Was Goethe a sexist?
Sexism debate : When shadows fall on art
A Puccini weekend in Leipzig. The opera plays "Tosca", "Turandot" and "Madame Butterfly". What a great and simple idea, long live our repertoire business that makes this possible. Taken in isolation, each piece is a purgatory, an eddy current in which feelings drown out thoughts, and who wouldn't be close to the water if the young Japanese woman, who has been taken, takes her life with a dagger according to the old custom.
Each of these operas - and “La Bohème” is one of them - blows your heart apart with a massive dose of promises of happiness and cruelty. But in this agglomeration of emotions on three evenings in a row, in the good Leipzig performances, something still emerges harshly: crime. And the image of women. "Tosca" shows blackmail, torture and attempted rape that prevents the potential victim by killing the attacker. "Butterfly" is a case of human trafficking and child prostitution and raises the question of whether psychological cruelty could also be punishable. With “Turandot” things are a little different: Here reasons of state and dreaming of love are combined. And an old guilt: Princess Turandot wants to avenge an ancestor who was the victim of male violence long ago.
Giacomo Puccini has never found the end of his last opera. He died in 1924. If Puccini is the definition of opera, then opera means watching women - and men too - suffering and dying. Wasn't the composer from Tuscany himself a sex maniac, a philanderer, a homme à femmes? What should these men be called today when so many artists are accused of serious crimes against women?
You can't delete what you've seen
Everyone is reluctant to name Woody Allen and Dieter Wedel in one sentence, but this is what it looks like now: A theater in the USA has canceled a play by Woody Allen, actors distance themselves from him because he is said to have abused his adopted daughter. According to reports by actresses in the "Zeit", investigations are underway against Wedel. So no more repetitions of Wedel series? And never again Woody Allen? That doesn't work because his films are widespread, on the Internet, as DVDs, in books, in the collective memory. Goodbye, Woody? Everyone can decide for themselves. Otherwise it's dictatorship.
So many terrible things are only being known now, after decades. You are in the system. They are long, dark shadows that fall on works of art. The women and “MeToo” is not just one of the many debates. “MeToo” changes society and the perception of art. So Puccini: Was he guilty of women as a private person? It is right to ask this question. Are his operas fantasies or real reports, compensation, reparations?
The uncertainty remains
There is no answer to that. The unrest, the uncertainty remains. Just like the composer's brutal anti-Semitic thinking always resonates with Richard Wagner's music. I cannot completely disregard it. Incidentally, Puccini adored Wagner. Wagner’s colors can be heard in his operas.
Are we entering a phase of the Inquisition? But not: It's about education. The striving for political correctness, for a world without hurtful expression, competes and collides with the practice of freedom to which we have become accustomed. Which is a relatively recent achievement in the last fifty or sixty years. This also applies to what is socially correct: also a result from 1968ff. and in principle a step forward.
But can we therefore simply say that Eugen Gomringer's poem on the wall of a university in Berlin is sexist? Who is supposed to prove that when ambiguity is a basic feature of the lyrical, the open, which ultimately does not want to be explained and cannot be explained?
It's about interpretation, about interpretation. I wouldn't mind being compared to a flower or an avenue. Many women see it differently. The basic question is whether we really have to look at all art anew and possibly draw conclusions. If “MeToo” (and everything that follows from it) have a revolutionary character, then it is also about the existence of art. The role of art is always up for debate in revolutions, art is in danger, that is a historical fact. The most frightening example is the Maoist cultural revolution.
Shadows fall on works. That cannot be denied. Anyone who goes to the theater, to the cinema, who opens books, now feels this discomfort. Did we miss something? With Goethe, for example: the poet and playwright created the Gretchen tragedy in “Faust”. Finest verses, tender feeling for a girl who kills her child and is saved by heavenly powers. While the man who seduced her flies and roars on, the world belongs to him. It was different in the life of the lawyer Goethe. Child murderers were a big issue in the 18th century. Goethe dealt extensively with this, which did not prevent him from advocating the execution of a young woman who had become a child murderer in this specific case. Who had no chance, so young, unmarried, no one helped her. How bigoted by Goethe, how mendacious is this "Faust" poem?
Or Heinrich von Kleist. At Wannsee he only shot his girlfriend Henriette Vogel in 1811 and then himself. People have always liked to talk about double suicide, but wasn't it a murder? Kleist's dramas are bursting with violence, especially the "Penthesilea". Then the Amazon queen tears up her Greek lover Achilles in a frenzy of love. What is to be made of it? So much: We consume the "Tatort" and several other bloodthirsty crime series on television like potato chips. In doing so, basic needs are apparently satisfied.
