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Art intersects politics in many shades of gray

The late Leni Riefenstahl's classic Nazi films might be labeled as propaganda, but the cases of other artists get complex.

September 10, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Should an artist be held responsible if his or her work is used in the service of monstrous, criminal activities? In the case of Leni Riefenstahl, the German photographer and filmmaker who died Monday at the age of 101, history's answer will surely be a resounding "yes."

A virtuoso movie director, Riefenstahl also was an ardent Nazi sympathizer whose stunning aesthetic achievement in movies like "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" is inseparable from the repugnant fascist ideology embedded in her beautiful black and white compositions. Riefenstahl prostituted her art to politics, and her work will forever be tainted with the stench of the death camps.

"I think we'll remember her as an artist who raised propaganda to an art," says Jan-Christopher Horak, a film scholar and curator of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, who knew Riefenstahl personally and emphatically rejects the claim she made in her 1993 memoir that she was essentially clueless about Nazi atrocities.

"Riefenstahl had just absolute and complete power," Horak says. "She had her own company which was owned by herself but financed by a special Adolf Hitler slush fund that had nothing to do with the propaganda ministry.... There's no way she would've gotten where she was if she had not been a loyal [Nazi] party member from the beginning."

Because her major films were made with the sponsorship of a totalitarian state, and were practically compulsory viewing for its citizens, Riefenstahl's art really can't be separated from her politics. The artist and the Nazi proselytizer were one and the same. But her checkered career raises disturbing questions about the modern relationship between art and politics that can't be confined to her own singular case.

For more than a century, much of humanity has been living at the intersection of mass culture, mass technology and mass political movements. A mass technology, such as the movies or musical recordings, allows for an artist's work to be instantly seized on and bent for propaganda purposes, for his or her vision to be twisted, distorted and chopped up into sound bites to sell trucks, toothpaste, political candidates, wars.

It would be convenient to say that art is one thing and propaganda another, that Riefenstahl's strident ideas and rampant opportunism mark her as a kind of anti-artist, who cynically exploited the tools of her trade to ingratiate herself with her political masters.

But let's turn to the more problematic cases of Soviet artists like the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who made visually stirring epics that heroized the Russian people -- and were used by Stalin's ministers to buttress the dictator's brutal political experiments. Eisenstein is still widely admired in the West as one of the greatest movie directors of all time. But he is reviled by a number of critics and scholars in the former Soviet bloc.

What about his contemporaries, the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, who were alternately admired and feared, rewarded and throttled, by the repressive Stalinist regime? Should we stop listening to Shostakovich's stirring and heroic Fifth Symphony because it supposedly was written as a kind of apology to the Stalinist thought police for the composer's previous dabbling in "decadent" modernism?

Of course, the same questions could be asked in regard to Cuban jazz musicians, many of whom have had trouble obtaining visas to perform in the United States, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001. Are these artists brave voices, rugged individualists struggling to convey a vision, or are they dupes and pawns of the Castro regime, as some U.S. conservatives allege?

Remember Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."? When Ronald Reagan was running for reelection in 1984, he tried to appropriate the scrappy, working-man's anthem as a paean to the supposedly renewed American Dream. The Boss was forced to distance himself from his own creation. Then there's the murky example of screenwriter Elia Kazan and, at the other end of the Cold War spectrum, the Hollywood Ten, whose reputations have shifted with the political winds over the last 50 years. Even today, bitter arguments arise in film journals and op-ed columns over whether their works can be viewed outside the context of their personal political leanings.

Throughout history, artists often have been forced to choose political sides and/or to align themselves with the powerful if they wanted their careers to thrive. Shakespeare and Michelangelo both had royal patrons, and they weren't above flattering the people who put coins in their pockets. One key difference between "Triumph of the Will" and, say, Shakespeare's jingoistic "Henry V" -- which Laurence Olivier colorfully distorted in order to rally embattled Britons during World War II -- is that Shakespeare's plays weren't capable of reaching audiences of thousands or millions in a matter of days or even hours, as some modern artworks are.

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