Life versus art

Gill_Prospero_and_ArielIt has been reported that pressure groups representing the survivors of rape, sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse have called upon the BBC to remove a statue by the sculptor Eric Gill that adorns its London headquarters. The statue, from 1932, is a depiction of Prospero and Ariel, the latter depicted as a naked boy. This is not a new demand.

While the BBC has, entirely properly, refused this demand and pointed out that Gill, for all his sins, remains a major British artist whose work is widely regarded as of importance, this situation illustrates a phenomenon among the Left that is worth examining further.

Two insidious ideas are prevalent among the Left today. The first is that of political correctness. In this context, this means that groups that constitute a minority whose rights are privileged by the Left are granted the specious right not to be offended. This right is purely an invention of the Left to prosecute its Marxist agenda of the destruction of Western culture. It creates no-go areas of taboo and state protection that fundamentally attack the freedom of speech and force opposition to the Left out of the public arena. The second, related, idea is that a leading means of pursuing this Kulturkampf is to attack the past, whether in the form of its artefacts, in a revisionist approach to history, or indeed in the ancestor guilt that is often foisted upon the white population in the name of the remembrance of slavery, and that periodically results in the absurdity of “apologies” by the living for the actions of the dead.

This is not to suggest that the victims of abuse, along with many others, are not genuinely upset or offended by aspects of the life of Eric Gill, an enormously gifted man and devoted Catholic whose lifestyle extended beyond adultery to the practice of incest and bestiality. Gill did not try to reconcile his faith and his behaviour on an intellectual level, nor to excuse the latter. He seems to have regarded a state of permanent penance and self-reproach through a strict religious observance as the most that he could achieve in ameliorating his excesses. But as an artist, it is precisely this tension between the sacred and the secular, and between the devotional and the erotic, that renders his work important and of stature. As his biographer Fiona MacCarthy has said, “Gill is too good an artist, too ferocious and intrepid a controversialist, to be protected and glossed over. We need to see him whole.” If the process of seeing him whole takes us beyond the norm and into some of the darkest recesses of humanity, then there would be a strong argument that this is precisely the purpose of his art. If Gill can transcend his sins and present his broken morality as transfiguration through his creative ability, we are then left with some disturbing conclusions as to our own basis for judging him and the religious significance of what he has to say to us.

In the end, Gill’s profound flaws are what makes him such a fascinating and controversial figure, and that make the utter beauty of almost everything he produced so remarkable. I found Gill first through his typefaces, and I considered them to be so exceptional that I at once adopted the electronic versions of them wherever practicable. There is a simplicity of line, a boldness and a wildness in his art that is at once balanced by the limits of his essential Englishness and his Catholic understanding. Gill always points to something beyond himself, usually spiritual, and at the same time is utterly honest in the subjectivity of his approach; everything is seen through his own eyes and in the context of his own understanding.

The question of the extent to which one can separate artist from art is a matter for perpetual discussion. In 1935, the critic Ernest Newman published his book “The Man Liszt” which was a poorly-researched attack on its subject, who was both during his lifetime and today acknowledged as one of the most significant musical figures of the nineteenth-century. Newman writes little about Liszt’s work as a concert pianist, composer or advocate of other musicians. Instead, the book is devoted to lambasting its subject’s moral failings and social climbing. As scholarship it is nugatory, but the effect it had upon the musical world of the time both actively prevented Liszt’s music from being taken seriously and relegated those who performed him to the second rank of marketability for several decades. Some years ago, a similar online controversy arose in relation to the music and lifestyle of Benjamin Britten, with one writer in particular taking exception to any appreciation of Britten’s qualities as a composer because of his alleged pederasty and other moral failings. The comments pro and contra this viewpoint here are interesting to read. Similar debates concerning Wagner have raged for over a century, and his music cannot still be performed in Israel today, despite the fact that many prominent Jewish musicians, notably Daniel Barenboim, have performed and advocated his work while dissociating themselves from Wagner’s anti-Semitic views.

What can be concluded is that firstly, attempts to censor art on the grounds of contemporary morality are ultimately doomed to failure in the long run, and earn their proponents both ridicule and opprobrium. Many of our greatest artists have been prone to moral failings of one kind or another. But once a work of art is created, it takes on a life of its own, independent from that of its creator. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to suggest that, in the language of the Left, an artwork has rights.

