Let’s Face It: Most Historical Figures Were Probably Jerks, by Tussah Heera
First published on Tussah and the Wolf, September 28, 2014
It’s September, and I’m back in my shoebox apartment in Toronto, practicing. It’s already the third week into school, and there are notes upon notes to work on until they get absorbed into my very being. In the words of Robert Frost, I have miles to go before I sleep. But as usual, I can’t resist but write about a paradox that has provoked my thoughts in the past few days. So at the expense of the Hammerklavier fugue, here I go.
In 20th century music history class a couple weeks back, we discussed the role the character of an artist plays when forming opinions about his/her work. How do you treat beautiful music written by a composer with horrible views? Obviously, the topic of Wagner made its way into this discussion before anything else could. His anti-Semitic and generally racist views tainted his music so much that some feel uneasy when they listen to it, even today. In the documentary Wagner & Me, in which Stephen Fry rationalizes being a Jew with being an ardent fan of Wagner’s music, he describes Wagner’s life as a “beautifully woven tapestry blemished with a single, ugly, unfortunate stain”.
After discussing Wagner and a few other long-gone artists at length, the class discussion came to a head at this question: “Have any of you ever had to deal with the conflict of loving the art but hating the artist?”
To answer that for you right now: yes. Most of the time. And not only when it comes to music. Through familiarizing myself to a certain degree with several other art forms – the visual arts, fashion, literature, etc. – as well as learning the histories of these art forms along with geographical histories, I’ve learned that there’s no one, no matter what good they did in their field, worth idolizing. And through this learning process, I’ve learned to give up paying attention to whether I admire the artist at all and simply stick to whether I admire his/her work or not.
When I was a lot younger, Shakespeare took up a considerable part of my existence. I had read almost all his major plays by the time I was 8 or 9 – not at all out of parent/teacher force but with full willingness, because for some reason I got connected with his fanciful and sometimes morbid stories. I, understandably, never had a reason to care about “Shakespeare the man” at that point, as that was irrelevant to the splendor of his literary artistry. But then I grew a little older, and read two plays that betray his opinions regarding all the horrible qualities of society during his time: The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice.
For those unfamiliar, The Taming of the Shrew chronicles the slow demoralization of the headstrong Katherine Minola by her husband Petruchio, who tortures her in every way in order to turn her into a good 15th-century girl who never raises her voice and cleans up her husband’s drunken messes. The Merchant of Venice, on the other hand, showcases Shylock the Jewish moneylender, who is outright shamed by the Christian Antonio, and by the end of the play is forced to convert to Christianity to keep his very life. Though I was incredibly angered while reading and understanding these works, and – not gonna lie – had an initial reaction along the lines of “William! How could you?”, the outright celebration of misogyny in the former and the blatant anti-Semitism of latter did not surprise me one single bit. Here’s why: I understood that Shakespeare, like most people during that time, was simply another douchebag who was afraid of women and people who didn’t resemble himself in terms of appearance and religion, and craved to see these individuals under his control. The only way in which Shakespeare was different than everyone else during his time was that, while the dirty old men of his time discussed their depraved fantasies for hopelessly obedient women in the confinement of taverns, he decided to describe these fantasies in ways they would live forever. While the common supremacist of his time spat on a Jew in the street and called him a “cutthroat dog”, Shakespeare looked on, snickered, and wrote about it.
Just because Shakespeare was a literary genius doesn’t mean he was also a forward-thinking genius, and neither should one expect him to be. His talent did not in any way exempt him from being a part of his era, unless it was proven otherwise. This goes for all artists from the days of yore.
Coming back to the “art vs. artist” topic, here’s why the Wagner issue confuses me. I completely agree that he was a deplorable man and should be remembered as one. But why was his anti-Semitism – which most likely stemmed from jealousy toward his Jewish peers and not from simply hating the Jewish race – singled out as a distinctive trait? Besides, Wagner came from a Jewish family. Brahms was a known misogynist whose whorehouse gigs and generally limited life experiences with women led to some very twisted views. Countless others were definitely racists, living during the period of Institutional racism and slave-shipping. It’s logical to assume they agreed with that exploitation and believed it was for the better, even though they didn’t explicitly write about it. Why not dole out the same tainted opinions towards these composers as we do to Wagner? Why did Barenboim have to cancel his Wagner concert in Israel, while I’m sure it wouldn’t be controversial if Brahms was played for a V-Day fundraising event?
