Separating the Art and the Artist

The relationship between Art and its Artist is difficult to characterize; often it is seen as a holy, sacrosanct bond, reminiscent in many respects to the relationship between a mother and her child. The work produced by an artist is connected to them in ways that would make any replication by another artist look ridiculous in comparison. For example, if Philip Glass had composed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony instead of Beethoven himself, the Fifth’s timeless measures and rhythms would seem anachronistic. Likewise, if Claude Monet had tried to replicate Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych, I’m not very confident that the painting of Marilyn Monroe would have retained its legendary status.

Artists and their works are uniquely connected to each other. A question which has been raised throughout the history of art rises once again in response: How much of the artist is in the work produced? To this question I would add an even more analytical quandary: What if the artist holds a political or societal view that, in modern times, is antithetical to our present-day values?

RichardWagner
Richard Wagner – Source

When I discovered the operatic work of the famed German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, it seemed I had discovered a whole new world of musical possibilities. Both supporters and critics agree that Wagner’s influence on musical development was the pinnacle of both German Romanticism as well as the overarching Romantic Movement in Europe. However, I unfortunately came to learn about Wagner, as a man. He was not just a revolutionary in music, but in politics as well.  As a young man in Dresden, Wagner had thrown in his support with a German national socialist movement. After backing an unsuccessful overthrow of the local government, Wagner was forced  into exile, which would become a recurring event in Wagner’s life. Yet, it was the specter of anti-Semitism, not socialism, which may have overshadowed the achievements of Wagner, the composer. My horror was compounded when I discovered that Wagner wrote an essay condemning Jewish composers and musicians entitled, Das Judenthum in der Musik, or Jewishness in Music.

Ludwig van Beethoven had rather controversially removed Napoleon Bonaparte’s name from the original manuscript of his Third Symphony: Sinfonia Eroica, or Heroic Symphony, when he heard that the former French tactician and revolutionary had declared himself Emperor of France. How could one appreciate or admire Wagner, the composer, when Wagner the man was so morally perverted? Even more disturbing, did Wagner’s anti-Semitism manifest itself in the music?

How could one appreciate or admire Wagner, the composer, when Wagner the man was so morally perverted?

These are questions that Stephen Fry, a renowned British polymath, dealt with in his own love for Wagner’s music. In the opening lines of his 2010 documentary “Wagner & Me,” Fry elucidates the dilemma facing all modern-day admirers of art.

“My love affair with Wagner began when I was a child and first heard his music on my father’s gramophone. It was the overture to “Tannhāuser,” one of his earlier operas, and it did something most extraordinary to me. I’ve always loved music; I’ve always been helpless at performing it; couldn’t really play an instrument; certainly can’t sing – but it’s made me do things inside – it’s released forces within me, and no music has done that like Wagner’s. Over the years, my relationship with Wagner’s music has grown deeper and stronger, but also more complicated; because it’s no secret my passion was also shared by him [Hitler]. And some people believe it even inspired his terrible crimes. I’m Jewish so those are hard facts to face. And there have been times when I wondered if I ought really to love Wagner at all.”

Adolf Hitler himself had long admired Wagner’s tectonic themes of German nationalism and Nordic lore presented throughout many of his operas. The thought of sharing the same taste in music as Adolf Hitler is not among the most comforting, yet this poignant similarity speaks to the broad interpretation that Wagner’s powerful works can have on his subsequent listeners.

Perhaps one way to overcome this disparity between art and the artist is to look at the work itself. In one of Wagner’s later operas, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, or The Mastersingers of Nuremburg, many critics have singled out the antagonist, Sixtus Beckmesser, as a Jewish character that is negatively stereotyped throughout the opera. In the opera, a knight named Walther struggles to compose a “Master-song,” which – if written and performed sufficiently – will earn him the right to become a Master-singer and also reward him the right to marry his lover, Eva. Along the way, Walther is aided by a benevolent, wise Master-singer named Hans Sachs and is hindered by another Master-singer, Sixtus Beckmesser, who seeks to impede the knight and win the hand of Eva for himself.  

Throughout the opera, Wagner makes a brilliant juxtaposition between the heroic characters of Hans and Walther and the antagonistic nature of Beckmesser, who is portrayed as fumbling, impetuous, and comically vain. These traits alone in a character would make for a perfect comic foil for the main heroic protagonist. However, placed in the context of Wagner’s societal views and with a looming Jewish subtext behind the character, these traits become sinister ways through which the author can issue sly invectives towards his political and societal opponents – in this case, his Jewish composer contemporaries.   

Nevertheless, although the argument that Wagner incorporated anti-Semitic attacks in his works seems almost obvious, it is important that we analyze the work’s dramatic context. Nowhere in Die Meistersinger is it explicitly stated that Beckmesser is Jewish. A strong counter-argument could be made that the other characters don’t like Beckmesser, not because he ascribes himself to some different religion or creed, but mainly because throughout the opera he is arrogant.

