Why Tyranny Fears Art – UPDATED

About ten years ago, maybe longer, I read an interview with U2′s Bono, and he said (paraphrasing from memory) “art and lovemaking are the ways to touch God.”

I think he meant that art and lovemaking were transcendent because they are both activities are a means of self-revelation – that they take us out of ourselves and make us vulnerable in an act of creation, or co-creation, and there is tremendous power in that.

Well, I happen to think – if that’s what he meant – that Bono was correct. The co-creative power of sex is so powerful it can create life despite science’s best efforts to prevent it. And art is so powerful, it can topple egos, open souls and defeat ideologies.

Santiago Ramos takes an absorbing look at the power of art and why dictators fear it, so.

In 1957, a 24-year-old Canadian virtuoso pianist named Glenn Gould visited the Soviet Union on an official mission of cultural exchange. Gould’s presence made such an impact among the Russians who heard him play that, fifty years later, Feyginberg is able to interview people for whom the encounter with Gould is still one of the most significant events of their life.

A theatre director named Roman Viktyuk describes a packed house in Leningrad, waiting for Gould to arrive: “The place was full of people. Everyone here was expecting a miracle.” That expectation was already subversive; miracles weren’t supposed to be necessary after the Revolution. Vladimir Tropp, a pianist, adds: “Gould was the first to reveal this world to us. The Berlin Wall existed in music as well, and perhaps Gould was one of those who were breaking that wall.” Another fan confesses that “we started to live by each recording of Gould.” The Russians who heard him play began to love Gould more than the Revolution.

Well, that’s dangerous! Can’t have people loving art more than a “dear leader,” now, can we?

Great art flourishes when people are free – when they are permitted to tap into the Godspark that resides within them, and this is true, even if they must work within some sort of guideline or restriction. Sometimes it is the restriction, itself, that helps to open floodgates of greatness. Camille Paglia once said (paraphrasing from memory, again) that homosexual artists were never as productive, creative or subversively great as they were when they were in the closet; once out, art suffered with a flatness and lack of urgency or energy. In Rome, one finds evidence, everywhere, of passionate, creative genius unleashed down the centuries both in service to and sometimes contra the restrictive Catholic Church, which may have had prudish ideas, but still encouraged and patronized art, often for art’s sake – but always with some sort of accountability.

When people are free, they create art. When they must operate within some stricture, or have accountability, the art still flourishes; often the demands of accountability help art to answer something, respond to something, direct itself.

Art only dies when the human spirit has been subjugated and trampled on, and submission has become a second-nature.

Ramos moves from Gould’s recitals in Russia, to East Germany, and The Lives of Others: :

The problem is not that poetry and music are not persuasive enough, but that the totalitarian mind limits the scope of reason within itself and is not open to being persuaded by a new experience—especially the experience of the mysterious, which it quickly debunks. The greatness of The Lives of Others lies in showing us that the totalitarian mind is more vulnerable than we think, and that a single moment of beauty can pierce through decades of ideological brainwashing. As Glenn Gould’s case shows, the power of the artist lies not necessarily with the political content of his work but rather in the intelligibility of the beauty that he creates. The Cold War is over, but lies of ideology and totalitarianism are still with us . . .

Indeed. Read the whole thing and ponder how 88 keys and ten fingers, or a blank page and a keyboard – when ravished by the human spirit, unbounded, can tear down walls.

And ponder too, I guess, what happens when resistance, or strictures, or some sort of accountability is no longer relative to art, and art becomes only about itself.

Balance. It always comes back to balance, doesn’t it?

UPDATE: It strikes me that if Egypt were to be taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood with a possible threat of segregating the sexes, the art question will become very interesting. I keep thinking about those destroyed Buddhas.

