Friday, February 1, 2013

Against the Wagner Defence: call-out for ideas

Recent posts about racism have gotten me thinking - can you separate an artist's disagreeable politics from their music? I mean really

I am calling the idea that you can do this the Wagner Defence, after the classical music canon's favourite anti-semite, Richard Wagner.

Most journalism about him walks the line between acknowledging his greatness and acknowledging that politically speaking his beliefs are beyond the pale. So, how does he get away with it?

Granted, there's at least some historical perspective applied in the case of Wagner: there was a lot of racism in the nineteenth century, to put it mildly, and the pantheon of pre-twentieth century greats would start to look a little empty if contemporary standards were applied retroactively in full. And it's not his fault that he was sanctified posthumously by Nazi Germany.

But in Wagner's case, there's a more troubling argument: that someone's artistic contribution can outweigh any consideration of their politics - however reprehensible.

So, what do you think is the appropriate response to all of this on the part of the listener? 

How does this relate to contemporary debates about, say, metal artists who make racist statements, homophobic reggae singers, church burners, left-wing revolutionaries - think of John and Yoko backing Mao?

Or, one level down, American country singers advocating violent reprisal after 9/11? British metal bands toying with cultural nationalism by way of re-appropriating our history?

I believe music appreciation has to acknowledge the latent unity of the artist's life, beliefs and work.  
  • Unity, because no piece of art or music can be separated from its context, as expressed by its maker and known by the recipient.
  • Latent, acknowledging that this context may not be fully known to the recipient, and an musician's views may also be only to varying degrees manifest in their work
In other words, I don't believe in letting artists of the hook for their politics, but I acknowledge that it's more complicated than at first sight.

So, what's the most appropriate response in these situations? And how we do we make sure that modern-day Wagners don't get a cheaper pass than they deserve?

Over to you.


  1. I'm writing this comment a few months after your post, but only a few days after watching Stephen Fry talking about his love for Wagner's music and loathing of the man.

    One of my A-level English teachers was a great fan of Philip Larkin and was devastated when Larkin's letters were published and revealed his racism ( 'We don’t go to cricket Test matches now, too many fucking niggers about.')
    I quite liked some of his poetry, but I can happily boycott them because I've read better poems and, in any case, I'm not a big fan of poetry written after the 1500.
    Context is important - for me, there's no excuse for Larkin but the Beowulf poet gets the benefit of the doubt because we have no information about his views and what we can guess about him from the context (he was probably a he, and his views on women are likely to have been extremely old-fashioned) can be excused by the context (early mediaeval Europe). Wagner is more troublesome - we know his views and while there were many in 19th century Germany who shared them, there were many who didn't (there were protests at one of his concerts after he published one of his anti-semitic letters) so he doesn't get the bye that the Beowulf poet gets. However, he had Jewish friends - intelligent Jewish friends - and from what I gather his views evolved. If he'd been alive now, perhaps he would have regretted his letters and renounced his views, but indications are that he got more extreme over time so perhaps if he were alive now he would have been ostracised by mainstream society. Maybe he would have been horrified by the Holocaust - we'll never know for sure. Another thing to consider is how much circumstance informed his views. Wagner was clearly already facing hostility during his lifetime, so the circumstances would have to be more personal - even so, would that be enough. Let's take a hypothetical composer who wasn't an anti-semite or a racist, who wrote beautiful music but served in the Wehrmacht. I would want to know about the circumstances before passing judgement. As far as we know, Wagner didn't kill anyone - our hypothetical composer most probably killed people, maybe not Jews, but certainly people who weren't serving a nation that was killing Jews. Perhaps he didn't know what was going on? Would we believe him? Would that make it okay?

    I think that leads me to consider another point - how much did the artist's views influence the actions of other people? The Nazis appropriated his music, but did his views actually turn anyone into an anti-semite? Did Lennon's later views supporting Mao encourage more killing, torture and imprisonment? Did Lennon genuinely support that or was he deliberately being (misguidedly?) confrontational and controversial? Would that make it okay?

    For the record, I think Wagner's "Funeral March of Siegfried" is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written and listening to affects my my breathing (I'm assuming it's an emotional response and not some form of hyper-auditory-tactile synesthesia) and I sleep soundly at night believing that. My Wagner Defence is that it I believe he scrapes through by dint of a) being dead, b) having Jewish friends who I hope saw a more complex figure, c) probably not actually influencing someone without anti-semitic views into becoming an anti-semite.

  2. Thanks Chris - I guess with someone like Wagner, it's about acknowledging his views along with his art.

    Accepting his complexity as a historic figure and his role - at the very least - as part of a cultural current of anti-semitism without making him culpable for all of its consequences.

    As you say, the propagandists are easy to dismiss. It's those without a didactic purpose in their art who demand more complex assessment.