I have always thought that transcendental art exists in a realm beyond time, geographical/cultural context, and politics, but a few recent events have made me put this into question, so I’ve decided to explore this topic a bit further. First, we need to establish whether art and politics are inextricably connected or whether these connections are given by those who produce and/or consume art. I’ll concentrate on Western classical music because that’s my field of expertise.
Let’s begin by taking a purely abstract piece of music like say, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59 No. 1, the first of the Razumovsky quartets. This work, in my opinion, is one of the greatest quartets ever written (especially the Adagio), and I don’t think I’m alone on that one. Perhaps it was not hailed as such when it was first performed, but that quartet has, over time, elevated itself and transcended to the point that 200 years later it continues to be listened to and played by people in countries that didn’t even exist during Beethoven’s lifetime, by people whose gender and/or sexual orientation was not accepted back then, and by people who used to be enslaved because of the color of their skin. All of these people love Beethoven’s music today, notwithstanding the fact that it was written when the world was a very different place. In other words, the music itself holds some kind of universal core value, which has allowed it to transcend to the point that it can be judged solely by its musical merits. But if we want to, we can put a context to it.
That quartet is one of three who were dedicated to Count Andrey Razumovsky, a Russian diplomat. Beethoven himself used to receive financial support from prominent nobles like Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, and this allowed him to dedicate himself fully to his work. Then of course, we can look at the instrumentation and see that it is scored for two violins, viola and cello -four instruments that were invented and developed in Europe, hence it is a product of European civilization. As we know, many European countries had colonies around the world, so that piece was written during a time when monarchy was still thriving and social inequality was determined by birth and accepted as a matter of fact. Beethoven’s music itself uses the tonal system which was not -and has never been- a universal language, but which reigned undisputed in Europe for over 300 years and which is still pretty much the backbone of most popular music. In the end, Beethoven’s quartet is a European (German, to be more specific) cultural product funded by a privileged class of people who lived out of taxing the working class and who, in addition, funded the brutal colonization of the Americas and Africa. Does all of this sound too reductive and beside the point? I think so.
Why should Beethoven’s beautiful quartet be contaminated by any of this? It is certainly not necessary to mention these facts to enjoy or even understand his music, but I’m bringing this up in order to show that not a single work of art can’t exist in a vacuum. Some art, however, manages to elevate itself above all this and become truly universal, but for that to happen we need time and historical perspective. Now, Beethoven’s quartet is quite an abstract work. The same could be said of a Mozart Sonata or a Bach invention, but there are some pieces which are inspired by specific people or historical events, and then we have a more difficult time isolating the music. To continue with Beethoven, we can take his Third Symphony, Eroica, to see what I mean. He initially dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte, but withdrew the dedication when Napoleon -much to Beethoven’s chagrin- crowned himself Emperor. What a way to make a political statement! Beethoven himself was known to consider himself as an equal and he felt entitled to the same treatment that his noble friends enjoyed, an attitude that couldn’t be farther from Haydn’s, who live most of his life happily at the service of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy.
Let’s go beyond the purely instrumental. Let’s take ballet. In a ballet we add a visual context, making the work of art less “pure” because it gives it a story, even if it’s not told in words. When Shostakovich’s “The Bolt” premiered in 1931 it was not very well received by either audience or critics. Its plot tells of a lazy worker who is fed up with the factory and plans to sabotage it by damaging the machinery with a bolt. Even a young group of communists take center stage. The content was deemed anti-Soviet by the authorities and this led to the work being banned. It was not staged again for several decades and it was certainly not the last time in which Shostakovich faced criticism from the authorities. If a ballet can cause all that turmoil, imagine what opera can do.
In opera we move from purely abstract music to the world of literal meaning. In Figaro, Mozart made a daringly provocative statement that was not seen with good eyes by the Viennese nobility, and they made sure to let him know. The protagonists of the opera are servants, not legendary heroes, and they speak in everyday language and not in the heightened speech of the gods. The opera was based on the Beaumarchais play which fueled and sympathized with the values of the French Revolution, so the nobles of Mozart’s time couldn’t be unhappier. The opera went on to be staged, but only after heavy censorship, and it became and incredible success.
Looking at all these examples we can see that composers can deliberately charge their works with political overtones (like Mozart in “Figaro” or Beethoven in the “Eroica”), that they can upset the political establishment (as Shostakovich did in “The Bolt”), and that they can also write music devoid of any political content, in which case (especially for purely abstract music) one needs to go to ridiculous lengths in order to assign them a political overtone. Now that we have explored this, we can place our gaze on our own time.
