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Education: Rotterdam Conservatory, Cambridge University // Activities: composition, writing

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Antisemitic new opera?

On the website of the music site 'Ludwig van Toronto', an open letter appeared by a Jewish composer who was rather shocked by some implied antisemitic overtones in a production of a new opera about emperor Hadrian and his lover, against the background of the Second Jewish Rebellion in ca. 132 - 136 AD.

From the 'open letter':

"For context, the Hadrianic persecutions of the Jewish people in response to the Bar Kokhba rebellions are some of the defining moments in our history. Jewish culture was profoundly changed because of the systematic destruction of Jewish villages and places of worship, including the torture and execution of the leading rabbis and the desecration of the temple mount. One million people died in the combined casualties of the rebellion, persecutions, and famine resulting from Roman policy in the area. Historians have pointed to this moment as the one where the Jewish people lost its homeland and became a primarily diasporic population."

This is a very one-sided interpretation of historic evidence. The Jewish rebellion was a more complex phenomenon:


Everywhere, where Rome conquered lands, and after the first cruelties had subsided, they included the new areas into the commonwealth of their multicultural empire, worked together with local ruling elites, and made sure that the inhabitants enjoyed the many advantages of the new international context, in which their own culture was left intact and only an 'extra layer' of a more modern civilization was added to existing life, in terms of economic increase, practical progress (roads, postal service, banking system etc.) and a more developed justice system, plus the accessibility of international products including cultural products. As for religion, that was treated as an entirely free choice, as had been practiced in Rome itself. Every conquered people accepted, after a while, Rome's rule as long as they could have the benefits (this changed, of course, over time). The only conquered people who resisted the inclusion within a wider international world which practiced freedom of religion, were the Jews, who differed strongly in their culture and religion from the surrounding peoples which they looked down upon. Their old religious and entirely crazy mutilation ritual of circumcision, however understandable from a people living in the desert, was seen as barbarous by the romans and especially by Hadrian. His attempts to add a Roman layer over an existing culture was then thwarted.

That this sort of religious mutilation still exists, demonstrates some of the irrational and barbaric components of so many religions.

"Rabbinical literature alludes to a Hadrianic persecution that caused fear and apostasy. The probable explanation of this kind of reference is a universal ban on circumcision that Hadrian issued in, it seems, the early 130s. The emperor had an abhorrence of physical mutilation and even went so far as to declare that castration was no less a crime than murder. In the same spirit he denounced and forbade circumcision, which he viewed as mutilation. There is no reason to imagine that Hadrian intended by his measure to punish or provoke the Jews. The uprising came swiftly and understandably."

The personal involvement of Hadrian is, to say the least, questionable:

"Hadrian’s visit to Athens in 131–132 and his residence at Rome until the summer of 134 suggest a reluctance to deal personally with the disturbance in Judaea. He first placed an able general, Sextus Julius Severus, in charge of the problem. In the year after Hadrian’s arrival in the Near East, the revolt was over. Recent discoveries have shown that several measures connected with the close of the revolt and often cited as indications of imperial severity have to be dated at least six years earlier and, very probably, well before that. Hadrian meted out no savage punishments in 135."


Artistic freedom and mockery

An interesting article about artistic freedom on the website of Literary Hub caught my eye, and the clever nonsense as exposed therein, inspired me to add a comment about what the real restraints of the artists are, or are supposed to be.

Magritte painted a number of nonsense paintings in 1947 for a Paris exhibitions to demonstrate absolute freedom, including the freedom of mockery, as a criticism of the art world and its critics. The article claims that Magritte in doing so, was an admirable precursor of later developments in the art world. So, art about art and the art world and about rebellion against restraints, including artistic restraints and the requirements of quality of craft.

I wrote the following comment:

The misunderstandings in this article are many and embarrassing.... To begin with, art is not 'about' total freedom, or 'liberation', as the crude works of concept art amply demonstrate: in total freedom, 'artists' are merely copying the exhausted gestures of juvenile rebellion against an 'enemy' which is no longer there. Then, Magritte is a nice, but mediocre artist, who could only flourish in the context of the absurdities of surrealism, which were also a mere rebellion against imagined restraints. The only surrealists who could paint well, i.e. who had a real aesthetic, artistic talent, were Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and it is the painterly qualities of some of their works which give them a timeless quality - i.e. lift them beyond the limitations of time and place. And these limitations of time and place are the only limitations from which an artist would long to escape, and he does this through transcending them, bringing them onto a higher aesthetic plane. Pickled sharks or boxes with hospital waste or imitation brillo boxes cannot do that, as mediocre paintings of random, funny imaginary cannot do that (Magritte).

The rebellion of modern art since the 2nd half of the 19th century was a rebellion against an academic art, an establishment art, which was superficial, technically brilliant, but empty, bourgeois in the worst sense, and hypocritically commercial - because presented as High Art but in reality expensive commodities for the well-to-do. But that establishment has since entirely disappeared and now the stupid, the childish, the juvenile and the imitation mockery has created an establishment which is more bourgeois than can be imagined, because of being completely void of any artistic or cultural awareness, and the worst kind of commercialism.

Serious art - i.e. art with an artistic quality and with a cultural meaning - is born from serious life experience, transfigured through the imagination of the artist and realised with the best possible craft. The masterworks from the past which can be found in the great museum collections, are indeed defined by time and place, social circumstances, inherent power structure, the taste of elites, etc. etc. but the best works transcend these circumstances and make them timeless so that people in other times and places, living in totally different contexts, can understand and enjoy them. That is what artistic mastery means, and what meaning means.

