Art and morality: some reflections on a Twitter spat

As social media spats go, this one hardly registers on the Richter scale, but, largely because it refers to works rather close to my heart, it caught my attention.

It came in the wake of Royal Opera’s live cinecast of Verdi’s Otello. Both this opera, and the play by Shakespeare which sparked the imaginations of Verdi and of his librettist Boito, are very dear to me. I have spoken about these two works often enough on my blog (see note at foot of this post), so this time, I’ll give that a miss. I’ll also refrain from reviewing the performance: being entirely uneducated in musical matters, I make a rather poor music critic, I fear, although, for what it’s worth, I thought the whole thing quite magnificent. But I would like to comment on a series of exchanges that followed soon afterward on Twitter. Not having either the time, nor the energy, nor even the inclination to become involved in Twitter spats, I refrained from joining, but followed it all nonetheless with some interest.

It started with a lady putting up a series of tweets saying that this opera depicted domestic violence and honour killing (which it certainly does); that it glorifies these things (which I don’t think it does); and that, with these matters still distressingly very real, we should either not perform this work any more, or re-write the ending. Ether way, we should “move on”. She used the hashtag #haditsday.

I shall not argue against these contentions, since, I imagine, few would agree with her. (Certainly, no-one on Twitter came to her support.) And neither shall I link to these tweets, as it is not the purpose of this blog to name and shame private individuals. In any case, there were a fair number of dissenting responses to her tweets – some debating her points reasonably, others sarcastic and mocking. To her credit, she responded to her critics without resorting to the sort of personal abuse these social media tweets all too often descend into. But she stuck to her guns: whether it is Shakespeare’s Othello or Verdi’s Otello, either work has #haditsday.

While her conclusions may be wrong-headed, and her understanding of the nature of the arts, based, at least, on these tweets, questionable, her stance should not, I can’t help feeling, be dismissed out of hand. For her reaction to the work, the reaction which led to these conclusions, is authentic. She was shocked and disturbed by the opera. And that is correct: Otello is indeed shocking and disturbing, and it is quite right to be shocked and disturbed. It is those of us who have allowed years of familiarity to inure us to this sense of shock who should question our reactions.

And when she refers to Otello’s killing of Desdemona, one of the most earth-shattering scenes in all stage drama, as “domestic violence”, and an “honour killing”, she is absolutely right on both points. It’s those of us who habitually refer to Otello (or Othello) as “noble” who should be questioning ourselves. In real life, a man who does what Otello does will deserve no pity at all, no compassion, regardless of whatever back-story there may be. We would not consider any mitigating factor for a crime so horrendous, and we would be right not to do so. And yet, this is not what we feel when we experience Shakespeare’s play, or Verdi’s opera, and it is at least worthwhile asking “why?”. Why is it we endlessly debate and consider so deeply the state of Otello’s soul, or go so far as to refer to him as “noble”, when we would not even think of doing either for such a person in real life?

Some will say that art has nothing to do with morality, and that moral judgement plays no part in our appreciation of a work of art, but I don’t entirely buy that. If we see Othello or hear Otello, and fail to see Desdemona as good and Iago as evil, then we have rather missed the point. But the fact remains – and I find it a disquieting fact – that we can, up to a very significant point, suspend our moral judgement on Otello – or on the Macbeths, or on Raskolnikov, or on Humbert Humbert – when, in real life, we would have no hesitation whatever in passing moral judgement. And I am not sure why this is. I am not even sure that there exists a satisfactory answer to this.

So no, of course I do not think that either Othello or Otello has #haditsday, and that we should either stop performing them, or change the ending (although the latter option does involve some rather interesting possibilities!) But this lady’s tweets do bring to mind – well, to my mind at least – certain questions that I cannot really answer, but which strike me as rather intriguing. And, in an age when so many of us have become so blasé to art; when so many, indeed, see the arts but as a currency of lifestyle, or as an adjunct to an image of the self that one would like to project; I find it salutary to be reminded just how directly powerful and soul-shattering these works can still be.

 

NOTE: I have previously written about Shakespeare’s Othello here and here. I wrote a brief post here comparing Shakespeare’s play to Verdi’s opera. And I wrote a more detailed post here on what Verdi took from Shakespeare.

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27 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Linda on July 1, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Thank you. A really thought-provoking post. You are absolutely right in what you say but I couldn’t say why either. I’m off to ponder.

