It’s complicated, history. It engages with things I love, such as art, in complex and often contradictory ways. How did a person with such fascist tendencies write such enduring, challenging work? How could such a misogynist womanizer create paintings of surpassing depth and beauty? Why was a person who was so concerned with the welfare of others so neglectful of his or her family?
Alex Ross, writing about classical music in The New Yorker‘s September 21 issue:
“The poietic* and the esthetic should have equal weight when we pick up the pieces of the past. On the one hand, we can be aware that Handel invested in the business of slavery; on the other, we can see a measure of justice when Morris Robinson sings his music in concert…there is no need to reach a final verdict–to judge each artist innocent or guilty. Living with history means living with history’s complexities, contradictions, and failings…Attempts to cleanse the canon of disreputable figures end up replicating the great-man theory in a negative register….Because all art is the product of our grandiose, predatory species, it reveals the worst in our natures as well as the best.”
People are complicated and contradictory. None is perfect. The worst in our natures can be compelling, even inspirational.
Even in history, where it’s famously said the victors write the verdicts, such verdicts can be overturned, the stories made new, retold from different perspectives, satirized. I love that Ross calls humans “grandiose and predatory” but notes our capacity for creating beauty nonetheless. Rings true in my experience, and sounds a lot like what poets do.
*The terms were coined by semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez, with poietic referring to the productive process of art (its creation) and esthetic with the receptive process (its impact upon the listener-viewer-reader).
If you are curious, you can see and hear Morris Robinson singing the bass in Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony on YouTube. (I couldn’t find him singing Handel online).