The Goodness of Art

By Laura Macomber
I recently wrote a 45-page paper discussing the paradox of cultural elitism in post-war, post-fascist societies as discussed by three different works of literature: “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue) by Paul Celan, Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, and The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek. Admittedly, the paper was my senior honors thesis in Comparative Literature and I wrote it for no one but myself and a handful of professors. And though I felt deep concern for the subject about which I was writing, my fear was that others didn’t (or if the paper was ever published, they wouldn’t). What I chose to approach through the narrowly focused lens of esoteric literature, though, New York Times columnist Michael Kimmelman has addressed via real-life events, specifically the murder of a pregnant Egyptian woman in Dresden, Germany, and the questions it raises on what it means to be a xenophobe within such a rich and accessible cultural context.

Dresden, Kimmelman rightly argues, is a mecca of Baroque architecture, fine art and classical music that attracts tourists the world over. But it is simultaneously a hub of racial and ethnic intolerance, a stronghold for Germany’s far right-leaning National Democratic Party—the “marginal but noisy troublemaker” of German politics. So between the murder of an immigrant for her presumed religious background and the large percentage of xenophobic-identifying peoples in Dresden (1 in 7 teenagers are considered “highly xenophobic”) what, Klimmerman asks, are the humanizing affects of culture?

“Apparently there are none,” he answers himself.

I agree with Klimmerman’s point that the arts are not our moral or spiritual salvation; it was, in fact, the entire basis of my thesis, my only addendum being that this ascription of moral significance to fine art derives from European aristocratic and haute-bourgeois values while neglecting most other social milieus. What I take issue with in Klimmerman’s article is his statement that there are no humanizing effects of high culture:

To walk through Dresden’s museums, and past the young buskers fiddling Mozart on street corners, is to wonder whether this age-old question may have things backward. It presumes that we’re passive receivers acted on by the arts, which vouchsafe our salvation, moral and otherwise, so long as we remain in their presence…

The truth is, we can stare as long as we want at that Raphael Madonna; or at Antonello da Messina’s “St. Sebastian,” now beside a Congo fetish sculpture in another room in the Gemäldegalerie… But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot.

Yes, the devil too can enjoy a sonata or scrutinize the Mona Lisa, and he is still the devil. While it might be true that staring at Raphael’s Madonna won’t make sense of a senseless murder or change the mind of a violent bigot, it could do a host of other things: it might inspire a hesitant novice to take her vows or rekindle an estranged mother’s affections for her son. Maybe a painter having painter’s block is so inspired by Raphael’s near-invisible brushstroke that he creates a seamless portrait of a pit bull that one viewer finds so adorable he later adopts one from the local shelter, thus saving the condemned canine from death. Is that not humanity, albeit for a dog, existing at the end of a chain of events that was initially instigated by a work of art? At the risk of sounding self important, I’ll quote myself, this taken from my conclusion:

art and music, no matter what brutal ends they might inspire or imply, also undoubtedly have the ability to elicit the greatest feelings of pleasure and ecstasy, of empathy and universality. Beyond its dark imposition in concentration camps, music was one of the sole sources of spiritual uplift available during the Holocaust, requiring only voices and ears…. To bond in suffering, to maintain one’s dignity and to preserve one’s identity under the auspice of music evinces a definitive positive value. Yet it remains rather more important to remove art from the realm of the sacramental, for the only thing capable of saving our souls are our actions.

If I can see and support Klimmerman’s point that art and culture do not necessitate spiritual salvation, perhaps he can understand my resistance to the seriousness of his statement that there are apparently no humanizing effects of culture. Art, if unable to reconcile the terrible xenophobic murder of a woman and her unborn child, is still capable of inspiring many things. And goodness might be one of them.