Ars Gratia Artis

I remember once reading an anecdote about one of the ancient Greek dramatists (alas, I cannot remember which one) who, summoned before the audience to explain – and possibly change – a point in one of his plays which had displeased them, refused and declared: “I do not write my plays so that you can give me lessons, but so that I can give you lessons.”

I mention this as a preamble to the subject of today’s rant – namely, the function of the Arts.

Anyone who has been following the running battle between the new Minister of Culture and Sport (Culture and Sport? We used to have a Minister of Education and Culture!) Miri Regev and the cadre of mostly left-wing leaders of the arts in Israel, will immediately understand what put this subject into my head.

In short, for those of you who do not live in Israel, Ms. Regev, who used to be the Chief Military Censor and later, the IDF spokeswoman, has been accused of using her new position to muzzle artists, because of her announcement that government funds will no longer be available for plays and films which slander and delegitimise the Jewish state, with specific reference to a play based on the writings of a convicted “Palestinian” terrorist, who participated in the murder of an Israeli soldier. The said terrorist was, apparently, himself involved in the writing of the play. She also threatened to withdraw government funding for the Jerusalem Film Festival if a new film about Yigal Amir, the murderer of PM Yitzchak Rabin, was screened at the festival. Another of her “crimes” has been to threaten to withdraw funding from a Jewish-Arab children’s theatre, founded by an Arab actor and director and his Jewish wife, ostensibly because he refused to appear in the “Occupied Territories”. I have to say here, if the only reason is that he personally refused to appear in the “Territories”, then this seems unnecessarily vindictive. If, on the other hand, he is refusing to allow his theatre (an otherwise praiseworthy endeavour, one assumes),  to appear there, it would be unreasonable to expect the taxpayers – who include residents of the “Territories” – to fund a theatre group which refuses to appear before them.

As I have not seen the play about the terrorist, or the film about Yigal Amir (nor, I suspect, have many of the parties to the debate, including Ms. Regev herself), I am not going to discuss them, although I will say this: the question at hand is not the permissibility of staging or screening them, but merely whether they are entitled to government funding. The left-wing self-appointed guardians of culture and “free speech”, believing that the function of the Arts is to castigate and correct Society’s faults, would appear to be in agreement with Sir Humphrey (“Yes, Minister“) who sternly admonished his subordinate: “Bernard, subsidy is for art, for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want! It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have!”

However, this is not my topic. My topic is a question which has arisen as part of the debate, and that is: what is the function of the arts? Both sides in the present debate have talked much about their perception of this function and both sides seem to take it as given that the function of Art is to educate. One of the most common mantras appears to be, that it is the duty of the arts to hold up a mirror to Society and show us where we are at fault. The Left-wing Cabal thinks that the government is obliged to pay to be lectured by its opponents and shown how evil and horrible Israeli society is. They also think that Ms. Regev thinks that the duty and function of the arts is to serve as propaganda for the government.

But does Art have to have “a function”? What about pure entertainment? (“Oh, yes,” I hear the left-wing intellectuals sneer. “Bread and circuses for the masses”.)
Is there such a thing as “pure” entertainment? What one person sees as pure entertainment, another person might see in a completely different light. For example, when I listen to a beautiful piece of classical music, I feel uplifted. I feel joy. Some might say that this is precisely the function of music.

Over the course of the last few days, we have heard, over and over again, the demand that Art and Politics should be kept separate. When it comes from the Left, this usually means that the political party in power (the Right) should do nothing to prevent left-wing writers, actors and film-makers from presenting works deeply critical of Israeli society and even of Israel’s right to exist. As far as these people are concerned, “do nothing to prevent” means “continue to fund, at the taxpayers’ expense”. When it comes from the Right, the Separation of Art and Politics  means: “Feel free to say whatever you like, but do not expect government funding for propagating your views”. But is it even possible to completely separate Art and Politics? Much of the greatest Art has been either overtly, or covertly, political. When we listen today to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s “Nabucco”, we may be hearing just the music, but Verdi’s fellow Italians heard a call to rebellion against the Austrians who, at that time, occupied large parts of northern Italy. Not for nothing did Verdi’s very name become a symbol of Italian nationalism, being an acronym for the words “Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia” (Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy). Beethoven’s Eroica was political. Goya’s painting “El Tres de Mayo 1808” and Picasso’s “Guernica” are overtly political. Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is political, as is much of the work of the great 19th century British novelists, such as George Eliot. A work does not have to be about politics to be political and any work which holds up a mirror to social injustice is at least covertly political.

