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For some time now I’ve been wanting to write my thoughts about the painful and paradoxical problem of what to do with an artist’s work you live when the artist himself is a louse.* Recently I lauded Charles Dickens yet he was an awful man. He bullied and abandoned his wife; he was a bad father to his children, whom he held in contempt. How on earth did he write such brilliant novels of such warmth and human compassion, extolling us to care of one another, when he was abysmal at home in his personal life? 

Even more ticklish is my love for the music of Richard Wagner. He was a revolutionary genius whose brilliant music makes me soar. He wasn’t just awful he was vile, a narcissist whose egotism makes Donald Trump look like a nun. His faults were legion: he was sexist and a liar; he manipulated everyone to his end; he stole women, and then cheated on them. He was also anti-Semitic, a darling of the Third Reich.

Wagner et. al. force us to confront the uncomfortable question what to do with such artists. If the artist is awful but his work is stunning should it matter? Should we ban Wagner from our concerts? ** I hear of people are ‘cancelling’ Ms. Rowling over something she said. Here’s an example from another direction: I once attended a lecture where Linda Ronstadt was speaking. The Scottsdale audience was eating every word she said. Then she made a disparaging remark about guns. A fraction of the audience stiffened, got up, and left in a huff. I heard one mutter as she left: ‘Well, now we can’t listen to her anymore!” 

In a world of woe, Art reminds me it is not all bad. Art comforts me, it tells me not to despair. Despite our ugliness we can be truly great. Mankind is not all destruction, but capable of great creativity. When Voyager was launched, a golden disc record went with it. It contained some of mankind’s best music. “Look at what we can do! We can create beauty. Despite our darkness we also have light.”

There is darkness and light the same person. Can we look past the darkness and focus on the each other’s light? 

Try as I might I can’t refuse Wagner or stop reading Dickens or reject Luther. There is darkness but I can focus on the light. I hope people would do that towards me. Where we draw the line I cannot tell you.  

*I will use the ‘he/him’ in this article as history is heaped with male artists up to no good and doing all sorts bad things.  There aren’t too many depraved female artists.

**I think his music is banned in Israel; I need to look this up. In a way I hope this is true: At the Bayreuth Festival they play nothing but Wagner. It would be poetic justice or at least balance in the Universe to know there is a place where anything but Wagner is played.

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February 2021

Spo-Reflections 2006-2018