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No. 222 November 2022


Krakow Sonic Society
images „High Fidelity”

No 222

November 1, 2022

or artist against the world and world against the artist

N SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4th THIS YEAR, ROGER WATERS published an open letter to the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska. He arrogantly explained to the Ukrainian woman that the reason why her country was in a tragic situation was Washington's incurable willingness to antagonize the poor innocent Russia. He also called on her to influence her husband, to fulfill his pre-election promises and to establish peace in Donbas, and to finally abide by the Minsk Protocol. The letter ends with a statement that fits in with the Kremlin's rhetoric: "Ukraine is ruled by dark nationalist forces, which have repeatedly provoked neighbors, the Russian Federation in the past”. In short, Ukraine is to blame for the war, but the United States is even more guilty. What about Russia? They did what they had to.

When I read this text, first the translation published by, and then the original one on Waters' Facebook profile, I lost any desire to listen to the albums he was involved in, both solo ones, and recorded with PINK FLOYD. Why should I - I thought - listen to the work of a man who is not so much raving, but repeating, like a useful idiot (in Russian поле́зный идиот), the propaganda of a country that cannot resist every few days to threaten the whole world with nuclear annihilation?

Oh, the conundrum: how are the artists and their work related? Can I call for a boycott, encourage others not to listen to music, not to watch movies, not to take part in exhibitions, if the artists responsible are stupid or just plain evil? Should the moral "conduct" of such a person have an impact on the reception of their work? Maybe these two entities need to be clearly distinguished, maybe we, recipients of cultural products, are NOT ALLOWED to associate the creator and the creation?

While it seems to me that the issues discussed above are as old as the world, this is not true. Until (relatively) recently no one lost any sleep over such questions. An artist - any artist: painter, musician, writer, sculptor, architect, and so on - for a large part of the human civilization development, played a subordinate role to those better connected. He/she was closer to the status of a "useful tool" used by a wealthy person (emperor, king, pope, prince, cardinal, feudal) or an institution (state, church, craft guild, order) so that they could express values which they thought were right.

GEORGES DUBY, one of the most distinguished medievalists of the twentieth century, describes this issue in the work entitled The Time of Cathedrals. Art and Society 980-1420:

Today, when a great artist has more money than any potential patron, when he is a patron for himself, is free to compose and create whatever he wants for his own satisfaction and as if for his own use, we must make an effort to imagine how strong there were fetters which, in the times of Cimabue, master Theodoric or Sluter, made the artist a prisoner of the buyer. All important works were commissioned at that time, each artist was strictly subordinated to the wishes of his client, not to say - master.

Duby dealt with the European (mainly French) Middle Ages, the situation was not surprising, however, also several centuries later. This explains the dilemmas of MOZART, who, realizing his genius, could not come to terms with the brutal realities of 18th-century Vienna. In that place and time, the only people whose opinion really mattered were those of the aristocracy. They formed a closed circle and invited no strangers to it - even eminently gifted ones. This is why Joseph II Habsburg could have made an unfavorable commentary (anecdotal "too many notes") about one of Wolfgang Amadeus' operas. Since members of the elite were not interested in Mozart's opinion on music, they were even less concerned with what he felt about other aspects of life: politics, society, economics, or history.

The following centuries brought a change in mentality, especially the 20th century. The artist transformed from a laborer in the service of a master into a star, a genius, a man endowed with the divine spark. More and more people began to circulate around them, tempted by the glow with which the creators shone more and more. Live tours, hysterical fans, wealth, glamor, and finally: the possibility of making a real impact on the world. Mozart was chased by an otherwise middle-class ruler, and only a century and a half later Queen Elizabeth II awarded the Beatles with an Order of the British Empire. What's more, for several decades we have been listening more and more carefully to what artists want to tell us through their work (which begins to play a secondary role to a life of the star), and we listen to their thoughts.

It must be clearly emphasized, as it will be important in this context, that the way we perceive popular artists nowadays has not been carved in stone, is not a long-standing norm, and even less so a dogma. It is an anomaly within the long duration of civilization.

Let us return to the problem mentioned earlier: should what we think about the creator influence our assessment of their work? This is an important question because there are many artists whose statements raise controversy. In order not to get too distracted, I will stay in the circle of music. In recent years, we have witnessed, among others, the trial of R. KELLY, who this year was convicted of sexual crimes and human trafficking, the premiere of a document about MICHAEL JACKSON and the disclosure of his pedophile tendencies, and recently the world has heard about the rape of a minor that was allegedly committed by Fr. ANDRÉ GOUZES, a Dominican and composer of many religious songs, often sung in churches and during pilgrimages.

