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Is Art Inevitably Tainted by Politics?

by Norman Berdichevsky (December 2012)


An issue that has been debated at least since the time of Socrates is “Can art or philosophy be divorced from politics?” Self-proclaimed defenders of what they like to call "pure art" have chosen as a classic example of political censorship the informal ban over many years by Israeli radio and television on the operatic works and symphonies of Richard Wagner, a composer whom the Nazis idealized. Although Wagner could not have foreseen how his music would be converted into a tribute to racism, many Israelis felt the ban was justified, while defenders of "pure art" argued that it is necessary to judge a work of music or art or sculpture on its aesthetic qualities alone and not because of the political message the work may have furthered.

To refrain from using only the aesthetic quality, the charge is made that censorship for political reasons always damages artistic sensibilities and standards. Sound, melody, harmony and rhythm may evoke emotional responses but how they are channeled into a political call to arms will depend in part on the intentions of the composer. With more visual forms of art such as sculpture and writing, it is much easier to judge intent by the script, the plot and the demeanor of the subject. 

In the case of Wagner, there is no doubt from what he wrote believing as he did in a malevolent Jewish influence not just in the arts but at every level of German society. The Nazis proclaimed that his works portrayed the “tribal soul” of the German People.

The “informal ban” in Israel is no longer in effect but there are many who still feel that the ban should be upheld precisely because the worst impulses of this so called “tribal soul” gave the Nazis valuable ammunition in their attempt to convince the public that “Pan-German nationalism” and Teutonic mysticism had to be on guard against racial “defilement.” In 1900, Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, could admire Wagner’s music and simply regard his political views as eccentric but after the Nazis’ twelve years in power and the destruction they wrought, this became impossible.

The reverse situation is the artist or athlete who is unwillingly or unwittingly made into an idol for ends he does not agree with or even abhors. Few people are aware today that the great German heavyweight boxer, Max Schmelling, elevated by the Nazis into an Aryan superman in his fights against the Black American champion Joe Louis and the American Jewish boxer Max Baer, refused, even under pressure, to fire his Jewish manager who was also a personal friend. Schmelling’s achievements in the ring were his own and his personal integrity does matter today, however ignobly he was used and made into a symbol of the Nazi regime against his will.

The Soviet Union glorified “proletarian” writers such as Jack London or those who wrote about the worst aspects of corruption in capitalist societies such as Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, but their idealism, compassion and personal integrity remain unsullied by a regime they did not serve. According to the views on art expressed by the Soviet leadership notably by Comrade Stalin, only the style of “socialist realism” was considered fit for the masses and just as in Nazi Germany, abstract or modern painters were viewed as corrupt and degenerate. Renowned painters such as Joan Miró had to flee from their Spanish homeland. German painters were harassed; George Grosz fled to America and Ernst Kirchner committed suicide after persecution by the Nazis. Their works were removed from museums, libraries and copies were added to the bonfires that destroyed thousands of books and paintings while onlookers cheered. Similarly, jazz was labeled by Nazi music critics as “nigger and Jew music” in propaganda publications.

In the 1930s, a lively underground illegal trade in smuggled Benny Goodman records notably in Hamburg, came to the attention of the Gestapo which then pursued a vigorous campaign to find and then force all bars, clubs and music halls from publicly playing American jazz. 

Politicized artists

More than a few artists openly identified with a political creed and sought to promote their views through their art. The great German poet, writer and playwright, Berthold Brecht, had seen the impact of militarism and the threat of the Nazis. Much of his creative work was devoted to warning of their dangers. Brecht too had to flee, first to Scandinavia and then to America. Both he and the Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø eventually settled in communist East Germany. Both had achieved their reputation as anti-Fascists and were attracted to the status and rewards accorded to them by the East German regime. This is more easily understandable in the case of Nexø, perhaps Denmark’s most renowned writer after Hans Christian Andersen in fame and number of books sold. Nexø grew up on the island of Bornholm and worked as a shepherd and shoemaker’s apprentice.

