WHY ON EARTH DOES GOD HAVE TO PAINT?
By Rafael Chodos; Based on Selected Works and Writings of Junko Chodos. Giotto Multimedia, 2009. 336 Pages. ISBN: 978-0-9704042-8-2.
Price: US $35.00
Book Review by Peter Gimpel.
ORDER THIS OUTSTANDING BOOK FROM RED HEIFER PRESS, or GiottoMultimedia.com
The coffee table art book, traditionally the prestigious but impenetrable refuge of stuffy art critics, the best of whose texts are often unjustly and ironically condemned to serve as drab wallpaper to the beautiful reproductions they were intended to elucidate, has now been superseded. Hail the art book in which paintings and text form an indelible bond of passion, wonder, discovery and self discovery! The inventor of this welcome innovation is none other than Rafael Chodos (already praised on this site as the author of a monumental legal reference work on Fiduciary Duties), who has lately co-authored with celebrated Japanese artist, Junko, a jewel of an art book entitled, Why on Earth Does God Have to Paint?
In all truth, the idea of the art book as literature is not without precedent—notably Henry Miller’s delightful “To Paint is to Love Again,” in which that icon of literary sexual liberation and master of American prose recounts with chaste and joyous passion his love affair with watercolor painting. But Miller’s approach to painting was that of a child, exulting in the pure sensations of color and form and the simple joy of creation. Rafael goes much deeper, seeking, as the title suggests, the purpose and underlying meaning of the very act of creating. Why does G-d have to paint? What is it that impels a caveman or a Giotto or a Junko to paint—as though G-d needed someone to paint through? The question is enriched by a counterpoint of Junko’s own commentary, interlaced with excerpts from her diaries.
Rafael doesn’t actually answer this question, but by posing it opens up a whole new approach to the appreciation of modern art. The unexpected circumstance that Junko happens to be Rafael’s beloved wife of 38 years, and that Rafael confesses to being no more than a novice in matters of art only enhances our interest. This is not merely because Junko is a great artist, but also because Rafael’s years-long quest to understand Junko’s mind and her work gives him, and us, a unique perspective into the creative process witnessed not merely as an act but as a way of life. Rafael sees this process as beginning in the artist and continuing (rather than ending) in the viewer; whereas for Junko, the process really begins with the object—or “visitant”—that happens to catch her eye, enter her consciousness, and become one with her—working on her, changing her, and even healing her. Perhaps because Junko sees the finished work as a medium, and the viewer’s role as penetrating through to its transfigured essence, and perhaps because of the resemblance of that penetration to meditation, Junko calls her art “centripetal.”
Indeed, viewers of Junko’s art often confess to having been drawn in to something quite beyond the extraordinary colors, forms and media of which it is comprised. There is no convenient way to explain the powerful effect Junko’s creations can produce on our emotions, for what she creates does not typically belong to our world, but almost exclusively to hers. The wonder is that in contemplating her works face to face, as I did some years ago at the Long Beach Museum of Art—works which can strike one at first as inscrutable and overwhelming—I was transformed into something of an empath, able—almost beyond endurance—to feel the awe, the pain, the love, the torments, horrors, and aspirations of another being.
Surely this is what great art is and does. And it is here that I disagree with the term “centripetal” as a characterization of Junko’s art. For all great art, whether visual, musical or literary, shares this quality of drawing the reader/viewer/listener out of him or herself and into a brave new world of alien yet intimate revelation. As I have been moved by Junko, so have I been moved by Van Gogh, by Klee, and by Botticelli. It makes no difference to me that in Junko, or in Klee, the conventional frame of reference has been surpassed or even destroyed. It is not in the conventions that poetry, art, or greatness are to be found. And while I agree with Rafael that Junko’s work has little in common with the deconstructionist wave that swept over art from cubism—really from impressionism—onward to the present, I see the difference vastly more in terms of inspiration than mere psychology of perception. For whereas Junko’s contemporaries generally labor in a world devoid of hope, meaning and purpose , Junko, having mastered all the latest, most sophisticated tools of artistic technology, extracts pathos, urgency and regeneration from even the most humble detritus of nature and civilization. This places her squarely within the humanistic tradition so boorishly tabooed by our times.
