Joseph Stalin’s censors were breathing down the composer’s neck, his city had been under siege by Adolph Hitler’s army for months in the midst of an agonizing winter, and artists close to him were being taken away to gulags weekly because their work did not “serve the state.”
Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Seventh Symphony during the horrifying 871-day siege of Leningrad in 1941. In the years since, there has been much debate about the actual intent Shostakovich had for this symphony. Already at odds with the soviet censors, Shostakovich did the best he could to stay out of trouble while trying to encourage the people of Russia during WWII. His Seventh Symphony was premiered in Leningrad in 1942 by the ravished members of a volunteer orchestra while Hitler’s army continued to bomb the city. Following the first performances of the work, Stalin used it profusely as propaganda to spread support of Hitler’s defeat by the Russian army throughout the world. Despite a few critics in the compositional world, the piece became widely known throughout Russia, England, and America as the “Symphony to kill Hitler,” however, there is musical and historical evidence to suggest that Shostakovich was aiming at both Stalin and Hitler with this piece, giving it a deeply affective polysemic nature.
My purpose in sharing this little vignette on Shostakovich’s work is not to convince you to listen to it, but to show you, in an incomplete way, the power art has to shape and inform a culture. For those who have never heard this piece or who do not listen to symphonic music often, it may not be the first thing you would choose to listen to. If you were to listen to the piece, you may or may not like it. The musical content in the piece might make you feel uncomfortable, but it also might deeply affect you and change the way you see history and the people around you today.
We are living today in a society that is, in the majority, driven by likes and dislikes. Marketing agencies study the patterns of their markets and feed people what they want, social media platforms drive activity and channel information through people’s likes and dislikes, and in the political sphere it’s open season for a slew of messages to be targeted to very specific audiences. We are a consumerist market, and unless we stop to think, we will continue being conditioned by the systems set in place around us. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, through preconceived algorithms set in place by people you probably will never meet, are throwing information at you that you ultimately have no control over. Social media can be a good tool, but I am simply trying to point to the limitations it currently has. One of today’s largest pools of ignorance and indifference is a large group of people more enamored by glowing rectangles than by the real world of wonders around them.
“We too easily slip into a monologue comprised of ourselves and others who agree with us on everything instead of engaging in dialogue with people who are different from us and who have ways of seeing the world that may challenge the way we see it.”
We too easily slip into a monologue comprised of ourselves and others who agree with us on everything instead of engaging in dialogue with people who are different from us and who have ways of seeing the world that may challenge the way we see it. This monologue leads to self-centeredness and indifference and further away from compassionate, outward, loving community where dialogue is active between diverse communities. In the world of the arts and in some of our churches this is happening as well. We are too often quick to dismiss (and even laugh at) cultural art that is different from what we already know and understand. This is one contributing factor to the racial tensions we still see in our world today and opens the doors to a continued conflict that exists beneath the surface of our closed mouths, eyes, and ears, and the locked doors of our homes.
All of this leads me to a question: how do you decide what type of artistic work to expose yourself to? I would like to offer a number of questions you might ask yourself before and after experiencing someone’s artistic work.
Our first question should not be whether or not we will like a work of art (in any medium or genre). This question does not offer further conversation, and again, it encourages a monologue instead of a compassionate dialogue.
Here are some questions you might consider asking as you experience the art around you. This is not an exhaustive list and not all of these questions will relate to every work; this is just intended to give you a starting point.
1. Does the artist have something meaningful to say?
Does the work of art come from someone who has thought deeply about the subject matter? What life or cultural experience does the artist have that informs the work? Do they put something intangible into a form that can now be discussed and/or pondered?
2. Is the artist committed and invested in their craft?
Sincerity and authenticity is of utmost importance for anyone giving a message. Has the artist put time and effort into their message so they can say it as sincerely as possible? Has the artist honed their skills and stayed committed to their technique in a way that frees them to communicate clearly? Is the artist saying something sincere or is the artist some sort of puppet being used by a larger publishing corporation?
3. What is the artist saying and why?
This question can be answered in bold, overarching statements about society, subtleties in daily personal experience, or the experience and purpose of art itself. It can blatantly call out a leader or political party, make extremely subtle statements only certain people looking for the message would find, or abstractly present something under the surface of our experience of life itself that we have never been able to put into words or a clear description, yet understand has been there all along.
4. Why does a specific work of art affect me the way it does?
People experience everything through a lens that has been shaped and informed by their prior experiences. Every influence, word choice, life event, health problem, theology, philosophy, artistic experience, and relationship has shaped you into a person who sees each work of art in a completely different way from everyone else around you. There may be some overlap, but in general no one will ever create a piece of art that everyone can experience in exactly the same way.
5. How has the art changed the way I see the world and other people around me?
Artistic experience is of monumental importance in shaping the lens discussed above. We develop empathy and compassion when we allow ourselves to enter into another person’s world. Art is a portal into another person’s or people group’s world.
6. How will this work of art affect the society we live in?
What greater conversation is this work contributing to? Not every message is one of truth or betterment of society; it is important to be able to interpret art so that we can tell the difference between what is edifying, what may not be edifying, or what may fall somewhere in the middle.
All of these questions must be met with grace, while knowing and understanding that making and sharing any artistic work is a vulnerable act of communication. Treat your experience of artistic work like a conversation between you and someone who is sharing a part of their heart with you. Keep the conversation active by leaning into cultures you are not familiar with. Let what you experience frame and inform the way you seek to love your neighbors. Appreciate the beauty that is all around you in the people you meet and in the beauty of creation. The church is called to go out and be agents of peace and reconciliation for the good of all people. Profound experiences of beauty are deeply meaningful.
Artists, treat your work as an act of service, self-forgetfulness, and honest communication, finding your joy in the joy of those who are listening.
What questions do you ask about the art you experience? Leave a comment below!
Cover Image: A II, László Moholy-Nagy, 1924
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