He was hailed as a true proletarian writer and became a faithful admirer of the Soviet Union after a visit there in 1923. His works reflect the struggle of the Danish working class to achieve dignity and were made into powerful films such as Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobreren) and Ditte the Daughter of Man (Ditte Menneskebarn). Upon Denmark’s admission to NATO in 1949, he left to settle in East Berlin until his death in 1954. He wrote nothing of importance during that period.

Ayn Rand became a cult figure on the right. Practically alone among famous writers in the 20th century, her works identified the individual as the hero battling the prevailing ideologies of socialism, collectivism and community, championing egoism over altruism, and defending reason as the supreme guide to conduct. Her early novels, We the Living (1936) and Anthem (1938) were attacks against the twin evils of communism and fascism. One of her two best known works, The Fountainhead (1943), portrays a brilliant architect, Roark, played by Gary Cooper in the movie version, who stands alone against the conventional wisdom of his entire profession. Her views were anathema to the leading intellectuals in the arts, and she was relegated to the status of an eccentric. 

The Fountainhead provoked outrage in many circles, all the more so since Cooper had previously achieved stardom in roles playing Leftwing heroes. The very title of her non-fiction work, The Virtues of Selfishness branded her as an outcast. Perhaps her best known book Atlas Shrugged had to wait more than 60 years before being turned into a feature film.

In 1947, Rand appeared as a "friendly witness" before the United States House Un-American Activities Committee. Her testimony described the disparity between her personal experiences in the Soviet Union and the portrayal of it in the 1944 film Song of Russia. She was, of course, the only person in the Hollywood film industry who had experienced the reality of communism in the USSR.

Rand described the major theme of Atlas Shrugged as "the role of the mind in man's existence—and, as a corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest. It advocated Rand's philosophy that came to be known as of Objectivism and expresses her concept of human achievement. Despite many negative reviews, Atlas Shrugged became an international bestseller.

Her subsequent support of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election was proof positive for many liberals that she was deeply reactionary but her stand on numerous issues such as opposition to the Vietnam war and defense of civil liberties put her in the category of libertarian and this has even “tainted” the present political scene with charges leveled by the Left against Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan who admitted to having greatly admired Ayn Rand and her works.

Guilt by Association

Sometimes, political forces have exercised such enormous power that artists, whose image in the public mind was thoroughly non-political were nevertheless “tainted” by an accusation of guilt by association and were forced to take a stand lest they be tarred with the brush of suspicion. Lucille Ball, the star of the I Love Lucy show, who had become America’s most popular entertainer in the early 1950s, fell victim to a snooping reporter on the lookout for scandal who had uncovered the fact that Lucy had registered as a communist on her initial voter registration form. Lucy and her Cuban born husband Desi Arnez had to make an appearance immediately following the sensationalist yellow press headlines and explain that she had registered as a communist solely to please her eccentric grandfather.

Desi added in a strained and emotional voice that he and Lucy rejected everything that communism stood for and that the only thing “red” about Lucy was her hair and even that was phony. He told American television audiences that he had fled from Cuba under the dictatorial regime of President Batista who had given enormous power to communist dominated trade unions including that of the musicians.

A more complicated case is that of Paul Robeson, the great Black American singer, whose leftwing views and naïve sympathy for the USSR were used by racist and ultra-conservative politicians in the United States to hound him and denigrate his achievements. Robeson made an inflammatory and wholly gratuitous statement in Paris that sullied his reputation – arguing that in a hypothetical war between the United States and the Soviet Union, he would not fight against the Russian people.

His tragedy was that he refused to speak against the evil of Stalinism, including the elimination of Jewish intellectuals whose fate he knew but denied for fear of giving further ammunition to the enemies of his people in the United States. His behavior cast suspicion on all Black Americans including baseball star Jackie Robinson, forcing him to issue a statement at a press conference, that Robeson did not speak for all American Negroes and that he would do everything to promote the cause of civil rights and equality while remaining a patriotic American.

