abatt

The Duty of Artists To Speak Out Against Injustice

22 posts in this topic

This article appeared in today's NY Times. It focuses on whether prominent international artists have a duty to speak out against injustices in their countries. The primary focus is Dudamel and Gergiev, although other prominent figures are also mentioned.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/arts/music/gustavo-dudamel-and-valery-gergiev-face-national-issues.html?ref=arts#

With respect to ballet, does David Hallberg's historic status as the first American invited to be a principal dancer at the Bolshoi come with any broader responsibilities than simply dancing?

Share this post


Link to post

I find Tommasini's logic muddled and dislike his tendency to give his opinion as if it were fact (Gergiev..."major musician of our time").

I sympathize with Dudamel having to defend himself and reminding us he is a musician, not something else. Some of the political issues discussed in Tommasini's article have (at least) two sides to them. For instance, many progressive people supported Hugo Chavez' policies, and it is well-known, although underreported in the western press, that significant elements of the Ukranian groups

which conducted the coup there are ultra-nationalist right-wingers with neo-fascist leanings. Tommasini reports as given truths nothing more than what one can read in a typical American newspaper or television broadcast. This does not condone Russia's anti-gay stance or what is currently going on in Crimea and Venezuela but he should at least show some respect for different perspectives and the nuances of political realities.

Share this post


Link to post

Fiddlesticks -- I've got to go do a bunch of errands, but will be back. This is a huge question, with lots of sidebar discussions.

Share this post


Link to post

What DanielBenton said.

As sandik says, this is a big topic. Unfortunately Tommasini does not begin to do it justice.

Share this post


Link to post

Not to disagree with anything said here so far, but I think it's perfectly accurate to call Gergiev a "major musician of our time." To my ears, that sounds fairly neutral; I'm not sure what the problem is with that description.

Share this post


Link to post

If Tommasini really means, "Musicians should take progressive stands on an unlimited number of issues," then he should say as much. Gergiev did not protest the anti-gay legislation, but supported the government publicly when it occupied Ukraine; I don't think he's a good example of a musician who refuses to take a stand. He just hasn't taken the stand that Tommasini and many Met Opening Night protesters and Met supporters wanted him to take.

I agree that Gergiev is "a major musician of our time." He is in demand worldwide, and he commands major resources. While I've never heard good reviews of his ballet conducting, even people who think he's sloppy and under-rehearses at times give high praise to other operatic and symphonic work.

Share this post


Link to post

It's true that the author just scratches the surface of a very large topic, but I appreciate the attempt to start a discussion. I've gone around and around different aspects of this situation with people from several different backgrounds, and have dug myself into many different holes, so I'm not coming here with a simple response, but instead a long list of questions.

On one level, all citizens of all states have a responsibility to understand and deal with the actions that the state takes in their name. As a citizen of the US, I am at least nominally complicit in the actions of my government. I may not approve (indeed I often don't!) but I do recognize a certain kind of responsibility.

But this isn't really what the author is about here - he's asking if artists have an extra duty to speak because of their position in the culture -- that their words carry a different kind of weight (possibly even a different weight than the ubiquitous "celebrity" speech). Do we think that artists have a more powerful obligation to speak out about issues other than their own field, because they are artists?

(I don't mean to devalue some celebrity work -- we've all heard some very articulate and persuasive testimony from popular/famous individuals, and seen some of the great work they do in all parts of the world. But the kind of attention they are able to bring to a topic is fueled by a different kind of fan base than I think the author here is discussing)

And in the case of these two artists, we're talking about different countries with different political situations than we have in the US -- without going into complex detail, I have to admit that both Dudamel and Gergiev are dealing with a myriad of expectations from multiple sources. Neither of them are dancers, but they both walk some very sophisticated choreography.

I'd love to dig a little further into this topic, but don't feel like I want to swallow it all whole -- it's a big, big mouthful.

Share this post


Link to post

he's asking if artists have an extra duty to speak because of their position in the culture -- that their words carry a different kind of weight (possibly even a different weight than the ubiquitous "celebrity" speech). Do we think that artists have a more powerful obligation to speak out about issues other than their own field, because they are artists?