The freedom of the artist does not lie in doing whatever he wants, but in his capacity to transcend any physical or psychological or historic limitations into another inner space, where such limitations no longer count. That is true artistic freedom. The deplorable level of our established modern art world amply demonstrates that freedom to indulge in meaningless juvenile nonsense does not produce art.

So, the article is a very conventional reflection of a completely moribund art establishment, repeating the slogans of a century ago.



Addition 15/11/18:

Interestingly, this comment was not published under the article. Possibly it was thought to undermine the credibility of the website.

Sunday 21 October 2018

Strauss and the nazis

There is this totally damning interview that Klaus Mann, the son of the famous author, had with Strauss just after the war when he and a comrade visited the 81-year composer at his villa at Garmisch, with Mann concealing his true identity and claiming to be 'Mr Brown'. He found the old composer saying a couple of embarrassingly stupid things, but labelled them with a moral condemnation informed by the consciousness of the scope of the war catastrophe, an insight which had escaped the composer for many years, retreated as he had into a cocoon of artistic nostalgia.

Strauss, who got irritated by the internationalising trends and eroding of standards of German music life in the twenties, and deplored the then fashionable hard-edged 'modern musics', and who had not taken the trouble to give real attention to political questions of post-1918 society, was dismayed about the postwar government's attitude towards concert life. So, when the nazis took power in 1933, he saw an opportunity - as number one of the eminent German composers with authority in musical matters - to work for the improvement of national music life. The idea that 'Germanness' was under threat from influences from abroad, the realization that the international standing and influence of German music of the past - especially its 'romanticism' and 'pathos' - had suffered in the aftermath of the war, a style of music and music making which was seen as no longer compatible with the much 'cooler' modern times, had created a longing for resurrection, shared by many Germans, of 'German cultural identity' which took-on a particularly conservative and reactionary character, which could easily be manipulated by the nazis with their fantasies about 'race' and 'national superiority'.

In contrast with Klaus Mann, who had to endure forced emigration and alienation and uprootedness in the USA, Strauss had experienced the greatest successes under any regime, and had gradually lost a clear sight on reality, which had turned, in the thirties, to the bitter reality that Klaus Mann knew all too well. With his usual combination of carelessness and contempt for officialdom, hidden behind the rhetoric of earnest Germanness, Strauss tried to charm the nazi regime so that he might get his ideas into the government machinery. But that fell flat because the regime had its own ideas, which were incompatible with Strauss's. After a quite dangerous confrontation with the dark side of the authorities, he retreated into his own world, trying to wall-off the increasingly unpleasant outer reality. Shortly after the war, the vast scope of what had happened, took some time to sink-in, and the realisation of his being compromised and the destruction of the country resulted in his 'Metamorphosen' and the 'Vier Letzte Lieder', which he never heard because he died before the première. Mann spoke with him during the period that Strauss tried to get onto terms with what had happened, and in the same time tried to ignore it all because of its utter awfulness. He may have said some stupid things, partly because of the presence of his family (who commented from afar, as reported by Mann) and trying to put a brave face with the two foreigners, but if Mann's report is literally true - which we cannot know - it shows us a petit-bourgeois, narrow-minded man in denial, not a nazi fan. In this, Strauss was not an exception, as many witnesses and documentation since WW II demonstrate. In an attempt to preserve his own inner musical world and to remedy some ills (as he saw it) in concert life, he had wilfully closed his eyes, ignoring important signals - but could not prevent the fall-out of what had happened to force him to become aware of it all, or at least of some of it, and we know that even small doses were - and still are - extremely painful.

Saturday 20 October 2018

Climate change debates

Climate change is taking-on not the character of a scientific problem that generates unexpected moral dilemmas, but appears to be an ethical problem that necessarily requires moral solutions. Brilliant book review in the London Review of Books that analyses the complexities of the climate change debates by Malcolm Bull. Some quotes:

"Climate change is therefore likely to have a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable and exacerbate existing inequalities."

"The moral argument for preventing further climate change is easily stated. It is not just a matter of protecting the vulnerable from harm, but of taking responsibility for a harm that we in the industrialised North have both caused and benefited from."

"..... what climate change most conspicuously undermines is not the nation-state but democracy, for it requires supranational institutions at a time when there is no supranational democracy, and allows that at a national level the interests of future generations might take precedence over those of the current one. Perhaps, as James Lovelock has argued, climate change means that ‘it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.’"

"Should the magnitude of past emissions (for which the United States and the EU nations are mostly responsible) have a positive or negative impact on the extent of emissions in the future? And should we discount the costs and benefits that accrue to future generations on the basis that economic growth will probably make them richer than we are?"

"With its unavoidable reliance on virtual representation, and its insistence on appropriate deliberation about technical matters beyond the grasp of the uninformed, climate change politics suggests that technocratic government, the contemporary version of Burke’s natural elite, is the only appropriate solution."


It seems, however, to be the best - on all sides: practical, political, ethical - to reduce emissions as much as possible and if this means reducing the material advantages of the West, that is not a great sacrifice considering that so many of them are entirely superfluous and merely a product of commercially-created needs. 

What are the implications of the climate change debates for culture? Reduction of material needs may induce reduction of cultural production if culture is only considered from an economic point of view. However, if culture is recognized as an immaterial good that benefits the whole of society, a less materialistic society may proportionally spend more of its means on immaterial goods which produce a much more effective return in non-material assets. This would also imply a re-evaluation of meaning in the arts and see them in a perspective of civilizational values. And this would entirely undermine the tenets of modernism and postmodernism in the arts, including music.