Op-Ed: On Modern Russian Culture: Part III

Dear Readers:

In our tortuous winding journey into the Bowels of Russian Culture, we finally got close to Ground Zero, what the ancient Romans used to call the crux of the issue.  And perhaps that Konstantin Raikin’s cri de coeur was more a a cri from a different place in his anatomy?  Perhaps he insists on the right to direct semi-pornographic theatrical pieces, in the Western style?  And is upset when the philistines object to his use of nudity and homosexual imagery on his own privately operated (state-funded) stage?

Siébel, the hopeless romantic

This is still yalensis speaking, before I drop the mic and turn it back to Lyttenburgh.  And Lyttenburgh may not even be aware, that in the Western world, this is all completely the norm now.  I once sat through an (otherwise) excellent production of Gounod’s Faust, in which the Artistic Director baffled the brains of the audience with a completely vulgar and tasteless device.  This was the famous scene where the love-struck youth Siébel creeps into Marguerite’s bedroom to leave flowers for his crush.  The Director forced this Siébel (who is a mezzo-soprano, and hence always sung by a woman dressed like a boy) to simulate self-stimulation while singing “his” big aria Faites-lui mes aveux.   (Perhaps the Director was tickled at the piquancy of a girl dressed like a boy simulating male masturbation, and he thought the audience would get a kick out of it too? Or thought this trick would be somehow radical and enlightening?)

At the end of this vulgarity, the audience didn’t know whether to applaud or not.  On the one hand, the mezzo did a really good job with the aria.  On the other hand — to clap for a masturbation scene?  And there were a lot of children in the audience too — their parents take them to the opera to get cultured.

An R-rated “Hoffmann” at the Met

I could continue with many other examples of The Vulgarity Of The Western World.  For example, at the Metropolitan Opera itself (major productions funded, as we have learned by the Neubauer Family Foundation, who are kind enough not to exercise any censorship over the stagings), I once sat through an otherwise excellent production of Offenbach’s The Tales Of Hoffmann.   With an Act III almost ruined by an astonishly crude bordello scene, in which the Artistic Director had the courtesans lying on their backs, spreading their legs, and waving their crotches in the air, whilst Hoffmann and his Muse Niklaus wander through their flanks in search of the poet’s next love, Giulietta.

A typical Rhein Nixie

Now, to be sure,  Jacques Offenbach (author of the most famous Can-Can ever) typically wrote brilliant but slightly vulgar operettas for a (well-known for its vulgarity) mass French audience.  Hence, if you are staging Orphée aux enfers, then, by all means, let out all the stops.  But Hoffmann is supposed to be different — this is supposed to be High Art!  This was supposed to be Offenbach’s masterpiece, his big, legacy work, which would outlive him through the centuries.  Not something to be vulgarized by provincial directors with a taste for soft porn.  The famous Barcarolle duet blends the voices of two women:  the mysterious courtesan Giulietta (the soprano), and Hoffmann’s muse Niklaus/Niklausse (a mezzo, again a girl dressed like a boy).  This musical love scene between what is essentially two women should, alone, contain enough piquancy and eroticism without throwing extraneous crotches in our faces.  And the mood here, despite the fact that it is set in a courtesan’s lair, is not SUPPOSED to be vulgar.  On the contrary, this is no ordinary brothel.  This brothel is an enchanting yet poisonous, fantastical and even horror-inspiring place.  For his Barcarolle, always a big show-piece of any “Hoffmann” production, Offenbach recycled the beautiful yet sinister melody from one of his previous creations, a little-known opera called Die Rheinnixen, “The Rhein Nixies”.  Their song, whose melody Offenbach re-used for the Giuletta/Niklaus Barcarolle, is the typical leitmotif of sinister Faeries (or Elves) whose goal is to drag men down, down, down into the depths of a watery grave.  Not using raw sex per se, but employing their emotional resonances and false promises of eternal bliss.