    Reply

  2. Where the critic and I part company is on her desire to stop performing Othello and change its ending. Yes, keep performing both the play and the opera. No, do not change the ending — the ending being the point of the drama.

    I think I know where she is coming from however. I can still read the play and listen to the music, but seeing it performed is so painful that I have resolved: never again. Desdemona is tried, condemned and executed by a judge and jury of one, a man who assumes power of life and death over another human being. His assumptions and her pain are more than I can bear.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree. I think this is why I was a bit reluctant to enter the fray: this lady at least recognised how very painful and distressing this drama is. The next steps in her logic are certainly debatable, to say the least, but the recognition of the distressing nature of this drama does seem to me an important first step.

      Reply

  3. Posted by obooki on July 1, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    There’s a play by Calderon called The Surgeon of Honour, which is very similar to Othello, but has no Iago character (I think) and is just about suspicion – and I found it way more disturbing. The deceit thus becomes self-deceit, which we’re less inclined to forgive; and yet I don’t remember the play making a moral judgement, or if it does it suggests that he was right to act as he did.

    In general, I think this notion of honour is something I have a real problem with in earlier literature, because it’s something arcane I find it difficult to relate to.

    Othello’s one of those plays, like Romeo and Juliet, where I sit there thinking, if only these people acted more sensibly, it would all turn out OK.

    Reply

    • “Othello’s one of those plays, like Romeo and Juliet, where I sit there thinking, if only these people acted more sensibly, it would all turn out OK.”

      Well, that can be said of virtually any drama, couldn’t it? If only the queen had balls she’d be king…

      It is uncertain whether Othello needed Iago to drive him over the edge. It is at least arguable that Othello would have headed there anyway, even without Iago; that Iago merely accelerated the process, bringing out what was latent in Othello. I think this is even more true in the opera, where Otello seems to be dangerously on edge even before Iago (Jago) starts to apply the poison.
      But of course, if Hamlet had been in Othello’s place, the tragedy would not have happened. Conversely, if Othello had been in Hamlet’s place, there would have been no tragedy either. I think we have solved the question of what constitutes the essence of tragedy: people being in wrong places!

      Reply

  4. I agree that we can suspend our moral judgment of Raskolnikov etc., since we have free will, but it is not true that we do, at least for a subset of “we” for which I have direct evidence. I guess I was sometimes, reading C&P, suspended between “crazy” and “evil.” But it seems that is not the kind you mean. Not once was I tempted to move to some for of “neither crazy nor evil.”

    I am much less likely to suspend judgment on fictional characters than real ones, because with the fiction I have so much more evidence. I have seen all sorts of private action, and heard all sorts of private thoughts – thoughts! In real life cases, I just have to go by what is in the newspaper, which comes with its own necessary kind of suspension – “How monstrous! (if true).”

    Reply

  5. By the way, I love the idea of re-writing the ending, or for that matter the beginning and the middle, and hope the author with whom you are arguing or some close ally gets right on it. They will find that the great, old tradition of happy endings for Shakespeare may be a little harder to apply to opera, but I say go for it.

    Reply

    • I think we all recognise, even as we are reading, that what Raskolnikov does is evil. We recognise similarly that what Othello does is evil. But, in order to experience these works, we must go beyond mere condemnation. We find ourselves beginning to understand the workings of these peoples’ minds, and, in the process of doing so, we find exculpatory factors, or, at least, mitigating factors, in a way we wouldn’t think of doing with real-life axe-murderers or real-life wife-killers. To understand is not necessarily to excuse, but it does make a blanket condemnation harder.

      When a man murders his defenceless wife in what is known as an “honour killing”, I am horrified, and refuse to entertain any feeling for the murderer other than revulsion. Yet, I do not feel that way about Othello. I am really not sure why.

      Reply

    • Indeed – I too was intrigued by the possibility of a happy ending for Othello. I am intrigued further by why this lady thinks that merely changing the ending will make the work more palatable: shouldn’t we, as you suggest, change the beginning and middle also?

