22
Jul 00

Can we forgive Wagner?

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Can we forgive Wagner? “It would be naive to feel that we must whitewash Wagner’s works in order to be able to enjoy them, for such an argument suggests that there is such a thing as an ideologically unproblematic work of art. On the other hand, it would be equally indefensible to censor the works (their performance or publication) altogether, even in Israel, for, ironically, to do so would mean that Wagner had won – that his works were indeed reserved for Germans, and that Jews had no place in their reception and enjoyment.” – fascinating article on the continuing response to Wagner’s anti-semitism. With Wagner, the nay-sayers are in a minority: mostly he’s as canonical as it gets. In more ‘popular’ cultural areas, the questions are much more everyday and live – do deplorable views affect creative work? What happens when they spill into that work?

On the one hand I agree with the quoted comment – there is a tendency among critics (‘high’ or ‘low) to ‘prettify’ music, to only offer coverage and respect to works which fit squarely into the “ideologically unproblematic” category. But I also feel it must be possible to acknowledge both the greatness of an artwork and the shortcomings of its creator – or even to use the art to spotlight the shortcomings. Forgiving need not necessarily imply forgetting, in other words.

It’s also interesting that ideological critics are far harsher on political and attitudinal ‘lapses’ than on personal ones. A 19th centry artist with racist views would – and this is only a hunch – be vilified considerably more today than one who was a serial adulterer or even a wife-beater. The former is the Problem at the Heart of their Work; the latter would be a bit of tasty biographical colour.

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