On Putin, Petitions, Opera, Gay Rights and Cultural Leadership

The now-famous photograph of Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton holding a rainbow flag in the middle of Red Square.
The now-famous photograph of Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton holding a rainbow flag in the middle of Red Square.
The now-famous photograph of Oscar-winner
Tilda Swinton holding a rainbow flag in the middle of Red Square.

On his Diacritical blog, ArtsJournal.com guru Douglas McLennan writes about the online petition to pressure the Metropolitan Opera into dedicating its fall gala to the “support of the LGTB [sic] community.”

It was started by Andrew Rudin, an Allentown, New Jersey-based composer who is incensed (we assume) that two guest artists for the Met’s upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin — conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko — support, or have supported, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, of late, has proven himself to be the Fred Phelps of the former Soviet Union.

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Basically, if you’re an artist or athlete and you’re gay, either get straight or get tortured or get killed. With the blessing, that is, of the Russian Duma.

The petition is here. As McLennan did, we’re including part of the text for you to read:

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Peter Illyich Tchaikowsky [sic] is the beloved composer most widely known to have been homosexual and to have suffered for it in his lifetime. For America’s leading opera house to open its season with one of his works, performed by a conductor and a leading soprano who support Putin’s recent laws against homosexual people and those who support them dishonors the work of a great artist and his legacy as well as the progress made in our own country to secure equality for all citizens.

McLennan’s post, titled “Are Arts Leaders ‘Cultural’ Leaders?,” is provocative, but not because he supports the petition. He lambasts the Met for its official response to it — one so mealy-mouthed that even the petition itself has it published in full, down to the phone number:

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The Met is proud of its history as a creative base for LGBT singers, conductors, directors, designers, and choreographers. We also stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions. As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad. But since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.

Sincerely yours,
Rachael Walkinton
Senior Executive Assistant to Peter Gelb
The Metropolitan Opera
Tel +1 212 870 7647

Still, it seems to us we’ve got a McCarthy problem. For while it’s true that Gergiev and Netrebko have supported Putin, Rudin’s petition is all about guilt-by-association: If you support Putin, you condone all gay Russians being hung by their testicles in Red Square. The press coverage of the petition and the controversy so far is terrible — that is, it’s lacking. For while we know that Gergiev and Netrebko have in the past supported Putin, we don’t know that they’re maniacal homophobes who want all gay Russians gangbanged in the gulag. As much as many of us believe we stand on the right side of history when it comes to civil and human rights, part of our problem in the West is we tend to demand total obedience when it comes to the language we expect to show support for it. Norman Lebrecht, part of McLennan’s posse at ArtsJournal, mentioned on Saturday that Netrebko published a statement on her Facebook page that disavows homophobia, but he dismissed it for not mentioning the words “Russia” or “Putin”:

As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues-regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.

Putin on the Ritz.
Putin on the Ritz.

Is it perfect? No. Is she a lying bitch? No, probably not. Maybe — just maybe — she’s living in a totalitarian state? Maybe she’s in the unenviable position of wanting to practice her art without alienating the repressive government that lets her to do so? We are not offering excuses — Elia Kazan and Jerome Robbins were cowards, not heroes — but we’re not reading a lot about the context of the situation, either. We shouldn’t just talk about Putin’s antigay laws. It’s a bad time to be pro-Pussy Riot if you’re a priest.

And so we return to an old conundrum: Can we divide art from the politics of the artist? The answer remains yes, no and maybe. Richard Wagner remains the gold standard for this topic, one Alex Ross revisited in the New Yorker last year. Must the passion play at Oberammergau bow to the will of Abraham Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League? Must we burn all prints of every Leni Riefenstahl film? Yes, no and maybe.

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McLennan’s post blasts the Met, but not for refusing to bow to a petition. He blasts the Met for refusing to admit that art is political. Still, McLennan then doesn’t take the final step and actually, straightforwardly, decry the Met as disingenuous. We know the Met knows it’s a cultural leader. The Met knows we know they don’t want to rock the boat. The truth hurts and it should be spelled out.

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And yet. In quiet rooms, perhaps it can be further argued that the Met’s reply to the petition is in fact a kind of counterintuitive example of cultural leadership after all. Let’s say the Met did dedicate it’s gala to the “support of LGTB people.” So what? Gergiev and Netrebko could stay in their hotel. What would it prove? That gays (or anybody) can bully the Met? What’s next? Wait, we already know: the Met must cancel its contracts with Gergiev and Netrebko. In other words, more guilt by association. Then the Met would be prioritizing politics over art, something as morally repugnant as the Met politicizing its art and then denying it. Why can’t the politics of art speak for itself?

And while we’re at it, can we please stop holding artists hostage to politics over which they exert limited control? Last spring, when the actress Emma Thompson joined a movement to stop the Shakespeare’s Globe in London from allowing the Habima, Israeli’s national theatre, to perform, we were appalled. Making public the names of Habima’s actors in that context was cruel and ghoulish and it made Thompson look like an idiot. As if the British really have such a sterling history championing human rights around the world.

But back to the petition. We suggest it’s the wrong one to pursue.

A smarter petition would demand that Gergiev and Netrebko interact in public, abundant and frequent ways while in New York with as many members of the LGBT community and its supporters as possible. By that we mean: don’t just dedicate a gala to “the support of the LGBT community.” We mean: dedicate proceeds from every performance, including part of all artist and management fees, to a different LGBT charity each night. We mean: invite everyone from Anderson Cooper to Johnny Weir to Ellen DeGeneres to Paolo Szot to the finest seats in the house and backstage handshakes. We mean: If what you want is to push the Met to make a statement, then push the Met to make a statement. Dare the Met to act like the cultural leader that we, McLennan and you know they are.

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So what do you think? Is the petition good? Is the Met right or wrong? Is guilt-by-association defensible? Tell us what you think.