OPINION: Appreciating the genius of an antisemite

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OPINION: Appreciating the genius of an antisemite

Following an apology issued by Roald Dahl's family for his antisemitism, Rabbi Pinchas Hackenbroch reflects on valuing the art of hateful people

A family photograph of the children's author Roald Dahl, with his wife Patricia Neal, and children Olivia (right) Tessa, and Theo (in pram).
A family photograph of the children's author Roald Dahl, with his wife Patricia Neal, and children Olivia (right) Tessa, and Theo (in pram).

I was an avid reader growing up, yet there was one popular children’s author that was off limits.  Not because the content was in any way inappropriate, but simply because I was told as a child that the author did not like us Jews.

I remember to this day being puzzled as to why that should prevent me from reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach. It was after all a children’s story book not a Mein Kampf.

Now we see a surprising posthumous apology by the Dahl family, discovered on his website some 30 years after his death.  It raises once more the more general question many people are asking whether we can love the genius in a piece of art or creativity despite the serious flaws in the artist or author.

In one form or another, this question has arisen time and again.

Following the release of the film ‘Neverland’ which documented serious accusations of child abuse, many ardent fans of Michael Jackson now refuse to play his music.

Then too, renowned for his superb acting in movies such as Edward Scissorhands, actor Johnny Depp has become a cult figure and many of his movies enjoy a cult following. Yet in 2016 Depp’s wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic violence and produced credible evidence to support her side of the story. This has led to many refusing to watch his movies.  The same applies, for example, to Thriller to Louie or The Cosby Show.

The dilemma being faced is the same. How do I reconcile the aesthetic pleasure from the artistry while feeling moral disgust towards the artist?

The often-mooted answer is: You must separate the artist from the art, the musician from the music, the composer from the composition. The idea of separating art from the artist was one on the major critical tools of the New Criticism of the early 20th century. In the process, art was elevated to a science. TS. Eliot wrote “I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art is autonomous”.

The idea was that the work should be able to stand on its own, to be self-contained and to be evaluated on its own individual merits and to expunge any trace of the author’s persona in the work.

Yet by the 1990s the theory of the New Historicists argued that all art and creativity were enmeshed in the time and place in which they were created. One could, they suggested, only truly appreciate the work within the backdrop of the social context in which they were written or created.

Richard Wagner truly divides opinion. He is considered a truly great composer, yet his works have been overshadowed by his virulent anti-Semitic comments.  He espoused his prejudiced views in his essay Das Judentum in der Musik.

Antagonism towards the Jews was also evident among the likes of Chopin and Liszt and Mussorgsky. Why then is Wagner singled out for such notoriety?  Arguably it was the fact his music was adopted by Hitler and the Nazis.   To this day the music of Wagner is not played by the Israeli Philharmonic due to the force of public revulsion.

Those who seek to exonerate Wagner by differentiating between Wagner’s music and Wagner’s writing face another issue. Some argue that anti-Semitism underpins not only his philosophy but also his music.

This may be a moot point — but it does perhaps offer a fundamental distinction, a principle to help us navigate the murky waters of whether or how to differentiate between the Art and the Artist.

In life, we recognise that to err is to be human. We Jews are taught that, to be an integral part of all aspects of society, we must live with people’s foibles and imperfections. In short, we must forgive.

I personally have come to terms with the idea of recognising that genius and beauty can be found sometimes in the most unexpected of places. The art, the music and writing can be appreciated for what it is rather than what the artist is not.

Yet, perhaps paradoxically, I cannot apply the same principles to work created by those who have caused physical harm or abuse.  This I simply cannot accept., even though it feels rather hypocritical.  It seems that, however logical we try to be in making a separation, some things remain beyond the pale.

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