Tuesday, April 28, 2009

When art and politics meet

Bernard Chazelle sez:

Krystian Zimerman might well be the finest classical pianist alive. Seems he won't board the Obama Express just yet.

And now, Sunday, making his Disney Hall debut in a recital sponsored by the Philharmonic, Zimerman, who has become arguably the greatest pianist of his generation, made the surprise and shocking announcement from the stage that in protest to America's military policies overseas and particularly in Poland, he would no longer perform in the United States.

“Get your hands off my country,” he said, soft-spoken but seething. He accused the U.S. military of wanting “to control the whole world,” and made a reference to the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Approximately three dozen in the audience walked out, some shouting obscenities.

“Yes,” he answered, “some people when they hear the word military start marching.”

(I say that scores pretty damn high on the comedy meter.)

Others remained but booed or yelled for him to shut up and play the piano. But many more cheered. He responded by saying that America has far finer things to export than the military, and he thanked those who support democracy.

Which does not seem to include airport security.

Zimerman has had problems in the United States in recent years. He travels with his own Steinway piano, which he has altered himself. But shortly after 9/11, the 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 TSA decided to take no chances and destroyed the instrument."

Never heard of TSA? They look for terrorists at airports. The acronym stands for "Terminally Stupid Assholes."

One hallmark of an authoritarian society in general and of authoritarian individuals in particular is an insistence on separating art from politics - with one exception: if the artist is sufficiently politically correct, authoritarians among an audience will laud the "courage" and "candor" of the artist. In the case of Zimerman, he refused to be sufficiently politically correct. Had he lauded the US and its military adventures (and added in a few soundbites about the "Russian Menace"), the very people who walked out or who stuck around to heckle would have been among his most enthusiastic audience members. Instead, they got confronted with someone who hails from overseas who is sick and tired of the consequences of US foreign policy and they did what any "Good American" would do: they goose-stepped the hell out of there.

As an aside, Chazelle makes note of Zimerman's difficulties with our version of airport "security" when traveling with his piano, and it's worth noting that Zimerman is only one of a number of musicians who have been hassled by airport insecurity both at home and abroad (Terminally Stupid Assholes is a much more apt description than the official name). Jazz trumpeter Valery Ponomarev is one noteworthy example.

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