Pop Quiz: Infamy, Hagiography, and Resistance
Last week I went with a friend to see Hayao Miyazaki’s latest–and supposedly final–offering, “The Wind Rises” (review here for those interested). For those of you not familiar, the movie is a highly fictionalised account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of Japan’s famous A6M Zero fighter.
The film has received criticism from all directions for refusing to take much of an ideological stance on Horikoshi’s involvement with the war effort and dodging the question of his moral culpability in designing aircraft responsible for thousands of deaths. “Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” says the famous Italian aeronautical engineer Gianni Caproni to young Jiro in a dream, as if somehow the aesthetics of aircraft design can exist independently of their potential real-world applications. Such Platonic realms, however, seem accessible to Miyazaki alone; even Leonardo da Vinci designed his craft with bombs on the brain.
I’ve touched on the theme of problematic history and historical figures before on School of Doubt, but watching “The Wind Rises” got me thinking about those figures who, like Jiro Horikoshi, had more complex and ambiguous relationships with the iniquitous regimes under which they lived. Not everyone, after all, had the foresight or good fortune to leave totalitarian states before those governments consolidated their power, and not everyone had the necessary means, information, courage, or desire to work against those regimes, even once it was plain to everyone that things were headed in the wrong direction.
There is something that makes us distinctly uncomfortable about the idea of “ordinary Germans,” of the vast majority of citizens in totalitarian states who simply did the best they could to live their lives under the circumstances. This discomfort, along with a natural desire to reclaim those we love and admire from the taint of collaboration has even spawned a joke: these days, everyone has at least five grandparents who were in the Resistance.
The related desire to claim talented artists for “the good guys” has generated a cottage industry for revisionist historians, who pore over their works with the express purpose of “discovering” secret anti-Fascist or anti-Communist sympathies and absolving them of their public support for or collaboration with the regime. In the case of acclaimed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, such a project even led to the compilation and publication of an almost certainly fraudulent memoir.*
Unfortunately the necessity of government patronage of the arts, especially in totalitarian states, has left other artists with a more enduring legacy as “collaborators” for their participation in the artistic establishment. While such a reputation might be deserved for figures like Gabriele d’Annunzio (who practically invented Fascism) or, later, Yukio Mishima (who committed suicide after leading a failed right-wing coup), it is much more difficult to know the true feelings of figures like Wilhelm Furtwängler (who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic under the Third Reich), or Gian Francesco Malipiero (who benefited greatly from Fascist patronage both as a composer and as a music historian).
In the case of Malipiero, I think it’s really unfortunate that his perceived collaboration with the Fascist government has contributed to a relative lack of performance of his works, both in Italy and elsewhere in the world. In fact, he is best known today not as a prolific and talented composer in his own right, but rather as the editor of the first complete modern edition of the works of Claudio Monteverdi (ironically a project that was itself originally dedicated to Mussolini and sponsored by the Fascist regime, which was for nationalist purposes interested in reviving a distinctly Italian musical past).
But if–as the generally positive response to “The Wind Rises” seems to indicate–we can admire Jiro Horikoshi for his work ethic and for the aesthetics of his creations, surely it’s even more acceptable to admire a string quartet (which has the added benefit of almost certainly never having killed anyone):
In case it isn’t obvious by this point, I’ve made it something of a pet project of mine to spread awareness of Malipiero’s music among my colleagues and students, and to the wider public. I’ve even got my choir singing his setting of a famous poem by Catullus that is currently unrecorded. Why? I think the music is worth it. And if it gets people thinking a little more deeply about the complex relationship between political power and the arts, so much the better.
Are there any artists whose works you think have been (fairly or not) stained by their political associations? Did you see “The Wind Rises”?
The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).
*Shostakovich did have some trouble with Stalin’s regime, notably resulting in the banning of his “transgressive” opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District after several denunciations in the state newspaper Pravda, but there is still no trustworthy evidence that he was anything but ideologically orthodox.
**Like Shostakovich, Malipiero also had an opera banned (La favola del figlio cambiato, 1936) for equally vague reasons (possibly because the libretto was written by Luigi Pirandello, who had torn up his party membership card). It is unclear whether later attempts to ingratiate himself with the regime were purely pragmatic or not.
Featured image: Tushit