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Much talent, little wisdom

Tuesday, Apr 22, 2003

The first thing you have to do when hearing Hollywood stars make foolish comments is to avoid being surprised.

As a rule, over the last few centuries, artists have been more likely to be morally confused than members of almost any other profession (except academia).

Many, perhaps most, great artists are geniuses in one area and underdeveloped elsewhere in life. It seems that when God grants great artistic talent to an individual, that individual is given few other gifts, least of all moral clarity or wisdom.

That is why there is rarely any link between artistic greatness and human greatness. We should no more expect a great actor or composer or painter to be a great human being than we should expect a great lawyer, truck driver, businessman or athlete to be a great human being. Art rarely makes a person wiser or kinder, whether the person is a connoisseur of art or the creator of it.

Those of us who love classical music — and as an occasional orchestral conductor, I am particularly involved in music — have long had to confront the lack of connection between genius and goodness or wisdom. Richard Wagner, for example, was one of the world’s greatest composers and a racist anti-Semite. Neither Beethoven nor Mozart was known to be a particularly decent human being. Herbert von Karajan, one of the most celebrated conductors of the 20th century, served as Kapellmeister under Adolf Hitler and never apologized for his support of the Nazis. The great African-American singer Paul Robeson passionately supported Joseph Stalin until the day that mass murderer died.

What is true among great musicians is also true among great artists in painting, dance, writing, and everywhere else in the art world. There have been moral lights like Arturo Toscanini and Pablo Casals, but they are extremely rare. More typical is Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Norman Mailer, who worked for years to gain the release from prison of Jack Abbott, a murderer whom Mailer and other literati considered a great writer. Mailer’s efforts succeeded, and Abbott was released from prison. Six weeks later he murdered another man.

And today, music critics extol the virtues of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera (now a movie) by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams. The opera features singing Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship, murdered American Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer, and threw him overboard in his wheelchair. The opera’s purpose, in the composer’s words, was to show that “neither side is beyond reproach.” More moral confusion from the art world.

Given the abysmal moral record of artists, it is not at all surprising that so many great actors and directors also should be morally incompetent. Jane Fonda, a great actress, saw goodness in communism and evil in America’s war against it. Brilliant director-writer Woody Allen still sees nothing wrong in his having had sex with and marrying the young daughter of his longtime companion, Mia Farrow. The acclaimed director-producer Robert Altman proudly identified himself as anti-American while America led the fight against civilization’s greatest threat — Islamic fascism. Ed Asner, a fine actor, has supported virtually every communist regime America has opposed. The number of morally inane comments from Hollywood greats and mediocrities is almost endless. In the relation between artistic greatness and immoral ideas, Hollywood has quite a few Richard Wagners.

Only those who worship art should be surprised. And there are many of them. With the demise of the worship of God in Europe, secular Westerners began to worship new gods, most especially art and artists. This explains why so many people have asked how Germany, which produced Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, could also produce gas chambers — as if producing great composers should in some way raise the moral level of that society.

So the next time you see “artists for” or “artists against” some cause, without reading any further, you can pretty much bet your mortgage that whatever it is they are for or against, they are morally wrong. While God may have granted artists little wisdom, He apparently did not skimp on hubris.

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