We leave it to others to compare their artistic achievements, but the occasion of a sanctimonious piece by the normally thoughtful Edward Rothstein in Saturday’s New York Times compels us to restate what should be obvious: The quality of a work of art does not redeem the bigotries it espouses.
Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” writes Rothstein, “should probably be prescribed as a remedy for every viewer of the film.” Bach, he suggests, is free of “unpleasantness.”
Unless you consider “Jews [shouting] ‘crucify him!’ over and over to Pontius Pilate, their voices overlapping in a frenzy” — as Rothstein describes Bach’s “Passion” — to be “unpleasant.” Rothstein does not. Even as he notes that Bach likely drew on Martin Luther’s 1543 rant, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” he lets Bach off the hook for his “emphasis on the individual,” for his “modernity,” and most of all for his “emphasizing the guilt of all of us.”
How nice of him to share.
Ignore the fact that laying the blame for Christ’s death at the feet of non-Christians of any sort is an act of theological sleight of hand, passing off an idea for “accepted fact.”
Ignore the fact that “modernity” is as much responsible for Gibson’s idea of film narrative as for Bach’s “Passion.”
And ignore the fact that to date Gibson’s Passion has inspired no killings, and that Bach’s has given solace to Nazi murderers.
Ignore all this and we are still stuck with the fact that the paper of record allowed one of its chief “ideas” reporters to endorse the notion that the presumed “guilt of all of us” is, as Rothstein writes, “the theological point.”
Gibson would be the first to agree with this bit of faux-ecumenism. Not that Rothstein is a zealot like Gibson. He comes to the same theological ground from an entirely different starting point. Rothstein is a Jewish writer — in this instance not so different from those German-Jewish writers of the last century who believed that a culture that could produce Wagner would never commit genocide.
Art, they believed, redeems all — whether we believe in its ideas or not.
The trouble with Rothstein’s screed, “Two Men, Two Different ‘Passions,’” is that it is so doggedly loyal to the orthodoxy of art, the dogma that excuses Bach (or, for that matter, Wagner) for the very prejudices — or should we say “vulgarity” — of which Gibson stands accused.
Defenders of this particular faith claim that such inconsistencies are justified by the distinction between “high” and “low,” “art” and “popular culture.” Gibson, they write, is “medieval,” a term that is now an accepted substitute for the racially-tainted “savage.” Meanwhile, what Rothstein delicately calls Bach’s “anti-Judaic feeling” has “become irrelevant.”
Will the same be said of Gibson’s Passion in a few hundred years?
Rejecting Rothstein’s argument does not mean we should fail to condemn The Passion‘s anti-Semitism, intentional or inadvertant. And it certainly does not mean we should stop listening to Bach. Rather, we might first turn our attention to some of the ugly sentiments echoing throughout the paper of record, which has over and over again covered The Passion in terms that bring to mind the old labor war song, “Which Side Are You On?” The Times has chosen. It is neither Gibson’s nor that of those who accuse of him of anti-Semitism. It is the side of the Church of High Art, and Gibson — regardless of his anti-Semitism or lack thereof — is a victim of its inquisition.