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Artistic prominence and social responsibility

Part of the genesis of my Yo-Yo Ma feature on Sunday was my curiosity about how artists deal with the responsibilities of assuming a political role. I make a distinction, here, between taking on a self-appointed function as a spokesman for human rights or Darfur or green living or whatever cause you believe in, and achieving a stature through your work that leads to your being regarded as a figure of authority.

Obviously, there are artists who have crossed the line and gone into politics altogether: Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the pianist who became Prime Minister of Poland, and Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became president of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, are two obvious examples. But I was curious about artists who find themselves for one reason or another in a figurehead position: like Casals, whose refusal to perform under Franco made him a symbol of heroic resistance, or Rostropovich, whose political beliefs led to exile from his own country and a resulting sense of moral authority. Once you’ve won that authority, what is your responsibility to use it, and how?
(read more after the jump)

Some artists seek out a political role -- like Daniel Barenboim with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra -- or feel compelled to speak out about their beliefs when their work places them in a position that seems to call them into question (as Leon Fleisher did after winning the Kennedy Center honors in 2007). There’s certainly a tacit assumption that artistic prominence and social activism are linked in, for instance, program-cum-awards like the U.N. Messengers of Peace or the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors, both selected groups of prominent people (including classical musicians like Ma, Barenboim, Lang Lang, Maxim Vengerov) appointed to work in some general way to raise consciousness and bring about change.

These issues didn’t fully come to the fore in the Ma piece because I felt that they turned out not to apply; Ma’s activities are so fully bound up with his artistic explorations that he is not led to take stands on non-artistic issues. It’s also true that Ma, unlike Casals or Rostropovich, is not living under a repressive regime to take a stand against. (Much has been written about the way that some artists have thrived precisely as a result of such resistance: Milan Kundera, for instance, whose literary output appeared to lose some of its impetus in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, once the system he had been pitted against had toppled.) But Ma seems in a way cheerfully a-political in the name of music; he’s certainly played for both Republican and Democrat administrations without evident scruple.

What are your thoughts on artists and social responsibility -- as distinct from political art, which is a whole different can of worms?

By Anne Midgette  |  March 16, 2010; 9:07 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Do artists have any more of a social responsibility than anyone else?

Its an extreme, but every election cycle there is always someone banging on about how actors should stick to acting and not talk about politics. Well, why not? Not being an expert on policy sure as hell doesn't keep the rest of us quiet.

Posted by: ianw2 | March 16, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for a great article.I was just discussing that very topic as well. Please check out my article:
The Artist As Citizen
Thank you

Posted by: getclassical | March 16, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

Whenever I buy a ticket, I buy it to hear an artist, not a social activist. While listening to a concert I don't care what his or hers political inclinations are (well, generally speaking; there are of course exceptions).

I am thus adamant that politics should stay out of the concert hall. If an artists uses the concert platform to expose his or her political ideas, he or she puts politics above music. This is unforgivable because nothing comes above music - not to mention the fact that, no matter what your political belief is, you're going to upset at least some spectators.

Again, I don't care what the musicians do outside the concert hall. But whenever I read about an artist's politics, more often than not I get upset either by the sheer stupidity or self-righteousness, or by both - though again, rarely to such an extend that makes me decide not to buy a ticket. Just because someone can sing or play an instrument divinely, doesn't mean that he or she has more smarts for politics than the average citizen.


Posted by: cicciofrancolando | March 17, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I believe that Verdi had more smarts for politics than the average [Italian] citizen.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 17, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

But cicciofrancolando- that places an expectation that artists, unlike every other human being, have to exist in a vacuum.

And where does that leave, for example, Shostakovich?

Posted by: ianw2 | March 17, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

"But cicciofrancolando- that places an expectation that artists, unlike every other human being, have to exist in a vacuum.

And where does that leave, for example, Shostakovich? "

No, it does not. It actually makes them behave like any other human being. As I said, I don't care what they do outside the concert hall. I can do my politics - or choose not do do it - outside work. But I can't proselytize at work (yes, I can discuss my opinions in private with my co-workers but that's another story); thus, I expect the same from artists.

Please understand that I am not talking about works of art that are political in nature. They should be played; this is where Shostakovich (and not only him) comes in. But those composers communicate their message through music. The listener knows what he/she is getting and can choose to attend or not that concert.

What I meant when I said "politics out of the concert hall" is that an artist who is suppose to play, say Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole tell us about his political beliefs during the concert. He / she should keep his politics for outside the concert hall.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | March 17, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I'm confused by this blog entry. Is the question what artists should do with moral authority they acquire through political acts (as it would seem to be from the end of the second paragraph), or whether artists should be obligated to act politically (and thus gain moral authority), or what?

If the question is whether artistic prominence in and of itself obligates a person to act politically, I'm with cicciofrancolando. However, if an artist chooses to act politically, I don't mind - I'm free to choose whether or not to support the artist, taking into account his or her political position.

Finally, does anyone really think signing up for the UN and UNICEF gigs Anne mentions counts as a political act? Standing up for peace or for children is hardly the test of one's political courage. Casals and Rostropovich provide much truer examples of political action (which is in part why the blog entry was difficult for me to follow).

Posted by: Lindemann777 | March 17, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Art has for centuries been the one place where the political agenda can be challenged in a peaceful and even entertaining manner. Artists are not stage puppets with an obligation to entertain the masses, they are often extremely creative and intelligent people who think independently from the 'going norm'. I believe they should be listened to very carefully.

Posted by: sgn1 | March 22, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

sgn1, I agree.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 22, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Of course arts were one place (not *the* one place) where the political agenda can be challenged in a peaceful and even entertaining manner. But I disagree with the rest of your premise.

Some artists do indeed think outside the norm. But for every Goya who depicted the shootings in Madrid, there were hundreds of kleinmeisters like Hyacinthe Rigaud who were happy to paint the monarch du jour (Louis XIV in this case.)

Likewise in music. For every Shostakovich, there were:

- those like Alois Haba who foolishly supported communist regimes only to be prosecuted for writing "bourgeois" music.

- Die-hard nazis like Oswald Kabasta.

- Shameless opportunists like Herbert von Karajan who would kiss the back of the most criminal regimes for the advancement of his own career.

- Monsters like that Cerberus, Tikhon Khrennikov, a despicable human being who was actually a very good composer.

Looking at the artistic community of today, I see mostly a bunch of group-thinks who are loud and opinionated but not necessarily smart. There are of course exceptions.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | March 23, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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