Amidst the articles on the latest yuppie parenting trends; speculation on which Brooklyn block is to be gentrified next; the various wedding announcements of shitheads from Goldman Sachs to the cornfed daughters of Midwestern industrialists who are now working as fundraisers at nonprofits after graduating from Vassar; and the latest doings of Lena Dunham, the Sunday New York Times does have plenty of space for coverage of New York’s cultural scene, which of course is among the best in the world. But nothing makes for a better hate-read than when the paper’s blinkered yet self-important political obsessions are incorporated into its coverage of high culture.
The Times‘s favorite target of the moment is Valery Gergiev, conductor of the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg. He is a talented and dedicated musician, and like anyone as prolific as he is (Woody Allen, say), his output runs the gamut from brilliant to underwhelming. He is also corrupt in the characteristically Russian way: In Russia, it is still largely illegal to make boatloads of money on business ventures, but it is tolerated so long as you are loyal to the government, and then they will prosecute you for all the illegal stuff you did if you fall out with the insiders. People like Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky learned this to their detriment, though of course they were lauded in the West as martyrs for freedom, rather than the more prosaic fallen gangsters they were. Russians have not yet learned the art of simply legalizing robbery, so that everyone in the 1% can share in the spoils without fear, as they do in the United States and Western Europe. So the system they have in Russia gets called “crony capitalism,” as if there were any other kind.
For the cultural commentators in The New York Times, Gergiev’s political connections provide fodder for grand displays of soul-searching, as if they were the moral equivalents of Furtwängler‘s and von Karajan‘s dalliances with Hitler. Really, they make this comparison all the time. In more intellectually rigorous venues — Reddit, for example — this sort of thing is known as a violation of “Godwin’s Law,” and sets you up for well-deserved ridicule. In The New York Times, facile analogies to the role of artists under fascism are treated with great seriousness.
Let’s turn today’s article on the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose playing I have never heard, but which The New York Times has made decidedly beside the point in any case. She is here described as “soft-spoken but determined,” a combination of adjectives that signals the Times‘s highest level of approval; this sort of reverence is usually reserved for centrist candidates in Democratic or Republican primaries, or for some bloodsoaked “moderate” in a place like Syria or Afghanistan who we’re all supposed to supply with heavy weapons to fight “extremism.”
The profile says that as a Georgian, Batiashvili was ambivalent about performing under Gergiev in Rotterdam in September, because of his support for Putin’s policies in Ukraine and the Russian war with Georgia in 2008. The Times leaves out the detail that a 2009 study commissioned by the Council of the European Union concluded that Georgia (under the incompetent, adventurist government of Mikheil Saakashvili) had in fact started that war with Russia. (Gergiev is himself an Ossetian, it should be noted.) No, better for the Times that Putin’s opponents should come off pure as the driven snow, or at least as delicate flowers crushed to earth under the tank treads. Here is the Times account of the Rotterdam concert and its aftermath:
Ms. Batiashvili, who has vowed not to perform in Russia, was conflicted: “I didn’t want to be part of this whole society of musicians who actually disagree with him totally about his position, about his support of Putin, but don’t ever say anything.” So she agreed to play in the concert but prepared a gesture of protest that was characteristically elegant [our Times correspondent is in love!]. She commissioned an encore for solo violin from a Georgian composer, Igor Loboda, titled “Requiem for Ukraine,” which she performed after her concerto — as Mr. Gergiev stood in the wings….
Ms. Batiashvili said that after the concert, Mr. Gergiev, “poker-faced,” invited her to dinner. She showed up late, finding him at ease, surrounded by friends, telling stories. He invited her to play with the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, of which he is the general and artistic director, she said. “I didn’t tell him no to his face,” she said. “Then two days later, I passed a message through my agent refusing.”
Um . . . OK? Who exactly is supposed to look better in this situation? Is the Times really suggesting that Batiashvili is the one we should think of as more gracious, or indeed, as the more adult human being?
It would appear so. The Times portrays this as a courageous act that puts her career in peril. But then Batiashvili and the Times both give the game away:
In a follow-up telephone interview last month, she elaborated: “With this Western civilization under attack from all sides, it is not right that artists who benefit from its freedom, its democracy and the richness of its cultural institutions should take sides with a system that is the enemy of that civilization.”
So there you have it: Batiashvili, too, is the sort of person who believes artists should never bite the hand that feeds them. She just wants a different hand from the one that feeds Gergiev.
Meanwhile, the hothouse atmosphere of intolerance gets hotter. As with the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s, it is actually the liberals and not the right-wingers in this country who are leading the way on this. That earlier period of blacklisting and war hysteria has retrospectively been misnamed “McCarthyism,” even though it began before McCarthy arrived on the scene, and Democratic politicians claimed plenty of victims to their left. US outlets like The New York Times bring an especially galling self-righteousness to their cultural beat-downs, one that is matched nowhere, apart perhaps from a few publications in Britain and, of course, Israel. Imagine for a moment if US artists had to answer abroad for every stupid and criminal action of our own society, and you’ll have some idea of how graciously the rest of the world puts up with our insufferable condescension.
Someone is whipping up xenophobic agitation against foreign artists and witch-hunting musicians for their political sins, real or imagined. And it isn’t Valery Gergiev.
Do you think the reporter asked Batiashvili whether she had any moral qualms about granting an interview to a newspaper that supported the greatest crime of the 21st century, namely the US invasion of Iraq?