Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Private Life and Public Trust

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Richard Wagner, the famous nineteenth-century German composer, wrote both the words and the music of his operas. His talent is universally recognized, and he is generally considered  a genius.  Yet, today, when performers or audiences think about the man and his life–not just about his music–-they are troubled.

For one thing, in his private life Wagner took unfair advantage of people’s trust and generosity. He lived beyond his means and then left town to avoid paying his debts.

For another, he was anti-Semitic.  He wrote a treatise expressing  his belief in an Aryan master race and voicing his dislike of Jews.  Even some of his operas reflect this prejudice.  Thus his social-political ideas attached themselves to his reputation as a composer.  In the twentieth century Hitler adopted Wagner as the preeminent composer for the Third Reich.

About people like Wagner the question arises, “Should we or can we enjoy and admire the work of a very talented artist when other aspects of his life are highly repugnant to us?”

In the case of Wagner, directors of orchestras have sometimes felt a need to apologize when performing his music in front of audiences which might be offended.  I remember that  Zubin Mehta thought it was necessary to explain his reasons for performing Wagner’s music in Israel when he took the New York Philharmonic there on tour.

It often happens that the personal lives of public figures become mixed up with their professional work.  Today, more than ever before, the public is hungry to know all the details about the personal lives of singers, actors, and politicians.  Thus, publications like People magazine do a brisk business in gossip about prominent figures.  Sadly, even television news programs are succumbing to the temptation to gossip about pop stars.  Edward R. Murrow warned us that it could happen.

Since  rock music became popular, rock stars have intentionally emphasized personality in their performances, and their eccentricities become intertwined with their work.  Their fans have been attracted by their weird behavior and strange costumes which have become an integral part of their performances.

These stars know that having personal oddities can be profitable in their line of work.  They know that the music written and played by a rock star is so closely identified with his personality that, typically,  fans won’t listen to the music when done by other performers.  But the weird personalities that rock stars project during concerts are a pretense: undoubtedly their private lives are something different from their concert personalities.

It is usually better not to know that your favorite singer is actually morally corrupt.  I am often disappointed when I hear the sordid details about improprieties in the private life of an artist whose work I admire.   So when the artist has not committed a serious crime, I try to ignore the gossip about his peccadilloes and to go on enjoying his art.

But certain vices such as the tendency to lie and to violate law cannot be easily overlooked in a political leader.  When a leader asks citizens to trust him, to obey laws, or to make sacrifices for important causes, he himself needs to have character and integrity that warrant the people’s trust.

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Written by polemicscat

July 16, 2008 at 5:33 pm

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