As wiki notes:  “Carl Dahlhaus cites the piece as an example of the duplicity of musical banality: in the period of Wagner, when serious opera was marked by chromaticism, Offenbach used the Barcarolle’s very consonance to give a sinister feel to the act throughout which it recurs. Dahlhaus attributes this effect to the contrast between the “physical” presence of the vocal line and the ethereal feel of the instrumental introduction, creating a “mirage.” “Beneath the music we hear, there seems to be a second musical level descending into the abyss.”

Okay, I believe I have drummed home my point enough by now:  Great works of art are not in need of masturbations, splayed crotches, nor semi-nudity, in order to make them “relevant” to a modern audience.  But, alas, this vulgarity has become completely the norm in the West.  And, as Lyttenburgh is discovering, this style has reached the shores of Holy Rus as well.

So, with my apologies for inserting my own rant, back to Lyt, to continue with his:

Part III

Artistic Intelligentsia takes the word

What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese.

Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What’s the matter?
– W. Shakespeare, Coriolanus

As was said in the Intro – the scandal was not extinguished days, weeks after the official “rapprochement” between the spurred genius Raikin and the jack-booted satrap of the Regime Medinsky. There were not that many of those on the so-called “patriotic camp” of various celebrities and public personalities, who would disagree with the position voiced by Konstantin Raikin.  And the ones who did only made things worse.  The owner of the “Satyrikon” on the contrary, had no lack of defenders in places high and low, among a certain contingent of the people.  The so-called Russian artistic intelligentsia for the most part expressed a strata solidarity with Raikin. All handshakable Media sources wrote equally handshakable articles bemoaning the creeping “totalitarism” and the resurgent “censorship” in This Country. As was said previously – any articles attempting to cast even a shade of doubt on the crystal clear reputation of Konstantin Arkadievch were ruthlessly suppressed in these bastions of journalistic freedom and liberalism.  Emigrant and near-emigrant Media – plus the propaganda channels of Russia’s “Western partners” ™  from New York to Haifa — were not far behind, copy-pasting entire passages from the “embattled Russian independent media”, not bothering to check out whether it was even true.

The public discussion grew wider and wider, affecting even the esteemed top-tier members of the artistic intelligentsia. In a rare instance of quasi-openness and pseudo-transparency, they decided to make some of these mostly unofficial, behind the closed doors talks public. Thus ordinary people of Russia had the chance to behold their supposedly cultural betters, the self-styled Aristocrats of the Spirit and Priests in the Temple of Muses.

The Russian people saw enough to draw rather disheartening conclusions, while confirming some of the long-held preconceptions about intelligentsia. And the public discussion about what to do with Russian culture and by which rules must be regulated the interactions between the state, creators and the public became even more lively and heated.

Roundtable Discussion On Kultura

Nearly a week after “Raikin’s scandal” began, a talk-show on the Kultura channel broke the official silence around this topic by inviting famous theatrical art-directors to discuss it at length. While they had a fun time stoking their own egos and saying meaningless platitudes, we, OTOH, had a unique opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the highbrow kreaklian species in their natural habitat.

“Channel Kultura” is one of the prime federal TV channels owned and run by the Russian Ministry of Culture (which, as you all know, is part of the “Regime”). Their choice of TV programs is notable for the prevalence of the “High Culture” – you have operas, theatrical spectacles, concertos of classical music, “golden classics” of the cinema, with the occasional “bold” experiments like jazz concertos or the screening of experimental “authors” films, renowned among the specialists and true connoisseurs of true art. News programs cover mainly cultural events of “appropriate” nature. Various talk shows gather the “best people of This Country”, and both hosts of various TV programs and the people who run this shining example of the True Culture embody the ideals of the Russian Intelligentsia.

There are no commercials on Kultura. At all. You can watch a concerto, movie or a documentary –Russian or foreign one, there is no discrimination – without interruptions by annoying ads. This is because the channel needs no outer source of income – it receives all of its funds from the budget.

