September 22, 2011

Shostakovitch, Art and Propaganda

Today I came across a very interesting show about a piece of 20th century music, which raises interesting questions about the nature of art, politics, philosophy and propaganda.    The program, PBS' "Keeping Score" with Michael Tilson Thomas, explores the history of the creation of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony and how the life of an artist in the early years of 20th Century Russia was affected by the totalitarian government of the Soviet Union.

I found the show interesting in that it explores not just the music qua music, but that music is a particularly powerful means of not just expression but of propaganda.   Every person interviewed in this program acknowledges that music, indeed all has a power greater than just to be enjoyed, but that it has a deep power that can be used to political ends.    Stalin recognized this, and before the 5th Symphony, made Shostakovitch persona non grata with a particularly scathing review of his opera, labeling the music as antithetical to the state. 

To the totalitarian Soviet Regime (indeed all totalitarian regimes), all art is in a sense "political" and therefore simply a tool to be used for or against the regime, so artists are chosen for their support of the state.  This is however only somewhat true, as some art is intrinsically political (anthems, statues of patriots etc,) but some art is only political due to its adoption by a party or state.  The adoption of Wagner as quasi-politico-religious themes by 1930s Germany is a good example of this, as Wagner was dead before the Nazis came to power.   This exposes the difference between the works of art made to be political from those used for political ends. What makes this possible is not that all art is political, but that all art is philosophical.   

This is a theme which I am currently exploring further so look forward to another post explaining further that connection between philosophical art and political art.

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