Thus, for me it is not in Rafael’s conclusions but in his explorations that the uncommon value of the book lies. Among them, his tenderly searching account of how and from whom he learned to love and strive to understand art—not just Junko’s, but all Art—form pages worthy to be anthologized and handed down through the ages.
WHY RED HEIFER PRESS OPPOSES “RING FESTIVAL LA”
Just recently, Carie Delmar of OperaOnline.US informed me that the City of Los Angeles is planning a ten-week long, city-wide festival in honor of the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-83), whose opera cycle, “The Ring of the Nibelungs” is currently being produced by LA Opera in a historic first for that company and this City. Unfortunately, the realization of such a festival would be a serious provocation to the Jewish Community and to other ethnic and gender-based communities that make up the richly variegated population of our City.
There is no question that Wagner was an inspired musical and creative genius with enormous significance in the development of western music, or that the performance of his operas (especially the circa 15-hour “Ring” Cycle) is a signal artistic achievement for any opera company. The problem is that Wagner conceived his operas (both music and words) as propaganda for his outspoken “ideology” of Germanic racial and cultural supremacy, anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, and nationalistic entitlement. In some European cities, an announcement like LA Opera’s glowing Press Release of November 3, 2008 (attached herewith), promising everything but a tickertape parade, would have sparked citywide antifascist demonstrations. Is this the kind of cultural hero our City should be celebrating?
While much of Wagner’s text strikes today’s educated listeners as adolescent if not idiotic, the direct influence of his ideas on the subsequent development of the Nazi agenda, and on Hitler personally, is thoroughly documented and indisputable. Like Hitler himself a fanatic with messianic delusions, Wagner went so far in his megalomania as to raise a national shrine dedicated exclusively to the performance of his own works. That shrine, the Festspielhaus in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, continues to function as an annual Wagner Festival, whose lingering associations with the Nazi era and Nazi nostalgia have been exposed and denounced by none other than Gottfried Wagner, a great grandson of the Composer. (Twilight of the Wagners, New York: Picador, 1997).
It is bad enough that our City is planning to honor this icon of the Nazis. However, it is clear that the organizers have drawn inspiration from Bayreuth. That makes it even worse. “The L.A. festival will seek to imitate Bayreuth's example by mounting an international publicity campaign to attract cultural tourism,” writes Reed Johnson in the LA Times (Nov 3, 2008). Just whom does this City imagine it is catering to with this invitation? Whom or what does this City imagine it is going to celebrate?
LA Opera claims, with transparent disingenuousness, that it only wants to honor Wagner’s music, not the man. But how does it imagine it can separate between the artist and the person, between the vessel and the content? Read what Wagner himself wrote on that very question:
“I can only hope to be understood by those who feel a need and inclination to understand me . . . . As such I cannot consider those who pretend to love me as artist yet deem themselves bound to deny me their sympathy as man . . . . The severance of the artist from the man is as brainless an attempt as the divorce of soul from body and . . . never was an artist loved nor his art comprehended, unless he was also loved—at least unwittingly—as man.”
("A Communication to my Friends", quoted in Milton E. Brewer, Richard Wagner and the Jews, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.,2006, p. 81)
The truth is, our City’s and cultural leaders know very well that a Festival in honor of Wagner is much more than a musical celebration, and that Wagner the composer cannot be distinguished from Wagner the ideologue: “The idea of having a festival where the whole city participates is very Wagnerian,” explains LA Opera’s Music Director, James Conlon: “This takes on proportions that fit with the extraordinary personality of Richard Wagner, for whom nothing was too large.” (LA Opera Press Release.) “Ring Festival L.A. . . . follows Wagner’s lead in conceiving his monumental four-opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ as both a cultural and civic happening,” acknowledges the Times (ibid.). Indeed, the Ringfest, according to the Times, will involve the participation of the Los Angeles County Museum, the Getty Trust, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Center Theatre Group, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Colburn School, the Griffith Observatory, the Latino Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, UCLA and USC, among others, not to mention several posh restaurants set to feature German cuisine—and even a German-style beer garden—for the duration. Again according to the Times, “each of the roughly 50 participating institutions will develop activities that will touch on some aspect of Wagner’s artistry or a dimension of the vast conceptual, philosophical and aesthetic universe in which the masterwork orbits.”
