Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Art is Right Wing?

Reading Ann Althouse this morning, she refers to an old post of hers that sounds rather interesting: Art is right wing. That post itself quotes a comment she made on an even older post:
To be a great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist like Dylan or Picasso may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath, where it counts, there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world and focusing on that.
Especially in today's environment, something like this is very provocative. Here is one comment on the post I linked:
There are two separate issues here: the creative element, that is, the art itself, and the artist's personal politics. Those artists who are leftists do not seem to realize that their individualism is at odds with actual leftism in practice.
Soviet and Chinese "art" and "literature" (the words require scare quotes in this context) made a mockery of true art, because their mandatory service to leftism destroyed originality and individualism. Only the dissidents made anything lasting.
I like the mapping out of a distinction between an artist's activity qua artist and their personal politics, but! The second paragraph, while seeming plausible, goes wildly wrong if you know something about Soviet art, specifically music composition in the Soviet Union. Three names come immediately to mind: Sergei Prokofiev, who left Russia in 1918 but in the 1930s spent more and more time going back and forth between the Soviet Union and France and in 1936 he returned permanently and took up residence in Moscow until his death in 1953, on the same day that Stalin died. Dmitri Shostakovich lived his entire professional life under the Soviet regime, born in 1906 he died in 1975. His music was condemned twice, in 1936 and 1948, but he survived both those attacks and continued to compose without ceasing until his death, though he did keep a number of works, such as the Violin Concerto no. 1, in the drawer until after Stalin's death. Sofia Gubaidulina struggled her entire career in the Soviet Union against official strictures and in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, she took up residence in Hamburg, Germany.

Two out of the three: Prokofiev, Shostakovich with Aram Khatchaturian on the right.
Gubaidulina is a later generation, of course. The irony here is that a lot of the finest musicians in the oppressive political environment of the Soviet Union, were quite creative individuals whose work was often contrary to the imposed narrative. Of course they were not dissidents--there were no active, living dissidents under Stalin as he either had them shot or banished them, like Solzhenitsyn, to concentration camps. They were forced to write works that were at least superficially regime-praising, like some rather embarrassing cantatas, but most of their output was creatively quite free of those requirements. Examples would include all of Shostakovich's string quartets and Prokofiev's piano sonatas and concertos. Gubaidulina never seems to have written anything directly in service to the regime, but she came along much later.

If we look at the work of artists in Western countries today we seem to see more ideological conformity than in the Soviet Union! Isn't that a surprise? Most of the composers working in the US, for example, seem to be following the same playbook of identity, gender equity, diversity, environmentalism and so on. Art, for them at least, does not seem very right wing. We might look for evidence at Alex Ross' column on Notable Performances and Recordings of 2018:
At a time when some orchestras are unspooling entire seasons devoid of female and nonwhite composers, the L.A. Phil has commissioned twenty-two women and twenty-seven people of color. In October, at an event in the orchestra’s Green Umbrella new-music series, I was shaken by Tina Tallon’s “. . . for we who keep our lives in our throats . . .,” a response to sexual abuse.
Most works mentioned are quite free of political reference though none that I know of are as satirical of the current pieties as Shostakovich's Preface To The Complete Collection Of My Works And Brief Reflections Apropos This Preface, Op.112, or his absurdist opera The Nose.

I guess my point here is that the truth is in the details, not the superficially plausible generalization.

A good envoi here might be Shostakovich's Anti-Formalist Rayok, a work so satirical that it was not premiered in his lifetime:
In January 1989, a much-rumored work by Dmitri Shostakovich titled Anti-Formalist Rayok received its public premiere. Rayok is a single-act satirical opera/cantata for bass soloist and mixed chorus. Each character represents a prominent Soviet political figure: Joseph Stalin, Andrei Zhdanov, and Dmitri Shepilov. The text of the libretto is either taken directly from actual speeches given by these political figures or follows their idiosyncratic style of public speaking.

Of course we are not going to get any of the jokes.


Steven Watson said...

Eh, she has a very American view of political history. I'm not sure what individualism has to do with being right-wing. And the quotation by Mr Vaizey (who, might I add, is a thoroughly unremarkable member of the Conservative Party -- a party which is no more right wing than, say, Hillary Clinton), is full of silly ideas. Artists as entrepreneurs? Oh please. How dreary and Thatcherite. Both he and Ms Althouse view the right in purely liberal terms. Artists do tend to be more liberal. But right wing? I do not see any signs that they are more conservative, quite the contrary.

Of course, this is all a very narrow historical argument. Once you go further back than the 19th century it makes little sense.

(Your comments, however, regarding Soviet dissidents, are most interesting and I quite agree with them!)

Bryan Townsend said...

Nobody knows history any more!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I wonder if, since 45 won the electoral college vote, if Anglo-American journalists collectively decided that anyone who explicitly advocates for traditional liberalism as it developed in the last two and a half centuries has to be regarded as "alt right" and by extension a budding fascist.

It's not the kind of rhetorical gambit I can imagine journalists seriously considering if HRC had won the electoral college vote. I wish 45 wasn't who it is here in the US just about every week but that's not a reason to treat the entire range of liberal traditions in Western societies as defaulting to authoritarianism.

I just picked up an old book on the repressed Russian/Soviet avant garde. It's not exactly that the futurists and other experimental composers made "nothing" of value, it's that so many of them got imprisoned, murdered or exiled we never got to find out about much of the work they did. Zaderatsky's works were banned from ever getting premieres in his lifetime and it's only been in the last eight years people have had a chance to discover he wrote what is probably the first cycle of preludes and fugues of the 20th century, in the Gulag, no less.

Fortunately we're in a time and place where previously suppressed and "forgotten" composers from the early Soviet era can get some more attention. It's helped me get a clearer sense that the lockstep narrative of the Schoenberg school innovated in ways others weren't is a bit of a sales pitch. Scriabin's students and disciples were formulating nascent microtonality in the early 20th century and it may be to the West's benefit so many of the key figures led to Paris (or crossed paths with Hindemith and other musicians willing and able to play some of that work).

Glib comments about how Soviet music was not really art remind me that Adorno's virulently anti-Slavic legacy as a critic is something we still need to keep pushing past.

Bryan Townsend said...

Politically it's a topsy-turvy world these days.

Though some musicologists like Richard Taruskin and others have pointed out the deficiencies in the Standard Model of the history of music in the 20th century, I think there is a desperate need for a single volume that can correct the errors and fill in the gaps. Otherwise another generation of undergraduates will be told that the Second Viennese School were the path to the future of music.