Among the guests invited on this very important discussion were:

Alexander Zhuravsky – 2nd most senior deputy of the Minister of Culture in his dark blue jacket.

Sergey Golomazov – sully introvert-type artistic director of one of Moscow’s major theatres – “The Theatre on Malaya Bronnaya”.

Kirill Krok – chubby extrovert-type art-director of another (but only more economically successful) Moscow theatre – “Vakhtangov’s Theatre”.

Evgeny Steblov, when he was a young bohemian

Evgeny Steblov – an old guy, who’s the deputy head of the all-Russia’s Theatric Union, and who liked to remind everyone that he is much older than them and in this business since 1963.

They discussed – while officially pretending to ignore the elephant in the room left by Raikin’s words – the potential vectors of development of the thespian art in This Country. Now, I remind you again.  This was on the “state-owned” TV channel, Live, without commercials or any interruptions. One hour of pure, concentrated handshakability. And for this one hour I, an intillegent in 3rd generation, Putinoid, sovok and bydlo, could not divert my gaze from what took place on the screen.   My squashed hedgehog was left half-eaten, and a bottle of the glass-cleaning liquid – only half empty. I watched, and listened and only blinked from time to time. The closest analogy to what I had become a witness to, would be a National Geographic video of a frog carcass picked clean by a column of the Southern American fiery ants in slow-mo while listening to Koyaanisqatsi’s main theme.

Lyttenburgh watching Kultura TV show

Because, as this TV program demonstrated most abundantly, our Russian (in the most… generous… definition of this word) Intelligentsia views itself as one, true and only “Aristocrats of the Spirit” ™. The State must fund them. It. Must. No matter what. They need the money – the more the merrier, because only they, people of the Art, know how much they are truly worth. In exchange, the State shouldn’t have any say in what they, members of Artistic Intelligentsia, do with said money. At all. The same applies to the spectators from narod – they must attend their performances and appreciate them. Again – they must. It’s their duty.

The state has duties and obligations before the Artistic Intelligentsia. The People has duties and obligations before the Artistic Intelligentsia. Artistic Intelligentsia has no obligations, responsibilities, duties or dues before the state, the society, before anyone at all.

In short – these people are quintessential modern day liberals, only transplanted onto Russian soil and mutated into monstrous things. They are liberals, who’d love nothing better than to employ truly feudal morals. Well, a village or two with several hundred “souls” won’t be bad either.

That’s what I gathered from the independent contributions of the guests to this TV program (no one censored them, tried to shut up or forced to speak up against their will). The introvert-type unshaven and balding theatrical director whined, that he is:

Golomazov’s theater

a) An introvert artistic person.
b) He has to work “hard like no one” to produce his stunning works.
c) He has no time for cultural events beyond hosted by himself and has no desire to mingle not only with the hoi polloi – but with fellow directors as well.
d) The authorities and civil servants could pay more attention to his wonderful theatre!
e) We, artistic people, need love, hugs and money. Especially money.

The Old Man praised the fact that he no longer lives in the time of “ideology” and “censorship”, but bemoaned that now it all boils down to profit – which is a big no! Theatres, according to him must never be closed – this is a Sacrilege. He insisted that theatrical Art is beyond the base demands of indifferent and non-understanding bureaucrats of the Ministry of Culture, or the “crowd” – only, and I quote, some sort of professional Areopagus of the theatrical dignitaries (like – hint-hint! – the one he is heading right now) could ever know how to allocate the funds.

Theater Director Kirill Krok: Chubby, or just big-boned?

The chubby extrovert director suggested, very shyly, that the theatres could be also judged by the reaction of the Enlightened Spectators – members of the True Intelligentsia – whose opinion is also very important. This suggestion alone was a borderline heresy, but what made his colleagues (read: rivals) foam with fury was the following: to institute a “transparent” rating system for theatres, which would take into account such things as the attendance rate, theatrical reviews, the results of tours and the amount of professional awards. Something tells me that this particular well-fed director was dead sure that his own theatre would score very high in such system – and get most of the funds. Naturally, his opponents were in disagreement. According to them, even a poorly scoring theatre needs all of its funding – in the name of the Sacral Art, which scoffs at any form of hard data. And even if they do score badly – what is he suggesting to do to improve their rating? And who is going to do any supposed “improvements” – surely, not the state?! Because all of this smacks of the Dreaded Censorship.

