…is the English translation of a punk ballad by my friend Pablo Carbonell—the Spanish musician, comedian, and film director.
Last night I watched a UK doc called Wagner and Me, the me being British actor and personality Stephen Fry. He loves Wagner’s work and in the film he visits Bayreuth. Besides talking about what a shrine the place is for him, he asks the inevitable questions about whether our assessment of art should be affected by an artist’s behavior, politics, or, in this case, anti-Semitism. Fry is Jewish, so he embodies this conflict in some ways. He doesn’t focus on the serial adulterer side of Wagner’s personality—so we assume that doesn’t necessarily affect whether or not we like Wagner’s work. I know a smattering about Wagner: the big rousing tunes, the long mythic Lord Of The Rings-type operatic saga, his professed need to build a completely new theater to perform his new work in, his anti-Semitism, and his Gesamtkunstwerk concept—a creative form that embodies all the arts. But I was hoping to learn a little more, so I rented this doc.
Wagner’s work was notoriously loved by Hitler, though of course Wagner had been dead for decades before the little guy came to power—so Wagner didn’t write work supporting the Nazis or encouraging the Holocaust. He can’t be blamed as being a supporter or collaborator. However, in a famous essay that Wagner wrote before he became successful, he railed against Mendelssohn and another Jewish composer who was very, very popular at the time. No doubt there was professional jealousy involved, as these guys were both wildly popular and had found patrons to support them. Wagner, meanwhile was getting himself deeper and deeper into debt, and at one point he found himself on the wrong side of a revolution (though a side we might politically agree with) and was forced to immigrate to Switzerland for many years.
After his years in “exile” he returned, having conveniently made friends with the wife of the new King Ludwig II. The King was a madman who was extravagant and rich beyond imagining. Below is his castle, which was the inspiration for the one in Disneyland. The castle itself was based on a fantasia of what a medieval castle might look like—but this was the mid-1800’s and no one was building medieval castles anymore! Not only that, it was a simulation of something, a physical manifestation of a historical architecture style that had never existed. Perfect for Wagner though, as this castle has now become a kind of archetype of a fairy tale castle and Wagner was all about embodying German mythology and archetypes in his operas.
Can I offer that this cozying-up–to-the-wife-of-the-crazy-king-thing might be viewed as a craven means of securing arts funding (pretty sleazy actually), but really how different is it from the schmoozing and ass-kissing that goes on today? And it worked. Wagner got himself out of debt, began completing his Ring cycle of operas, and securing a suitable venue in which they could be performed.
Most of us musicians and composers don’t have the hubris to think that a completely new venue should be built to accommodate our artistic dreams—though there are indeed visual artists who have had museum wings and structures made to accommodate their work. More often we look to existing venues (concert halls, ballrooms, bandshells, basketball arenas, and re-purposed industrial buildings) and hope to find our work performed in the one that will showcase it in its best light. Wagner is the exception to my rule that we tend to tailor our art to these existing and available venues.
Wagner wanted the orchestra that would play his work to be both larger than usual and hidden. That might seem a contradiction, but he had his reasons. He wanted expanded brass and bass sections to accommodate the bombast to come, and he hid the orchestra in order to submerge the music—at least visually—more thoroughly into the total work. To his credit, he also wanted the performances to be less elitist than opera had a tendency to become. He was annoyed at the extra-musical behavior that often took place during opera season—the socializing, gawking, and gossiping. To emphasize the more egalitarian aspect of his theater he eschewed much of the Rococo decor and gilt that often covers opera venues. This was to be serious—a shrine, a people’s temple, set isolated on a high grassy hill.
Though I view his hubris at insisting on a purpose-built venue as the exception as far as composers go, I realized while watching the doc that there are indeed recent equivalents—Celine Dion, Elton John, Cirque du Soleil, and a handful of other Vegas shows have had venues specially built to accommodate their needs. Lion King and Spiderman on Broadway in NYC are others—the amount of remodeling and construction that went into the theaters where these shows run effectively makes them into new purpose-built venues.
I find this slightly disgusting and unfair. I tend to believe that part of the challenge of any artistic endeavor is to find a way to work within the limitations and physical restrictions that have been given to you. That’s part of the game—to acknowledge the rules and context but then come up with something totally new within that world. Maybe there’s some creative jealously here—I convince myself that ignoring the rules is easier than accepting the restrictions as given; that ignoring them isn’t playing the game. (What rules one might ask?) To propose impractical projects might be the mark of a visionary, but one wonders if the huge effort and expense to realize them necessarily guarantees an appropriately increased level of audience experience. Think of Jeff Koons’ locomotive that he proposes suspending by the barely solvent LA County Museum. Sometimes yes, bigness is indeed part of a piece—but scale is not a sure-fire guarantee of a great experience.
Back to the question of whether or not we can allow ourselves to like someone’s work knowing they might be a despicable human being, hold abhorrent views, or possibly be a complete pervert. Do we care that Picasso may have been a bad father and mistreated all his wives? Not particularly—we tend to separate his work, or at least our judgement of its quality, from his private life. Do we care that the poet Elizabeth Bishop made excuses for the brutal dictatorship in Brazil? Does that invalidate her work? The composer Gesualdo murdered his wife. Mussorgsky was an alcoholic. The composer Henry Cowell went to prison for molesting young boys. Caravaggio killed a man over a game of tennis! And the contemporary painter John Currin goes against most of his peers and often espouses conservative Republican political views.
Actors and singers have a harder time separating themselves from their work. Mostly because physically they are their work—to a large extent their bodies are what we see and hear in their work—it becomes hard to separate them from what they do. As a young man I found both Charlton Heston and John Wayne intolerable based on their political views (though I’ve managed to watch Wayne’s John Ford westerns lately). I’m suspicious of Scientologists—Beck, Cruise, Travolta—but they seem to keep their wacky cult leanings out of their work. More than a few country singers hold pretty radically conservative views and sometimes it makes it into songs like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue”. Ted Nugent is just a crazy person, period. It can be confusing.
And if we do sometimes judge someone’s work based on their extracurricular behavior, is the reverse then true? Does being a good and kind person make your work better? Most certainly not. The painter Jacques-Louis David promoted the overthrow of the monarchy during the French revolution—something we tend to empathize with. A lot of his work was propaganda; his political beliefs were very much entangled in his work. Here is an unfinished work depicting the provisional government forming at an (indoor) tennis court:
His more famous works are about mythologizing and creating heroes:
Though we might agree with his politics and instincts, do we give him extra artistic points as a result?
Picasso’s “Guernica”—an act of political protest—is given high marks. But imagine if instead of depicting the pain and horror of the civilian bombing of a Spanish village, it depicted civilians being bombed by the Allies in Dresden or Berlin. The painting might not look all that different. Imagine what our architectural taste would be like if Hitler had decided to promote an industrial-inspired Bauhaus aesthetic rather than the romantic imperialism of Speer. Would modernism have been suddenly abandoned as a project?Wagner’s anti-Semitism is not inherent in his work, I don’t think. Though his operas evoke a sense of the deep roots of Teutonic culture and therefore encourage a pride of that culture, it isn’t exclusionary. So, we can compartmentalize here if we want to. Picasso’s work doesn’t espouse bad parenting. Currin’s paintings of grotesque nudes don’t promote the Tea Party. Caravaggio doesn’t excuse murder in his paintings. Similarly, Fry concludes that Wagner’s work should be judged solely on its merits, and he suggests we view and hear it independently from his personal views.