Tag: censorship

Separating Art from Politics

Republic of Wine

Is Mo Yan a subversive writer or an apologist? His novel The Republic of Wine offers few clues. But if he was a composer he would not be under such scrutiny.

A few weeks ago while having lunch with my mother at the retirement home she lives in, an elderly Taiwanese woman reading from a Kindle struck up a conversation with me about the Chinese novelist Mo Yan who had recently been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. “Have you read him? His books are unbelievable!” she exclaimed. “I’m amazed that the Chinese government is so happy that he won. Some of the stuff he wrote is even more provocative than what Liu Xiaobo has said.” (Mo is the vice-chairman of the state-sponsored China Writers’ Association whereas Liu, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, remains under house arrest in China.)

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about what this woman had to say, especially since it was 180 degrees away from the chorus of acrimony surrounding the Nobel committee’s choice of Mo Yan, a choice they claim somehow vindicates the People’s Republic of China. Many were hoping Mo would speak out definitively about Liu’s incarceration; he did not. In fact, during a press conference ahead of the Nobel ceremony, Mo Yan further angered his detractors by defending Mao and comparing censorship to security checks at airports claiming that both are sometimes necessary. Herta Müller, recipient of the 2009 Literature prize, described the Nobel committee’s choice of Mo as “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights.” Salman Rushdie, who has yet to receive the Nobel and undoubtedly covets it, got more personal, denouncing Mo as a “patsy for the regime.” Perhaps the most elaborate repudiation of Mo thus far has come from University of California professor Perry Link whom, it should be pointed out, has been blacklisted from entering China since 1996 as a result of his having translated The Tiananmen Papers, a compilation of purportedly classified Chinese government papers which document the response to the student protests in 1989. In an extensive The New York Review of Books essay, polemically titled “Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?,” Link directly castigates Mo’s own writings:

Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture. It is, however, a standard tactic of the people at the top in China to attribute the ordeals of the populace to misbehavior by lower officials and to put out the message that “here at the top we hear you, and sympathize; don’t worry that there is anything wrong with our system as a whole.” … Mo Yan’s solution (and he is not alone here) has been to invoke a kind of daft hilarity when treating “sensitive” events. … From the regime’s point of view, this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve. These are sensitive topics, and they are potentially explosive, even today. For the regime, to treat them as jokes might be better than banning them outright.

My response to reading all of this has been to go out and buy some of Mo’s books and start reading them. I’m now about a third of the way through his 1992 novel The Republic of Wine (alas, in the English translation of Howard Goldblatt, my one year of Mandarin back in the mid-1980s not being sufficient preparation for reading the original). All I can say is I’m totally smitten with the book—which, on the surface is a detective story about cannibalism in a remote Chinese province but is actually a multi-layered exegesis on whether it is ever possible to discern what is going on with absolute certainty. So am I being duped by pro-People’s Republic of China propaganda as Mo’s detractors might claim or did I discover the carefully crafted criticisms of the regime that my mother’s Taiwanese neighbor claims are there?

I’m not completely sure, and I’m not sure I need to be. Although, it turns out that The Republic of Wine has been banned in China. But this is literature, which is art, and it should operate on a level that’s somewhat higher than the political binaries that have reduced us all to being either for or against something these days. One of the things I love about music, particularly music that contains no lyrics, is that its ultimate meaning will always be ambiguous. Despite the various aesthetic factionalisms that sometimes seem to tear apart the new music community, binaries really have no place in conversations about instrumental music since it really can’t be for or against anything. As a result, composers—for the most part—are never quite put on the same hot seat as writers, filmmakers, and visual artists sometimes are. However, the change in Western perceptions about the music of Dmitri Shostakovich offers an instructive parallel to the reception of Mo Yan. When Shostakovich was perceived to be a Soviet sympathizer, his music was deemed second-rate. But after the publication of Solomon Volkov’s now disputed accounts of Shostakovich harboring secret antipathy for Stalin and his followers, Shostakovich has been hailed as a tormented musical genius whose music contains cryptic cries for freedom. But the notes that Shostakovich wrote are exactly the same whether he was pro or anti-Communist.

