Art Crushed by Political Orthodoxy

Because soprano Anna Netrebko refuses to name names, the Metropolitan Opera blacklists her.

by Jon Zobenica and Benjamin Schwarz

In 1948 the Fellows in American Literature—a committee of twelve distinguished writers appointed by the Librarian of Congress—awarded that year’s Bollingen Prize for American poetry to Ezra Pound, despite Pound’s having spent much of the Second World War broadcasting noxious anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda from Fascist Italy. In fact, in 1948 Pound was incarcerated in a mental institution, waiting to stand trial for treason. More than four hundred thousand Americans had lost their lives as a result of that conflict, and the total American casualty count (killed and wounded) exceeded a million. Nonetheless, the committee that awarded Pound the prize justified its decision thus: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” Exactly right.

Discounting geopolitical considerations and following the same objective perception of value on which any civilization must rest, Stateside performance halls similarly welcomed the Soviet Union’s Bolshoi Ballet on multiple American tours throughout the decades-long Cold War—a conflict that included such lowlights as the Soviet building of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Uprising, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Bolshoi’s 1962 American tour coincided with nothing less than the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the troupe’s 1966 American tour came at a time when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were providing material support to the very forces the United States was fighting in Vietnam (much as the United States is now providing material support to the forces Russia is fighting in Ukraine). Almost sixty thousand Americans lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, the Bolshoi’s American shows, and tours, went on, in honor of both civilization and the objective perceptions of artistic value on which—partly—it rests. It didn’t matter that (yes, of course) the Bolshoi tours doubled as propaganda extolling the excellent achievements of Soviet culture and society. The excellence was the thing.

However, despite that long, admirable record of affirming civilization and culture in the face of geopolitical strife, world-renowned Russian soprano Anna Netrebko now finds herself dismissed by New York’s Metropolitan Opera for, in essence, refusing to take a disloyalty oath against her home nation in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She has unambiguously denounced the invasion itself (a conflict in which almost no Americans have participated, and if so voluntarily, and in which official U.S. involvement has been scrupulously indirect). Yet her refusal to denounce her country’s government outright is—in today’s overheated political environment—a morals-clause violation warranting dismissal. Art these days must yield to politics, all the more so, perhaps, when (in the American context vis-à-vis Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) those politics are as limited and gestural as they are.

In a 1949 editorial titled “Homage to Twelve Judges,” the author, editor, and critic Dwight Macdonald celebrated the controversial awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound, commending the Fellows in American Literature for not letting Pound’s disreputable politics influence the committee’s appraisal of Pound’s artistic achievement. After all, Macdonald argued, “one of the most repellent aspects” of Soviet communism and, for that matter, Italian fascism was that there was no prospect of discerning objective value under such systems. He noted as well that in order to preserve any chance for objectivity, it is of utmost importance that “no one sphere of human activity [be] exalted over the rest” and that “clear distinctions be maintained between the various spheres, so that the value of an artist’s work or a scientist’s researches is not confused with the value of their politics.” The dismal alternative, he remarked, is “the obliteration of the boundary lines between the various aspects of culture—or better, the imperialist conquest of all the rest by politics.”

A man of solid left-wing and anti-fascist credentials, whose independent-mindedness compelled him at times to criticize the left, Macdonald lamented the following about the Bollingen affair: 

It is ironical that it is precisely those who are misnamed “liberals” . . . who seem to be least enthusiastic about the Pound award. What bothers them is the very thing that is healthiest, politically, about it: the fact that Pound’s treason and fascism were not taken into account in honoring him as a poet.

Would that the Met did not take Anna Netrebko’s politics (which are benign compared with Pound’s) into account when deciding whether to retain her as a singer. Had it done so, it would nobly have affirmed—in the tradition of the Bollingen committee and the Cold War American tours of the Bolshoi Ballet—that all the other aspects of existence (personal, creative, professional, social, cultural, intellectual) should not be allowed to be taken over by a crude and fervent politics. “The horror of Soviet communism,” Macdonald noted, “is that it reduces the individual to one aspect, the political.” He then posed the following question: “Is not the literal meaning of ‘totalitarianism’ just this pretension of the political power to control the totality of human life?”

This crude and fervent brand of politics is behind the unforgiving morals codes by which, in this case, a singer of great renown can be dismissed summarily for having opinions that are too reserved for the current political fashion, opinions that, furthermore, are not in any way related to her art. (In some instances, art and politics do overlap, of course, as in the case of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. But even Riefenstahl’s art, as such, is acknowledged to be exquisite, despite its loathsome political content.) The Met pressured Netrebko to name names (or at least one name: Putin), and because she refused, it found her in virtual contempt and blacklisted her. By thus aiding “the imperialist conquest of all the rest by politics,” the Met has disgraced itself as a cultural institution. And by succumbing to punitive moral hysteria, it has helped degrade our culture and our society overall. 

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, told the New York Times last month that, “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which she will return to the Met.” Netrebko, for her part, has more recently reiterated her opposition to the invasion and has tried to clarify that although she loves her home country, she is not allied with Putin. She has further said she acknowledges and regrets that her “past actions or statements . . . could have been misinterpreted.” All of which has earned an imperious shrug from Gelb: 

“Having read Anna’s statement, we’re not prepared to change our position. If Anna demonstrates that she has truly and completely disassociated herself from Putin over the long-term, I would be willing to have a conversation.”

When speaking to the Times, Gelb attempted to confuse the issue: “We’re not undertaking an artistic witch hunt. We’re not interviewing or interrogating any artists about their positions.” By trying, in his weaselly way, to distance himself from what the anti-Communists did in the 1950s, Gelb is announcing that he is, instead, doing what the Stalinists did in the 1930s: demanding self-denunciations. Gelb insists on a retroactive political orthodoxy, and dictates that any deviations from said orthodoxy be corrected by self-flagellation. Since Netrebko has, in the past, voiced support for Putin and the Russian government, support that Gelb now finds politically unacceptable, she must recant on pain of cancellation. And then maybe recant some more.

Gelb is protesting too much. It may not exactly be a witch hunt; rather, it is summary punishment for heresy. And now, irony of ironies, owing to her twice-avowed opposition to the invasion and her recent attempts to satisfy Gelb’s demands for renunciation—attempts that Gelb, as an American, could afford to dismiss as equivocal and insufficient—Netrebko has found herself cancelled in Russia as well. Gelb’s moral posturing through political intimidation is cost-free for him—in fact, he gets to luxuriate in and be praised for his right-thinking. But it has put Netrebko in political, pecuniary, and cultural jeopardy in her home country. This is what comes—at home no less than abroad—of the totalitarian tendency that Dwight Macdonald warned us about.

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