May 29, 2009

Terrorist Pianos of Doom!

Toward the end of April, a noteworthy incident occurred in the classical music life of Los Angeles:
Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, who is widely admired for his virtuosic performances and who famously tours with his own custom-altered Steinway, created a furor at Disney Hall on Sunday night when he stopped his recital to announce that this would be his last American appearance -- in protest of the nation's military policies overseas.

In a low voice that could not be heard throughout the auditorium, Zimerman, universally considered among the world's finest pianists, made reference to Guantanamo Bay and U.S. military policies toward Poland.

"Get your hands off my country," he said.

Then he turned to the piano and played Szymanowski's "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme" with such passion and intensity that the stunned audience gave him multiple ovations.

Earlier, about 30 or 40 people in the audience had walked out after Zimerman's declaration, some shouting obscenities. "Yes," the pianist, known in Poland as "King Krystian the Glorious," answered, "some people, when they hear the word military, start marching."
Bravo, Maestro! I offered the same reaction in a similar situation involving another pianist, Leon Fleisher.

"Get your hands off my country." A simple and eloquent statement of the basic principle that should properly inform every nation's dealings with all other nations. But, as I recently explained in connection with the U.S.'s deliberate ratcheting up of tensions with North Korea, noninterventionism does not mean "doing nothing": it means diplomatic recognition, free trade and open cultural exchange, among many other possible methods of engagement. (See a follow-up post on North Korea, as well.) In all other respects, and especially wth regard to the U.S.'s preferred methods of aggression -- punitive sanctions (which, hardly incidentally, never succeed in their stated aims, but instead only punish the innocent general populace of the targeted nation), and frequently repeated threats of destruction (the bullying language of phrases such as, "all options remain on the table," which the rulers of Empire pull out whenever anyone commits the unforgivable sin of not doing exactly as he is told) -- "hands off" is the only legitimate, sane, and peaceful course of conduct.

The L.A. Times story discusses some of the history behind Zimerman's comments, including this:
Just a week ago, before an appearance in Seattle, Zimerman expressed frustration about the hassle and expense of touring the U.S. with his piano.

Shortly after Sept. 11, his instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Thinking the glue smelled funny, the Transportation Security Administration decided to take no chances and destroyed the piano. Since then he has shipped his pianos in parts, which he reassembles by hand after he lands. To get from city to city within the U.S., he hires a driver to take the shell of the piano, and he drives another car that holds the precious custom-designed keys and hammers.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is insane. The "glue smelled funny..."??? So they destroyed the piano?!?!?! Mr. Zimerman is a world-famous pianist of enormous accomplishment. A custom-designed concert grand is hardly a trivial personal possession. Surely there were other, less drastic methods of inquiry, if indeed the "glue smelled funny." But in the great wisdom of the TSA, a final solution was needed. Total destruction certainly fulfills that requirement. Frankly, I'm surprised that Zimerman ever returned to the U.S. after that incident.

As to the intensity of the insanity that gripped the U.S. after 9/11, I discussed some of the dynamics involved in, "The United States as Cho Seung-Hui: How the State Sanctifies Murder." Commenting about observations from Robert Jay Lifton, I wrote:
The similarities between Cho's psychology and the forces that drive United States foreign policy ought to be startling, and profoundly disturbing: the feelings of vulnerability, victimization, humiliation and rage are the same -- as is the determination to restore one's own dominance through violence and murder. But be sure you appreciate the the chronology and the causal chain that Lifton correctly identifies: just as Cho did not suddenly become a murderer on the morning of April 16, but only reached that awful destination after years of inexorable psychological development along one particular path, so too the United States was not instantaneously transformed into an unfocused, rage-filled international murderer after 9/11. As Lifton states, "The war on terrorism, then, took amorphous impulses toward combating terror and used them as a pretext for realizing a prior mission aimed at American global hegemony."
As I went on to explain, these dynamics and the policies to which they lead have directed U.S. foreign policy for a century and more. In the wake of 9/11, certain aspects of this behavior became explicit and much more extreme, but the basic elements had all been central to the U.S.'s behavior for a very long time.

And even though the intensity of the reaction after 9/11 has somewhat subsided, those dynamics and policies have not altered or vanished. To the contrary, they are all being inexorably institutionalized, regularized and legalized -- a task that the Obama administration has fervently and bloodily embraced.

For those people who proclaim that artists such as Zimerman or Leon Fleisher should confine themselves to their chosen field and otherwise keep their mouths shut: this view is absolutely wrong. I've discussed the contrary example of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and her involvement with the Nazi regime, a history which she subsequently minimized and rationalized in notably dishonest ways. In part, I wrote:
My ultimate objection to this particular avoidance of responsibility and this refusal to acknowledge the significance of our individual acts is much broader and all-encompassing. Our devotion to art, indeed our devotion to any field of work, does not relieve us of our wider obligations as human beings living in a particular society at a particular time. As discussed above, the actions of a culture or a specific country are the sum of the actions of countless individuals; if enough of them made different decisions and acted in different ways, the society itself would alter. It would act differently. The horrors of the Nazi regime were not inevitable and preordained, just as the horrors of our world today are not unavoidable. We permit them to continue because not enough of us act to stop them in ways that matter.
I recommend that earlier essay especially for the vision of art and its meaning and function expressed in magnificently eloquent and moving terms by Harold Clurman: "Let Us All Become Artists unto Ourselves."

Along the same lines, when writing about Fleisher's admirable actions when he was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, I said:
It would take me too far afield to consider in detail the advisability of government acknowledgment of artistic achievement -- although some might argue, and I would not disagree, that that is the issue: by such means, the government seeks to appropriate notable individual work to enhance its own carefully crafted image of a benevolent, enlightened and increasingly despotic state -- just as the state appropriates more and more aspects of its subjects' lives and, ever more frequently, those lives themselves. When it is so inclined, the state also disposes of those lives, usually as it murders still more people.

Tragically, however, this is where we are. Except for a very few disaffected souls like mine, almost no one will tell the state what it can do with its "honors." Almost everyone believes that the state should be in the business of setting national goals in every area of life, of guiding its subjects' paths, of reordering their lives and the world. Most people argue only about particular choices and the degree of control involved. Almost no one will challenge the principle itself. So for most people, if they are so "honored," the only options concern their response.


Almost everyone accepts that the state should be in this kind of business. Charen doesn't question that; neither does Fleisher. Given this axiomatic view of the way the world works, and the way the world should work, to make known one's disapproval in the manner Fleisher did requires a considerable degree of courage. Since the state seeks to use its subjects' accomplishments to burnish its own image, it is precisely when the state seeks to use you that you must make your disagreements known. This is what Fleisher did, and I applaud him for it.
Despotic and authoritarian governments always regard the arts as a potential source of great danger to authority and to the power of the State. They are correct to do so: the power of artistic vision, and its moral power most especially, can cause many people to protest and to act in other ways that seek to undermine the power of those who would control our lives and, all too often, destroy them.

But in a manner typical of the simple and simple-minded, often absurd anti-intellectualism of the United States, our government and the TSA frequently reduce this truth to a literal, physical component. Some will suggest that I should hold a somewhat more expansive view on this issue.

I suppose they might have a point. After all, we must always be on guard in a dangerous world. You never know when you might encounter the next Terrorist Piano of Doom.

Tremble! Do what you're told, and shut up. And for God's sake, stop playing, unless you're performing government-approved music. The future of civilization lies in the balance.