Does bad politics necessarily mean bad art?

2009-10-22 00:00

I BOUGHT, a little while ago, a Naxos CD of the music of one Geirr Tveitt — a Norwegian composer whom I had never heard of before (being Naxos, one can afford to experiment a little). I was immediately engrossed in this strange, melodic sound world. The music cascades and overflows, tugs and pulls at you, before sweeping you away. There are hints of the wild rhythms of Béla Bartok, some of the melancholy and ethereal reality of Claude Debussy, snatches of Joseph- Maurice Ravel. It is really fresh and wonderful music.

So, I started finding out what I could about him. Now, besides the fact that his house burnt down in 1970, destroying most of his manuscripts, it also seems as though he held some highly suspect views. Not outright Nazi, apparently, but tending very much in that direction. There are hints of anti-Semitism in some of his writings and he displays, certainly, Nordic nationalism of a fairly extreme kind. And so, after World War 2, his music was apparently generally ignored. Of course, the fire did little to enable the spread of it, either.

Now, I wonder, what does one make of this? If the composer is a fascist, does one not listen to his or her music? I know there are many Jews to this day, for instance, who will not listen to Richard Wagner, because of his very extreme nationalistic and anti-Semitic views. In Wagner’s case, though, I have always been slightly aware of the history. As I say, it has not been particularly significant either way, because I am not crazy about him. But Dmitry Shostakovich is another matter entirely. Him, I am crazy about. Now, while there seems to be some doubt, and the action is passive rather than active, he seemed to have completely caved in to Soviet demands to produce music which was not “Formalist” — basically meaning what the authorities (and in particular Jospeh Stalin) didn’t like because it didn’t have enough of a tune.

The debate is on whether this was actually the case, or whether Shostakovitch was just behaving tactically. But whatever the case, that is something very different from Wagner, who was an active proponent of anti-Semitism and a nauseating German nationalist. Showing a lack of nerve in a climate of political oppression is hardly the same as actively championing a fascist cause.

So the question is this: can an active Nazi be a good artist? Can a Verwoerdian apartheid proponent be a wonderful poet? And at what point does one simply cut them out because their views are so repugnant that they should not be allowed any platform on which to showcase them?

Perhaps the allied question is the old one: is there such a thing as pure art? Is art ever untainted? And if not, shouldn’t one just get on with enjoying it and not ask too many questions?

That art and culture are political, is clearly not debatable. It just is. And that it can be used politically, is also obvious. During apartheid, we had what was called a cultural boycott which was used extremely effectively to isolate South Africa from the rest of the world. Major artists were barred from performing here and our artists were barred from performing anywhere else. It worked, by and large. But it was always held to be a tactical thing. It did not mean that the artists themselves were necessarily bad or to be avoided.

So, to get back to Tveitt. It is only now that his work is being reconsidered, apparently — in a context which is far removed from the ravages and exigencies of World War 2. Is this just because of the way things were or was he done an injustice as an artist? And should I be on the lookout for anything which may smack of Norse nationalism in his music and then reject it?

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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