Many of the artists who work in art forms whose legacies are all about having specific meanings are the ones who went out on a limb trying to subvert those meanings (e.g. playwrights like Richard Foreman, filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard or David Lynch, painters like Gerhard Richter, novelists like Gertrude Stein, Richard Brautigan, and yes, Mo Yan). Perhaps this is because, by eschewing precise interpretations, they are aspiring to the narrative opacity and sometimes downright inscrutability of music.

Of course there are those who believe that all art, indeed all human interaction, is ultimately political. And for these folks, what “side” you are on determines whether the art you create is valid or not. To those folks, I’d recommend reading Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra’s rebuttal to Rushdie and other detractors of Mo Yan in which Mishra claims that artists everywhere, including Western democracies, are in some way complicit with the failings of their societies, and to single out artists in a particular society for not being dissident enough is ultimately hypocritical.

Art—whether it be literature, film, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, or wonderfully elusive music—probably cannot directly change the world for good or ill. But it can help us understand each other better and perhaps, most importantly, offer a window into perspectives that are different from our own and in so doing make us more open minded to all perspectives. And if it really works, binaries have no place there.

Unquiet Riot

Pussy Riot

Three of the members of Pussy Riot at the “scene of the crime.”

The trial of three members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot and their subsequent sentencing to two years in prison for performing a song calling for the ouster of Russian leader Vladimir Putin at an impromptu flash concert in Moscow’s largest Orthodox cathedral has garnered a tremendous amount of attention all over the world. Popular music luminaries ranging from Paul McCartney to Björk to Madonna have publicly spoken out in support of the group, though Norman LeBrecht has pointed out that the classical music community has pretty much remained silent on this topic. He has even suggested that some major Russian musicians actually tacitly support what happened.

While my own personal political views on all of this are beyond the scope of this particular publication, which is dedicated exclusively to music, specifically new American music, there might be important musical matters around this particular issue that are worthy of discussion and debate on these pages. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate musical issues from political ones in this case. Some people would argue that it is impossible to do so in any case and that all art is political, so I know I’m treading on shaky ground somewhat. Bear with me.

I have often argued that the inability to associate specific meanings with music in and of itself is its greatest strength in that it can cut through divisions between people (whether ideological, linguistic, geographical, or temporal). But that elusive aspect of music can also make it somehow seem less relevant to our daily lives. We may love music, but we don’t really know what it stands for. Since other forms of art allow for more precise communication and interpretation, artists in those disciplines have become cultural icons for their stands on very specific topics. For millennia, authors of poetry and prose have run afoul of governments all across the political spectrum for the views expressed in their writings. Visual artists have had their share of censorship problems as well. But music? Beethoven has long been raised as a role model for individuality and a force for social justice—after all, he wrote a symphony in honor of Napoleon when he viewed him as an agent of societal change but then tore up the dedication after Napoleon declared himself an emperor. You can listen for clues in the Eroica Symphony and find them once you know the biographical details, but would you really be able to hear it if you came to the music tabula rasa? Luigi Nono inferred into the equal distribution of pitches that serialism allows a metaphor for a communist social order in which members of the proletariat are all equal, but it is doubtful that anyone hearing his music on its own would make such an association.