(I don't mean to devalue some celebrity work -- we've all heard some very articulate and persuasive testimony from popular/famous individuals, and seen some of the great work they do in all parts of the world. But the kind of attention they are able to bring to a topic is fueled by a different kind of fan base than I think the author here is discussing).

When I think of a celebrity I think of someone who is more popular and therefore probably has more societal influence than most artists in the West, but of course In Venezuela and Russia, Dudamel and Gergiev qualify as both. In any case, I feel like everyone has the responsibility to use whatever influence they have. Then again, I'm not spending all my free time writing letters for Amnesty International, and that doesn't even require "taking a stand," so words are cheap.

Gergiev's refusal to stand up to Putin re: gays strikes me as especially spineless and craven though, given that so many of the artists he works with, and so many of the people who buy the tickets that keep them employed, must be gay.

Share this post


Link to post

As an openly gay man I have to say that I do not believe anyone has to have my same opinion and no one has to speak out in support of my particular group. I might like someone to speak out or at least have compassion or tolerance, but every human being is allowed to have his own private opinions.

I tend to think artists do not sway anyone anyway. People who hold a different view than a particular artist will stop buying that artist's work or just shrug off that one opinion of that artist. I think the only people who make a difference are the people immediately in your life (not strangers who speak out). If someone knows a caring and kind person who happens to be gay, that has much more effect on someone not wanting to harass a gay person than Brittney Spears or Gergiev speaking up for gays will ever have.

That is my opinion.

Share this post


Link to post

I think the only people who make a difference are the people immediately in your life (not strangers who speak out). If someone knows a caring and kind person who happens to be gay, that has much more effect on someone not wanting to harass a gay person than Brittney Spears or Gergiev speaking up for gays will ever have.

That is my opinion.

I think you're right that direct personal contact is the most powerful experience we'll have, but I do think that can be enhanced when prominent public figures speak out, if for no other reason than the fact they get broader 'airplay.'

Share this post


Link to post

When the members of a certain Russian punk band whose name I will not repeat on this forum were imprisoned, Amnesty Intl and media all over the world covered the the story. Various performing artists (like Madonna and other rock bands) spoke out publicly to call attention to Russian oppression of the members of the group. Ultimately, international pressure, includng pressure from performing artists, led to the Russian government releasing the members of the band from prison. Shining a bright light on injustice, whether it is through the media or by performing artists, or a combination, does have an impact.

Share this post


Link to post

It can have an impact, but a critical mass of world-wide efforts on behalf of a small number of individuals in the band Pussy Riot is quite different than individual artists with much smaller platforms speaking about general policy.

Netrebko, for example, might be well known in classical music circles, but Madonna she ain't.

Share this post


Link to post

As an openly gay man I have to say that I do not believe anyone has to have my same opinion and no one has to speak out in support of my particular group. I might like someone to speak out or at least have compassion or tolerance, but every human being is allowed to have his own private opinions.

That’s such and admirable (and none too easy, I would think, and none too common, it seems) attitude to take.

Share this post


Link to post

It can have an impact, but a critical mass of world-wide efforts on behalf of a small number of individuals in the band Pussy Riot is quite different than individual artists with much smaller platforms speaking about general policy.

Netrebko, for example, might be well known in classical music circles, but Madonna she ain't.

That is true, but in this particular case Gergiev has a strong and direct relationship with Putin. Even though Gergiev and Netrebko are not world wide superstars of pop culture like Madonna, they are in a position to be heard by Putin because he has favored them.

Share this post


Link to post

As an openly gay man I have to say that I do not believe anyone has to have my same opinion and no one has to speak out in support of my particular group. I might like someone to speak out or at least have compassion or tolerance, but every human being is allowed to have his own private opinions.

That’s such and admirable (and none too easy, I would think, and none too common, it seems) attitude to take.

Thanks for the compliment. I lived in a Southern community with a huge air force base and had many, many friends with polar opposite views as mine that worked alongside me and became genuine friends, and we had to learn how to agree to disagree and still find some common ground. It made for some uncomfortable moments, but it also taught me to view people with totally different views as good people as well. The world is not black and white. It is quite complicated. I also grew up in a family where my grandmother was very upset at my father who married a Japanese woman. So I grew up with racism in my own family and loved my grandmother even though she had problems with my mother. I loved my mother more, but I loved my grandmother even though she wasn't always great with my mother. My grandmother grew to love my mother in her own way, but tension was always there. This also helped me accept that life is complicated.

