I recently enjoyed “Wagner and Me”, a documentary by Stephen Fry illustrating his internal conflict about loving Richard Wagner’s art while deploring the artist’s character. Since I am a great admirer of Wagner (and of Stephen Fry), I watched with interest. The idea that the artist must live up to the art-lover’s expectations of an equally admirable moral character can be daunting. In the remote past, little was known about the private lives of artists. Starting with Mozart, I guess, the audience has been getting a clearer picture of the man as well as the art. (Mozart left behind an enormous amount of correspondence that is fascinating to read).
After I first heard Wagner in my early teens, I eagerly looked for more of him and (thank goodness), there is quite a bit of music to explore…days of it if you played each opera back to back without a break. My personality requires that I learn everything I can about things I like. This meant months of hanging out in the college library. Because Wagner was controversial in his lifetime, there is an enormous amount of literature devoted to his worship or his damnation. I read a lot of it. Both kinds.
I was distressed to read that Wagner was not a nice man. But he had some dedicated, if not actually slavish, devotees. This is curious. I read the huge two-volume diaries of Cosima Wagner to get a very personal view of the composer. I was then able to separate the art from the man. I had to. The amazing magic of the music was evident. Stephen Fry feels the same way. But Fry went further and created a documentary to delve deeper into this idea of “art gods” with feet of clay.
I was pleased that Fry spent a segment on the Tristan Chord which encapsulates the psychological and emotional magic of Wagner in a sort of shorthand. It is a perfect way to bring hours of music and 50 years of composition into 5 minutes of illustration for an audience who might not be familiar with the music. (Side note: Isolde’s Leibestod is a musical rendition of a seven-minute orgasm, and when it was played in the theatre the first time, women were fainting in the aisles, and not because their corsets were too tight.) On the other hand, Fry did not mention nor play the Bridal March from Lohengrin. I can assume that he did not want to emphasize this more cliched Wagnerian insertion into modern life. Perhaps Fry worried that if brides-to-be knew about the history of the composer they might not want to hear that music on their wedding day!
Either way, and both ways, this brings us back to the idea of THE ART and THE ARTIST.
This morning in the news is a nasty bit of expose on Woody Allen, which is what sparked me to write this blog post this morning. While I seem to be able to forgive Richard Wagner for the nastier parts of his character, I find it more difficult to overlook Allen’s.
To me the clear answer is that somehow ART transcends the human experience. It is almost like ART exists somewhere beyond physical reality, like Plato’s Forms, and human beings draw it down through the lens of their existence in an infinite variety of media.
No human being is flawless enough to equal the concept of the art. Each artist is an indicator of what humanity IS. This means we must look at the good and the bad, or else we will not see the whole.
And that is what art is for: as Shakespeare (through the immortal Hamlet) said, “the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
Looking at the mirror of Wagner’s anti-semitism and vindictive jealousies shows us the world’s. Looking at Allen’s sexual allegations re-affirms to us of what we do not accept in our society. Mozart’s potty-mouth reminds us of why stand-up comedians can make us laugh just by saying “poop”. The artist-mirror of imperfection is like a bridge between us fallible humans and the sublime perfection of human art. The mirror has a crack in it, but the art does not.
Perfection. Listen to it. You will forgive Wagner, as I have.