Editorial: For Art’s Sake

Art is life. Art isn’t life.

It’s life because it’s so often from here-and-now reality that artists derive their inspiration. The water lilies Monet obsessed upon were most definitely real. Shakespeare and Moliere poked much fun at the social niceties of their day. Our true life experiences enable us to relate to art.

And yet, in another way, art is not life at all, but an essence drawn from life, an observation made from the (hopefully capable) artist’s perception. It’s an interpretation that is not intended to compete with news or biography, but to be distinct from such things. If art were a rearview mirror, the ubiquitous slogan might instead read, “Objects appear different than they actually are.”

Yet when art leans closely against the things most familiar or sacred to us, the experience can be painful indeed, the difference grows murky, and we sometimes tend to substitute anger or frustration that derives from our view of the real events depicted. Artists, who live in the dreamscape of creation, are well aware that their works can evoke anguish; audiences are left with the reality of how to cope with it.

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Such has been the case this month as Opera Theatre of St. Louis has produced the John Adams opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The work of art, modeled on the real-life incident of an American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, being killed at sea and pushed off a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists, has been the subject of visceral responses since its creation two decades ago.

We and our partners at the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Center, chose to kick off our quarterly Can We Talk? series with a discussion of Culture and Conflict: Jewish Issues in the Arts. We utilized “Klinghoffer” as the centerpiece of that discussion, both in our month-long coverage of how the arts are used to address real-life issues, and in our panel discussion event on June 6. And the JCRC, in a separate and successful partnership with Opera Theatre, engaged in a year of planning, study and community-wide conversation about the Adams opera and its powerful juxtaposition of controversial elements.

But what to make of the art itself and the reactions it has engendered, sometimes savagely – that the tragedy on the Achille Lauro was a terrorist act pure and simple; that to humanize the murderers, or to symbolically connect them to the plight of nonviolent Palestinians, is a sleight of hand that might somehow justify terrorism; that the opera creates “moral equivalency” between groups or causes?

Surely we need not analyze the right of “Klinghoffer” to exist; we’ll leave any advocacy of censorship to those on the far fringes of civilized society. The question more constructively asked might be, should it exist? This is an approximation, at least, of the issues at the heart of the criticism reserved for the opera.

Our answer is, yes, it should, at least as much as any other piece of art that exists. It is a work of historical fiction, based on a horrific true story, one that intersects with issues of particular import and sensitivity to the Jewish community. And while it may cause pain and concern to some, the myriad responses to the artistic voice of Adams and librettist Alice Goodman – particularly if cultivated carefully as JCRC and Opera Theatre did – allow open, constructive and civil dialogue about topics of critical interest.

The opera does not purport to be a newsreel of the event, or serve as demagoguery or propaganda in support of terrorist murders or their root cause. It is a creative interpretation by a composer, writer and director of one real-life event, done in a heavily symbolic way, as opera is wont to do.

If such a work ought not be produced because of the views of some, then who gets to opine about all others? One man’s “Klinghoffer” might be another’s “Inglorious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy against Nazis, or Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” another opus on terrorism. What about Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”? Does everyone get a veto on art of all types? Fortunately not; the veto power derives to each person in choosing whether to experience a particular artwork.

“Klinghoffer” – which was given magnificent reviews both locally and nationally – lies at the core of why art exists. It is not required that you or we see it or like it. What is mandatory, however, is as a civilized culture we respect each individual’s right to fulfill his or her own choices in appreciating art and life. That is something, both tragically and ironically, that the real murderers of Leon Klinghoffer denied him.

Can We Talk? is a new quarterly series from the Jewish Light, the JCC and JCRC, pairing Jewish Light stories, op-eds and editorials and a community discussion event. This editorial is part of the first Can We Talk? topic, “Culture and Conflict: Jewish Issues in the Arts.”