Little more than 70 years ago, many hundreds of musicians, writers, artists, and scientists, fleeing from that same “conceptual, philosophical and aesthetic universe,” took refuge in Los Angeles, where they injected intellectual brilliance, talent, and European sophistication and refinement into the then notoriously provincial cultural life of this City. Even the movie industry—the “Golden Age of Hollywood”—owes a great debt to those very refugees. Many of them were the sole survivors of large families extinguished in the Holocaust. Those survivors had children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. All of them—and, yes, Baruch Hashem, many survivors are still among us—still carry those terrible scars within them.
Today, moreover, Los Angeles is home to a large and diverse ethnic and cultural population, most of whom would have been considered “undesirable” in Wagner’s idealized, or Hitler’s actual, Germany. And while it may be possible for some people to enjoy a Wagner opera for the music and the spectacle without taking seriously what the characters are actually saying, or what their author was advocating, or what he stands for in the eyes of so many admirers and detractors alike, one cannot watch our City administrative and artistic leaders as they connive, behind a rosy cloud of mystification, to turn Los Angeles into another Bayreuth without noting the climate of apprehension and mistrust already being generated as a result.
Clearly there has been a concerted effort to hide the true nature and significance of this tragically complex figure from the many diverse groups of people including, but not limited to, Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals (whom the Nazis gassed and machine-gunned by the millions); to mask the implied insult to the many other ethnic groups whom the Nazis considered “inferior;” and, for that matter, to ignore the affront to women, whom Nazi theory regarded as either breeders or whores—a dichotomy, by the way, that Wagner already made the tormented theme of his early opera, “Tannhaueser.” Nor can one ignore the offense to the memory of the millions of victims, or of those who died fighting for the liberation of Europe.
Let’s be blunt: the people who thought up this boondoggle (and boondoggle it is: “[LA Opera] expects to receive financial backing from city and county funding sources”—in other words, taxpayer dollars!) are being incredibly naive if they think that these “activities” will not hurt, offend, perplex, depress, intimidate or even frighten many thousands of LA residents, or that they won’t give encouragement and validation to individuals whom political correctness has until now inhibited from overt acts and expressions of race hatred.
However, the machers behind this initiative are not so naïve. They are quite well aware of the potential of this “festival” to sow discord, fear and hatred. That is why, trusting in the ignorance, gullibility and apathy of “us the public,” they are trying so hard to put an aggressively upbeat spin on the whole disgusting enterprise (see LA Opera Press Release, attached). “Ring Festival LA will highlight the wealth of arts and culture that is unique to our town,” trumpets LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky: “The festival puts Los Angeles at the forefront of our major international cultural destinations, drawing together visitors from around the world and residents from neighborhoods across our county. It’s truly a celebration for all of us.” (Ibid.) Arch German nationalist Wagner has now become “a citizen of the universe” in LA Opera’s program notes for the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage (http://laoperaring.com/festival/events.php). Similarly, the Jewish refugee talent that streamed into LA during the ’30s has now become simply “German” in LA Conservancy’s program notes (ibid.).
In the same vein, an article by prominent LA attorney Randol Schoenberg (cover story, Jewish Journal, Feb. 19. 2009) trivializing widespread Jewish repugnance for the composer, and speciously absolving him of any responsibility for the Holocaust, suggests: “Those Jews who support the ban on Wagner because they believe that they hear in his music the same German culture that produced the Shoah should take a look in the mirror. Anyone who thinks that German culture and Jewish culture can be separated is fooling himself.” Apparently, then, the Holocaust was simply a matter of Germans gassing Germans. This is the kind of cynical historical/cultural revisionism we can expect from the self-serving promoters of this circus of shame—an example all the more shocking in light of the fact that Schoenberg happens to be President of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and—surprise!—also a Board Member of LA Opera.
