A rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and America has alarmed Jews, Israelis, and their supporters, hence the furor over the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Many of those protesting have focused on “moral equivalence” between Jews and Palestinians as the opera’s chief sin, and indeed, many journalists and critics in the mass media have fed into this impression. To my knowledge, only Phyllis Chesler has given a more detailed account of the pro-jihadist content of the opera, as she did last night: http://www.phyllis-chesler.com/1377/israel-hatred-has-scaled-the-wall-of-high-culture. I assume that Chesler would not risk her reputation by making up the details that support her allegations of Jew-hatred. She saw the opera, while I have not. (For an even tougher essay by Alan Dershowitz see http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4808/klinghoffer-opera.)
This blog, however, has a different take on the problem of the opera’s presentation in this polarized environment (with current ultra-liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio supporting “free speech,” while the more conservative ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani supported the protesters). I will not address the politicization of “art” for I believe that all art of any genre is ideological, and that no artist in any medium can escape ideology reinforced by patronage, institutional context, and family or personal history. In this era of formalist criticism (at best—we should be so lucky to get even that in this ignorant period), I dare not hope to find broad agreement with my assumptions. Nor do I believe with politicians of either left or right that “speech” is ever “free.”
What is neglected in the current excitement is the problem of “realism” and what I write here is more about what we expect from art: do we hope for an enlargement of our imagining past, present and future, or an affirmation of our religion and politics (as in Nazi or Soviet glorification of labor and sacrifice (“socialist realism”), or do we latch onto the Enlightenment project of demystification—i.e., the tearing away of all veils to get at something either absolutely truthful or, if not that foolishly (?) ambitious, the unpacking of symbol and myth? [Readers of my blogs will not be surprised that I prefer the latter, but not without the recognition of opportunism, ambiguity, or unconscious errors of interpretation on my part or of those critics I admire.]
We would like to think that our favorite artists (usually those that affirm our belief systems) are beyond anything so tawdry as prejudice or hitching their stars to fashion and publicity; similarly, we like to believe that family photographs are not simply a posed or candid moment in time, but convey the essence of family bonds, not bondage to sadists and masochists.
Take the case of depicting a Palestinian terrorist, for instance the murderer of Leon Klinghoffer. How would a librettist or musician convey what drives such an individual or social movement to barbarism? How would we, in the brief period, s/he is onstage, grasp all the factors which drove him or her to murder? Michael Walsh, for instance, is defending great depictions of villains, but he does not interrogate the history of melodrama, and why we take its vocabulary of heroes, villains, and victims to be pure representations of real people and real events, persons and events which are beyond the ability of even the greatest geniuses to fully decode. See for instance http://clarespark.com/2013/08/09/melodrama-and-its-appeal/. With melodrama we enter a dream world only.
We may imagine that there is something called art for art’s sake that is purely aesthetic, beyond cavil. It is the same with the writing of history. The 60s and 70s generation was fond of studying history painting in order to point out its ideological content. But in many cases, that led them into hatred of all art as propaganda. No less than the heroes they demystified, these critics are the victims of melodrama and its myth-laden vocabulary.
As an art lover myself, I cannot join these New Leftists in their tearing down of all cultural artifacts as fatally tainted by politics and myth. I like gripping ‘art’ of all genres. Nor can I join rightists in their call to “take back the culture” (at the expense of a more accurate history, psychoanalysis, and science).
What then is the solution to the Klinghoffer fracas? I have nothing to offer but the marketplace of ideas, and suspicion of our own motives in crossing out that art, culture, or political argument that makes us squirm. We need all the insightful criticism that we can get, including criticism that takes down the elevation of value-free art and commentary. “I am not so innocent.”