Compared with the excesses of violence and the fixation of female roles in the mass media, the pictures by the Polish-French painter Balthus (1908-2001) are harmless. His work is also darkened. “Thérèse Dreaming”, the portrayal of a young girl in a lascivious manner in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is suddenly under fire. There are demands that the picture be taken down, it encourages abuse, dirty thoughts - but for that you have to see and want to see the picture, sexually charged.
In a conversation with the FAZ, Philipp Demandt, director of the Städel Museum, the Liebieghaus and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt am Main, aptly spoke of the “own autonomy and truth” of works of art that you can neither with the sitter nor with the Artists could equate: "Works of art are always created in the context of desire."
Balthus has always rejected a possible pedophile view of his art. Nothing has been blamed on him personally. Still, the shadow falls on the art of Balthus. A shadow that illuminates - that there can never be “clean” art. Or just for puritans.
Manchester Art Gallery removed an 1896 painting by J. W. Waterhouse from the wall. "Hylas and the Nymphs" show the naked female body as a mere decoration, explains the museum management. That may well be the case in this late Victorian, suspected kitsch soft porn. But the man is not portrayed much differently; he too is an object of pleasure.
A shadow that illuminates
When moving in the dark, you have to walk carefully. The decisive factor are the differences in all of these examples, which should not have anything appeasing or exculpating in the list - artists are just like that. There is some evidence that Dieter Wedel may have exceeded the limit of what is permitted. If actions and practices in the art world fall under criminal law, if deeds finally come to light and are prosecuted, then that does not go against the freedom of art. Injustice is always injustice, artistry and genius do not protect against punishment. And criminals can be great artists.
The actor Kevin Spacey, who is accused of sexual harassment by several younger colleagues, is cut out of a film. An exhibition by the fashion photographer Bruce Weber in Hamburg does not take place because he is said to have sexually molested male models. The National Gallery in Washington cancels a show by the painter Chuck Close. He is said to have sexually molested women. These are serious allegations and tough measures on suspicion - but capable of making the severity and extent of sexual violence in society clear in the first place. Each institution has to decide something like this for itself. The price is high: Right-wing populists who for other reasons are fighting free, permissive art are being played into the hands of this.
Gustave Courbet painted the picture “L'origine du monde” in Paris in 1866 on behalf of a Turkish diplomat. A naked female torso is shown, the gaze falls directly on the pubic hair and vagina. An infinite amount has been written about the singular work, the interpretations go in all directions, from the fall of man to the mythological to the sexual stimulant. Most of the time the picture was hidden and veiled, it was last in the private house of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This extraordinary and disturbingly sensual work has only been hanging in the Musée d Orsay in Paris since 1985: in all openness. The sight of it may disturb, shock, delight, astonish or liberate people.
Yes! And: aren't we responsible citizens, grown up and reasonably educated? Nobody has to look at the "origin of the world". There is also no obligation to read Vladimir Nabokov's novel “Lolita” or works by James Joyce and Henry Miller, which caused a scandal and were temporarily banned. Even if they are pornographic, you also know that pornography is not prohibited. When these shadows fall on artists and their works, a new look at them reminds us that this is a freshly won freedom, even in Europe and the USA. Historically, art and artists have been much more unfree than free. That seems to be changing again, the wheel is being turned back, from Ankara to Warsaw. With us?
What about "Lolita"?
"Lolita" was published in German in 1959, without major complaints. It is the story of an obsessive character, the literary scholar Humbert Humbert, and a relationship with an underage “nymphette”, as he calls the young girls he desires. A request for abuse?
Strong art can withstand when it is questioned and viewed with different eyes, as it happens now in the light of “MeToo”. That means that you take them seriously. In a largely agnostic world, art has been saddled with all sorts of things - since Courbet's time. It should show, glorify and explain the world and be moral at the same time. It should create meaning and bring people together. But one day religion was no longer able to do that, from whose constraints art freed itself in a centuries-long process.
All of this is about individuality and human dignity, about values that the Basic Law protects. Prohibitions don't help. The Manchester Art Gallery has declared hanging the nymph pond as a temporary curatorial action - as conceptual art. Difficult to bear, but that too is part of the artistic freedom of the company. Goodbye, Mr. Waterhouse!
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