In the Current Political Moment, Richard Wagner’s Influence Is More Relevant—and Problematic—Than Ever

If we can’t morally reconcile art’s aesthetics, then is the art actually great?

On the eve of an election where the choice is nothing less than democracy versus neo-fascism, you don’t have to know much more about Richard Wagner than I do to find Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) timely. Ross makes a persuasive case that the nineteenth-century German composer wasn’t just the most influential artist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but maybe the most influential artist ever in any form. Wagner’s operas plumbed the primal and dreamy, the heroic and pagan. If you’ve ever been to the movies or watched TV, then you know Wagner better than you think: His music has scored everything from the ride of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation to the helicopter raid at dawn in Apocalypse Now. And his massive productions were so dramatically grand and so epic in scale (up to 15 hours long) that while it might be overstating things to say there would be no Star Wars or Lord of the Rings without them, neither would have the same enduring resonance. Wagner was a towering influence on everyone from Joyce to Dalí to Sontag, and although Ross doesn’t, I would argue that the Beatles’ Abbey Road has Wagnerian flourishes.

Just as Wagner begins to loom as a heroic figure of his own, however, we run up against the complicated realities of Wagner’s shadow and the man who cast it. He was a mess, constantly skipping town to avoid debt collectors and husbands whose wives he slept with. When the 18-year-old king of Bavaria fell in love with him, Wagner—30 years older and decidedly straight—feigned a reciprocal interest in order to get his extravaganzas funded; the besotted young emperor was ready to abdicate and follow Wagner into exile when everything about their relationship finally blew up, as everything with Wagner inevitably did. Like many geniuses, Wagner felt ruthless and entitled: “My turn to do the dishes? Excuse me, I’m busy writing Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, and Ring of the Nibelung.” And none of this mentions the real difficulty with Wagner that many would insist should be mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece if not the first sentence: Wagner was an anti-Semite with political views that were nationalistic and socialist—two words that, when put together, sound suspiciously like Nazi.

Wagner’s most contemporary relevance is the new cancel-culture quandary of how we assess great art without reducing it to something simpler than it is.

Half a century after the composer’s death in 1883, Adolf Hitler’s enthrallment with Wagner became the soundtrack of 1930s Aryan supremacy. Ross quotes Woody Allen’s joke that whenever he hears too much Wagner, he gets the urge to invade Poland, and urban legends abound of Wagner playing to Jewish victims in the ovens, though the historical evidence is slight. Wagner’s most contemporary relevance is the new cancel-culture quandary of how we assess great art without reducing it to something simpler than it is: One of Ross’s most fascinating revelations, for instance, is that for all the ways Wagner became associated with fascism, Nazis other than the Führer found the music problematic and disconcerting. To the ears of Joseph Goebbels, its unabashed eroticism was “decadent” and its depth of passion sounded, well, a little Jewish, maybe?

The larger paradox brought into sharp focus by our times is, if we can’t morally reconcile art’s aesthetics, then is the art actually great? Cancel culture’s rabbit hole involves fading distinctions between personal choice and organized efforts that amount to censorship by those on the right or left who believe ends justify means. In Israel, Wagner has been banned for much of the nation’s existence, something, Ross points out, even some Jewish conductors oppose. But the response to Wagner in Israel has sometimes been audience members standing and revealing scars suffered at the hands of Nazis. For them, that’s what Wagner means.

In the current American Reich, when woke Red Brigades police our collective taste, good faith easily gives way to bad. Alex Ross’s Wagnerism, which might otherwise seem a bit rarefied if not arcane, confronts the moment’s dilemma of how to think about bad men making great art that inspires both more great art and unfathomable evil. It’s a dilemma without an answer other than to embrace the contradictions instead of trying to resolve them. Art doesn’t lend itself to clear-cut conclusions any more than do the men and women who make it or write books about it.

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