Andrew McCarthy: Fear the Muslim Brotherhood

UPDATE II: The Grand Inquisitor

Related: The Life you Live May Be Your Own

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6SQWADITZPYHKSWSM5ONMDI52I Greta

    Of course art can be used by political leaders to create the environment for what they plan to do. Hitler used art. FDR used art. Obama attempted to recruit artists to help sell his programs as with FDR, but was caught and had to abandon the idea. In WWII, the government used art to justify our hatred of the terrible japs and nazi’s.

    Today we have art used to attack the Catholic Church. Art, when used to point out anything about Islam that is not favorable or mentions Mohammed leads to death threats and violence. Yes, Art is powerful and and depending on how it is used can serve both good and evil.

  • Joseph Marshall

    “Art flourishes when people are free”

    The first problem with this is that “political freedom” as we know it has been in existence for only about 250 years. Plenty of good art got made before then, under conditions as despotic as the Russian serfdom of the czars, the slavery of Imperial Rome, routine human sacrifice among the Mayans, or conditions as politically and personally dangerous as being a Catholic or a Protestant in a country where the Established Church was of the opposite point of view.

    The second problem is that our world culture changed fundamentally with the development of factories and mass production. This has altered forever our notions, not of what art is, but of what it is not. When furniture or household goods were all made by hand neither the artifact nor the artisan was fundamentally any different from the “painter” or the “sculptor”. Some of the finest Christian art of all time [at least in my perspective] was done in mosaic in Ravenna. But so were a lot of perfectly ordinary household floors all over the Roman Empire that these days would be done in Pergo laminate, “the nearest thing to real wood”.

    And if anyone MUST have the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation as their standard, I would immediately point to the utilitarian goods of Benvenuto Cellini.

    What you are calling “accountability” would be better described as “accounting”. Before mass production, good art happened when and only when someone was willing and able to pay for it either up front or on delivery, just like a set of spoons or a saddle. A patron could be as despotic as he pleased [and often was], without any loss of good taste in the art and artists he favored.

    This was as true of the Pope as anyone else. Check out some time how much political, religious, speech, and press freedom existed in the Papal States that were the domain of the temporal power of the Pope up until as late as the 1870′s.

    You are essentially confusing despotism with totalitarianism. They are not at all the same thing. Totalitarianism is more than mere restriction of personal and political freedom, it is the indoctrination of a philosophical agenda. It’s roots go back to both Christian and Muslim Iconoclasm. To the degree that art contravenes the philosophy, it is oppressed.

    The case of Communism is particularly telling because what was actually suppressed was, first, the wealth of private patronage, and only second the actual art. The grim greyness of this, probably the most dispiriting human society ever known, was certainly lethal to good art across the board, but anywhere else, even under the most Iconoclastic of Muslim rule, art forms such as sacred calligraphy can, and still do, flourish, under private patronage.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Loved this blog Anchoress. The arts, especially literature, do me a lot to me, so I am in deep agreement. One caution though. Art can become an idol, just like sex has become an idol to our culture.

  • Roz Smith

    At the end of his massive Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray, an agnostic, noted ‘The question that has emerged for me in the course of writing Human Accomplishment is why the greatest accomplishment in the arts has occurred in cultures where people believe the universe to have transcendental meaning.’

  • http://ampontan.wordpress.com/ Ampontan

    In re: The quality of art created under restriction

    In the late 50s/early 60s, musicians of the then Belgian Congo (Congo Kinshasa) created a new style of modern music by incorporating Caribbean elements.

    In those days, the musicians were flown to Belgium to make records. They were told to prepare an hour’s worth of material. When they arrived, however, they were told to record three hours’ worth. They recorded in one room with one overhead microphone. No producer was present; only a studio engineer who slept and only woke up when replacing tape reels.

    The musicians were forced to create on the spot, with the tapes running, in an unfamiliar and unfriendly environment.

    The music they created later became known as soukous and took the continent by storm. It is still reissued and sold today, now throughout the world.

    An offbeat example, perhaps, but I think it supports the premise.

  • Guest

    A college professor of mine (Eugene Curtsinger, RIP), used to say that we participate in God’s original fiat lux in four areas: art, sex, sports, and _____ (it WAS 25 years ago, and I can’t remember). Glad to know that he and my favorite singer are thinking along the same lines. And I think both are right.

