As the performing arts world continues to address the ongoing reverberations of the #MeToo movement, a conversation I keep seeing, hearing and reading about is the controversy over separating the artist and their artwork — the conflict, some would argue, between the allegations of abuses of power and the artwork that gave these individuals such power in the first place.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, particularly in regards to Plácido Domingo’s recent departure from The Metropolitan Opera right before the first performance of “Macbeth.” Many reviews of the performance, I noticed, have spent just as much time concentrating on Domingo’s departure as they have on the performance itself. The New York Times’ review, for example, spent much more time on this departure than it did on the actual artistic work that was ostensibly being reviewed.
My initial reaction to the attention paid to Domingo’s departure was disgust. But as I tried to imagine what it must have been like to attend this performance, I came to see how inevitable this was: Domingo’s sudden departure hung over the performance, whether the audience and critics liked it or not. It was the elephant in the room that had to be addressed, and it would have been irresponsible not to mention it than to analyze it before moving past it.
For some reason, I was reminded of a conversation I had recently with my composition teacher about how technology effects our experiences of performance art. My teacher argued that the Internet has desensitized modern audiences to juxtaposition and random association. A classical music video on YouTube being interrupted by a trap-based advertisement, for example, barely phases us. We’ve been conditioned to accept these jumps in contextual content without any hesitation.
My immediate association with this was the ending sequence of Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” This is the last scene of the film, and right after the main character successfully drops a bomb on Russia, silent footage of violent nuclear tests are juxtaposed with a World War II-era recording of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”
To audiences at the time of the movie’s premiere, it was the unexpected jump from movie plot to historical footage and the skittish jumping between nuclear test footage that underwrote the emotional impact of the ending. I’d imagine that this was quite startling. But in the Age of the Internet, I’m forced to admit that I’ll never fully understand just how startling this was. I’m constantly bombarded with these types of juxtapositions in my everyday life — I’m struck not by pace of change in this sequence but by the juxtaposition between audio and video.
But there’s something to be said about the potency of this sequence, its ability to stand the test of time. I’m able to experience this artwork in a totally different context than that of its creation and yet it remains quite powerful. Is this a sign of seminal works of art, that they remain powerful even when pulled out of context?
Taking this even further, can art exist devoid of any context? Can art exist in a cultural void?
As I asked myself these questions, I began imagining the performance practices that would be involved in manifesting this vision. It would involve meticulously faithful reproductions of performance art works based on historically accurate performance techniques with little to no thought given to the reasons behind these practices — an anachronism almost by default.
I immediately pictured Madeleine L’Engle’s concept of a “tesseract” as discussed in “A Wrinkle In Time.” The tesseract is an incident in which physically and chronologically disparate events are brought together; the two places along the fabric of time being brought together, as I remember L’Engle poetically describing it, like two corners of a folded cloth.
There is a genre of performance, I realized, that comes quite close to this. It’s something that I study every day, as do hundreds of other students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
I’m talking about the performance art known as classical music, particularly the performance of of Baroque-, Classical- and Romantic-era works within this tradition. These are historically accurate performances of works that were written between 150 and 400 years before; pieces from times that we spend little energy trying to understand and from cultural contexts that we are frequently unfamiliar with at best.
Take Beethoven’s “Symphony no. 3 in Eb Major,” for example, one of the most performed pieces in the symphonic repertoire. Many classical music aficionados know this piece as the “Sinfonia Eroica,” the “Heroic Symphony” in Italian. Some also know the story behind this name: Beethoven originally dedicated the piece to Napoleon Bonaparte, believing him to be the epitome of the Enlightenment movement and the French Revolution. When Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, Beethoven scratched out the dedication in anger, deciding instead to dedicate the pieces to the hero Bonaparte once was.
Though we might assume this context to be ripe for critical thought, few reviews of performances of this work from this century make any mention of this context. It is as though the work exists in a vacuum, the experience of a performance almost totally detached from the context behind its creation.
But there’s another narrative around this seemingly glaring omission that I began to notice, a narrative that might explain this seeming lack of historical context: Though we tend to ignore the context of the creation of the piece, we supplant it with the context of the performance. Classical music is not an artform devoid of context; it’s an artform in which the majority of the context is supplied by the reproducer, not the producer, the performer, not the composer.
And this brought me to the most obvious flaw in my thought experiment. There is no such thing as art in a void, I now understand, or art in a cultural vacuum. Art cannot exist without context. And neither can context exist without art! If context is culture, after all, what is art but the driver of culture?
Before, I’d pictured context as a spider’s web, sticking to artistic works and trapping them with metatextual meaning. But art is both the substance of this spider’s web and the victim of its adhesion. Art is not the recipient of unwanted context; art has context thrust upon it even as it supplies context back to other works.
A more accurate mental image, I imagined, is thinking of art as a galaxy, an infinite series of stars circling around each other, pulling on each other gravitationally and ultimately expiring before being decomposed and reconstructed as newer works of art.
And to return this to the conflict around separating the art and the artist, I’ve begun to realize that just as the artist can never be completely separated from the artwork, the artist’s artwork can never be fully separated from the larger artistic and cultural world it has contributed to. So though it may seem unsavory, there is no means of analyzing the Opera’s recent performance without acknowledging Domingo’s departure. Rather than trying to separate the artist and their artwork, perhaps our energies would best be spent separating the artist from the artform — stripping the artists of the tremendous power and acclaim that creates the situations that lead to these allegations in the first place.