Art and Politics

Cite this Article
Todd Henderson, Art and Politics, Truth on the Market (December 19, 2009),

When I first met my father in law, he spent hours trying to convince me of the cultural superiority of his tastes. Some of these were indeed triumphs. I’m thinking here of “Dr. Strangelove,” “The 400 Blows,” and the music of Richard Wagner. (Others were not. I’m thinking here of “Children of Paradise,” a movie about mimes.) His love of Wagner is curious; he was born in Israel and almost his entire family was murdered in the Warsaw ghetto. This is not a trivial issue. Hitler loved Wagner too, and used his music for political ends. Wagner was himself a hater of Jews. Accordingly, Israel banned public performance of Wagner’s music nearly six decades ago, and the taboo was not broken until 1995 when “The Flying Dutchman” was played on Israeli radio. Six years later Daniel Barenboim (a Jew) led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance of an overture from “Tristan und Isolde” at an Israel Festival, which only reignited the controversy.

I respect my father-in-law’s ability to separate politics and art. But this is also just a necessity for me; listening to only Ted Nugent and watching only Chuck Norris movies would make my leisure time quite depressing. So I pay to see movies by Nora Ephron and Steven Spielberg, and I listen to music by Bruce Springsteen. But maybe there should be lines.

I love the music of “The Clash,” agreeing with a British critic who called them “the only band that matters.” But what should I make of their 1980 album “Sandinista!”? With its red and black colors and vehemently anti-American lyrics, the album is a political disgrace. For instance, the song “Washington Bullets,” which is not an homage to the NBA team of the (then) same name, tells us where the Clash were coming from:

   For the very first time ever
   When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
   There was no interference from America
   Human rights in America
   Well the people fought the reader,
   And up he flew ...afdb
   With no Washington bullets what else could he do?

But the music is pretty wonderful. Should I put aside the political idiocy and just listen to the music? I’m not sure this can be done. After all, I would never buy an album called “National Socialists!” or “CCCP!”, no matter how incredible the music was. For now, I’ll pass, belieiving that, as cultural critic Wayne Booth wrote, the company we keep matters.