Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal posed a very good question, recently: “Do artists have a responsibility to protest against moral injustice?”
He was asking in reference to two internationally famous conductors, neither of whom has accepted his challenge.
“I’m a musician,” explains Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and “a loyal alumnus” of El Sistema, Venezuela’s public music education program. “If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I’m an artist, and an artist should act for everybody. … I cannot allow El Sistema to become a casualty of politics. Regardless of political or public pressure, I will continue this work in Venezuela and throughout the world.”
Then there is Russia’s Valery Gergiev, a supporter of Vladimir Putin — the Russian leader stomping all over the Crimea. Critics assail Gergiev for not condemning Putin’s thuggery and especially his anti-gay policies. But Gergiev is defiant.
“It is wrong to suggest that I have ever supported anti-gay legislation and in all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people,” he said. “I am an artist and have for over three decades worked with tens of thousands of people and many of them are indeed my friends.”
Moral courage aside, does Gergiev know that he sounds like an antique with his “some of my best friends are gays” line?
Teachout stipulates that no artist is under the moral obligation to create political art. But “every artist is subject to the same moral obligations as his fellow men,” he declares. “Even a genius has no right to shrug off the universal claims of common decency — and it’s no secret that great artists as a group have an unfortunate way of doing whatever they think will best serve their own purposes.”
Teachout is correct about Dudamel and Gergiev, but thankfully not all artists are shirking their moral obligations.
One in particular is worth noting as a great exception to the rule. Meet genius pianist Evgeny Kissin and take a look at the passport he carries — it comes from Israel.
Kissin is not Israeli, though. He was neither born there nor does he reside there. He lives in London and he was born in Russia. So why did he start the process of taking Israeli citizenship in 2012? Because he wanted to protest a moral injustice.
“I am a Jew, Israel is a Jewish state — and since long ago I have felt that Israel, although I do not live there, is the only state in the world with which I can fully identify myself, whose case, problems, tragedies and very destiny I perceive to be mine,” Kissin declared along with his intention to become Israeli.
Kissin was responding to what has become commonplace at the performances and appearances by the Israel Philharmonic. There have been disruptions and protests at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2011, at Carnegie Hall in 2012, at Disney Hall in Los Angeles that same year, to name just a few. The movement to boycott, isolate and reject Israel crosses nearly all boundaries and has infected almost every area of life from the academy to the arts.
So the pianist and declaimer of Yiddish poetry decided that an act of solidarity was required.
“When Israel’s enemies try to disrupt concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Jerusalem Quartet, I want them to come and make troubles at my concerts, too, because Israel’s case is my case, Israel’s enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared of the troubles which Israeli musicians encounter when they represent the Jewish state beyond its borders.”
Kissin has an answer for the Dudamels and the Gergievs of the world as well. “If I, as a human being and artist represent anything in the world, it is my Jewish people, and therefore Israel is the only state on our planet which I want to represent with my art and all my public activities, no matter where I live. … I feel truly blessed that my profession is probably the most international one in the world … and [that I] share my beloved music with people of different countries and nationalities — but I want all the people who appreciate my art to know that I am a Jew, that I belong to the people of Israel. That’s why now I feel a natural desire to travel around the world with an Israeli passport.”
Kissin’s simple pride and voluntary act of solidarity puts Dudamel and Gergiev to shame and throws down the gauntlet to any other artist — that is, all other artists — facing the same human, moral obligations.