Art, Patriotism and Morality

An artist who became a propagandist for Fascism but did not devastatingly compromise his work was the avant-garde American poet, Ezra Pound, who broadcast for the Axis in Italy where he lived during World War II. Pound was tried for treason but found mentally unstable and sent to a hospital rather than prison. His work never enjoyed wide popular appeal. Moreover, poets have always enjoyed a reputation for eccentricity and Pound had, prior to the war, cultivated many close connections with Italian authorities and artists, all of which account for a willingness to divorce his achievements in the 1920s and 1930s from his later aberrations.

Great German writers such as Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) and Herman Hesse (Steppenwolf, Beneath the Wheel, Demian) have become even greater since the war because their views really did express the noblest impulses of the German people. It is for the opposite reason that one of the great writers of modern literature, Knut Hamsun so grievously wounded his reputation by being the only Norwegian artist of any standing to openly support the German invasion and occupation of his country in 1940.

Many foreign readers may still consider him a great writer but all of his work was subsequently contaminated by the understanding of the modern Norwegian reader that Hamsun wrote from a tragically distorted anti-democratic viewpoint against the noblest values and traditions of a humane, Christian Norwegian society.

Henrik Ibsen, Bertold Brecht, Martin Andersen Nexø, Oscar Wilde, Maxim Gorki, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Emile Zola, Ignazio Silone, Jack London and Jack Kerouac were all reviled by many of their own countrymen for what history has proven to be their honesty and courageous vision even though highly unflattering to the accepted but hypocritical moral standards of their contemporary society. The personal integrity of these writers has stood the test of time. Their character and moral fiber matched their artistic endeavors.

Contemporary critics of Oscar Wilde were convinced that his works would be neglected, and that his very name would be forgotten or come to symbolize moral corruption, yet the opposite occurred and today, Wilde’s name immediately evokes the moral prudery and hypocrisy of the Victorian age.

The dictatorial regimes of Hitler and Stalin utilized art, sculpture, architecture, film, literature, dance and public spectacles on a monumental scale directly as propaganda. The only creative works that are recognized as lasting achievements are those of a few independent spirits such as Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Sergei Eisenstein and Dimitri Shoshtakovitch who drew upon Russian history and folklore rather than the tenants of “Socialist Realism.” No artist of any note in any field was a product of Nazi Germany, although the film producer Lenni Riefenstahl won a number of awards for her cinematography in dramatizing the elaborately staged Nazi Party Rally in Nuremburg and the 1936 Olympic Games.

Veit Harlan and Jud Süß (1940), a “Murder Weapon”

The German film producer Veit Harlan presents the most disturbing pathetic case of an “artist” so transfixed by the quality of his work that he refused to recognize the moral implications of contributing a powerful justification to absolute evil. His notorious propaganda film ‘Jew Suss’ (Jud Süß), 1940, was denounced by his own children and grandchildren as a “murder weapon,” one that even consumed  many of his own friends, colleagues and relatives.

Harlan was born in Berlin, studied under Max Reinhardt, first appeared on the stage in 1915, then after World War I, worked on the Berlin stage. In 1922, he married Jewish actress and cabaret singer Dora Gerson who later died at Auschwitz with her family. In 1929, he married Hilde Körber, had three children with her, only to divorce her too for political reasons to curry favor with the Nazi regime. His third wife, Swedish actress Kristina Söderbaum, appeared as his star in numerous films becoming one of the most popular actresses in Germany and also played a leading role in Jew Suss.

In 1937, Joseph Goebbels appointed Harlan as one of his leading propaganda directors. Jew Suss became the most effective popular film made for anti-Semitic propaganda purposes in Germany and Austria and was seen by more than twenty million Europeans during the war. After the war, Harlan was charged with participation in the Nazi regime but he successfully defended himself by arguing that the Nazis controlled his work and that he should not be held personally responsible for its content. Although acquitted, the court decisions also permitted a campaign to boycott his films.

