Art, History, and Responsibility: Confronting the Past and Embracing Complexity

By: Lyric Opera Staff

Last updated:

by Neal Long, Director of Learning

On Monday, April 29, 2024, I attended an Opera Dives Deep presentation by Dr. Ron Witzke entitled “Monuments of Tone and Stone.” Dr. Witzke—a bass-baritone, professor, and librettist—is a close friend of Lyric Opera of Kansas City and regularly appears on stage in productions at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. He also has a profound interest in Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, sparked by attending Lyric Opera of Chicago’s cycle in 2005. He developed and taught several undergraduate courses for mostly non-music majors on the topic at William Jewell College and lead two small groups of students to attend full performances of The Ring in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. In 2021, Dr. Witzke’s article, “Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen – Another Look,” was published in the spring issue of Christian Scholar’s Review. You can read the article here.

Dr. Witzke’s presentation, “Monuments of Stone and Tone” was conceived during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and a period of unrest in which monuments, murals, and other memorials associated with racial injustice were vandalized, destroyed, or removed. Dr. Witzke found himself asking the questions, “What happens when art is contested?” “Are there works of art so monumental that they can’t be bothered?” And thus, began a comparative analysis of Mount Rushmore and The Ring of the Nibelungen. According to National Geographic, Mount Rushmore was built on Indigenous land and sculpted by Borglum, a man with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Wagner was indisputably anti-Semitic. His essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” or “Jewishness in Music” criticized the influence of Jewish people on European art music.

At the beginning of the presentation, Dr. Witzke posed the question, “What is our responsibility as citizens and consumers of art created by problematic individuals?” This question immediately resonated with me. Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about Wagner or his work, but I am driven to learn more. Dr. Witzke offered a few quotes to encourage consideration by those in attendance:

“The past lingers and shapes the present in ways we do not always understand, and certainly in ways that we cannot completely control, despite our best efforts.” -James Davison Hunter (2007)

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” -Pablo Picasso (1923)

“The fact remains. All art is propaganda, for it is in fact impossible to do anything, to make anything, which is not expressive of ‘value.’” -Eric Gill (1935)

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” -John F. Kennedy (1963)

“Monuments, by their very definition, are rooted in the ground of our common civic land. They’re always about where we are now. They’re always about our anxieties.” -Michael Eric Dyson (2017)

“Monuments are among the most controversial of built forms, and their controversy always lies in their inadequacy and in the inevitability of their failure. We pose impossible goals for them when we expect them to last forever, to convey permanent meanings, to manifest all of our beliefs and ideas about the dead.” -Susan Stewart (2020)

“We live in a biographical moment, and if you look hard enough at anyone, you can probably find at least a little stain. Everyone who has a biography—that is, everyone alive—is either canceled or about the be canceled.” -Claire Dederer (2023)

Dederer’s recent book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma interrogates how we make and experience art in the age of cancel culture, and of the link between genius and monstrosity. Beyond Wagner, she explores the audience’s relationship with artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath to Roman Polanski to Pablo Picasso. I’ve not personally read Monsters but look forward to securing a copy thanks to Dr. Witzke’s recommendation.

Knowing what know about Borglum and Wagner’s work, should we “cancel” Mount Rushmore or The Ring? Can we enjoy a piece of great art if we know that the artist held views which are considered almost universally to be highly objectionable? Jonathan Caves, a guest blogger for Seattle Opera, suggests we can if a couple of conditions are met: “1) We as the audience must acknowledge and accept the faults of the artist. 2) The art itself does not further the objectionable views of the artist.”

A recording of Dr. Witzke’s presentation is available to watch in our YouTube channel. This is, of course, after our presentation of Journey to Valhalla, but I hope the above will give you something to think about as you experience Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s curated compendium of Wagner’s epic work. If you are curious to learn more about the trouble with Wagner, a few resources referenced by Dr. Witzke are available at the end of this blog post.

As we embark on a journey of cultural renewal, let us embrace the complexities of monumental art, harness the power of dialogue, and illuminate a path toward common ground. By weaving together threads of history, art, and social consciousness, we embark on a collective journey toward a more inclusive and equitable society.

Berry, Mark and Nicholas Vazsonyi, eds. 2020. The Cambridge Companion to Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brener, Milton. 2006. Richard Wagner and the Jews. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Dederer, Claire. 2023. Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Friedländer, Saul. 1997. Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. New York: Harper Collins.

Neiman, Susan. 2019. Learning from the Germans. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Spotts, Frederic. 2003. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. New York: The Overlook Press.

Steinberg, Michael P. 2018. The Trouble with Wagner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.