      Reply

  6. Posted by mudpuddle on July 2, 2017 at 4:24 am

    it’s interesting to me that S so often takes a human trait and expands it to the limit of it’s possibilities; it’s like he’s mentally exploring all possible ramifications of jealousy, love, revenge, etc. but you wouldn’t ever expect to see one of the plays reflecting real life. so they’re not intended to… they do what the intent was: inspire the same kind of exploration in the minds of the audience… in this way, S was and still is, a social explorer, demanding that the generations think about their behaviors and change them for the better…
    O imo, traces two kinds of jealousy: physical/sexual, and positional envy… both are elucidated simultaneously as the play progresses to it’s climactic end… remarkable it is, that a mind long ago was able to pinpoint and convey the essentials of human emotion and thought in such a way that the play still serves it’s purpose…

    Reply

    • I think Shakespeare frequently reflects real life. The lady protesting about this opera was perfectly correct in this: domestic violence, honour killing, murderous jealousy and the like, are all too real. All too distressingly and depressingly real.

      I don’t think Shakespeare ever imagined his plays could change human behaviour. What he set out to do – as any dramatist or writer of fiction does – was to explore human behaviour. And yes, he would, especially in the tragedies, often push things to extremes. But sadly, only a glance at the newspapers would indicate that human beings frequently go to extremes in real life also.

      Reply

  7. Himadri, you’ve been characteristically generous in your treatment of the lady’s suggestions. I don’t do Twitter but if I did, my reply would have been one of the sarcastic ones. What this person misses is that a tragedy is intended to depict unhappy events, and if well written it can help us to look at our own behaviour, thus having a positive effect. What’s more, the domestic abuse and killing in Ot(h)ello is far from glorified – we are horrified by how easily it is possible to turn a decent man into a monster who commits foul deeds.

    I don’t know if the lady really meant what she said, or whether she was just spouting silly PC nonsense to make a name for herself. Either way, she should try to get out more!

    Reply

    • Hello Neil, I agree fully that the domestic violence is not “glorified”. However, it is intriguing nonetheless to ask ourselves why we do not condemn Ot(h)ello as unreservedly as we would such a killer in real life.

      I didn’t think it worthwhile trying to argue against this lady. It’s not something that can be done in 140 characters (especially given my verbosity!) In any case, her conclusions are so obviously wrong-headed, that arguing against them really would be shooting fish in a barrel. And it wasn’t as if anyone agreed with her: if she had commanded support, then her arguments would have been worth rebutting. But since she was in a minority of one, it hardly seemed worthwhile. But it did seem to me that her obvious shock and distress were good responses to the drama: we should all be equally shocked and distressed by it, even though, I hope, we’ll reach conclusions different from hers. And it also seemed to me that her comments, wrong-headed though they were, raised some interesting questions that are worth at least formulating.

      (Incidentally, to change subject: I came across your fine review in Amazon of Bernstein’s recording of Tristan und Isolde. I now have that recording, and agree with every word you say!)

      Reply

      • Glad you like the Bernstein Tristan! It’s long been deleted so you’re lucky to have got your hands on a copy. It’s very much a Marmite recording with its spacious tempi, but I love it – and every other performance I’ve heard sounds rushed in comparison.

  8. Posted by alan on July 3, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    I suppose I have two objections to ‘had its day’ label: the first is the trivial one that the age of an idea or artwork does not determine its value. The second is that the best art, in my opinion, holds ‘a mirror up to nature’. A distorting and partial mirror but a mirror nonetheless. We do not have access to other peoples’ minds and the best art provides some of the best imagined access there is. I see a clear moral bias, if not a moral character in the worst art, I don’t see it in the best art.
    If I can begin to understand other minds then I can begin to deal with them. Clearly some people use knowledge for Ill but I don’t see that as a reason to be against knowledge.
    I suspect this is a proxy for the ongoing debate about elitism, even if it is never stated so baldly: if certain art can be only safely mediated by an elite and if elitism is bad then perhaps certain art is also bad and must be erased, even if or precisely because it illuminates certain uncomfortable human truths.

    Reply

    • Productions of the play at the RSC or of the opera at Covent Garden do get sold out very quickly: popularity is a relative thing, of course, but in the context of stage drama or of opera, both may be described as “popular”. But then again, theatre and opera are both considered “elitist” nowadays, so perhaps the label of “elitism” does stick.

      But I wonder what you mean by “safely mediated” (my emphasis). I suppose it is conceivable that a mind already dangerously unstable may be driven by the play or by the opera into acts of violence, but it does strike me as highly unlikely. At least, I haven’t heard of any such instance. Surely one does not need to belong to any elite to be able to experience these works without becoming violent.

