On art and commitment

11 12 2009

[originally posted here]

Shostakovich is a composer very dear to my heart, and not just because I am an ex-Marxist. The power, drive and idealism that his music exudes are truly astounding in a century so dominated by musical experiments that didn’t work. There was no flamboyant experimentalism in his music, even though it was indeed modern. His symphonies are unparalleled works of music in the twentieth century, and he is undoubtedly the greatest master of that genre in modern times.

Shostakovich was not a great composer in spite of being a communist. It was because of his convictions that he could write such moving symphonic works. He very much tried to be a composer of the people, even if the Stalinist bureaucracy tried to put stumbling blocks in his way.

Was he stifled as an artist because he lived in such a repressive regime? One of my favorite anecdotes is that of Bertolt Brecht moving back to Soviet-occupied Germany. When asked by Western reporters whether he felt repressed because of the censorship of the Soviet regime, he replied that at least in this socialist society, important government officials would set him aside for hours to talk to him about his work, when in the West they would simply ignore him.

Do we censor the arts and ideas by simply ignoring them? Is our own society even more toxic to the arts and culture because, rather than persecuting them, we simply ignore them? And does such a situation lower the aesthetic standard of the works that this decadent society produces?

I don’t want to impose a repressive regime on anyone, but what is the true intellectual and cultural cost of the dictatorship of personal license?


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4 responses

11 12 2009
The Scylding

Interesting. I find that creativity often flourishes at what CS Lewis called “The ganglions of history”. That is why I think people tend to go dull in quiet societies. Coming from a tumultous country to this continent, I see that. At least here in SK, the climate shakes thing up once a year (nothing relaxing about -40C), although it is still less than where I come from, ESPECIALLY considering what is available!

11 12 2009
brian m

last night I watched Kozintsev’s HAMLET, with its Shostakovich score–you may well enjoy it like I did: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet_(1964_film)

11 12 2009
Leah

The real problem is that art has been defined down. As recently as 150 years ago, there was a very strict line between what was and was not art. Now, anything can be art if the artist’s intent was for the object in question to be an artistic piece. As a result, we have the bizarre spectacle of having urinals, broken glass, and blank canvases being put in museums and hailed as masterpieces. In the Soviet bloc, art was still being defined in very strict socialist, realist terms, so being artistically daring (i.e., not depicting the Masses of People marching to Communism) actually had some meaning and risk. In comparison, in US being artistically daring usually means putting on some sort of calculatedly “shocking” display with lots of nudity and transgressive sex. Extra points if the artist somehow manages to get Bill Donohue into fighting mode. And meanwhile, no one outside of the art world really cares because they’ll all too busy watching or trying to get on reality TV.

11 12 2009
Manuel

Huxley’s Brave New World comes to mind. I think because in it you have a totalitarian society, and yet the people and their art are as crass, vapid, and sexually maniacal as many of us contemporaries. I just thought of it as an example of a repressive regime with no personal license and yet culturally barren.

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