Should an artist get involved in politics? I have met people who strongly believe that all artists, as opinion leaders, have a responsibility to speak out when current events demand so. Personally, I think that any artist should be free to choose whether he/she wants to be part of the discussion or not and that no one should feel forced to do so. The problem is that it is really, really hard for an artist to stay neutral once he/she has achieved a certain level of fame. Think of the recent controversy that surrounded Venezuelan Conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He has always been extremely reluctant to take a public political stance and I don’t blame him for that, but in the wake of recent protests his neutrality seemed to upset some sectors of the music community. Venezuelan Pianist Gabriela Montero sent an open letter to him saying that, as an artist, he could not afford to remain silent and she exhorted him to speak out his mind in the wake of the massive protests that took place in Venezuela between February and June of 2014. He refused to cave in to politics and instead chose to condemn all forms of violence. Another conductor, Valery Gergiev was also embroiled in controversy when he signed a petition endorsing the annexation of Crimea and he was targeted by the LGBT community for aligning with a regime that openly discriminates against its gay and lesbian population. Gergiev has stood firm on his political stance but his reputation has suffered considerably. Does Gergiev truly support the government of Vladimir Putin, or must he voice his public support in order to continue his work in Russia? Does Dudamel sympathize with the Venezuelan government, or must he remain silent so he can continue doing the greater good of helping the young and poor in Venezuela through their successful and state-sponsored Sistema? I will not answer these questions for them, but as I said there is a point where a public figure can’t continue hiding his or her political views. In this sense I think that an artist must take a stand. We don’t need to be voicing our opinion all the time, but we must do so when it becomes necessary.
Most recently John Adams’ opera The Death of Kilnghoffer has been accused of being anti-semitic by sectors of the Jewish community. I don’t believe that Adams or Alice Goodman, the librettist, is promoting an anti-semitic view (I have seen the opera) but I do believe that people have a right to manifest themselves and protest. Thankfully, opening night went ahead peacefully (albeit noisily) and the opera continues to live. This is something that hits home because I am currently writing an opera that gives a “voice” to terrorists (and how could it not, they must sing!) but I have never and will never support terrorism. If anyone ever accused me of doing so, they would be targeting the victim instead of the perpetrator.
I never lost any of my friends or relatives to terrorism, but I do remember that between 1985 and 1990 my country started to plunge into a spiral of violence that not even my parents or grandparents had experienced in their lifetime. Blackouts were frequent because the terrorists were detonating every electric tower they could get their hands on. Water was rationed due to neglected infrastructure and the supermarkets had more empty shelves than food on them. The peak of this came in July 16, 1992, when the Shining Path detonated a car bomb in the middle of Miraflores, one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Lima. I was 13 years old and up to that point, stories like these had only been coming from other parts of the country, but after the Tarata bombing, my family and I knew that there was simply no place to hide. From then on we lived in a state of fear, reporting any cars that had been parked in front of our house for more than two hours, a fear that people in other parts of the country had been experiencing for years, and that those of us in the capital city now shared.
In the years following this tragic event, the government of Alberto Fujimori took very aggressive and even questionable methods to defeat terrorism. (In 2009 Alberto Fujimori was found guilty of human rights violations and condemned to 25 years in prison). With its leaders imprisoned, the Shining Path and the MRTA had been dealt a fatal blow and by the mid 90’s the economy, which had been left in tatters by the previous government, had started to rebound. By 1996 everyone thought that terrorism had long been defeated, but it was precisely then, when we had lowered our guard, that the MRTA stormed into the Japanese Ambassador’s residence and started a hostage crisis that lasted four months and which inspired Ann Patchet to write “Bel Canto”.
I couldn’t sympathize less with terrorists but I am not blind as to why terrorism flourished in Peru. Inequality, racism, poverty, centralization and a continuous neglect on part of the central government created a generation of resentment. Some channeled their resentment in a positive way by contributing to the development of the country, but others decided that violence was the only path. We are now definitely in better shape; poverty and analphabetism have been significantly reduced and we have one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but some issues remain. The memories of those troubled years will live in me always.
We all have our stories and we are all entitled to our opinions. I don’t feel the need to share my political views when not asked, and if the day comes when I have to openly speak about them, I’ll do so. Unlike other composers however, I don’t feel the need to permeate every single work of mine with a political message. I respect those who do, but I think that every now and then we also have to aim higher. We must speak to those values that lie beyond our current political and historical context. We should not allow our minds to dictate every single note we write. Instead, I prefer to rely on other aspects of myself that I hold in higher regard, such as the my heart and intuition. Only when we go past the physical, the emotional and the mental can we reach the spiritual, and it is only then that we really get in touch with a world beyond ours. Why give this, our immediate reality, our exclusive attention? Yes, we must be aware or our historical context and we must have our feet on the ground, but we, as artists, also have the possibility to fly and give people something out of the ordinary, something that is beyond everything that we experience in our daily lives. Something that transcends and makes us dream, live, and breathe worlds still unknown to us. This is what makes us imagine realities which are yet to materialize; realities where our music is played in places that man has yet to reach, and by life forms we are yet to encounter. Only then, I think, an artist does develop his full potential, pushing mankind forward and ushering a new era. Let’s go past the things that worry us right now, because such things, when placed in the larger context of the Universe, reveal their true insignificance.