The Baby and the Bath Water

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The reality of Wagner’s ugly political views means he can no longer be idealized…The necessary ambivalence of Wagnerism today can play a constructive role: it can teach us to be generally more honest about the role that art plays in the world…We cannot forget how art unfolds in time and unravels in history. And so Wagner is liberated from the mystification of great art. He becomes something more unstable, perishable, and mutable… And so we shift from a kind of adoration and immersion to an experience that has this critical dimension to it.

-Alex Ross

 I was in my late-twenties the first time I saw a Wagner opera. I was in St. Petersburg and I saw “The Valkyrie” with my piano teacher and her two children—Pasha (10) and Dasha (8). As the curtain went up, I scratched my head, wondering how these children were going to survive the nearly 4 hour opera without an intermission. But before I knew it, the curtain was already coming down, and I was applauding the performers—with a pounding heart and moist eyes.

But even then, I was aware of Wagner’s political views—his hatred of the Jews and his influence on Hitler. I knew that the uber-nationalistic sentiment of operas like “The Valkyrie” helped to lay the foundation for much of Nazi ideology. Still, his music moved me, and I found myself trying to reconcile the man with his art.

I face similar issues of cognitive dissonance today in our highly politicized society, as we are re-examining our history, art, music, language and even the National Anthem. There is a lot that we are uncomfortable with—our history, our politics, our art. What do we do?

Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle, away from the extremes of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Maybe the answer is about being honest about all of it—the insanity, depravity, ignorance, and even genius. Yes, there are some things that probably should be discarded, but, there is also a lot that still has artistic value and maybe much to teach us.

So let’s be honest, and let’s keep asking questions, and challenging and learning, and let’s definitely keep talking.

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