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?