The Deputy Minister of Culture blew up my mind even further into the depth of the Astral by simply quoting statistics and financial data (some of which I provided in the previous chapter). He, a soulless faux-intelligent with only 2 Higher Education diplomas (theology and airplane drives construction) not only spoiled the meaningless blathering of the artistic souls gathered here, he also shoved a little bit of the dirty laundry in the closets of the artistic types. Thus, he reminded them that nearly all of the state theatres are headed by the long entrenched “thespian aristocracy”, which grabbed the reins of power in the times of Perestroika and Rough 90’s. Nothing, short of death, can result in management’s change there. The situation is such, that directors in his or her 50’s are referred in these circles as “the young ones”.

What was notably absent in this one hour of talking past each other was any mention of what should be a relationship between the state and the people and between the spectators and the creators of the art. And this was not just an elephant in the room left by Raikin – it was a tiger left in unbarred cage. Still, both the representative of the Powers That Be and the best that Russian Culture can offer to us right now decided to ignore it, hoping, rather naively, that nothing bad will come from that.

“I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like!”

As I said earlier – this kind of visible artistic get-together and a bout of frank discussions are very rare occasions, worthy of the attention they inevitably draw to themselves. Such things run against the nature of the kreakls, because having listen to someone or having one’s high ideals questioned aggravates their gentle sensitivities beyond any measure. Maybe this explains why the stars and celebrities prefer their views to be known by either holding uninterrupted speeches, like Raikin did, or by writing some collective “open letter”.  An individual letter, expressing the “cry of the spirit” of any given Giant of the Art will also do. The most important thing in writing them – totally ignore the feedback and do not engage in any kind of discussion. Still, such “open letters” offer a valuable insight into the mind and soul of creative persons – if you know where to look.

Zvyagintsev (Right) is well loved in Hollywood.

One such representative example is provided by an open letter by the film director Andrei Zvyagintsev, notorious for his apparent inability to film any kind of commercially viable movie, and who is firmly in the camp of those, who are constantly Ashamed To Be Russian ™. His most (in)famous chef-d’œuvre is the depressing and pointless movie “Leviathan”, which, as Zvyagintsev claims, represents his take on the history of the legendary Marvin Heemeyer and his equally legendary (and ultimately pointless) rampage. Director Zvyagintsev had done this “homage” by making his film to have absolutely nothing in common with what the director claimed to be the source of his inspiration. Instead, we have a dull, unimaginative and extremely boring story about “How Everything is Awful In Russia”. The Russian Ministry of Culture even gave money to this film (a source of the endless shame for Minister Medinsky) which, quite predictably, failed to recoup the money invested in it by a significant margin. Ordinary Russians, again, predictably, were less than pleased with what turned out to be a complete waste of their money and a slanderous picture of their lives.

And now this “dissident director”, deprived of the seemingly bottomless trough of easy Ministry of Culture money, decided to teach the ungrateful vatniks and satraps of the Regime (in the person of presidential press-secretary Peskov) how one must love and cherish the Sacred Art. From the very start Zvyagintsev lets everyone know the degree of his indignation – and ignorance:

“It is obvious that censorship has entered the space of the cultural life of the country fully and completely. Only an ignoramus or a liar can deny this. The ban of the plays, exhibitions, banning of the publication of the text – all of this is censorship …”

What is censorship and what is not I already discussed in the previous chapter. So, it is Zvyagintsev who proves himself as either an ignoramus or a liar. He also fails to point out which exactly plays and exhibitions were “banned” by the state.