In 1958, Veit Harlan's niece, Christiane Susanne Harlan, married American film producer Stanley Kubrick, who was Jewish and his daughter, Susanne Körber, from his second wife Hilde Körber, converted to Judaism and married the son of Holocaust victims. In 2001, Horst Konigstein made a documentary film titled Jud Süß  - Ein Film als Verbrechen? (Jud Suss - A Film as a Crime?) dealing with the issue of an artist and his responsibility. Harlan and his wife Kristina Söderbaum maintained that he could never have imagined the effect that their film would have because they could not predict the Nazi campaign of genocide against the Jews of occupied Europe yet their attempts at justification could not even convince their own children and grandchildren– a truly pathetic case of art gone wrong.

Kazan and Montand

In the United States, no film producer has been more vilified than Elia Kazan who was nevertheless accorded (after many years of bitter debate) and strenuous objections by many Hollywood “stars”, an award for lifetime achievement. No other producer dared to make such controversial films as Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), an attack on anti-Semitism, when all the major Hollywood studios – all Jewish owned – had rejected it and his condemnation of racism against Blacks in Pinky (1949).

He won two Oscars for On the Waterfront in 1954, which starred Marlin Brando and for Gentlemen’s Agreement with Gregory Peck in the lead role as well as Tony Awards for his direction of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) and for Death of a Salesman (1949). Kazan, who also directed Tennessee Williams’s classics including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and A Streetcar named Desire, was shunned by colleagues after he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities as a friendly witness. He had joined the Communist Party in 1934 but rapidly became disillusioned and named 17 Hollywood personalities to the Committee who were then party members whom he believed had fronted for the communist cause. Kazan was then ostracized by the predominantly left-leaning Hollywood establishment for his participation in the hearings and denounced as a “traitor.” In spite of the common Leftwing complaint against McCarthyism, it is noteworthy that in Europe, where recognition of communist subversion was more a matter of direct confrontation, European artists and intellectuals, who turned their back on communism did not incur such “vengeance.”

One must salute three Europeans with a long background of involvement in the Left and support for the Communist Party in their homelands who then renounced their allegiance in the face of brutality and oppression. The three are worthy of redeeming the conscience of actors and directors everywhere. They refused to lend their names and art to a further suppression of the truth. They are the French actor and Singer Yves Montand, French actress Simone Signoret and Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras who produced and starred in the film The Confession (French: L'Aveu), a 1970 French-Italian film. It is based on the true story of the Czech Communist Artur London, a defendant in the infamous anti-Semitic trial held in 1952 that resulted in the hanging of eleven prominent former government officials, almost all Jews including Rudolf Slánský for spying.

The trial lasted eight days. It was notable for its strong anti-Jewish tone. Slánský and 10 of his 13 codefendants were Jewish. Just as in the purge trials of the late 1930s, the defendants were craven in court, admitted their guilt and requested to be justly punished with death. Slánský was found guilty of "Trotskiyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism." All the defendants were hanged in Pancrac Prison in on December 3rd, 1952. The bodies were cremated and the ashes were scattered on an icy road outside of Prague.

In the film, the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia is arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned and put in solitary confinement for months without being told the reason why. It recounts the actual techniques of torture used in all the Stalinist show trials – sleep deprivation, brainwashing, walking aimlessly back and forth all the time, and drugs forcing the victim into confessing imaginary crimes and treason and repeating this confession in a public court.

To play this role, Yves Montand lost 35 pounds. He had been shaken by the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 and for him, this role was settling a score with totalitarian communism. He said: "There was in what I inflicted upon myself for this role something of an act of expiation." We are still waiting vainly for such an act from Hollywood.

Mark Anthony’s Words

Are the artistic works of Harlan, Hamsun, Wagner, Pound, Wilde, Robeson or Kazan any “less great” because of the political views, prejudices, or the sexual behavior and egos of their creators, or that their works were subsequently used by others to further political ends? This is a hypothetical question that can never be fully answered. Any audience judges a work on its merits but also has knowledge of the artist’s personal opinions and political views that may or may not equate with his or her artistic reputation or moral judgments. It is for this reason that art is inevitably judged by these dimensions as well as purely aesthetic considerations.

Shakespeare had Mark Anthony deliver the funeral oration over Caesar’s corpse: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.



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