Imagine this: Dmitri Shostakovich, the iconic Russian composer, is sitting in a Waldorf-Astoria lecture theatre in New York in 1949. Shostakovich is giving a speech attacking Igor Stravinsky, the famous Russian composer who now lives in America. But it is not Shostakovich who speaks — in fact, he hasn’t said a word all afternoon. Instead, Dmitri Shostakovich sits silently, impassively, listening to his translator read his speech out loud to an unimpressed room. It is a moment of propaganda: Shostakovich is part of a Soviet contingent sent by Stalin himself to display the USSR’s proud cultural face to the world.
Surely, the anti-totalitarian historian in us says, Shostakovich doesn’t believe it all. This is a speech written by Stalin and his agents, and it is propaganda. This is not Shostakovich. He is not even reading it.
An audience member, incredulous at the speech, stands and asks Shostakovich a question: Does he really agree with the Soviet denouncements of great composers?
Dmitri Shostakovich gets to his feet, pauses, fully aware of the Soviet minders behind him, and speaks for the first time. ‘I fully agree with the statements.’ He sits down.
Shostakovich is a confusing figure. Condemned early in his career for supposed anti-Stalinist works (an article in Pravda that some contend was written by Stalin himself declares ominously that Shostakovich is playing ‘a game…that may end very badly’), Shostakovich’s creative life has long served as a ripe battlefield for those who would condemn him for cowering in support of Stalin, and those who would instead paint him as a clandestine protestor, hiding secret messages of dissent within his great music.
Yet Shostakovich himself is inescapably vague. Maybe, yes, maybe he privately abhorred the things he was asked to do. But publicly, he usually did what he was told. Imagine his body language as he sat in the Waldorf-Astoria, hearing ‘his’ speech read aloud. Protestors outside the building carried signs that in retrospect seem almost ironic: ‘Shostakovich, we understand!’
One of the greatest dilemmas in music, and in art, is finding a way to justify enjoying works by people who, on the surface of it, said or did objectionable things. How can you like Shostakovich’s music given his impenetrable relationship with Stalinism?
How can you justify spending up to $2000 to see something written by a man who also wrote a deeply prejudiced anti-Semitic essay in 1850 and whose music was subsequently appropriated by the Nazis as a symbol of German nationalism?
How, as Julia Tulloh asked here at Killings last year, can you go about liking Taylor Swift even if you suspect her of being a bad feminist?
How do you admire the beautiful and pioneering film work of Edward Muybridge, despite the fact that he was a murderer? What about Carravagio, who killed a man and went on the run from the authorities? What about Roman Polanski?
It is impossible to separate the life of an artist from their work. Even if we had all possible facts about an artist at our disposal, trying to distinguish the potentially terrible acts of a person from the things that they created is a fool’s task. Great works of art and their creators’ everyday lives do not exist in distinct bubbles. They are profoundly, fundamentally intertwined.
If you are going to like Wagner in 2013, you have an obligation to account for and criticise his bouts of anti-Semitism. Art cannot be understood on aesthetic power alone; to enjoy something only because of the way it sounds, the way it looks, or the way it reads, is only ever part of the story. Unpalatable acts of artists are real events with real consequences, for the individual, for their art, and for us. Conscientious media consumption is history as much as aesthetics.
So what of Shostakovich? What was he really thinking in New York in 1949? After Stalin’s regime of terror had ended, Shostakovich gave an interview about the event. ‘Don’t ask me questions, listen to the music,’ he said. ‘That’s where my answers are.’
Yet Shostakovich’s music is maddeningly open to interpretation. Listen, for example, to the opening few bars of his Fifth Symphony, composed in response to the Pravda article. First, in the strings, a strong, bold statement, suggesting a brave and passionate declaration. Then, hesitation, as the strings drag their feet through a sinuous, indecisive passage, retreating quickly from their boldness moments ago. Finally, three notes arrive that drift off into nowhere in particular, with no resolution or purpose. The brave artist ends up saying nothing at all despite promising beginnings. The Fifth Symphony is a portrait of capitulation in the face of terror, as evasive and impossible to grasp as wisps of smoke.
There are no easy answers here. Perhaps there never will be.
Dan Golding is a Killings columnist, freelance writer and academic interested in videogames, film, music, and most other cultural forms. Find him on Twitter.