“…In our country there are millions of people, each of whom chooses a profession, spends a long time learning it, improving oneself to become a master of his craft. Teachers know how to teach, doctors – how to heal, artists – how to create. But then there are statesmen who start teaching everyone how to do things right. Who gave them a flawless qualification to excel in all kinds of human activity? When, finally, will the officials realize that their business is to organize and support the work of the people, not to give them their “orders”?

The intervention of the authorities into professional affairs of any experts is often absurd, but a hundred times more absurd is their interference into the affairs of the artists. This is a profession, the essence of which – the free art, that is, the birth of the new, sometimes of something not even known to the artist himself. When the bureaucrat issues the author the subject of creativity and controls the “correct” way of its embodiment in the act of art, he shoots a well-aimed blow into the most sacred thing in the profession – the mystery of the creative process.

Morlock (=The Regime) vs. Eloi (=The Artist)

Words, more befitting an immortal fantasy Elf – or one of the eloi from H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. But most definitely not a real thinking and informed human being. And yet – this is very typical example of the thought process that could be found among the vast majority of those belonging to the so-called “creative class”. Blessed is the mind too small to doubt and too free of substance to know – and Zvyagintsev appears to be doubly blessed! He appears to be ignorant (or is simply omitting for his own reasons) of the facts, mentioned in Part I about the history of art and artists – that Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael not only spent their lives working on other people’s orders, they also had to deal with very strict boundaries to their “mystery of the creative process”. And, yes, this means they had to rein in their creative juices and do exactly what their customer tells them to do with no improvisation whatsoever.

As for Zvyagintsev’s naïve portrayal of how the “experts” are trained and excel in their respective fields of specialization – it once again shows us that he hardly belongs to our Fallen World. Russian spheres of both Education and Healthcare have many problems, some of which are caused precisely by the “specialists” themselves who, contrary to the beliefs of the people detached from reality, are not always as qualified as they should be. And, yes, this means the interference of the loathsome state officials. A practice accepted everywhere in the world – not just in Russian Mordor.

Unfortunately, Zvyagintsev continues to inflame the minds of his intended readership with his purple prose:

“Looking at the body of freely flowing product of a free mind, the viewer sees in it, as in reflection, himself, free and unhindered, because, as you know, an artist can not fail to sing a song that waits the expression on the lips of his own people (rus. “которая немотствует [sic!] на устах его народа”). The government, instead, encourages the mediocre, dull lie about the person, and fills with it the screens of TV and cinema. Thus they are driving away the person from himself, real and complex. That’s what the “state order” [in culture] really means”

A passage, that truly won’t leave anyone indifferent! Only one small (and rhetorical) question – how does Zvyaginstev’s own creative works correspond with his own people, which he claims to be capable of portraying so realistically? And the fact that said people fail to appreciate such “realistic” portrayals in the form of watching and paying for his movies – how does it work into his perfect scheme of things?

The Artist is accountable only to his Muse.

But the true Manifesto of the Free Artist is saved for the very end of this open letter:

“To those who wish to order something from the artist I offer the following. Sell your house or car and use the money to order, for example, a stage production. Or even ten [of them]. If there will be people eager for that (and surely there will be such people) they will show you on the stage what you want. And while you are fulfilling the will of the people, while you are receiving salaries from the people’s money, while you are just like us, citizens of the country – help free artists to carry out their activities, and do not hinder them. Hear, finally, that they do not want your “orders”. They do not want neither dining nor dancing with you”

Again – nothing could be possibly added to that. These are indeed the beliefs of a certain segment of the population – the one that deems themselves The Brain of the Nation. They, mind you, won’t sell their own car or house to fund their own creativity. They prefer to beg and cajole money from the “Regime” and its satraps. They are rarely seen trying this trick on private investors and producers, who’d expect a return of their money and a quality product in the end. Oh, and the dreadful (and 100% legit!) “producer’s meddling” in the creative process – how can one stomach this?! And, what is more important – how does it differ from the dreaded “censorship”?

[to be continued]

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