Act III Scene 1 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. From left to right: Norbert Ernst as David, Maria Zifchak as Magdalene, James Johnson as Hans Sachs, Twyla Robinson as Eva, and John Horton Murray as Walther von Stolzing. Photo credit: Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.
Act III Scene 1 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. – Source

In fact, Hans Sachs makes an indirect defense of Beckmesser at the end of the opera, when Walther, justly fed up with Beckmesser and the other Master-singers, decides he will elope with Eva, and abandon Nuremberg and the Master-singers forever. He delivers the following panegyric:

Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, und ehrt mir ihre Kunst!… Das uns’re Meister sie gepflegt grad’ recht nach ihrer Art, nach ihrem Sinne treu gehegt, das hat sie echt bewahrt…” (Scorn not the Masters, I bid you, and honor their art…our Masters have cared for it rightly in their own way, cherished it truly as they thought best, that has kept it genuine…)

Despite Beckmesser’s antics, he is still a Master-singer, a keeper of Deutche Art, and a German (the rampant nationalism is a topic for another essay).

However, the argument regarding whether Wagner’s anti-Semitism found its way into his works somehow detracts from the main question of the morality behind accepting art from a disreputable artist. On that point, another way to cope with good art and a bad artist would be to deploy the mechanism of cognitive dissonance. Author, debater, and renowned polemic Christopher Hitchens expressed the situation perfectly in regard to a sex scandal that involved the Academy-Award winning director Roman Polanski in 2009. When Hitchens was asked whether watching Polanski’s movies is somehow a tacit approval of Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old girl, he replied,  “Oh well, we’re all capable of keeping two sets of books, I mean that’s why. And I can see I’m not the only one.” It is both an ironic and expressive position, but this is largely what we do every day. From sports to the world of arts, it is common for individuals to conveniently ignore the negative beliefs or attributes of actors, performers, authors, and artists whose views do not fit what is morally conventional.

Is it an inherently bad thing to be conscious of an artist’s repugnant views and yet still consume the art? On an issue this prevalent, hypocrisy might be unavoidable.  It comes down to whom we place the responsibility of guilt upon — the consumer of the art, or the artist. There are two conclusions that can be drawn: a person can accept having willingly partaken in the art, even though the artist holds contrary views, while neglecting the morality behind the decision; or a person can separate the art from the artist.

Another aspect of separating the art from the artist is the implication of societal expectations being imposed upon the artist. For example in the 21st century, it is easy to criticize a figure like Richard Wagner for holding bigoted views while now living in a society which condemns anti-Semitism. Yet in Wagner’s time, especially in pre-World War I Germany, anti-Semitism was widespread; in fact, it was so ubiquitous that many Wagner scholars have theorized that his anti-Semitic views were only held to gain attention and societal acceptance. Evidence for this is derived from the timing of his anti-Semitic publication, the existence of his circle of Jewish friends, and his own speculated Jewish heritage.  

All of these possible theories have in some way or another taken into consideration the artist. Yet what if the art produced is not invariably connected to the artist who produces it? In the world of literature, French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes (1915-1980) introduced this alternative in his famous 1967 deconstructionist essay, Le Mort de L’autuer, or The Death of the Author. Barthes argues that analyzing a work of art through the lens of the artist’s associated views and conditions can narrow the numerous interpretations of a work:

The Author, when we believe in him, is always conceived as the past of his own book: the book and the author take their places of their own accord on the same line, cast as a before and an after: the Author is supposed to feed the book — that is, he pre-exists it, thinks, suffers, lives for it; he maintains with his work the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child. Quite the contrary, the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing, he is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now.

It is the creator alone who detracts from the art.  Not only must we separate the art from the artist, but we must also eliminate the romanticized image of the author. Often we read a work in an attempt to discern the hidden context of the author’s mind, from Wagner’s anti-Semitism, to “the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who producing it…the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.” Barthes makes a convincing argument that our modern individualist, celebrity-centered culture often jumps to analyze and relate to the author, when it really should be the art alone speaking for itself.

It is the creator alone who detracts from the art.

Regardless of whether the presence of the artist is accepted or rejected, the viewer’s main concern should be the art. Even more than the artist, the work itself is a broad avenue to be appreciated, interpreted, and discussed; the inherent nature of true art can speak to individuals on a collective scale without its authenticity being dismissed.


– By Michael Roach

Michael Roach is an Economics Major and Political Science Minor at Baruch College. He wrote the piece to address the guilt some people feel when listening to Kanye West’s music, because he’s an asshole. Wagner is just a metaphor…

Cover picture: A Scene from Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Walkure – Public Radio – Source