MacDonald: "The Abduction of Opera"

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Via email, a reader pointed me to a morbidly interesting article in City Journal on the latest manifestation of nihilism in the arts, a trend seen across Europe that is now threatening to rear its ugly head in America: Regietheater (meaning "director's theater" in German).

Mozart's lighthearted opera The Abduction from the Seraglio does not call for a prostitute's nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Nor does it include masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. Europe's new breed of opera directors, however, know better than Mozart what an opera should contain. So not only does the Abduction at Berlin's Komische Oper feature the aforementioned activities; it also replaces Mozart's graceful ending with a Quentin Tarantino--esque bloodbath and the promise of future perversion.
Although I was at first tempted to fault the article for dwelling too much on what particular desecrations are being committed in European opera houses, past attacks on beauty in our age arguably make this necessary. Otherwise, how else would one grasp that the oft-cited Piss Christ no longer represents the cutting edge in the expression of hatred of beauty done in the name of art?

If you can bear her descriptions of what is being done to opera in Europe today, you will find a thoughtful exploration of why this is occurring. MacDonald correctly notes that the heavy government subsidies which insulate European opera from the marketplace have accelerated this trend, but have not alone caused it. Such travesties required a context of general cultural decline, which she correctly notes results in attacks against Enlightenment values.

Although correct as far as that goes, MacDonald does not quite make it to a proper identification of the roots of the cultural context in which opera is being mutilated:
The current transgressive style of opera production is better understood as a manifestation of the triumph of adolescent culture, which began with the violent student movement of the 1960s. Even as West Germany forged ahead economically, its intellectuals, students, and artists became infatuated with the prosperity-killing Marxism practiced in stumbling East Germany. West German opera houses began inviting East Berlin directors to bring their heavy-handed critiques of capitalism, staged on the backs of Wagner and other composers, to Western venues. The situation was the same across Europe. "Student dissatisfaction with materialism . . . echoed in the theaters, notably in repertory and styles of production that were critical of bourgeois values and the status quo," writes Patrick Carnegy in Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. In Paris in the late 1960s, City Opera manager-in-waiting Gerard Mortier led a group of student provocateurs who loudly disrupted opera productions that they considered too traditional.
Yes. This is a triumph of "adolescent" culture in the sense that nihilism appeals to the rebelliousness of many adolescents, and MacDonald correctly identifies German intellectuals as the ultimate wellspring for this trend, but she does not go far enough. The sixties, although viscerally repulsive and blatantly anti-Western, could never have occurred in the absence of a long and systemic erosion of Western culture.

The nihilistic sixties and the current offenses against good taste MacDonald documents are more constructively viewed as opportunistic infections appearing in a host whose real problem is a weakened immune system. Accordingly, the real question is not the one she asks -- whether one doctor (The Metropolitan Opera) can stave off an opportunistic infection -- but this one: What trashed the immune system of Western Civilization in the first place and what can be done about that?

Another article
on the decline of art I encountered recently, Dianne Durante's "19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy", which appeared in the Fall 2006 edition of The Objective Standard, asks this question and points us to the right answer after exploring the trajectory of art during that period along with what sorts of opinions relevant to aesthetics several representative artists and critics expressed. Here is her penultimate paragraph:
As a result of the changes in philosophical ideas from Enlightenment assumptions to Kantian premises, we have seen the subjects of French 19th-century paintings move from the heroic to the ordinary to the unrecognizable, and style move from careful evocation of texture and atmosphere to dabs and smears applied with a palette knife. By the early years of the 20th century, the works being produced by the French avant-garde were bizarre and incomprehensible, but were defended vehemently by the artists and critics. Hence, although it is startling that Matisse's Luxe, calme, et volupte (fig. 2) was accepted as an admirable work of art a mere century after David painted Madame Recamier (fig. 1), it is understandable in the context of the time. Art is, after all, subject to cause and effect. Most artists, like most other people, uncritically adopt the ideas circulating in their culture. The philosophical ideas circulating by 1900 were horrendous. Art followed suit.
The German intellectuals alluded to by Heather MacDonald, who helped deliver opera to these wolves in directors' clothing are merely the last in a long line of anti-reason philosophers going all the way back to Immanuel Kant, and whose influence has been eroding Western aesthetic sensibilities for quite some time. To reverse this philosophic trend -- and ultimately save the West and its great art -- will require a long and patient reintroduction (and defense) of Enlightenment values to Western culture, as Ayn Rand pointed out and attempted to begin during her lifetime.

-- CAV


: Corrected a typo.


Rick "Doc" MacDonald said...

I think we may need more than the following (from your post): "To reverse this philosophic trend -- and ultimately save the West and its great art -- will require a long and patient reintroduction (and defense) of Enlightenment values to Western culture, as Ayn Rand pointed out and attempted to begin during her lifetime".

We may need a Randian candidate or political party to engage people in the virtue and philosophy of political economics in a way high schools and universities aren't. The Ayn Rand Institute is a good place to start via scholarships, but it is only a start. Capitalism, as a moral standard, is quickly fading and one wonders how much time do we have?

Thank you again for your time, talent and for setting a table rich for thought.

--Rick "Doc" MacDonald

Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you for the kind words, and for stopping by.

You are right that that the preservation of freedom will eventually require improvements in the political realm, but now is too soon for the kind of political action you advocate.

This is because of the complexity of freedom and the other concepts on which it depends.

For example, if I were to run for political office now, I would have two choices: (1) Be up front about my advocacy of freedom and get trounced since significant portions of the electorate think "freedom" includes "freedom" from having to work for a living, while others think it means the "freedom" to do the supposed will of an alleged God, whose existence I deny, by the way. (2) Let "freedom" be all things to all people while I'm on the stump. Then, once elected, I could get soundly defeated in one policy battle over another as my political opponents realize that my idea of freedom differs from that of their pet constituencies -- or just "go with the flow", making huge concessions every day in order to cling to "power". (But what good to the cause of freedom would being prisoner to the misconceptions and misunderstandings of others do?)

I would love to start improving the political picture now, but this will not be possible (beyond slowing our descent into chaos) for at least another generation or two.

Bad news to be sure, but the knowledge saves our time and effort for what really needs to be done, which is to effect a change in the will of the people -- where the real power of any culture ultimately lies.