  • John

    I think Solzhenitsyn spoke on this theme in his Nobel acceptance speech. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/solzhenitsyn-lecture.html

  • JoyS

    The issue you bring up–that art brings God’s beauty to the eye of mankind–and that beautiful art can outshine and overcome totalitarianism (at least in the lives of individuals) is a great one.

    Islam has the past 900 years or so outlawed the human form (and in some cases any living form) as being “obscene” as in the sense of not being able to duplicate God’s beauty. So Islam already starts out behind in the arts (again, this wasn’t always true and it is has been a “re-interpretation” of the Koran by certain clerics throughout history). But individuals don’t count in Islam—the individual is meant to submit (Islam in fact translated means “submission (to God)”). Various sects have turned this submission idea into a pre-destination idea–it’s why in Arabic they say “inshallah” (if Allah wills) on everything from what’s going to happen today to the weather. When we say “God willing…” we don’t mean it the same way—”inshallah” is a resignation, a submission that nothing a human does will effect the will of God and that everything that happens is God’s will.

    Taking that to the very end of it’s definition means–I am responsible for nothing and to no body. If I “submit” then I am free to do whatever as it’s all going to be God’s will. Even if Muslims say that don’t believe in this total link with predestination it still colors their outlook on life. I once heard a radio imam in the Middle East preaching that the best man can do is hunker down and take what life dishes out since it’s all the will of Allah. It’s this attitude that leads to positions such as: mankind can not create art that reflects God properly and women are inferior because they can’t reflect the glory of God (who is always looked at as male in the Koran). The best women can do is reflect the glory of man; the best a man can do is submit to God’s will.

    This is actually the “religion” of totalitarianism as well—with the “put your totalitarian leader or political party here” versus using the name of God.

    The Church struggled with these issues too throughout it’s history–Nestor, Calvin, and others tried to figure out why an all powerful God allowed very powerless people to have free will. The answer is easy for us–we not only know we have free will, we are actually free to act on our free will….until Islam discovers the contraction that a loving God allows us to act freely it will be forever chained to totalitarianism–both in action and belief.

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  • Anthony

    I would like to draw everybody’s attention to China and the work of an artist today that challenges that regime:


  • Max Lindenman

    I doubt the Anchoress shares many fans with Phillip Roth, but whatever can be said against his books, he’s had a lot of interesting stuff to say on the artist’s role in society.

    In I Married a Communist, one of Roth’s characters exlains the antithetical quality of literature’s relationship to politics. “Politics is the great generalizer,” he says. “Literature is the great particularlizer.” I think that statement could be applied to any art. Statecraft deals in rules and absolutes. Its goal is the governance of the great mass of humanity. Art represents the expression of artist’s own individual temperament. Since its goal is to enable the artist to express his worldview as distinctly as possible, it deals in exceptions and nuances. In a totalitarian state, where citizens derive their identity from a sense of belonging to The People, it’s very dangerous indeed when artists start declaring themselves particular persons.

    Now, I realize this represents an extreme aesthetic view of art’s purpose. Art is frivolous by nature, and in being frivolous, it fulfills its social function. As long as people are free to write, paint or strum out whatever thoughts they happen to have, no sinister force — not the State, not stifling bourgeois mores — can enslave them entirely. Roth didn’t entirely buy that. He once expressed a sort of envy for writers who lived behind the Iron Curtain. What they wrote, he said, actually had the potential to change society — provided they were allowed to publish, which they often weren’t. In a society as free as America, anyone can write anything, but nothing anyone writes actually makes any difference.

    Knowing you for a bunch of high-minded, red-hot culture warriors, I’d expect you all to prefer art that has some kind of social conscience, that makes some attempt to edify — the kind of stuff Gustav von Aschenbach wrote before he went ga-ga over a twelve-year-old boy. Am I wrong?