May 17, 2018

TERRY TEACHOUT’S PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN UNPERSON:

I won’t lose any sleep over the twin descents of Messrs. Cosby and Levine into the dark pit of disgrace. But there’s a difference—a huge one—between shunning such men and rewriting the history of which they are a prominent part. Not only was Mr. Cosby the first black man to star in a weekly dramatic TV series, “I Spy,” but “The Cosby Show,” for which he is now best remembered, was universally praised for portraying a middle-class black family in a way that appealed to viewers of all races. As for Mr. Levine, he was one of the half-dozen greatest opera conductors of the postwar era. Yet the Kennedy Center and Met Opera Radio seem to be trying to pretend that neither man ever existed.

Few of us like to admit it, but most human beings are impossibly complicated, none more so than artists. You can simultaneously be a great comedian and a sexual predator, a great musician and a pedophile. To argue otherwise is to falsify history, and to falsify history is to dynamite the foundations of reality.

I used the word “unperson” earlier in this piece. It was coined by George Orwell in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” his 1948 dystopian fantasy about a totalitarian society similar to the Soviet Union whose ruler, Big Brother, rewrites history every day to expunge his enemies from the record books. To this end, his Ministry of Truth prints new editions of books and newspapers from which the names of politically incorrect “unpersons” have been scissored out, even as the offenders themselves have been jailed and brainwashed. As a character explains, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?”

Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much that the Kennedy Center has hosed Mr. Cosby’s name off its increasingly trivial roll of pop-culture sycophancy. But Met Opera Radio did something far more consequential when it chucked Mr. Levine’s historic recordings into the memory hole, an act of suppression that bears a distant but nonetheless definite resemblance to book-burning. By doing so, it effectively declared that great musicians must also be good men—a position that can be defended only by the tone-deaf.

In addition to the real-life acts allegedly committed by Cosby and the Met conductor James Levine, there’s that massive amount of badthink on display throughout even the most left-leaning old television shows and movies, which the modern left insists be judged by the current standards of #MeToo.

The Great Purge of 20th Century Mass Culture will be astonishing to watch, a much more insidious version of the way the arrival of the Beatles to America completely pushed swing music, America’s pop music from the 1920s through the early 1960s, into the dustbin of history. With no past to draw upon, what happens next to pop culture won’t be pretty, as Mark Steyn warned in a piece titled “The Totalitarianism of the Now,” written in August of last year, when the left was transitioning from toppling statues to toppling real-life men in pop culture and the fine arts:

I’ve said many times that, when a people lose their future, they also lose their past: There will be no West End theatre in an Islamized London – no Oscar Wilde, no Bernard Shaw, no Noël Coward, and eventually no Shakespeare. There will be no Berlin Philharmonic in an Islamized Germany — no Brahms, Beethoven, Bruckner. There will be no classic rock on the radio dial in an Hispanic Florida — so no Motorhead, no Def Leppard, no Blue Oyster Cult. Such are the vicissitudes of demographic transformation.

But perhaps it won’t matter anyway. Our age not only disdains its inheritance, but actively reviles it, and wishes to destroy it. It is a totalitarian impulse. Nescire autem quid antequam natus sis acciderit id est semper esse puerum: To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child. To despise what happened before you were born is to remain forever a juvenile delinquent in the thuggish gang of the present tense.

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches,” Ray Bradbury wrote in the 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451.

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