Every once in a while, someone comes along to spill hot tea over the veneer of civil society, and we get a chance to watch it crack and curl before our eyes.
This week’s example comes courtesy of pianist Valentina Lisitsa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Because the controversy is over the orchestra dismissing her from this week’s concert programme, one could see this as little more than a tempest in a little musical teapot. But it really is something more significant: It is a manifestation of the challenges in integrating social media into the delicate balance of social and political etiquette.
The big issues may happen to be, among others, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine versus the rights and responsibilities of artists in society.
However, one only has to look at one person, Richard Wagner, to realize that the promotion of hate and the enjoyment of art can coexist, as long as we agree to keep a large barrier up between the two. Whether that barrier should or shouldn’t be there is a point of unending debate. Why? Because art enjoys special favour.
Earlier in the 19th century, Franz von Schober wrote the poem “An die Musik,” which his friend Franz Schubert eagerly fashioned into what became one of his most popular songs. The poem opens with “Du holde kunst,” or “Thou holy art,” when describing the charms of music. And ever since these Romantics strutted and fretted upon the social stage a century and a half ago, we have treated music – and the other arts – as holy, as somehow a bit above the usual norms and strictures of society.
Any time that we designate a person or group of people as being special, we invite shenanigans. That’s because people are just people, and prone to do silly things, be they a sculptor or a priest. Lisitsa is not the first nor the last artist to speak her mind, even if it runs seriously afoul of what we want to hear.
You could call her disingenuous for thinking that she can air her politics in public while maintaining neutrality at the keyboard. But the act of making art, in whatever form, only means something if it is done in public.
A painting without eyes to see it is meaningless. A composition without an interpreter is mute. Even Glenn Gould, cloistered in a recording studio, was in the game to disseminate his musical ideas to as many human ears as possible.
So is Lisitsa disingenuous, or, to put it bluntly, is she a social media whore?
She owes her international stature almost entirely to the power of social media. She can’t juggle this political tweet and that musical YouTube video without tearing the minidress and fishnets, tottering on the stilettos and smudging the bright-red lipstick.
The Toronto Symphony, an enduring symbol and monument to the holiness of art as handed down to us from the 19th century, apparently did everything it could to suggest that this lady of the social media night put on a sensible dress and shoes and wipe some of the extra makeup off her face before entering the shrine of Holy Art.
It’s a clash of worlds, of aesthetics, and of attitudes regarding self-expression.
Still today, we are socialized by elders who explain the difference between decent public behavior and thoughts that are best kept private. Wanton anger, envy, lust and every form of prejudice are neither to be seen nor heard on the street, or in a room full of decent people. We all have our moments of private anger, and, whether we’re okay with it or not, we also have our prejudices.
Social media breaks down the microscopic membrane between this private world and the public one, as we see every day on the Internet. So what is a person to do? Should social media be treated as a tell-all Dear Diary, or should it be treated as an alternate form of engaging in dialogue with our fellow humans in a modulated, reasonably polite way?
It’s going to take a while to figure out which way the virtually connected world will go. Will civil digital society eventually coalesce around rules of engagement like the ones we have for cocktail parties, or will it continue to encourage provocateurs and mobs to coalesce in virtual town squares for mutual self-destruction?
We’ll have to see.
In the meantime, I feel sorry for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and its music-loving audience, who have to contend, even if for only a few days or weeks, with the reality that art is perhaps less holy than we would like it to be.
I also feel sorry for Lisitsa, who appears to not know the difference between being a public figure and a hate-monger.
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