Getting back to artists: I think the thing is that when we admire or like a particular artist we are sometimes happy and relieved when he/she shares our point of view and/or speaks out in support of the things we agree with. And sometimes we are disappointed when an artist holds opinions we totally disagree with. However, I am used to not liking the person behind the artist, because I love Wagner's music but it is hard to like him as a human being when you read about him and/or read things he actually wrote. But I can't imagine life without his music.

Share this post


Link to post

I thought Tommasini was writing more along the line of “obligation to disagree openly with governments who happen to be the bogeymen du jour in U.S. media.”

Leaving aside the specific examples of Gergiev and Duhamel, I tend to think that nobody, famous or not, is obliged to be political beyond performing one’s civic duty as a voter. If American celebrities do speak out on an issue likely to alienate people who are disposed to buy tickets to see them (cf. the Dixie Chicks), then they get brownie points from me, depending on my opinion of their opinion. It would be risky to speak out for segregation in today’s environment – well, I hope it would be risky, anyway – but I’d not think highly of the proponent of such views regardless of the courage required to air them.

Prominent people living in more dangerous political environments have far more difficult choices to make (which has also been true to a lesser extent during certain periods in American life, such as the Red Scares). I don’t think it’s possible to make too many generalizations about the “duty” of the artist. Some artists may feel that call to duty and some of them become heroes, like Vaclav Havel. And one thing about heroes is that there aren’t too many, which is why we revere them.

Share this post


Link to post

That is true, but in this particular case Gergiev has a strong and direct relationship with Putin. Even though Gergiev and Netrebko are not world wide superstars of pop culture like Madonna, they are in a position to be heard by Putin because he has favored them.

And how likely is Gergiev to endanger the Mariinsky by criticizing Putin publicly? How long would he have Putin's ear if he did? Madonna's tour date could just as easily be filled in another country, were she to become unwelcome in Russia. Her stance was relatively cost-free.

Share this post


Link to post

To add to what Helene just said, Madonna doesn't need the money (unless she hasn't been investing wisely over the years) and gay men form a significant portion of her fan base. If she performed in Russia without saying anything about the new law, she would probably have received some pointed criticism from that fan base, with justice. I don't doubt she's perfectly sincere in her sentiments, but if anything she was erring on the side of caution, not taking a risky stand.

Share this post


Link to post

And one thing about heroes is that there aren’t too many, which is why we revere them.

Very true.

Share this post


Link to post

I greatly appreciate all these comments, esp. Birdsall, for providing a lot of food for thought.

Share this post


Link to post

Reading about Shostakovich & Stalin and Pasternak & Stalin's famous phone call and reading about what various artists - Picasso, Matisse, Beckett, Bove - did during the Resistance, it seems that when you "speak out" is not so rational. One day it all becomes too much and you act on some little thing – as Picasso did at great risk when he attended Chaim Soutine's and Max Jacob's funerals, along with only a few other souls.

Also of course the Ukraine and Venezuelan situations are not at all parallel. The United States' activities in South America long have been pretty much in our own self interest (and beyond: Kissinger giving Pinochet the thumbs up) - and about which the Times on its front page, let alone Arts section, frequently seems to get confused and befuddled about ... And is "free speech" in the US that "free" anymore? It seems to involve a lot of careful low level self-censorship.

Share this post


Link to post

I don't know what Gergiev's views are on the Ukraine or on the gay propaganda law, but there is always the possibility that he is okay with it all. I think we sometimes assume artists (due to being artists) automatically support gays, etc. Helene mentioned that he runs the risk of alienating Putin and damaging finances for the Mariinsky if he speaks out against what is happening in Russia. But let's say he is on the same page as Putin, well, he has worked hard at trying to get the Mariinsky Opera and orchestra loved in the West. He also could alienate the West and damage all his hard work. So, in a way, it seems like he is in a no-win situation. No matter what viewpoint he has and speaks his mind, he will lose something.

But I can't believe I am almost having sympathy for him. I tend to fall into the anti-Gergiev camp usually. I guess pigs can fly!

Share this post


Link to post