Not resisting but gesturing
by Norman Lebrecht / March 1, 2000
THE return of Gérard Mortier to the Salzburg Festival poses more problems than it resolves. Mortier, who announced three weeks ago that he was quitting a year early as artistic director in protest at the neo-nationalist Vienna coalition, has now changed his mind.
In view of “the impressive stand taken by Austrian citizens” in recent anti-government demonstrations, Mortier has decided to lend his “fullest artistic support” to the “resistance” against Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party. He also pledged to make next year’s festival a melting pot of multiculturalism, and to set up a fund to sustain artistic projects endangered by the Freedom Party. No such projects have yet been identified.
Mortier’s mind was changed, he said, by conversations with the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, the musician Pierre Boulez and the sometime culture minister Jack Lang, all lions of the French Left. The grounds for his return might thus appear as shaky as those for his departure, but Mortier deserves credit for having the courage to backtrack up the magic mountain to a festival he said would be overwhelmed by Haiderite yodellers and Strauss-waltzers.
The only casualty in this episode is its context, the tricky relationship between arts and politics. It is generally accepted in Western societies that the arts are a democratic safety valve, articulating ideals around which public sentiment can refocus. Artistic freedom has become as sacrosant, in principle, as freedom of the press. All agree that it is abhorrent for politicians to interfere with the arts. At what point, however, does it become unacceptable for the arts to meddle in politics?
For the creative artist, there are no constraints. Composers, writers and (to a lesser extent) visual artists are the guiding lights that lead a secular world out of tyrannical night. Beethoven in the 19th century and Shostakovich in the 20th gave faith and hope to the downtrodden. An interleaved cycle of string quartets by both composers, to be played this year and next in Aldeburgh, London, Normandy and north Germany, illustrates twin paths of spiritual liberation by way of creative imagination.
There is also a more inflammatory model – the blazing Polonaises of Frédéric Chopin and Finlandias of Jean Sibelius, which stoked a fire of national self-determination. Introspective or exhortatory, creative artists exist to remind us who we are.
But what of interpreters, the conductors, soloists, actors, dancers and directors who bring their works to life? The performing artist stands in relation to the political state as the performing monkey to the organ grinder. There is an acknowledged dependence. If the state doesn’t pay, the artist won’t play.
When a performing artist takes a political stance, there must be an edge of personal exposure if the action is not to seem as frivolous as Barbra Streisand’s gift to Hillary Clinton’s campaign fund. When Arturo Toscanini flouted Mussolini’s orders and refused to play a Fascist hymn, he put his physical safety on the line. When Mark Elder refused to play the “jingoistic” Rule, Britannia! during the Gulf War Proms in1990, he risked nothing more than losing a night’s wage.
There are more constructive ways to make a political point. Daniel Barenboim, last summer, assembled 78 Arab and Israeli musicians into a unified orchestra at Weimar, melting conflictual prejudices.
Such initiatives, though, must be judiciously chosen if they are not to appear gestural. Sir Simon Rattle will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in May at the Mauthhausen concentration camp. For the once-Nazified orchestra, playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a site of mass murder is a meaningful act of contrition. For the conductor, born 10 years after the Holocaust and on a different island, “remembrance, repentance and homage” are disembodied values. Some Jews, moreover, object to the idea of a symphony concert in what amounts to a cemetery.
Rattle argues that every chord he conducts is political; that, in his words, “music is intimately bound up with all the events of its planet”. This invests art with excess baggage. Beethoven did not imagine Mauthhausen when he composed the Ninth; playing it cannot atone for atrocity. These are grounds where performing artists should tread with care.
Which leads us to a third political element, the subspecies of artistic administrator. Like every other citizen, the director of a festival, orchestra or opera house has a conscience and a right to act upon it.
Whether he or she has a right to marshal art in its support is questionable, not to say gestural. Mortier was right, by his own lights, to resign from Salzburg when Haider’s party joined the government. He has no right, however, to speak of “resistance” – using a German word, Widerstand, that is weighted with anti-Hitler imagery.
To rally “resistance” in present circumstances makes a mockery of the past. Instead of facing up to the artful Haider, the arts are reduced to pulling faces at him.
Not resisting but gesturing