Secondly, the past and the dead are vulnerable precisely because they can be the focus of subjective, and therefore politically-charged debate. This should be perceived for precisely what it is, and not confused with the practice or study of history in any true sense. The dead require the advocacy of the living; they have no means of arguing for themselves. In preserving the good in what they stood for, we therefore preserve our traditions and our humanity.



  • I absolutely agree. And I particularly agree that the ritual denunciations of Wagner are tiresome at the very best.

  • This right is purely an invention of the Left to prosecute its Marxist agenda of the destruction of Western culture.

    As I’ve said before, I’m not sure that this is the correct analysis. They’re not trying to destroy Western culture; they are trying to purify it by removing from it every stain; as such we should see this as a kind of secular religiosity. As with all zealots, there is a constant search for new targets for purification, new morals to be imposed.

    The Political Correctness movement grew directly from previous (primarily anglospheric) moral reform movements dating at least to the end of the 18th century, and indeed before that via various nutty non-conformists to the Puritans of the Cromwell Era. The first wave of PC was what we now call “Victorian Values”; a rigid hegemonic moral system imposed at first by peer pressure and then where possible by law; examples include various obscenity acts, fierce persecution of sodomites, temperance movements and legislation, and so on. That first wave ran out of steam in the early 20th century- at which point eager beavers were switching to exciting new ideas like revolutionary marxism.

    The thing we now call PC is the second wave, and represents a syncretism between the moralist reform movements, and a justificational ideology derived by analogy from marxism, since the collapse of religiosity had left a justificational vacuum.

    Hence, the fascination with sexuality which has again reached a kind of fervent apogee, and situations like the Savilocalypse and the example in this article. Some of the sexual rules of the PC mob have changed between waves, but fewer than one thinks and often in a rather superficial manner; most obviously the volte face regarding gays; but this can be understood when one realises that the primary drivers of PC are matronly women, whose primary concern is protecting themselves and children from the predatious intentions of the incorrigible male.

    Anyway, I would say that the driving force here is as I said the desire to purge society of sin. This naturally requires a damnatio memoriae of previous sinners.

  • I think IanB should develop his argument into a proper paper that we cna publish on here and soon. There are certain things about what (I think it) possibly contains, with which I might disagree – not about his conclusions but whether he is looking at the right data about the participants. But I’d like to see it and then debate with IanB publicly, perhaps on this bolg, if he agrees?

  • “…Similar debates concerning Wagner have raged for over a century, and his music cannot still be performed in Israel today, ….”. Well, there is a reason for this – and I must disagree with Sean who describes denunciations of Wagner as ‘tiresome’.
    Wagner’s ant-semitism was unremarkable in that time and place, but what makes him a special case is the adoption of his music by the Nazis, coupled with the fact that there are still many individual Jews alive today, and many more with immediate family members, who suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis.
    Regrettably his music has been contaminated by association, and I do not think it is unreasonable to respect the views of those who suffered in ways we cannot imagine while listening to Wagner as background music.
    Bruckner, whom I (unfashionably) regard as one of the greatest composers ever to have lived, was similarly adopted by the Nazis, but fortunately this seems to escaped popular notice.
    And then there’s Karl Orff…..
    My view is that art and politics, just like sport and politics, should be kept completely separate.

  • And yet…and yet…I think Barenboim puts it very well:

    “During the Third Reich, Wagner’s music was still played by Jews in Tel Aviv by none other than the then Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the modern-day Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, when it became known that Jews had been sent to the gas chambers to the accompaniment of certain Wagner works, the performance of Wagner was rightly declared taboo out of respect for survivors and the relatives of victims. This was done not because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism but rather because of the Nazis’ abuse of his music.

    Wagner may have been the most important personal and ideological role model for Adolf Hitler, a kind of “predecessor,” as Joachim Fest writes in his Hitler biography. Hitler called him “the greatest prophet ever possessed by the German people,” and took on Wagner’s mythology as a component of Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, as revolting as Wagner’s anti-Semitism may be, one can hardly hold him responsible for Hitler’s use and abuse of his music and his world views. The Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, for one, refused to accept Wagner as a possession of the Nazis: “The music of the Nazis is not the prelude to Die Meistersinger but rather the Horst-Wessel-Lied; they have no more honor than that, further honor can and shall not be given them.” Whoever wants to see a repulsive attack on Jews in Wagner’s operas can of course do so. But is it really justified? Beckmesser, for example, who might be suspected of being a Jewish parody, was a state scribe in the year 1500, a position that was unavailable to Jews. As far as I am concerned, if Beckmesser’s awkward melodies resemble synagogue chant, then this is a parody of Jewish song and not a racist attack. One can of course also raise the question of taste in this matter.

