Monday, September 25, 2006

Art and the State

Although I didn't know it until I heard it on the radio this morning, today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich. His genius was an epic tragedy, unfolding as it did against the backdrop of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. It is an extreme case to be sure, but his life has some lessons about the dangers of entangling art with the state. For as long as Stalin was alive, Shostakovich had to walk a tightrope — his music had to be "politically correct," with that term carrying a far more sinister meaning than it does today.

Having gained note with the Opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich must've been stunned and profoundly fearful when he opened Pravda one day in 1936 and saw a piece critical of the Opera signed by none other than Stalin himself. Artists were not immune from the fates of others in Soviet society who crossed the mad Georgian, and so he might well have feared at this point that his remaining days were few. Ultimately he escaped the police state itself, but the remainder of his career was a tangle of compromise although one hand and, in the view of many, hidden musical criticism of the police state on the other. But his work was unavoidably clouded by this entanglement.

Once upon a time, art was the province of the state -- not in the sense of the hyper-politicization that unavoidably comes with the modern ministries of art that many societies have, but in the sense that only nobles were wealthy enough to support house artists. But, politics and the overpowering state not having infected every organ of society as they do now, there were no political agendas per se in this arrangement.

The economist Deirdre McCloskey claims that Beethoven and Haydn were the first composers able to support themselves by marketing their own compositions. And it was in the 17th century that writers first began to obtain the independence that comes from the spread of the market – the ability to be master of your own fate. And unsurprisingly this was an extraordinarily productive interval in all kinds of art – the great Romantics in literature and music, the Impressionists and other new schools of painting in that field.

Alas, the postwar period put an end to that. In Europe and North America, the hand of the state was assumed to be as omniscient and public-spirited in managing art as it was in managing the family, managing agricultural production, in managing every other social activity that had previously been left to self-governance. And art is the worse for it. The late Jean-François Revel claimed that Italian and French cinema never recovered the glory that they possessed in the 1950s, the era of Fellini and Truffaut, once moviemakers became dependent on state handouts. (Compare the flabby state of Italian and French cinema with the vibrant work to be found in unsubsidized industries such as those in Hong Kong and India.) Art and its poor cousin entertainment are increasingly consumed in the US by battles over their politics – is NBC anti-Christian (registration required)? Should the World Trade Center memorial try to place the event in the proper “political context” by including exhibits devoted to other atrocities in history, including some committed by the US government? These are the dreary questions that preoccupy professional art-lobbying pressure groups, and hence divert their attention from the older quest for beauty and truth that used to be the function of art, once the state piper permanently calls the tune.


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