Does it matter if an artist expresses racist views?

Abi asked:

Does it matter if an artist expresses racist views? Is his/her work more important than their politics? I am thinking particularly of Wagner.

Answer by Chris Finlay

The short answer is no, an artist’s work is more important than his or her own political views however I appreciate with some one like Wagner the issues are really quite difficult. As some one who loves Wagner’s music, I am appalled by his life style and his anti-Semitic views. However that shouldn’t detract from the power of his music. It’s interesting that for example no one makes much of the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare as expressed in the Merchant of Venice, or the racism associated with Othello or the sexism in so called comedies such as the Taming of the Shrew. As far as these plays are concerned there is far more explicit racism, Anti-Semitism or Sexism than anything you would find in Wagner’s Operas.

In Philosophical circles, Frege who founded analytical philosophy was extremely anti-Semitic but no one would deny the value of his work in logic. Michael Dummett who did much to bring Frege to the consciousness of 20th century philosophers speaks at length about the disappointment he felt when he realised this. Other examples include Nietzsche, who has been accused in some circles as laying the foundation for fascism, and Plato who according to Popper laid the foundations of totalitarianism. Yet Nietzsche influenced Michael Foucault, whose critique of power as expressed in Madness and Civilization can hardly be accused of fascism.

So back to Wagner, his music has been extremely influential and if you wish to understand how music developed in the latter part of the 19th century you can’t ignore it. You may reject it as Stravinsky tried to but it is impossible to understand say Schoenberg, Richard Strauss or Alban Berg with out the influence of Wagner. Just as you can’t ignore the influence of Nietzsche on Continental philosophy or the influence of Frege on Analytical philosophy. I would say enjoy the music for what it is, don’t get to hung up on the personal views of the artist or the composer. Certainly don’t fall for the ad hominem fallacy, that because Wagner was Anti-Semitic, those who admire his music must be Anti-Semitic. After all Hitler was a vegetarian and a dog lover are we to say that all vegetarians and dog lovers are also Nazi’s. Great geniuses often have flawed personalities, that shouldn’t detract from the value of their work.

If you want to read more about this topic then a good starting point is Brian Magee’s book on Wagner and Philosophy

Hope this helps.

One thought on “Does it matter if an artist expresses racist views?

  1. Isn’t that also a fallacy of composition? Even if Wagner was clearly antisemitic, it does not necessarily mean his work was antisemitic. You could also make the claim that because Mel Gibson is antisemitic his work must be antisemitic, too.

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