    The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish Israeli identity have not been taken; all concerned continue to cling to past associations which were absolutely understandable and justified at the time. It is as if they wanted to remind themselves by so doing of their own Judaism. Perhaps this is the same fact that does not allow many Israelis to see the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights.

    When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means in a certain respect that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.

    This view is unworthy of Jewish listeners, who should rather be influenced by such great Jewish thinkers as Spinoza, Maimonides, and Martin Buber than by half-baked dogmas.”

  • I defer to John’s greater scholarship on this issue. Even so, I think the Wagner as anti-semite claims have been overdone.

    Wagner was a thoroughly nasty piece of work who disliked anyone he regarded as a competitor, or who failed to grovel in the dust before his genius. He published as much nastiness about the French as about the Jews. And he was notoriously indifferent about the ethnic origins of anyone he decided to like. Samuel Lehrs, Karl Tausig, Lilli Lehman, all Jews, were among his dearest friends. He insisted that Hermann Levi was the only man fit to conduct the premiere of Parsifal. He admired Jacques Halevy, another Jew, and praised his La Juive. Though grudgingly, he spoke well of Mendelssohn even in his “Judaism in Music,” and often spoke highly of his music – which is more than he managed for Berlioz, Schumann and Brahms.

    The one Jew to whom he showed unremitting hostility was Meyerbeer. This shows much ingratitude, bearing in mind that it was Meyerbeer who helped get Rienzi accepted for performance, and that Meyerbeer spoke well of Tannhauser. On the other hand, Meyerbeer was not an inspired composer. I don’t think any of his French grand operas can match Auber’s Gustave III. Wagner was not that unjust in his musical judgement.

    Hitler liked Wagner. Well, so what? Stalin liked Mozart. Are we supposed to think of the Gulag every time we listen to The Marriage of Figaro?

    Turning to unpleasantness in general, Beethoven was a monster in his personal dealings. I think Cimarosa was a fan of the French Terror. Benjamin Britten had some very unfashionable tastes.

    We are coming to Wagner’s bicentenary. It’s time to adore the composer of Tristan und Isolde, without perpetual sniping about opinions he doesn’t seem to have held in the manner usually claimed.

  • Well said. But while there are still survivors of the camps alive one can understand why it will take a little time for Wagner to be re-habilitated. Barenboim is doing some splendid work in all sorts of areas.
    All of which got me thinking – Germany was the world centre for mathematics and science until the 30’s. Indeed if the Nazis hadn’t come along Von Braun would probably have developed the German space programme and the first words uttered by man on the moon would probably have been in German.
    But in the 30’s the Germans took collective leave of their senses. Mendelssohn’s inspired music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream had to be junked because he was Jewish, and replaced with some Aryan mediocrity. Enitein’s theories must, by definition, be wrong, so they came up with an inspired piece of nonsense called ‘World Ice Theory’ to replace it. Of course ultimately Nazi ideology led to its own downfall; – while Hitler was sending his Jews and homosexuals to the Death Camps, the Brits were sending theirs to Bletchley Park where they succeeded in out-smarting their persecutor.
    I do quite like Hitler’s paintings and architecture though. Pity he didn’t stick to that.

  • The tragedy of Germany is that when the Nazis rose, they took much of indigenous German culture and ideology with them, and sought to incorporate it into their own brand, thereby creating a syncretism that is still being unravelled today. For centuries the humble swastika was a benign Sanskrit symbol and latterly a good luck charm, and my Kipling early editions still have it in his sigil embossed on the cover. Then came twelve years when its meaning changed completely. Will it ever recover?

  • People should just start ignoring these sort of idiots, and doing so as openly and as often as possible.

    The more their ‘authority’ is challenged, the more loudly and publicly, the less of authority they have.

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