The year was 1981. I was a high-school senior, still living in Israel, when Zubin Mehta, the famed Indian-born conductor and Music Director for Life for the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, created a controversy. As an encore to a concert he was giving in Tel-Aviv, Mehta decided to play extracts from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner. Though I personally never cared much for Wagner, his music, at least in Israel, is still highly associated with the Nazi regime. There was considerable protest against this performance by Holocaust survivors. What I do recall from that incident is that it was possibly the first time that I have asked myself whether there is, or whether there should be, an ethical connection between an artist’s moral views and their creation.
Putting aside the debate whether Wagner, who died several years before Hitler was even born, would have sided with the Nazis, many people still find his views and themes highly anti-Semitic. And, of course, there is also the fact that Hitler himself was a big admirer of Wagner’s music; praising it as coinciding with his own vision of the Aryan German nation. Let’s presume, just for argument’s sake, that Wagner was a Nazi by his views. Let’s also argue that his music was phenomenal by any standard. Should it be banned just because of the man’s views? After all, this is what the Nazis did on the night of May 10th, 1933, when they burned thousands of booked they deemed “un-German”, including many monumental works of Jewish writers. One may argue that there is a difference between burning and making a choice of not reading, and I would likely agree. But over the years I still found myself debating the principle of the question: is there, or should there be, a connection between the creator and their creation. I was left with no clear answer.
Taking this a step further and going beyond art, I have looked at medicine; more precisely, drugs that may save lives but were developed at a price of involuntary experiments in other humans. If those humans are long gone, one may argue that it won’t matter much, and since these people already, albeit unwillingly, died, we may as well rip the benefits and not let their deaths be gone to waste. I do actually face that question on occasion. As a moral vegetarian, when I am prescribed conventional medicine, I often find myself asking how many animals died during the development and testing process. It is not an easy question. It reminded me a time, well over twenty years ago, when, as a student, I was working at New York’s JFK airport in the cargo area. On Mondays, a large shipment of Basset Hounds (aka Hush Puppies,) would come to the warehouse. These were young beautiful dogs with eyes full of expression. I usually didn’t work the Monday shifts so when I asked why are these dogs being shipped to Israel, I was told their final destination is a testing laboratory for Women’s cosmetics (I think it was Helena Rubinstein, but I am not sure.) Shocked, I inquired how come? I was told that these dogs have very sensitive eyes and thus they are perfect for that sort of testing: hair-spray and the likes. Horrified I could only imagine how many of these young pups will go blind, and what will be done with them once they are no longer of use. I asked to be relieved from that shift and never came back on Mondays. But the memory stayed with me, and though I know many countries today no longer allow that sort of testing, large corporations simply moved their facilities to the Third-World and China where, for the right amount of money, no such questions would be asked. The excellent 2005 film The Constant Gardener comes to mind. Yet, I am a hypocrite. While I enjoy the privilege of choosing alternative medicine for minor aches, I am not so sure that will always be the case. Will I be courageous enough to refuse medicine that was developed at the price of someone else’s life, if my own life depended on it? If my time will be running out, I doubt if I will even stop and inquire how exactly was the drug developed.
I may have diverted miles away from my original question, but that is not unusual. I go where thoughts take me and I hope you enjoy the journey, finding it somewhat thought-provoking. Thus I will get back on track, at least for a short while, with an answer to the original question: the dilemma about the artist’s view and their creation. An answer for this came to me, of all things, from a line in an action film.
One of my favorite all-time thrillers is the Bourne movie series. I watched the three installments, starring the awesome Matt Damon, many times. While I cannot explain exactly why I like it so much, I do thoroughly enjoy it. Out of the blue, and for no particular reason, the other day a line from the ending of the 2004 film, ‘The Bourne Supremacy’, came to my mind. “It changes things, that knowledge, doesn’t it?” It is taken from a sentence that the Matt Damon character (Jason Bourne,) tells a young Russian woman whose parents were assassinated by him years earlier. The assassination was staged to make everyone believe that the mother of this woman, who was a young girl at the time, had killed her husband and committed suicide. Says Jason Bourne in that movie: “I killed them. It was my job. It was my first time. Your father was supposed to be alone. But then your mother came out of nowhere and I had to change my plan.” And he concludes this short description with: “It changes things, that knowledge, doesn’t it? When what you love gets taken from you, you wanna know the truth. I’m sorry.”
Many years ago I remember reading Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. It tells the real life tale of the 1972 Andes flight disaster, a chartered flight carrying 45 people, including a Uruguayan rugby team, their friends, family and associates. Their airplane crashed in the Andes on October 13, 1972. More than a quarter of the passengers died in the crash and several others quickly succumbed to cold and injury. Of the 27 who were alive a few days after the accident, another eight were killed by an avalanche that swept over their shelter in the wreckage. The last 16 survivors were rescued on 23 December 1972, more than two months after the crash. The survivors had little food and no source of heat in the harsh conditions at over 11,800 ft (3,600 m) altitude. Faced with starvation and radio news reports that the search for them had been abandoned, the survivors fed on the dead passengers who had been preserved in the snow. Rescuers did not learn of the survivors until 72 days after the crash, when a couple of passengers, after a 10-day trek across the Andes, found a Chilean man who gave them food and then alerted authorities about the existence of the other survivors. [Summary credits go to Wikipedia.] Of the story, I remember that there was one woman who refused, due to her strong religious convictions, to eat the meat, upon learning where it came from. She didn’t judge the others for wanting to survive, but preferred to die of starvation rather than cross what was for her a red line. She died shortly thereafter in an avalanche. But if she would not have died that way, and would not have known where the meat came from, might she have eaten the human flesh and survived? Yet it changes things, knowledge that is. Maybe this is why it is said that ignorance is bliss?
Here is my current line of thought: I may look at a painting and enjoy it much, but the moment I learn that the painter was a serial killer or a child molester, no matter how good the painting is, I no longer care for it. It is that knowledge that changes things.
If the above example, about the painting, is not one you care for, just imagine yourself enjoying the best piece of steak you ever had, only to learn half way through the meal that it is actually human flesh you are digesting. Even though, because of the way it was cooked, spiced and serve, you would not have been able to notice it prior, the moment you learn of this, how will that change your appetite? Knowledge, it changes things…
Learned from: reflections of various sorts.