Sunday, July 29, 2007

When Great Art Meets Great Evil

New York Times:
FOR those who find inspiration and edification in great art, it is always painful to be reminded that artists are not necessarily admirable as people and that art is powerless in the face of great evil. That truth was baldly evident in Nazi Germany and in the way the regime used and abused music and musicians, to say nothing of the way it used and abused human beings of all kinds.


Two new novels touch on these issues in very different ways. In “The Savior” (Simon & Schuster), Eugene Drucker, a violinist in the Emerson String Quartet, creates Gottfried Keller, a violinist made to perform for suffering and often unruly patients in army infirmaries and for doomed inmates in a concentration camp. In “Variations on the Beast” (Dragon Press), Henry Grinberg, a psychoanalyst, posits Hermann Kapp-Dortmunder, a powerful maestro, as a fictional rival of Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler (whose qualms about working under the regime he does not share) and Herbert von Karajan (whose vaulting ambition he does).

Mr. Drucker and Mr. Grinberg recently discussed their books and the issues they raise with James R. Oestreich....

DRUCKER Great art is no protection against cruelty, bestiality. I think that both of our books show that. I do think there’s some possibility, if not for redemption, at least for some kind of solace in great art.

I’m thinking of Adorno’s famous phrase that after Auschwitz there could be no poetry. But the fact is that of course the world picks itself up — never fully recovering from the wounds, but the world picks itself up and goes on with its business in every sense of the word.

Maybe humanity saw in the Second World War, on a larger scale than ever before, the depths of depravity to which human nature could sink. And maybe it was more curious than ever that you could have people so involved with great art and willingly consenting to and ordering horrible mass executions to take place. But the fact is that art has continued. And if art could go forward, that means that people could draw some comfort from it.

And you could also say there’s a possibility for greater humanity through art than if you just let yourself be totally pulled down by the horrible things that have happened in the 20th century and that are now happening in various parts of the world. If you just let yourself get pulled down by it, then there’s even less hope for humanity.

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