Among Jews, it is a tradition to avoid injecting oneself into public controversy. On the other hand, it seems to me that this case is different, going far beyond anti-Semitism, and affecting many more communities than just Jews—indeed, the whole political climate of the City. Moreover, some of the learned rabbis to whom we turn for guidance at a time like this may not be well informed on all aspects of the Wagner question. That question revisionist propaganda has tried to reduce to one of hypersensitive Jews unjustly biased against a great artist who, like so many others, happened to dislike Jews (“Get Over It,” captioned a full-page photo of Wagner on the front cover of the Feb. 20, 2009, Jewish Journal of Los Angeles!).
as I have tried to point out, the issue is not simply anti-Semitism: it
goes much deeper, with serious implications for the honor, dignity, and
safety not only of our Jewish Community, but of our diverse non-Jewish
friends and neighbors with whom we have long-standing harmonious and
productive relations. No less an admirer of Wagner’s music than Thomas
Mann (the Nobel-Prize-winning German novelist who made Los Angeles his
home during his self-imposed exile from Nazi Germany) wrote in 1940,
“[Wagner’s work] is the exact spiritual forerunner of the
‘metapolitical’ [i.e., Nazi] movement today terrorizing the world.” (“To the Editor of Common Sense,” in Thomas Mann, Pro and Contra Wagner,
trans. A. Blunden, U. Chicago , p. 202). Hitler himself wrote,
“With the exception of Richard Wagner, I have no forerunner.”
conclusion, “Ring Festival LA” is totally uncharacteristic of this
City’s well-established tradition for multiculturalism, ethnic
sensitivity and mutual respect. More than likely, the City’s decision
makers were manipulated into approving something they had nowhere near
the historical and cultural background to evaluate properly. There is
still time to stop it, or, as Ms Delmar proposes ("Carie Delmar sounds
off on LA's Ring Festival," www.OperaOnline.us),
to finesse it into a celebration of something else. In that connection,
there are plenty of unsung heroes in this town who fought long and hard
to bring opera to LA. Why not honor them?
In any case, to allow this travesty to go forward without voicing a vigorous, well-coordinated, multicultural protest would be, I suggest, shameful and dangerously counterproductive. As LA Opera General Director Placido Domingo promises, “Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles.” Let us make sure we have a say in how our City is defined. Above all, we must, as a matter of principle, reject revisionist and misleading propaganda aimed at railroading our City into a roundhouse of Bayreuth-style Wagnerism and bullying or shaming Jews and other vulnerable citizens into submissive silence.
* * * For the full text of the Times article from which I have quoted above, go to:
LA Opera’s Press Release can be read at:
Randol Schoenberg’s article can be found at:
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By Peter Gimpel
It is both ironic and sad that Randol Schoenberg, who argues that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is separate from his music, should hold that Jewish culture is inseparable from German culture! (www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/why_wagners_music_deserves_a_second_chance_20090218/ ) Schoenberg is wrong on both counts. Wagner’s ideology of Germanic supremacy and Judeophobia is part and parcel of his operas, as anyone knows who has read or listened to the text of his self-penned librettos. Less obvious to the millions of Jews who—thanks in large part to the Nazis—grew up without their Jewish heritage—is the fact that Jewish culture—including music, poetry and the decorative arts—is essentially focused on Scripture, Law, Divine Service, and Kabbala. What Randol is referring to when he speaks of “Jewish culture” is the product of assimilation and Haskala—the so-called “Jewish enlightenment” that affected principally the Ashkenazi, or Yiddish-speaking, Jews of Middle and Eastern Europe (sizeable contingents of Jewish Civilization, notably the Sephardic, Italian, Persian, Iraqi, Yemenite, and others, developed just fine without Germanic assistance).