      But I do suspect you may be right in that this is at bottom, a debate on elitism, and that the objection is that, as you say, “it illuminates certain uncomfortable human truths”. There’s a strain of thought that relegates the arts merely to a means of entertainment, and looks on any serious artistic ambition, such as “illuminating uncomfortable areas of the human mind”, with disdain. This may well be an outcrop of this tendency.

      Reply

      • Posted by alan on July 10, 2017 at 11:17 am

        By “safely mediated”, I am making a reference to a tendency for some to believe that if an artwork isn’t simply obvious propaganda for the beliefs of “right thinking” people then it shouldn’t be produced. In this view, attempts to display the complexity of minds only serves to forgive the unforgivable rather than illuminate the world. This is partly due to an inability to distinguish between explanation and justification, seeing all views as necessarily partisan. Also, in this view, if the work is difficult then some people may interpret it as glorification or justification in spite of any artistic intention ‘merely’ to explain or describe.

      • Oh, I see what you mean. I also agree: it is well said.

        I think there has always been a tendency to see art primarily in political terms: witness the political storm that greeted so many of Turgenev’s works that, in our own times, seem like merely harmless love stories. But even though this tendency has always been there, it seems to me to have become more prevalent now. And it seems to me that this is because the concept of “quality” is no longer recognised. Since “literary quality” cannot be adequately defined (so the argument goes), it cannot exist. And so, if we no longer have the idea of “literary quality”, what do we talk about when we talk about books? The identity of the author; the politics deemed to be espoused in the work; the acceptability of such politics. These appear to have supplanted the very concept of “literary quality”.

  9. Posted by Carl McLuhan on July 4, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Thanks for this response to the artistic performance of Otello, Himadri. It seems that we’re back to the old issue of “triggers” once again and our poor society, what are we to do? I’m glad the woman who was tweeting noticed the similarity between an imaginative recreation and a real life issue. Nothing wrong with that. But to blame the work of art and insist that it be put away until such time as we can stomach such matters once again is a touch short sighted. No, we will not censor Shakespeare (or Verdi).

    We do live in a volatile age with so many people that we hardly know who is out there or what they’re about. And not all of these go through an English classroom where Othello is being discussed by a sensitive and aware teacher who will direct his attention to the deeper artistic issue of the horrors of jealousy and its terrifying effects on all those who happen to be touched by it. When I taught English literature, nobody would have jumped to the conclusion that Othello might be a trigger for an unstable mind sitting in the classroom. But I did have to deal with the issue of artistic intention in Shakespeare’s creation of the unsavoury Jew in Merchant of Venice. I never had a problem with this after broaching the issue with my students.

    Nowadays? Who knows how things have changed? And what do we as an (hopefully) informed society, do? Public performances must carry on. No caveats.

    Reply

    • Hello Carl, I really don’t think there’s any danger – not right yet, anyway! – of either Shakespeare or Verdi being censored in performance. But you’re right: this is part of a growing trend that we are now seeing in our institutions of education, where “trigger warnings”, and even outright bans, are frequently being demanded.

      I personally see this, at least in part, as a consequence of fashionable postmodernist ideas that deem all critical judgement to be but a matter of opinion, thus making redundant the very concept of “quality”. And if literary “quality” is no longer a guide to what may or should be taught, then the focus inevitably turns to other things.

      The reason you and I are horrified by the idea that Shakespeare and Verdi may be censored is, I guess, that we believe works of such intrinsic quality are valuable for their own sake. But it is noticeable when calls are made to remove them from the various curricula, (or, in this case, from performance), the issue of quality is never mentioned. Even those defending these works rarely mention it. It’s as if quality has ceased to matter.

      We can expect far more of this kind of thing!

      (Although, having said that, Shakespeare has been re-written in the past to protect sensibilities. Tom above mentions the notorious re-writing of King Lear. And there was Thomas Bowdler’s version as well, to help prevent readers entertaining impure thoughts while pursuing the works of the Bard. So perhaps this is nothing new after all…)

      PS I never went through an English classroom where Othello was being discussed. I do regret that. And I would have loved to have had you as teacher!

