s renunciation of love for power that is the source of all evil, but rather Wotan’s disruption of the natural balance, “succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love”, which spells doom, meaning also that evil does not come from the outside, but is complicit with Wotan’s own guilt. With Parsifal, the elitist circle of the pure-blooded is not jeopardised by external contaminators such as copulation by the Jewess Kundry, but rather from inside; “it is Titurel’s excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune”.

The point being is Wagner “undermines the anti-Semitic perspective according to which the disturbance always ultimately comes from outside, in the guise of a foreign body which throws out of joint the balance of the social organism”.

The overarching thesis of Zizek is that the anti-Semitic sub-text is not always appropriate when engaging with Wagner, and if this art is separate from the evil of the early twentieth century, then there is reason to save Wagner.

The Wagner boycott is one example of denying the world a great artist, and allowing the Nazis a small victory. The point is Wagner can, and must, be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to – Tel Aviv University needs to come to its senses.

Categories: General Politics Tags: ,

Unpalatable ideas and the study of reading (and listening) habits or, an essay on Larkin, Wagner and Heidegger

August 24, 2011 2 comments

Yesterday, the Financial Times published a truly great article on the poetry and life of Philip Larkin, by the writer Martin Amis, who has selected the poems for a forthcoming Larkin anthology.

As a personal friend of the poet’s whilst he was still alive, Amis is as good as any to recall the type of person Larkin was, as well as detail what may have been the inspiration for his poetry.

In it, however, Amis cuts to the chase, pointing out that:

Larkin died in 1985. And when the Letters [Anthony Thwaite's collection of letters, 1992] and the Life [Andrew Motion’s biography, entitled in full A Writer’s Life, 1993] appeared, almost a decade later, I wrote a long piece in his defence. I should say that I too was struck by Larkin’s reflexive, stock-response “racism”, and by his peculiarly tightfisted “misogyny”. But I bore in mind the simple truth that writers’ private lives don’t matter; only the work matters. (My emphasis)

This initially made me regret the way in which I studied Larkin as a college student, then made me think about the difference between a writer’s life, and work, in general.

Firstly, while pulling apart my copy of The Whitsun Weddings, I took the care to try and decipher each and every word employed, the part they played, the images they brought up and the sound they made – but took little time in analysing the words as part of a whole. I tore those words up until the stanzas ceased to be part of a wider entity.

Then it was the way in which my class used the myth of Larkin – stories of the unkind, racist, sexist sour puss – to justify our theses and lazy hermeneutics.

The problem with such textual analysis is not that we were wrong, but that we could never tell if we were right. If we read, for example, “A Study of Reading Habits” do we consider the images they relay to us, or do we simply imagine a pieced together image of the bitter Larkin, as characterised by our feminist lecturers?

Consider:

Later, with inch-thick specs,

Evil was just my lark:

Me and my cloak and fangs

Had ripping times in the dark.

The women I clubbed with sex!

I broke them up like meringues.

I think Amis might be right; we should try and disengage with what the private lives of writers are like, lest it interferes with correctly judging a piece of work – were such a thing possible, anyway.

And then this reminded me of another issue; the canonisation of writers linked to the very worst in unpalatable ideas: Nazism.

When it is a great piece of music or philosophy, scholars and commentators of all stripes would prefer you to appreciate the substance, not the individual behind it. When an Israeli orchestra wanted to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner, many were insulted and protested. But enough came out saying we must distinguish the person – a known anti-Semite, enjoyed by, among others, Hitler – from the art; and the art should be enjoyed by all regardless.

Indeed Roberto Paternostro, the conductor of the orchestra, was reported as saying: “Wagner’s ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but on the other hand he was a great composer”.

Others have pointed out that there was no explicit anti-Semitism in Wagner’s music, so its being listened to ought to be guilt free. Similarly, many in the world of philosophy, according to the Jewish online magazine Tablet, “recognize the difficulty of considering Martin Heidegger’s oeuvre without acknowledging the genocidal machine of which he was a part, but don’t believe that his Nazi sympathies underlie or undermine all of his works.”

The key word here is “underlie”; because no explicit reference to racism is made in Heidegger’s work, so it is not worth us white washing a great thinker (without Heidegger there would be no Arendt, no Foucault, no Rorty, and no Sartre for sure) and leaving that particular gap in the world of knowledge.