The Jewish attraction for secular learning certainly produced some wonderful gems, but had little to do with genuine Jewish culture, which is awesome, immense, stunningly beautiful, and largely inaccessible to the uninitiated. The two cultures, Ashkenazi-Jewish and Germanic, have been historically intertwined ever since Jews settled in the Rhine Valley in the 9th Century C.E., and the reciprocal influences of Jews and Germans have been felt in several areas—not least, the occasional slaughter of the former by the latter. However, intertwining is not merging. The two cultures are anything but “inseparable.” In fact, their respective strands are easily identified and quickly disentangled. Had Wagner known more about real Jewish culture, he might have been less worried about the “contamination” of Germanic art by Germanized Jews. The irony is that Randol has fallen into the same error as Wagner, the difference being that Wagner was ashamed of this “contamination,” while Randol is proud of it.
All this would be purely academic, were it not for the fact that Los Angeles has been setting the stage for its first “Ring Festival” with a carefully planned propaganda campaign replete with all the revisionisms, travesties and machinations deemed necessary to prune Wagner’s monumental cycle of its embarrassing associations and to stroke the city’s large, Holocaust-conscious Jewish population into meek acceptance. The machinations range from the sublime (a festival dedicated to music composed by victims of the Holocaust cannily mounted just prior to another festival dedicated to the guy who helped inspire their transformation into victims) to the ridiculous (the Eli Broad Foundation’s much touted donation of six million dollars—$1.00 for every Jew murdered by the Nazis???), as well as a number of revisionist articles like Randol Schoenberg’s, geared to absolving Wagner of his due share of responsibility for the Nazi mystique. According to most published comments ( see, e.g., http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/02/los-angeles-ope.html ), the principal travesty is Achim Freyer’s outré costume and set design (read Carie Delmar’s review and commentary on Das Rheingold, www.operaonline.us), obviously intended to mask Wagner’s Germanic chauvinism and to divert public and critical attention from his obsessive Judeophobia. Such massive efforts, however, are belied by our City’s groveling attempts to turn what ought to be a raising of musical consciousness into a Germanophile media circus with dissembled shades of Bayreuth. The end result cannot be anything but the glorification of the man Wagner, along with all that he stood for, and all that his legacy (according to many sources) still stands for.
Though I, personally, have never been moved to ecstasy by Wagner’s music, I respect his musical genius and fully understand and respect the enthusiasm of his musical admirers. I attended only one live presentation of his work, a so-so production of Parsifal with a translation of the dialogue projected onto a screen above the stage. I came away feeling physically nauseated by the jarring contrast between the beauty of the music and the pathologically childish absurdity of the text, which seemed more appropriate for Marvel Comics than for a classical work of art. In a highly perceptive blog (http://netnewmusic.net/reblog/archives/2008/11/ring_festival_l.html ), David Ocker explores this comic-book affinity with subtle humor while arguing for a populist “Wrong Festival” to counter L.A.’s elitist “Ring Festival.” (On the other hand, Carie Delmar of OperaOnline.US makes a strong case for diversifying the Festival from within: read her eloquent protest, “Carie Delmar Sounds off on LA’s Ring Festival,” at http://www.operaonline.us/.) However, after viewing Ocker’s gallery of comic-book Valkyries, I have come to believe that he is on to something of more intrinsic significance: the definitive production of Wagner’s Ring will be, not with surrealist sets and deconstructionist costumes, but with characters and scenery derived from action comics—the male heroes tall, athletic, and muscular, the heroines all statuesque and scantily clad alla Lynda Carter. Their musings and conversations will be projected inside text bubbles, just as in the comic strips. The villains, of course, will all be represented as Wagner would have wanted them: twisted, repulsive caricatures with exaggerated Semitic features.
Naturally, such a crass production would have been out of the question in Wagner’s Germany, where good manners and outward propriety were paramount among the educated classes. But here, today, in Los Angeles? What’s to prevent it? Such a production would be sufficiently campy to attract vast new audiences to the seductive world of opera. It might also help Wagner fans understand that the composer’s disreputability lies not in some separate capsule of personal failings and foibles, but in his having created a mantle of artistic and pseudo-philosophical dignity for comic-book-level ideas of racial supremacy and world dominion—ideas that, once unleashed in all their kitschy finery, would lead inexorably to gas chambers, armageddon, and the eternal shaming of that very cultural primacy of which Wagner was so proud.
March 20th, 2009