      Reply

  10. Enjoyed the reading of your post and all the comments. At 80, my reaction is simple. After all my years of reading, opera going, movie watching etc, I’m just plain tired of violence against women. Goethe, Wagner, Shakespeare, Verdi, Updike, . . .the authors are legion. Euro trash operas are now featuring more violence against women to draw audiences. Mozart’s Anna gets raped, Verdi’s Azucena gets raped . . .again the examples are legion. When does this stop?

    Reply

    • Hello Romy, and welcome to this blog.
      I agree that works of art, often the greatest, often depicts grotesque violence against women. It also often depicts grotesque violence against men. I do no think that the former occurs more disproportionately than the latter.

      The earliest work of Western literature that is still read is possibly The Iliad, and it is full of quite detailed depictions of violence against men. It is the Earl of Gloucester who has his eyes plucked out in King Lear ; it is Sharon who is shot at point blank range in Dostoevsky’s Demons; it is Siegfried who is killed by a spear in Götterdämmerung. And so on. At the end of Hamlet, say, the body count is large. There’s Polonius, Laertes, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet himself. And two women, Ophelia and Gertrude, neither of whom us murdered. Is is reasonable to claim that the violence against women is disproportionate compared to violence against men? For every instance you could cite of violence against women in works of art, I could cite at least as many instances of violence against men. When does it stop? When violence stops in real life, I guess. That is, sadly, never. And as long as there is violence in real life, that will, inevitably, be reflected in art. Violence against both men and women.

      The other point I’d like to make is the depiction if violence, against women or against men, does not constitute an endorsement of that violence. Indeed, it very rarely does. It tends, if anything, to be a condemnation. There is a great deal of violence against women in, say, Euripides’ The Women of Troy, but is Euripides not condemning this violence? Surely this condemnation is at the very centre of this anguished drama.

      I think we are right to find depictions of violence, whatever the gender of the victim, upsetting. But art reflects reality, and as long as violence continues in reality, it will inevitably be depicted in art.

      Reply

    • As an incidental point: does Azucena get raped? She is certainly captured by soldiers, but I see no indication as far as I can remember that she is raped. I’ll check the libretto. As for Donna Anna, we simply don’t know whether Don Giovanni had had his way with her before the curtain rises. And even if he had, we do not know whether it was consensual. This ambiguity dates huge dramatic tensions throughout the opera. One thing we can say about that opening scene is that it I’d Donna Anna who is the dominant figure. It is she who is trying to hold back Don Giovanni, and Don Giovanni who is trying to escape. Musically, again, she is dominant: it is she who introduces the musical themes, and it’s Don Giovanni who echoes her. The scene does end with a killing, though: and it is a man who gets killed.

      Reply

  11. Azucena is raped in the video I have, not in Verdi. Mozart’s whole “joke” with Don Giovanni is that the Don for all of his activity does not get laid once in the whole day of music. I was speaking only of current Euro Trash stagings.

    Your point about violence toward men is well taken . . .but most of the situations you mention involve a combat of equals without a sexual twist . . .men on men so to speak. Very few men are raped. Very few men are beaten by wives drunken or sober.

    When I read, in German, Niebelungenlied. in which Brunhild tied up her sex driven male challenger and hung him on a hook, to chill overnight, I wished that there were more of that in modern literature. Alas, Brunhilds are few and far between

    Reply

    • Oh, I’m sorry – I misunderstood. Yes, I’m afraid there are many unintelligent productions of plays and operas that introduce and give prominence to elements that are not justified by the text. (I wrote a post about this kind of staging here: https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/staging-the-classics-the-radical-and-the-unintelligent/ )

      As you say, the violence committed against women in films, plays, operas, etc., is often of a sexual nature, or motivated by sexual desire or jealousy; and is rarely the outcome of a battle of equals. Sadly, this is how it is in the real world also, and art has to reflect the real world. And of course, I agree with you that when sexual violence is introduced gratuitously, merely to titillate, then that is indeed reprehensible.

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  12. I read your post. The ENO version of the Don had caught my interest as I had seen in Berlin, Mr. B’s version of Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail which was so horrid, that I, unlike the friends with me, could not get excited about the staging finding it not even worthy of discussion but more of an argument for throwing tomatoes at the performers. In his attempt to titillate an audience, he completely missed the point of the opera. That, to me, is the travesty. I wonder what he would do with The Dialogues of the Carmelites?

    Thanks for your interesting and perceptive responses.

    Reply

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