Tablet magazine gives a new book about Leonard Bernstein’s politics mixed reviews today:
The problem that Seldes faces in writing about Bernstein, then, is not to prove that politics mattered to him. Clearly, as Seldes writes in his introduction, “to ignore the impact of political forces upon Bernstein is to miss out on much of what enlivened and motivated him.” What Seldes must prove, rather, is that Bernstein’s politics should matter to us. For if Bernstein was known as a famous liberal, he is also widely remembered as a fatuous one.
It’s pretty clear from the review that its author Adam Kirsch is in no way convinced that Bernstein’s politics should matter to contemporary readers. I’m not going to tackle the book itself, as reviewing something I haven’t read is more than a little ludicrous.
But I am going to tackle Kirsch’s last paragraph.
Yet Seldes overreaches when he concludes that “Bernstein’s compositional frustration had its roots more in the evolving American social fabric … than in his supposedly limited talents, his idiosyncrasies, his habits, and his psychological dispositions.” This gets the relationship between the artist and society exactly backwards: a genuine artist does not expect society to conform to his preferences, but exposes himself to the confusions of the time in order to find expression for them. There is, in fact, something rather silly in Seldes’s suggestion that America let Bernstein down by voting for Ronald Reagan. If Mahler could draw inspiration from the social chaos of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and Stravinsky and Schoenberg could keep composing through two world wars, surely a composer of similar stature could find a way to flourish in the much less adverse conditions of late-20th-century America. It follows pretty clearly that Bernstein was not a composer of that stature, just as he was not a political thinker or activist of lasting interest. Somewhere between Wolfe’s mockery and Seldes’s reverence lies the affection that Bernstein’s achievement, and his memory, actually deserve.
(Emphasis mine.) Look, I don’t think Bernstein was an amazing composer, even if he had worked in a sociopolitical vacuum, so I’m not trying to agree with “Seldes’ reverence.” But the logical progression here is absurd:
- Great artists draw on events that happen in the world around them–the more disruptive the better–in order to make great art; that is, turbulent times (on a personal level or on a much bigger scale) are a sort of prerequisite for good art.
- Two of the greatest composers of the twentieth century can be considered great partly because of the extreme upheaval of the times in which they were working.
- Bernstein lived in less-turbulent times, so his art should have been all the better.
What?! If we believe statement #1, we have every reason to expect that Bernstein wouldn’t have been as “great” a composer as Mahler or Schoenberg–indeed, wouldn’t have had near enough raw material to transform into artistic greatness. So why is this a point of criticism or surprise? I’m not a fan of overly-romantic notions of great artists as tortured geniuses alchemizing their pain into wonderful art. Certainly this is how some people work sometimes, but we have just as many examples of people who did great work and then were derailed by personal or societal tragedy and/or poor decision-making.
Creative work of any kind, especially complex forms like Western classical composition, requires a clear head and mastery of technical minutiae as much as it requires “inspiration.” All pathos all the time doesn’t produce optimal working conditions for anyone, even those whose job is more conducive to emotional and intellectual disruption.