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Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

Richard Wagner and the Condemnation of Art

April 16, 2011 2:15 pmComments are Disabled

I was reading recently about a peculiar custom in Israel of not performing Richard Wagner. Although the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of this custom isn’t legal, it still continues to be an ongoing, rampant phenomenon in a country that has an established tradition of free speech. In recent years, Israeli musicians planning to travel abroad to perform Wagner have been lambasted and widely condemned.

The reason? Both Wagner’s documented antisemitism and his great admirers, the Nazi Party of Germany and its leader Adolf Hitler.

Truth be told, art has been used too often as a weapon by the evil and powerful, and not often enough as a line of defense against them. Artists like Richard Wagner and the film director Leni Riefenstahl were instrumental to the propaganda of the Nazi movement. Wagner’s works were performed extensively throughout the Third Reich and Riefenstahls’ cinematic masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, was as efficacious to the Nazi media campaign as the Blitzkrieg was to the war campaign.

At the same time, artists are often the first to be targeted by regimes: they are those on whom the hardest tests for free speech and a free society are conducted, upon whom an understanding of a national culture and way of life are based, and with whom a true cultural life would not be possible. It is the artists who are the first to criticize accepted beliefs and the first who pay for it. The history of banning artists is as long as the history of regimes. The Romans had a long history of censoring Etruscan and Carthaginian authors and artisans, not to mention early Christian art from both Romans and non-Romans. More recently the Beatles were banned in the USSR as if they were poison to the regime: nothing more than words and music in a language understood by less than 10% of the population, and yet somehow they posed as much a threat to the country as an invading army. (The “British invasion” carried much more weight in this context.) Today, artists such as Ai Weiwei in China languish in prison for their critical art.

In almost all cases, the source of the ban is a belief that the ideas presented in art are somehow dangerous. If enough people believe those ideas, the fabric of society itself will be torn apart. As a particular columnist writes, “That Israel’s Wagner ban serves as a still-useful reminder that ideas have consequences — and that those who spread evil ideas should be held responsible for their evil consequences. Even geniuses.” After all, how many regimes have been shattered or created by the power of ideas? The ideas of Jefferson, of Marx, of Mao, of Herzl, and today, the ideas of millions across the Arab world.

But it’s a universally accepted belief among scholars–even those who don’t follow their own advice–that free and open expression is a necessary condition for a free society. So I won’t continue to preach to the choir.

What is outrageous about the Israeli practice is the fact that Wagner’s art is not banned in Israel for its ideas–after all, music is an abstraction that is fully interpretive–but it is banned for its admirers and its composer. It has been tried and convicted by guilt by association: It is banned because its composer held antisemitic beliefs, and its admirers went on to perpetrate the greatest mass murder in world history. But Richard Wagner, though known to have been an antisemite in his lifetime, was not known for his published works or his writings on Jews, no more so than Hitler was known for his art. And yet the politics of Richard Wagner are under as much scrutiny today as his music, if not more so.

But what I find the most ironic is that Wagner’s opinion on art, that he presented in his masterpiece opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, is the finest repudiation of Israel’s practice that unfortunately can never be heard there:

Honour your German Masters,
then you will conjure up good spirits!
And if you favour their endeavours,
even if the Holy Roman Empire
should dissolve in mist,
for us there would yet remain
holy German Art!

The idea that art is transcendent of regime, is bigger and more grand than any individual or government, is precisely why Israel needs to hear Wagner. The people of Israel would benefit from the presence of transcendent, abstract art which calls for the lifting of souls and the perseverance of culture.

Would an Israeli know a Wagner if he heard it? If not, would he not be as moved to emotional exuberance as any other listener. Would his heart not vibrate? The time has come for free regimes to put aside the ghosts of the past and embrace the music that can set them free.

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