Art & Culture

Must Art Be Moral?

Can a scoundrel can make great art?

The morality of a work of art is one of the oldest and most widely debated concepts in the art community today. The question is must we respect the artist as ‘maker’ and allow the work to stand on its own, or must we adhere to a moral and ethical ‘code’ that diminishes the work of a miscreant.

This maxim regarding pornography, which states “not sure what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it”, centers around the thinking of a conservative court of old white men (at that time) and what their Christian principles told them. For millions of Americans, noted by their spending, this was not and is not the case. Therefore, could porno be art?

Anti Semitism was rife in the works of Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice) and in Goethe as well. I have been chastised by friends for extolling the virtues of Wagner. This list can go on for ever, but the question still remains, with no answer in sight. Should we discount Shakespeare for his tainted views. Not so easy as you might have thought.

Recently I came across an article on two fairly well know musicians, born about the same time with career paths that were similar but with lives that differed radically. I put this example in the public eye and ask that you decide.

The two examples are: Elly Ney (1882-1968), and Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965). Both women were well-known pianists and both had successful careers. Both were Beethoven experts and both received wonderful reviews, at least in their early careers.

Elly Ney as a young woman

Ms. Ney was a fanatical supporter of Hitler, and was apt in public to read his praises within the letters she herself had written. She joined the Nazi party in 1937 by her own volition and was a participant in the ‘cultural education camps’. According to eyewitnesses, she would read propaganda from the Fuhrer from the concert stage. While passing the bust of Beethoven she would ‘heil’ it with a Nazi salute. After the war she was banned from performing in Bonn and never again was thought of as a great German artist. After her death the portrait of her in the city in which she died was removed and her memory all but forgotten.

Elly Ney in concert post World War II

At the outset of the second world war, the well loved Dame Myra Hess was asked to come to the United States and settle there until the chaos was over. She declined. To the chagrin of her many friends and large following, she decided to stay in London and sat through the bombings, luckily unscathed. At the start of the war all venues for public entertainment were shuttered and still she negotiated with the Churchill government to give daily concerts at the (closed) National Gallery.

Myra Hess as a young woman

These concerts began in 1939 and lasted until 1946. Although the building was stripped bare of precious works of art, there she sat at her piano playing for the afternoon crowd which had gathered. Several times her audiences had to adjourn to the basement, as the bombs and rockets flew a bit too close for comfort!

As the record shows, 824 thousand people attended 1,698 concerts. She said music could boost the spirits of her people facing hardships and daily terror, and therefore, gave all she could to the War effort.

Myra Hess in concert during WWII — admission price, 1 shilling, i.e., under 10 cents U.S.

Most of us vacillate on the correct road to follow, of whose work we listen, watch and read, and to whom we give our own personal approval.

Was Ney’s music any worse for her political leanings, or was Myra Hess’s any better due to her extreme courage? Do they both deserve our respect and admiration or is one now considered a hero and the other a pariah…

As we said a the top, give it some thought. You might surprise yourself.

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