Gregory Freidin is Professor of Slavic Languages at Stanford University. He was born and grew up in the Soviet Union during the era of Stalin, Krushchev and Brezhnev. He has translated Krushchev’s memoirs into English. This letter was written to the New York Times in response to Richard Taruskin’s article in the Arts and Leisure Section but was not chosen for publication by the Times.
To the Editor of the Arts and Leisure Section of the NYT
Dear Sir or Madame:
Perhaps, I misunderstand Mr. Taruskin ("Music's Dangers and the Case for Control," NYT, 12/9), but the eminent music historian seems to be siding with Goebbels (and all the other bad guys, among them, Tolstoy, Stalin, the Taliban, and of course Plato) in telling artists that they cannot do as they please. Plato, as every freshman knows, vowed to ban artists from setting up their tents in the agora lest they excite, without any regard for public good, the passions of youth and women. Mr. Taruskin improves on Plato, taking a page from the Soviet's vast experience with censorship (ever concerned with public good, needless to say). The Soviets realized early on that the most effective type of mind control was the one that the artist exercised in the privacy of the studio. Known as self-censorship, it is what Taruskin advocates, for our own good. He does not stop there. The editors and artistic directors, too, must stay vigilant, engaging in a sophisticated inter-textual analysis, lest echoes of Bach's most sacred music turn up associated with operatic villains, even such complex operatic villains as the singing Palestinian terrorists in John Adams's "Death of Klinghoffer." But the great tradition of Western art tells us that artists must take chances, challenge the pieties of their contemporaries, and provoke self-examination and critical thought, for no other profession or vocation (whether science or politics) can afford to be as unconstrained. Hence, the central importance of art for our civilization. The cornerstone of Western aesthetics, formulated by Kant with supreme economy, is the belief that "art is a free play of cognitive faculties"-- free, that is, from dependence on all other "goods." Western artists are free to engage all of their cognitive faculties in order to re-imagine and re-present the world for us, who are constrained by other concerns. It is in this that the greatness, the significance, and the high seriousness of modern Western art lies. Is is a Faustian bargain? No doubt. But where would our Western civilization be without it? Whatever else it signifies, 9/11 serves also to remind us to reaffirm our commitment to the "free play of cognitive faculties" and to renew the sublime deal. Audiences in the free world need not be protected by the latter-day Platonists, be they city mayors or academics. They did just fine booing at Debussy music and Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and feel perfectly free to do so again.
Gregory Freidin, Professor
Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures
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