The Culpability of the Art(ist)

As I read through various reports on Arts this morning, I found a common thread through three articles:

Love the Art; Hate the Artist?” by John Schaefer

In Israel you still won’t hear the music of Richard Wagner in concert. The music sounds just as glorious there as it does anywhere else, but the Nazi’s appropriation of his music and of some of his anti-Semitic writings make it a painful listening experience for many Israelis who survived the Holocaust and settled there.…

If we remove all the art by artists of bad character from our lives, who are we hurting? Not a long dead composer… We’re just denying ourselves the good—in some cases, perhaps the only good—that these people did.

Blackface, Reconsidered” by Jody Rosen

What really troubles me… is this question of whether Sophie Tucker is “worthy of consideration.” Are we to conclude that had Tucker not stopped performing coon songs, she would be unworthy of consideration? What about an entertainer like Al Jolson, one of the greatest and most influential singers of the 20th century, whose landmark performances took place behind the blackface mask? What, for that matter, about Bert Williams, the first African-American pop star, who smeared burnt cork on his own brown skin? Are they beyond the bounds of acceptability?…

Yes, blackface comedy was racist and appalling, and people should never stop saying so. It is also a key to cracking the code of American culture.

It’s especially important to understanding popular music, whose history—from Stephen Foster to Tucker to Bing Crosby to Janis Joplin to Mick Jagger to Eminem and on and on ad infinitum—is enmeshed with blackface tradition. For years, minstrelsy was such a hot-button topic that scholars dared not touch it. This is one reason why important musicians like Tucker have received little serious attention in the last many decades.

‘I am a pianist, not a spokesperson’” by Arminta Wallace

In a way, [Palestinian-Israeli pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar] has become a spokesperson for Palestinian artists in the wider world, certainly in Europe. As a pianist, does he feel this is a role which has been thrust upon him? “Yes and no,” he says. “The role of a spokesperson is inevitable. I always stress the fact that I am a pianist and not a spokesperson—but the more I stress that, the more my role as a spokesperson becomes even stronger. But I don’t want to put on any uniform. If anything, what I speak for is our wish to develop our lives and to live in a way that is with dignity. To express our potential as individuals. The more I do what I do, the more that becomes clear by itself.”

What all of these articles have in common is some attribute placed on the music or musician that is derived from something extra-musical regarding the nature or character of the artist. I think they all pose good questions:

  • If we remove all the art by artists of bad character from our lives, who are we hurting?
  • Are such artists unworthy of consideration?
  • To what extent do artists become spokespersons for all people like them in any particular way (race, creed, gender)?

From the flip side, is it ethical for a composer to set a text which reflects an attitude with which they do not agree? Or can we permit a composer to distance themselves from the texts which they set (or titles used)?

Perhaps the easiest response was given by John Schaefer, the Wagner commenter:

This is why I prefer to read the book or hear the music before I go and learn about the person who made it. I think I’d find it hard to be objective looking at a painting with young Adolf Hitler’s signature in the corner. Of course, if I liked it, and then saw that signature in the corner, I might feel like losing my lunch, but then no one ever said that art was supposed to be easy.

While rather convenient, I am sure that such an approach would not satisfy many audience members. Perhaps, however, it is the audience member who must in the end take responsibility for the cognitive dissonance as they place a meaning on the music beyond that which can be known from the music itself (i.e., not knowing its author). Of course, this would assume that we understand what meaning can be conveyed through music. I am pretty sure, however, that an innocent listening to Wagner’s Wedding Marchwould never reveal its sometimes-despised author; why else would I still be asked to play it at so many weddings?

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