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Richard Wagner in 1871

Socrates (470-399 B.C.) was a famous Greek philosopher from Athens who taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Socrates used a method of teaching by asking questions. The Greeks called this form “dialectic” – starting from a thesis or question, then discussing ideas and moving back and forth between points of view to determine how well ideas stand up to critical review, with the ultimate principle of the dialogue being Veritas – Truth.

Characters

  • Socrates

  • Richard Wagner, German Romantic composer
  • Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s filmmaker
  • Wimsatt & Beardsley, The New Criticism School
  • Ezra Pound, American expatriate poet 
  • Publius, Pupil of Socrates and conflicted lover of Wagner’s music

{Setting: Symposium of Socrates}

{Suggested background music}

Socrates: We are gathered here today at my Symposium to discuss the venerated discipline of aesthetics and to seek to answer this question of the ages – Can immoral art be good? Or more pointedly, can an immoral person create good art?

Wimsatt & Beardsley: Yes, Socrates, philosophers call this paradox the intentional fallacy, which developed in the New Criticism School of the 1930s and was first used by us in a 1946 essay. A long-running debate in philosophy has centered around the question of whether art that is morally bad can itself be good (as art).

New Critics believe that an interpretation of a work should focus purely on its objective qualities; we should strictly disregard all external or extrinsic factors (biographical, historical, etc.) concerning the author of the work.

Leni Riefenstahl: The question of the intentional fallacy has tended to focus on controversial figures like Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Andreas Serrano (“Pi– Christ” [1989]) or artists such as myself, for I was the German filmmaker for the Third Reich, the Nazi Party and for supreme chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, whom I immortalized in such documentaries as “Triumph of the Will,” which chronicled the Nuremberg rallies, and “Olympia,” a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I am profoundly ashamed of these movies now in light of Nazi atrocities and the human-rights genocide of the Holocaust, for my so-called art was exploited as Nazi propaganda. Nevertheless, many critics to this day consider my movies to be technically and artistically brilliant.

Socrates: To us, the ancient Greeks, the very idea of an intentional fallacy, the notion that one can separate art from beauty would have been readily dismissed, as for them the notions of beauty and moral goodness were inextricably linked, yet due largely to the modernist philosophy of relativism – the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity and have only relative, subjective values according to differences in perception and consideration – this question has proved more troublesome for the modern mind.

Ezra Pound: Socrates, I disagree, for artists themselves tend to be relatively indulgent, amongst whom the poet is fairly typical, and therefore good art, however “immoral,” is wholly a thing of virtue. Good art cannot be immoral. By good art I mean art that bears true witness.

Richard Wagner: Many consider me to be among the greatest composers ever to have lived. My enormous talent and enduring appeal is scarcely in doubt as demonstrated by the constant procession of pilgrims to my shrine at Bayreuth, which bears witness to my creative genius.

Socrates: Wagner’s views were even more repellent than his personality: intolerant, racist, virulently anti-Semitic, a keen advocate of racial cleansing who called for the expulsion of Jews from Germany. Yet Fate and Destiny would have their revenge, for almost 50 years to the day after Wagner’s death a megalomaniac narcissist named Adolf Hitler would rise to power in German, launch World War II and the Holocaust and seek to unleash Wagner’s rabid fascist and anti-Semitic ideas upon the world.

How much does any of this matter? Does our knowledge of Wagner’s character, dispositions, beliefs and prejudices have any relevance to our understanding and appreciation of his music?

Publius, aren’t you a devotee of Wagner’s music?

Publius: Yes, Socrates. I have wrestled with the intentional fallacy, or what I call “the Wagnerian dilemma,” for many years yet am unable to reconcile how Wagner, a self-confessed proto-fascist and anarchist, a man so morally repugnant, so spiritually vacuous, so gratuitously anti-Semitic could write such divine music.

Socrates: We might suppose that such considerations are relevant to the extent that they inform or affect his musical works; that knowing what motivated him to produce a particular work or what intentions lay behind its creation could lead us to a fuller understanding of its purpose and meaning.

Wimsatt & Beardsley: As progressives we view art as public works. The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s. It is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to control it. The poem belongs to the public.

Socrates: Here is the conclusion of the matter: Wagner, other artists and history have taught us that an immoral person can create good art. Indeed, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if that eye is jaded or opaque, then is it good art that the critic sees, or a perversion? If God is the creator of every beautiful thing (including creating man to create good art), then isn’t it true that the degree man is loyal to God is the degree any genius in his art becomes transcendent?

Much of modern art since 1900 isn’t about beauty, but has devolved into an unedifying mix of snobbishness, greed, grotesqueness and fetishism, which the intentional fallacy has only made worse. How? Because the New School Critics have legitimized the separation of God from art, goodness from beauty, art from truth, thus much of modern art has become an exaltation of evil, caricature, deception, politics and pride – rather than truth, virtue, beauty, realism and godliness.

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