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Commentary » International

What to make of beautiful messages from contemptible messengers

A rabbi discusses the merits of art and scholarship produced by notoriously flawed people

What to make of beautiful messages from contemptible messengers

Richard Wagner

Rabbi Schmuly Yanklowitz for Huffington Post International

January 31, 2014

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Many people face the dilemma today of deciding what media and speakers are acceptable to engage. Should you watch a movie produced by an anti-Semite? Should you listen to an opera written by a composer favored by the Nazis; what about accepting scientific research that was conducted by Nazis?

These moral dilemmas are at the core of a larger issue: Can there be a separation from contemptible people and the art they create? 

Art is particularly problematic for those seeking morality in execution as well as theme, for many artists and performers are egotistical, vain, often willing to exploit anyone to advance their own art, and inclined toward flaunting their distaste toward conventional morality.

For example, Pablo Picasso is remembered for powerful paintings, such as his anti-war masterpiece "Guernica." However, his first cubist painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," shows five naked prostitutes who stare out at the viewer, taking in the perspective of a potential customer.

The painting was universally condemned when it was first exhibited. Now it hangs prominently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In short, the art world has overlooked Picasso's often-cruel depiction of women in art (and in his life).

Similarly, in 1913, the brilliant young composer Igor Stravinsky wrote the score for a ballet presented by the prestigious Ballet Russe Company of Serge Diaghilev, choreographed by Vaclav Nijinsky, the most famous male ballet dancer of the day, and conducted by the excellent Pierre Monteux.

The result, Le Sacre du Printemps, created a riot at its Paris premiere, as the ballet graphically depicted the ancient pagan sacrifice of a virgin. The audience literally drowned out the substantial orchestra, but was probably much more offended by the choreography, which featured deliberately crude, "primitive" movements, unlike the refined, graceful movements of conventional ballet.

Today, however, the work is considered a staple of the orchestral repertory, in spite of its gory programmatic theme (the choreography, as with most ballet revivals, is usually modified).

Then there is Richard Wagner, whose work and legacy is notoriously contentious and divisive. Jewish conductors such as James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera have conducted and championed Wagner's operas, yet public performances in Israel have been socially verboten. 

Long-time Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta played one Wagner excerpt as an encore in 1981, and Daniel Barenboim played another excerpt in 2001 in Jerusalem, but they were met with fierce demonstrations and did not persist. In 2012, a planned Wagner concert sponsored by the Israel Wagner Society was canceled due to public opposition. Regardless of one's opinion, Wagner's influence on orchestral composition, and beyond, cannot be denied.

Consider, for example, the popular Star Wars films. In addition to similarities between these stories and the subject of Wagner's Ring cycle, the use of short musical themes and phrases that are associated with specific characters, which is standard for many films, was pioneered by Wagner (the leitmotif). The great Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein once stated, alluding to Wagner's achievements and enduring influence, "I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees."

Full story: Can one cordon off evil ideas from art and science?

Source: Huffington Post Religion

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