Before writing this text, I was tempted to read a dozen articles and ask this question to several dozen friends. The case raises, to put it mildly, great emotions. Most of the commentators and my interlocutors tried to be moderate. They pointed to the role of the context in which we operate. At this point, they considered supporting Russian culture as unequivocally wrong, rejecting, for example, the works of DOSTOJEWSKI, who had nota bene a fatal opinion about Poland and Poles (he considered us to be misappropriated, moral bankrupts focused on the West, obviously in opposition to capable Russians), Dostoyevsky dreaming of a great Russia raised above other nations by the power of spiritual values. After the war - who knows? - Perhaps the time will come to return to Russian works, just like we now have no problem with the reception of German culture - once hostile to us and aggressive towards us.

Another approach proposed to me clearly separates the author from the work, but allows for free criticism of the artist as a person. In such a variant, calling for a boycott of creativity is inappropriate, but expressing a negative opinion about a person is perfectly fine. So we can safely reach for Thriller or Bad by Jackson, while condemning his behavior and himself.

People opting for such a solution indicated that disregarding an album or a movie may have unforeseen consequences, and problems accumulate with each subsequent choice. If R. Kelly is not a man to follow and his hit I Believe I Can Fly was used in the movie Space Match, then should our "embargo" apply to this work as well? And if fragments of the Cosmic Match were used in another movie, should this one be swept under the rug? It's easy to get caught in absurd.

In turn, I heard from my relatives that I cannot afford to criticize an artist as a person; Who am I, after all, to criticize an eminently gifted person who has achieved something in life (unlike me)? It is an, referring gloomily to Putin's recent threats, "nuclear" option: a work, especially of great importance (for example, Pink Floyd’s The Wall), sanctifies the person responsible for it, lifts an artist above the rest of us to a sacred sphere.

So finally, I would like to take this unique opportunity to give you some tips that may be helpful in resolving this dilemma. I think the worst thing we can do is put on the armor of dogma. The latter are especially dominant among apologists as a “zero criticism” solution. After all, it is the dogmatic approach of the Russians that we owe the current situation to, so how resorting to them could improve our understanding of the world (and even the quality of life) in other areas?

I do not condemn anyone who reaches for Dostoyevsky during the war in Ukraine (I finished Karamazov Brothers after its outbreak), Jackson or KARAJAN, who made the evenings pleasant for the Nazis, but I personally renounce the fruits of their work, I also have no problems expressing the negative emotions that these (and some other) people inspire in me. I just need the freedom to choose. The choice to get up every now and then and tell a d..k that he is a d...k.

And let's remember in all this that the exceptional status currently enjoyed by celebrity artists is historically something new. The more incomprehensible for me are such aggressive statements that it should be forbidden to criticize the more recognizable singers or writers.

What about Waters? Why did his statement about Ukraine make me so angry, much more than Karajan, who played for the Nazi tops, or Jackson-who-liked-children-too-much? The answer is very simple. While I don't agree with the way these two artists acted, I am humble enough to know that their life situation was not black and white. Neither I lived in the 1930s in the Third Reich, nor did my father (I me greet the editor-in-chief of High Fidelity) beat me and use me to earn money.

Ex-Floyd's member’s case is different, far less complex: here is an eminently privileged, super-wealthy white citizen of the West explaining to others (Ukrainians, Taiwanese, Poles - the list is quite long) how they should live, while he has no slightest idea about their culture, history, or traumas. He is a self-conscious ignoramus who thinks that since he has recorded some excellent (you have to give him back) albums, everything that pops up in his head bears the hallmarks of genius.

We are dealing with a model example of a phenomenon that is more and more present in the Western media: Westplaining, a situation in which a Westerner graciously describes to uncouth savages from other parts of the world their situation and advises them how to behave. This year I experienced this behavior myself, directly, and therefore I know how humiliating it is. In the case of the letter to Zelenskaya, there is no excuse for Roger Waters, not even his problems related to his father's death. It's just disgusting. Therefore, whatever he’s made - by extension - seems disgusting to me.

And one more thing. While I was working on this text, there was confusion about the Waters concert, which was to be held in my hometown, Krakow. The Krakow councilman, Łukasz Wantuch, drew attention to the problem that the performance of an openly pro-Russian bassist could cause in a country so strongly involved (humanely, politically, logistically, militarily) in the Ukrainian cause. On Saturday, September 24th a representative of Tauron Arena, the venue where ex-Floyd was supposed to play, announced that the event was canceled, allegedly by Waters' manager. The topic was taken up by all main media in Poland, and also - this is important - by Waters himself. Roger did not fail to take this opportunity to once again explain to us, blind people of the East, what it is all about. Thank you!

Krakow Sonic Society

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"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

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