But to get back to the subject of “pure” entertainment. What about the most popular musicals of the twentieth century. Probably the first to come to mind are those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Can we say these are “pure” entertainment?

The most well-known, possibly the most popular, is “The Sound of Music“. But, with the rise of Nazism and the German-Austrian anschluss as its background, politics is surely part and parcel of this work, despite the saccharine sweetness of the Von Trapp children as they sing: “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye”.

Very well, then. How about “South Pacific“? No, strike that one too. The spectre of racial prejudice raised by the romance of Lt. Cable and the native girl, Liat, or by Nellie Forbush’s revulsion on learning that her love interest, Emile de Becque, is the father of two mixed-race children may only be hinted at very delicately by Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the explicit message of “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear” is too strong to be ignored.

Okay. Strike Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Phantom of the Opera” anyone? Is there a hidden message there? Perhaps something about looking beyond physical appearance? That is certainly an important educational message, for anyone who can look beyond the Gothic romanticism.

Chicago“? That surely has something to say about the fickleness of the public and the hollowness of fame.

But wait! What about Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Cats“? Surely that’s “pure” entertainment. I can’t see any hidden agenda there. And the icing on the cake is, it combines Music, Literature (the poems of T.S. Eliot which served as the basis for the libretto) and CATS – three of my greatest passions (see previous post) – as well as dance, for an evening of spectacular theatre.

Perhaps Messrs. Goldwin and Meyer had it right after all, when they chose their motto – Art for Art’s sake.


About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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4 Responses to Ars Gratia Artis

  1. mysending says:

    It’s pretty clear that the arts are a mirror of society, but the mistake that artists of all kinds make is that they think they can lead, rather than mirror, reality.

  2. Phil Abrams says:

    Regarding the issue of government funding for works that are critical of the state and/or sympathetic to terrorists and murderers, I think there is another dimension to be considered. If the work is JUST critical of the state, but not sympathetic to murderers, I think that if the government is to be pluralistic, it should be ready to include such critical works in the package. After all, such works will presumably be counter-balanced by other works.

    But when the work actually praises or appears to praise terrorists, it will inevitably cause psychological pain and suffering to the victims and relatives of the victims. It could be argued that the government does not have the right to assist in the infliction of psychological pain upon the innocent – especially when they have already suffered.

    • The question is really, does a critic of the state have some kind of inalienable right to have the state which he is criticising finance his criticism?
      And, more specifically in the case of Israel, even if the “artistic work” in question is not openly sympathetic to murderers and terrorists, if the work is critical of the state to the extent that it carries an implication that the state, by its very existence, is unjust, would it not be absurd to expect the state to fund such a work?
      Moreover, supposing, instead of actually praising a murderer, or expressing approval of his actions, the work merely presents the words of the said murderer, saying that if one does what he did, one must expect to be punished and sent to prison. This is what happened in the extract of the film about Yigal Amir which was shown on TV in the framework of a discussion about the film. One of the participants complained bitterly that this presents him in a human light and “what does this mean, if one does what I did? What he did was murder!!!”
      Should presenting terrorists and murderers as human beings, simply by quoting their own words, also justify the withdrawal of government funds?
      And if the work in question actually praises and expresses support for terrorism, should it not be banned, rather than merely have government funding withdrawn?

      • Phil Abrams says:

        I don’t think anyone has the RIGHT to government funding for the arts. But if the government is to fund the arts, they should aim for diversity, covering a wide-range of material, provided such material is not beyond the pale.

        Regarding terrorism, if it is explicit incitement to murder then it should be banned. If it is humanizing murderers with third person commentary, it should merely be deprived of government funding.

        Now as far as giving voice to murderers is concerned, I believe that part of the punishment should be deprivation of a public voice. Why should Yigal Amir be allowed to explain himself when Rabin has no capacity to reply? If Yigal Amir wants to admit publicly that he was WRONG to do what he did – and say so explicitly – then I would agree that he should be allowed do do THAT. Anything else should be censored – yes let’s not beat about the bush – as part of his punishment for depriving a fellow human being of a voice. The way he described it, it’s like an equation: “My liberty for some one else’s life.” That is NOT acceptable and he should be prevented by the State from expressing that view outside the confines of the prison where he is held.

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