Friday, July 10, 2009

A Note on Criticism and Politics

Carol Iaciofano, a Boston-based writer, has written a very fair review, "Bernstein: the man, musician, his politics," published in the Boston Globe and on-line at, of my Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician. I've been getting some reviews, and noticing that some reviewers belabor me for not having written the book that they think I should have written. Ms. Iaciofano, on the other hand, has written about my book as I wrote it, and for that I am most grateful.

I especially want to quote a line of signal importance from Ms. Iaciofano's review: "This is a biography with a political focus, but it’s a full biography, one that knocks over caricatures of a celebrity musician who merely played at politics." Ms. Iaciofano has touched on a matter of central concern, the wrong-headed idea that anyone achieving celebrity status in areas outside politics, academia or business is politically mindless. Those holding this notion assume that actors, musicians, painters, poets and other writers are superficial, frivolous, unworldy, unable to think abstractly, to synthesize across disciplines, in short, unable to make critical judgments about what is going on in the larger public sphere. But anyone who understands artistic achievement knows the intensity of disciplined intelligence and exercise of critical faculties necessary for success. Of course an orchestral conductor who excels in the interpretation of the most complex musical scores, or an actor who excels in the interpretation of a script, may choose not to engage himself or herself in the political sphere; but only a superficial and thoughtless individual will claim a priori that conductors or actors are a disabled lot who cannot make informed judgments about the policies and decisions that determine the ethical life of the nation.

As regards Bernstein, Ms. Iaciofano has correctly read the evidence: he was a very well-informed citizen who understood only too well the drift and contradictions in American life, and for that matter, the cascading crises of the 20th and now 21st centuries.


LMaterna said...

I think that your point of "signal" importance is well taken. I also wonder if the tendency of American critics to disregard and even disdain artists, writers and other "aesthetically" defined celebrities who assume political positions in their works and lives isn't particularly American.

Speaking from my relative expertise in Spanish literature and Spanish arts, as well as a secondary knowledge of the field of Latin American Studies, I can say that there is a relatively close relationship (more in some periods and some countries than others) between artistic/literary creation and political ideology. One only need consider the Franco era and writers like Antonio Buero Vallejo and Alfonso Sastre who engaged in a lengthy and vitriolic at times polemic called "possibilismo," that is, pre-determining the degree of direct political engagement in their works (Sastre saying YES! to this position; Buero Vallejo saying NO!, that symbolic and indirect representations are necessary to avoid censorship). hen too, consider the career of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the content of his politically oriented texts like El general en su laberinto. Or how about Mario Vargas Llosa and his presidential aspirations.

I think that the very thesis of your book Barry--that Bernstein was unable to write that great work about American life because of the post 1930s/WWII repression (and displacement into consumerist frivolity?) of political thought evinces what is a peculiarly perhaps American tendency to separate the political from the aesthetic in life and art and literature as if there is a necessary separation, as if one cannot be "two" entities: artist and political activist.

We do seem to allow it particularly when it comes to issues of gender and ethnicity today, but I still feel that there is little being said aesthetically about the real problems in America today (which are so many) either in novels or the most political of all textual venues, the stage. I'd be curious to hear what you and your blog readers think about these observations.

Barry Seldes said...

LMaterna certainly supplies us with a most provocative observation, that it is particularly American critics who tend to disdain artists' political views.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century French visitor who in I think 1837 published his famed "Democracy in America," noted that Americans are not only believers in equality, but resent anyone who might climb above the common herd. In other words, he was claiming that the American mass man by and large suffers from, in later parlance, feelings of bewilderment, alienation, a sense of inferiority that is overcome when one is in agreement with "public opinion." I might add as well, when one is being entertained, for the entertainer is in a sense employed by mass man. To mass man, all artists are , non-serious, frivolous entertainers. Thus when an artist breaks our of his/her assigned role, mass man gets upset.

I think here is where the extremely unfortunate separation of the aesthetic from the political and ethical derives.