The answer understandably lies in the obviously blunt evidence left by Wagner himself, such as his unfortunate article Jewishness in Music and many other blunders during his life, but it also lies in how society, and later the media, views discrimination. For example: even though slavery in America lasted centuries longer than the Holocaust and gave rise to ramifications far harder to remove even in this day and age, it’s still the Holocaust that is remembered more vividly and thought of as more atrocious. In Europe, it’s illegal to deny that the Holocaust happened, but it’s far from illegal to deny that slavery happened in America. Some go as far to (legally) insist that that the Civil War was nothing to do with slavery, and prefer to call it “the war between the states”. Hell, there are still people who make sick, blood-boiling jokes about it, both in public and private. Of course, anti-Semitism was always lurking around throughout history and it’s horrific culmination should be rightfully acknowledged as it is now. But why don’t people seem to show the same acknowledgement of the sheer detriment of slavery as they do for the effects of anti-Semitism?
I ascribe this somewhat myopic view to the simmering frog analogy, which I’m sure everyone has heard of. Drop a frog in scalding hot water, and it will jump out instantly. It will also remember what a bad few seconds it spent in that horrible water for the rest of its life, and, if it’s a particularly smart frog, not hesitate to remind its whole community time and time again of its ordeal. But give the frog a nice cool pool to play in, heat it up over a period of several hours, convince it that everything is fine, and you would have frogs’ legs for dinner. You would also have a completely clueless next generation of frogs that would not care to remember the sufferings of those before them. Some may deny this happening altogether, or dare to say that the boiled frog died for the better of the frog race, somehow.
Another point to keep in mind when wondering how to reconcile art with an artist’s nature is: how would you even know what views someone holds unless he/she goes out of the way to express them? For example, how would we have known of Vassily Petrenko’s outdated position on women conductors and performers if he hadn’t gone and blurted out an inarticulate mix of words in an interview? Similarly, how could we know if long-gone artists – such as Bach and Beethoven – harbored toxic views like Petrenko’s, as they didn’t write anything down and there was no heavy media coverage? From the facts we know about their time, however, we can guess that they probably did.
There is a difference, however, in the way Petrenko’s misogyny should be treated and the way a centuries-old composer’s should be treated. Unlike said composer, Petrenko exists during a time in which discrimination simply can’t be tolerated anymore. The human race has come way too far way too slowly for any of that bullshit to haunt us any longer. It is now our duty as evolved human beings to strike down the bigots, racists, and misogynists of today who are holding us back. In today’s world, boycotting the work of idiots who coexist with us is a rational and reasonable position. But when it comes to the views of those from the past, we can’t possibly condemn them by holding them up to the much improved standards of today, and neither can we pretend that they understood these standards just because they had one extra talent than everyone else during their time. Just like the sheeple of today don’t “believe” in evolution or global warming, the sheeple of yesterday didn’t “believe” in human equality. In short: there is nothing to be done. Boycotting the work of a long-dead person out of righteousness is akin to protesting against an unfair situation that has already been resolved years ago.
Humanity’s greatest disadvantage is amnesia. The majority of us forget (or choose to forget) truths so easily –especially inconvenient ones. This weakness has been, and still is, exploited by conniving people time and time again in order to advance their own position or political agenda, which undoubtably sets the human race back a few steps. When it comes to the legacies of people, historical figures need to be remembered for who they really were. No sugar-coating, no pretending. Take Mother Teresa. Though famous as the ultimate saint who helped the poor while leading a thoroughly selfless life, and long ago the subject of one of my joking replies (“What do you expect me to do? Just donate my stuff instead of selling it? I’m not Mother Teresa!”), scholars now agree, as Christopher Hitchens eloquently points out in his article, that she was anything but the woman we all remember her as.
The bottom line is: we need to refrain from putting historical artists –rather, all historical figures in general– on pedestals they don’t belong on, and understand that they all had flaws. Sometimes, they were just downright assholes despite all their good work. At the same time, we also need to understand that assholery was part and parcel of their time period, and instead of boycotting their unquestioningly beautiful work out of outrage, direct pity at them. Feel sorry for those poor, misguided, souls that existed during times we wish never to return to, and above all, remember them accurately. Instead of saying “Oh, I’m NEVER playing Wagner because he was a racist!”, say “Oh, that poor pathetic Richard. Sigh, what a spoilt little brat who took to dissing people and throwing tantrums when his life was going south. Didn’t know any better, just like the rest of ’em. Shame. Kickass music, though.”, and go about your merry life.
I’m a musician. I’m also a girl. My repertoire is full of pieces written by old white men who probably believed that a woman had no place on the concert stage. Does this information make me mad? Yes. But will take my anger out on the music I love and stop playing it because of the supposedly misguided, deluded people who wrote it? No. I’ll mock their irrelevant, obtuse opinions that stink of flea-infested powdered wigs and burnt cigars, click my high heels and fucking own that music onstage. At the end of the day, I’m the one that’s alive. I’ll have the last laugh –and the last note.