This is probably why over the centuries music has been far less susceptible to specific censorial attacks, unless the music is accompanied by lyrics, in which case it could be reasonably argued that it is the lyrics and not the music that is being censored. Of course there are famous counterexamples. Plato suggested banning certain modes from music claiming they invoked moods in people which were contrary to the benefit of the state. The Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu went even further and called for a ban on all music. As far as specific instances of musical censorship in history, there’s the story of how the Vatican was on the verge of banning polyphony from music in churches until Palestrina persuaded them not to in his 1562 Missa Papae Marcelli. In the 20th century, Germany under the Third Reich vilified the work of a great many composers with the label “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music) and this epithet wasn’t exclusively limited to composers whose racial identity and political leanings were anathema to Nazi ideology. Any music that referenced jazz or explored atonality was a target. Music was also not immune from the proscribed dictates of conformity during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China. A day after Augusto Pinochet’s right wing coup in Chile, Victor Jara, the country’s most prominent singer-songwriter who had clear left-wing sympathies, was arrested and tortured; four days later, after his incarcerators told him to playing his guitar, they machine-gunned him to death mid-song. In more recent times, there have been Islamic theocratic leaders in Iran and Afghanistan who have sought to eradicate any secular music, instrumental as well as vocal, merely on the grounds that such music is a distraction from the contemplation of the divine. The Ansar Dine, who are attempting to impose strict sharia law on the regions of Mali they have recently gained control over, also want to restrict music.

Russia, however, has had the longest history of government intervention into musical matters over the course of the last century. In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich was officially denounced in the Soviet Union’s government-controlled main media outlet, Pravda, in a chilling anonymous editorial with the title “Muddle Instead of Music” which specifically criticized the music for his second (and what was to be his last) opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; no one came to his defense and he feared for his life. But others fared worse. Nikolai Roslavets, who has been described as the Russian Schoenberg, was denied all official positions and not even allowed to join the Composers’ Union. Alexander Mosolov, whose Lenin-era avant-garde proto-minimalist Iron Foundry celebrated the triumph of the working class, got sent to a gulag because of the music he composed under Stalin. Both were officially written out of music history and have only been rediscovered in recent years. Through all of this, Shostakovich figured out a way to toe the line in order for his music to continue to be performed, but even after recanting the more experimental tendencies in his music in works like his patriotic Symphony No. 5 (which he actually publicly described as “an artist’s creative response to just criticism”), he was lumped together with other leading Soviet composers including Prokofiev and Khachaturian in the 1948 campaign against bourgeois formalism in music. And long after Stalin’s reign of terror, Shostakovich continued to anger government authorities when he set texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that exposed Soviet anti-semitism. But here one could contend that it was Yevtushenko’s poetry and not Shostakovich’s music which drew their ire; however, as biting as Yevtushenko’s critical words are, it is through the power of Shostakovich’s setting that their message becomes so visceral.

The fate of jazz and rock musicians in Russia has been quite different from that of so-called classical composers who created in a medium which was officially revered, even if the specific content of individual composers’ music sometimes was not. While jazz was mostly never banned per se, the music was frequently criticized since the genre originated in a Western capitalist society and was therefore completely identified with it. Rock was even more restricted. Early rock groups in Russia could not officially record since the state-owned record label did not acknowledge its existence. As a result, rock evolved as an underground music so the very act of performing rock music, regardless of the lyrics, was a subversive act. Since the days of Glasnost and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, rock has flourished in Russia but it is never lost its aura of rebellion.

So it could perhaps be claimed that Pussy Riot are being persecuted, at least in part, on musical grounds since the kind of music they play goes against the official mold endorsed by the government. Such an aesthetic purge is clearly against freedom of artistic expression and artists of any stylistic inclination should view it as an affront to the very core of the creative process. But this is a much more complicated issue. The members of the band were specifically charged with “hooliganism” for their uninvited performance, and hence, desecration of a space that is viewed as sacred by many people in Russia and it should be pointed out that the majority of people in Russia support the verdict of the trial. Of course, the source of this majority statistic is from the Russian media and there seems to be a great disparity of opinion between the younger and older generations in Russia, although this is only anecdotally verifiable. Outside of Russia, however, opinion seems completely tilted in support of the actions of Pussy Riot. As the only mega news story in the mainstream media that has any connection to music, how can we channel this broad range of public support into overall support for creative expression and ensuring that it is properly respected and nurtured all over the world?