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The Politics of Art (and it’s Poetics)

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The Politics of Art (and it’s Poetics)
Nikita Khrushchev awards Van Cliburn the First Prize at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1958

Politics is as “germane” – for this is the only word that describes the connection – to art…as germane as the poetics of art. Why? Well, art exists – can only exist – in community. Even the most guerilla-like artist (the poet) exists in community. Art is a way to communicate between people; it “is”, “happens”, “occurs” and “functions”, only in the social context. Someone makes (creates and/or expresses) it and someone reads, views or listens and delight in or despises it. Is all art political? The question is itself an intensely politicized one. And every artist consciously or unconsciously is a political animal because in truth “politics” (in the private and public functions of humanity) does not have to mean “explicit political affiliation”. Rather, “politics” means any discussion of, or any thinking about, relationships between people and because in the public forum of community, this is, in fact, the relationship of power between people. We see this time and time again in the art of previous times in history. It began with the gnawas and continued through Homer, Virgil, Chaucer and others…through to Bach Beethoven, Brahms, all the way through Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Satchmo, Bird, Ellington, Mingus, and so on.

Rightfully so, Nigel Cliff examining exactly this whilst writing a sort of biography of Van Cliburn –Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed The Cold War (Harper, 2016). Mr Cliff’s book is, in this principal aspect unlike the other recommended book on Van Cliburn, When The World Stopped to Listen by Stuart Isacoff (Random House, 2017) Both books unfold in the spring of 1958, at the height of The Cold War at the first Tchaikovsky International Competition held in Moscow on April 13, 1958. Mr Cliff’s book is wonderfully –written throughout, pulsed to what can only be seen as “Van Cliburn” rhythm, which is distinctive because it exists in a Time that stretches from 0 to 1958 (and beyond, actually); from Palestrina to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, dallying almost interminably during the period of the Russian Romantics and therefore everyone including, principally, Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) to Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) and then after some lapse in time, continuing on until the time of his (Van Cliburn’s) death in 2013.

The narrative is beautifully – even breathtakingly paced and sometimes has the pace of a thriller. Probably best of all, this narrative plays itself out like an interminable event on a see-saw in the gigantic park that stretches from Texas to Moscow and then some. Clearly, however, the greatest value of the book – its sublime importance – is the subliminal one; perhaps one that even Nigel Cliff didn’t know he was giving it: a close-up of the Politics of Art; or in the case of its principal character: Van Cliburn himself; The Political Artist. According to Mr Cliff, and according to Van Cliburn himself it was a case of the purest form of platonic love – between Van Cliburn and music, Van Cliburn and Russian Romantic music and ultimately Van Cliburn and the people of Russia, who wrapped the pianist in their arms so completely and so eternally. This “wrapping of the pianist in the arms of his audiences” is nothing but a celebration and acceptance of the artist by the community at large not only in the US and Russia, but worldwide.

The fact that it happened first in Russia in 1958, at the height of the cold war is pure chance but what ensued between Van Cliburn (the artist) and his audiences (the community he addressed) is another historic/historical example of the celebration of both the pianist’s poetics and his politics. In fact, the two aspect of the artist become one in Van Cliburn and Nigel Cliff captures this spectacular phenomenon by composing his work as a musician would a symphonic work. His cast of characters are culled from those men and women – his mother, Rildia Bee, his father Harvey Levan Cliburn Sr. and perhaps most importantly Rosina Lhévinne (1880 – 1976) a pianist and famed pedagogue, and Van Cliburn’s teacher; the great public figures in the United States and the Soviet Union, his contemporaries including those he competed against in the Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1958, members of his celebrated Van Club and his legion of fans that grew out of the communities he touched first in Texas and then in the rest of the world.

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