Sunday, September 27, 2009

Does bad politics necessarily mean bad art?

I bought, some time ago, a Naxos CD of the music of one Geirr Tveitt – a Norwegian composer that I had never heard of before (being Naxos, one can afford to experiment a little!). I was immediately engrossed in this strange, melodic sound-world. The music cascades and overflows, tugs and pulls at you, before sweeping you away. There are hints of the wild rhythms of Bartok, some of the melancholy and ethereal reality of Debussy, snatches of Ravel. It is really fresh and wonderful music!

So, I started finding out what I could about him. Now, besides the fact that his house burnt down in 1970, destroying most of his manuscripts, it also seems as though he held some highly suspect views. Not outright Nazi, apparently, but tending very much in that direction. There are hints of anti-semitism in some of his writings and he displays, certainly, Nordic nationalism of a fairly extreme kind. And so, after the 2nd World War, his music was apparently generally ignored. Of course, the fire did little to enable the spread of it, either!

Now, I wonder, what does one make of this? If the composer is a fascist, does one not listen to his or her music? I know there are many Jews to this day, for instance, who will not listen to Wagner, because of his very extreme nationalistic and anti-semitic views. Personally I have never managed to fathom him, despite force-feeding myself every now and again.

In Wagner’s case, I have always been slightly aware of the history. As I say, it has not been particularly significant either way, because I am not crazy about him. But Shostakovitch is another matter entirely. Him, I am crazy about (besides one or two of his choral symphonies which I can’t seem to relate to no matter how hard I try!). Now, while there seems to be some doubt, and the action is passive rather than active – he seems to have completely caved in to Soviet demands to produce music which was not “Formalist” – basically meaning what the authorities (and in particular Stalin) didn’t like because it didn’t have enough of a tune.

The debate is on whether this was actually the case, or whether Shostakovitch just behaved tactically. But whatever the case, that is something very different from Wagner, who was an active proponent of anti-semitism and a nauseating German nationalist.

So the question is this. Can an active Nazi be a good artist? Can a Verwoerdian apartheid proponent be a wonderful musician? And at what point does one simply cut them out, because their views are so repugnant that they should not be allowed any platform to showcase them?
Perhaps an allied question would be, is there such a thing as pure art?

I am just asking – I have no clue as to what the answer might be.

During Apartheid, we had what was called a “cultural boycott”. It was extremely effective, in that it isolated South Africa from the rest of the world. Major artists were barred from performing here; our artists were barred from performing anywhere else. It worked, by and large. But that was a tactical thing. It did not mean that the artists themselves were necessarily bad, or to be avoided.

So, to get back to Tveitt. It is only now that his work is being reconsidered, apparently – in a context which is far removed from the ravages and exigencies of the 2nd World War. Is this just because of the way things were – or was he done an injustice as an artist? And should I be on the look out for anything which may smack of Nordic nationalism, and reject it?


  1. That's an interesting question. The question also gets a bit tougher when you consider modern artists and ask whether you should boycott them/not buy their stuff. For me, I always think that I should distinguish between the artist and their other views but then I think to myself 'Isn't money I spend on his music indirectly contributing to his other endeavors?' However, this applies more to modern musicians than ones from a few years back like Wagner.

  2. To put the matter more crisply, if Hitler was a rather better artist than he was...?