Where Art Cannot Go

Yesterday at a press conference for Dr. Atomic, its outspoken and sometimes provocative director and librettist Peter Sellars suggested that perhaps there are some places that art should not go. Despite art’s social significance as a medium to convey complex and often controversial issues, there are tragedies such as the Holocaust, or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that defy appropriate artistic expression. (Dr. Atomic explores the events leading up to this event, but not the actual event.) Composer John Adams also talked about his extreme emotional difficulties coming to terms with the composition of his Septmeber 11th memorial On the Transmigration of Souls.

So, do you feel there should be limits to where a musical composition can go? Why? And what are the artistic ramifications of having such limits?

3 thoughts on “Where Art Cannot Go

  1. BCMcC

    Where Art Cannot Go
    We are living in a poker playing, nascar racing, cigar smoking and mega churching (if that is a word) era. The mind set of the time is not open to frank discussion of uncomfortable topics, much less having them appear in musical context. I have 2 vocal pieces that performers have said is too radical for their audience. They are melodic and vocally conservative. It is their chosen text — including one set of poems that I have written — that makes them taboo. I am hoping that the approaching decade will see a swing to more openess and a willingness to broach subjects that are at least frank in nature.

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  2. Garth Trinkl

    Literature and cinema have come to some terms with such events as the Holocaust and the atomic bombing of Japan. Music too, I believe, is following in literature’s and cinema’s wake and is coming to some terms with such horrible events. Already there is Simon Bainbridge’s Grawemeyer Prize-winning (1997) “Ad Ora Incerta” – Four Orchestral Songs of Primo Levi, Peter Ruzicka’s and Luc Bondy’s “[Paul] Celan” (2001), and Shalumit Ran’s “O the Chimneys”, for mezzo-soprano, ensemble, and tape, based upon Nelly Sach’s famous poem “O die Schornsteine”.

    Your readers may wish to consult such works as “The Limits of Art:
    Poetry and Prose Chosen by Ancient and Modern Critics”
    Collected and Edited by Huntington Cairns
    Bollingen Series XII, Pantheon Books (1948) or George Steiner’s “On Difficulty and Other Essays” (1978).

    Though perhaps not directly referenced in Frank’s post, George Steiner, Roger Shattuck (“Forbidden Knowledge”), and others also address the problematic area of pornography and art.
    I don’t believe that cinema, literature, or even music has encountered limits in its depiction of sexuality (which is obviously distinct from pornography).

    Renaissance Research blog

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  3. alyssa_timin

    The nervousness regarding the production of art addressing such shattering historical moments seems linked to the statement attributed to Adorno: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Predictably, it’s a misquote — see http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/people/adorno/AdornoPoetryAuschwitzQuote.htm

    Susan Neiman’s book, Evil in Modern Thought (http://www.susan-neiman.de/docs/book.html) excellently addresses the shattering effect of these certain historical moments (the Lisbon earthquake, the Holocaust, 9/11) as events that challenge our ability to believe that humanity, and especially human reason, is at home in the world.

    Art can serve to at least attempt to render cultural tragedies thinkable, sensable, if not sensical. It seems to me this is one of its important purposes. What may be the real danger is artists’ taking on all the orphaned moral questioning of our society….

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