But, drawing this back to Larkin – what of writers where unpalatable sentiment is clearly expressed in the work, and which seem to fit with the writer’s own sentiments (here I purposefully conflate sexism and misogyny with anti-Semitism; a trilogy of rancorous motives)? Is it only above board that we read Heidegger and listen to Wagner today because in it there is no trace of their own personal prejudices? If there were, would we have to forgo them through principle?

Let us take another example, this time from popular culture. Michael Richards is most famous for playing Kramer in the popular American sitcom Seinfeld – indeed this is where he produced his best work. In 2006, while doing a stand-up comedy gig, he racially abused two black men who were near the front row of his audience by saying “”fifty years ago you would be hanging from a tree with a pitch-fork up your ass”. Very little is heard of the actor now, and though he denies being racist, and in spite of his great previous work, he has destroyed his career. In this instance, the separation from his acting and his terrible judgement cannot be made.

There is no simple answer for why we choose to keep (in the world of artistic respectability) some over others; possibly it has to do with the form of art produced, perhaps also it’s the amount of time elapsed since that art first emerged in the world. Whatever, keeping at arms length an artist’s personal life is a good principle to keep hold of, because they themselves are rarely the objects of our desire; but we should question as to why it is we forgive for our viewing/reading/listening pleasure.

In defence of Wagner’s Israeli enthusiasts

October 8, 2010 7 comments

Imagine a history rewritten: would it be a victory for the Nazis if they were forced to live side by side with the Jews they most vehemently disliked? Of course it wouldn’t be, and though it upsets and astounds me that today I have to share oxygen with people who hold views so unpalatable it makes me wince, part of my support for multiculturalism is heightened in the knowledge that we live in a society where to be law abiding means respecting people of cultures and sharing experiences together; and there is not a thing racists of any colour can do about it.

I think about this today, as I see news of outrage that an Israeli orchestra should be able to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner.

The great granddaughter of Wagner, Katharina, who was to visit Israel to formally invite the orchestra, will now have to cancel her visit – which she said was an opportunity to “heal wounds”.

According to a report in The Guardian, Holocaust survivor groups are saying “it was inexplicable that the orchestra would break a decades’ old unofficial boycott to perform music by Hitler’s favourite composer, who also held antisemitic views”.

Furthermore, Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger, on the topic of the boycott, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “It’s a sentimental ban. As long as some of us are still alive, people should refrain from imposing Wagner on us.”

Far be it for me to disagree with holocaust survivors; so I’ll quote from two of our most loved media figures: Stephen Fry and Slavoj Zizek.

Fry recently gave a question and answer session at the Wagner Society following the showing of his film Wagner and Me where he said: “You can’t allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He’s bigger than that, and we’re not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.”

My point about the Nazis living side by side with the Jews relates very closely to Fry’s point; that Hitler appreciated Wagner should not stop Jews from appreciating Wagner too – and certainly not at the order of certain Israelis – as this only serves to divide those able to enjoy good art. But further still, as Wagner was an anti-Semite himself, nothing should please us more that orchestral representatives of the Jewish state make steps to end the taboo which allows Nazis to define how the world looks at Wagner.

In a piece called Why is Wagner worth saving? Zizek vents his criticism on what he calls the “historicist commonplace” that says “in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context”. To this end, Zizek notes “too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art”.

Zizek claims that there is the temptation when listening to Wagner to imagine that every sub-text is anti-Semitic, but, using the examples of Parsifal and the Ring, tries to prove this isn’t always correct. In the Ring according to Zizek, it is not Alberich’s renunciation of love for power that is the source of all evil, but rather Wotan’s disruption of the natural balance, “succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love”, which spells doom, meaning also that evil does not come from the outside, but is complicit with Wotan’s own guilt. With Parsifal, the elitist circle of the pure-blooded is not jeopardised by external contaminators such as copulation by the Jewess Kundry, but rather from inside; “it is Titurel’s excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune”.

The point being is Wagner “undermines the anti-Semitic perspective according to which the disturbance always ultimately comes from outside, in the guise of a foreign body which throws out of joint the balance of the social organism”.

The overarching thesis of Zizek is that the anti-Semitic sub-text is not always appropriate when engaging with Wagner, and if this art is separate from the evil of the early twentieth century, then there is reason to save Wagner.

The Wagner boycott is one example of denying the world a great artist, and allowing the Nazis a small victory. The point is Wagner can, and must, be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to, regardless of race, if not for the reason that he would’ve disliked this himself.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , , ,
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