Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Does it matter that Wagner was a bit of a shit?

Where do you stand on the issue of whether an individual's character is relevant to his or her ability to do a good job? It's certainly a topic that rears its ugly head often enough - usually with a politician's face on the front of it. From John Prescott, to the likes of Roman Polanski - when someone does something bad, we fret over the rights and wrongs of continuing to appreciate their output. 

Stephen Fry is going to be looking at this tonight on BBC4 in his documentary on Wagner, his love of his work and his feelings on Wagner's anti-Semitic views (Fry being Jewish). Wagner is of course infamously and eternally associated with the Nazis by way of their appropriating his work for their propaganda and Hitler's favourable take on Wagner's vision for Germany. Nice. 

So for many, Wagner's work is tainted, making it impossible and unacceptable to listen to. Others believe the music stands alone. 

It is one of those arguments that people explore by trying out one avenue first, coming to a satisfactory conclusion and then discounting the other without paying it the same respect. Why bother when something instinctively feels so right? Trouble is both sides actually feel pretty right. You feel perfectly moral sitting on either side of the fence. So why the division anyway, and is it a false one? 

To me a piece of music is entirely blameless. To say otherwise strikes me as suffering from a bad attack of anthropomorphism. Could the Ride of the Valkyries be tried for war crimes? Of course not. Not that I'm suggesting that anyone would ever suggest such a foolish thing but the strength of feelings towards a piece of art based on associations can be surprisingly blame fueled (video games being one of the most extreme current examples). Yes it is pure or evil, or pure evil on the basis on our perception only. And perception, somewhat beautifully, isn't limitless. I'm sure that Oxfam could pipe in Wagner's rousing strains to its aid workers and get them fired up as an even greater force for good - put some welly in their sandals so to speak. 

And they wouldn't think it sounded wrong. They wouldn't suck their teeth and declare that this isn't saintly music, claiming, "No, this is more Nazi music and no mistaking". No such thing exists. So basically, it's fine to like Wagner's music. It's fine to disassociate it from the Nazis and even from the views of the composer himself, because then it becomes more about you, and you're all right aren't you?

When I say, basically, though, possibly it's only basic because Wagner is now dead.

It's a little more complicated with the work of the living. Had I been a massive fan of Gary Glitter (I am not and have never been...just saying) I'm sure I'd have been heartbroken to have had to pack away all of his records - as they would have been in those days - away and chuck them onto the peodo-pile, never to see the light of day again. But is there any reason why I'd have to break my heart in this way? (I realise I'm becoming more and more ridiculous in using this example). I haven't done anything wrong and neither has 'I'm the Leader of the Gang (I am)'. Should Gary Glitter never see the light of day again? A different matter. 

The artist is always accountable for his or herself because the artist is a human being. A very trite sentence - I agree with you. But it seems to confuse a hell of a lot of people in practise because of how revered artists, and particularly celebrities are. There's nothing wrong with a healthy dose of adoration for the people that bring us our favourite songs/films/TV shows/books - but we should remember that they are people and not the Gods they sometimes get built up to be. 

I can see why it happens. Art can, and should, inspire great heights of emotion and we are inclined to put artists right at the top alongside these feelings - it prolongs the joy. So we are shocked enough to discover that they like boring old Crunchy Nut Cornflakes let alone that they turn out to have questionable views on immigration. We hate the dissonance and immediately seek to rectify it. 

For an example of this we need look no further than Michael Jackson's trial. He was found not guilty of course - fine. But we all knew that his devoted fans wouldn't have accepted any other verdict purely on the basis of the eulogising of their idol. The facts of the case would have been irrelevant either way. 

So the confusion should be dealt with - the implications clearly can be important.  I look forward to Stephen's documentary to see how he dealt with his personal conflicts. But for my tuppenny's worth, as long as we never fail ourselves (and the society we live in) by confusing the value of the artist with the value of the work he/she produces, giving them too much leeway in their personal failings, our consciences can be clear. Go ahead and enjoy the glorious art the horrible little shits come up with. 

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