A Response to Critics: The Artist’s Duty
In October of 1985, Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew, was shot and thrown overboard a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Klinghoffer, a husband and father, was 69 years old and confined to a wheelchair. In 1991, this story was made into an opera which elicited widespread controversy. This month, twenty years later, the New York Metropolitan Opera is inciting local protests over their decision to run eight performances of "The Death of Klinghoffer." At the bottom of this controversy lie several arguments against the production. Some argue that the play is Anti-Semitic and too sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorists. Others claim that the opera misrepresents Klinghoffer by only focusing on an isolated moment in his life. Finally, there are some who think that the opera was staged too close to the actual event.
However, when judging a piece of art, these things need not be taken into account. It isn't necessary for art to be concerned with historical accuracy. Art shouldn't have to wait until feelings are abated with time.
Influential art has always struck when feelings are at their apex, and artists haven't been concerned with portraying events accurately. This is because artists are not seeking to report with their masterpieces; unlike journalism and research writing, artists seek to move an audience with the message of their work. In this way, art does not claim to be historically accurate or fair. Art doesn't respect time or emotion. Remembered art does not pacify the soul or sedate the audience’s consciousness into an opium sleep; art should speak to each person’s emotions, saying to them, “Rise up, and feel!”
The artist is given a great deal of liberty in America. He is given room to tread on holy ground; here he has the option to keep his shoes on and stomp or else take them off and tread softly. What is the artist’s duty? What makes the artist great? How does he achieve a voice that says something new, relevant and lasting? If he has failed to fight past conformity and the prevailing notions of the time, he will have said nothing new. If he has not correctly understood the matter at hand or the people of his time, he will have said nothing relevant. Unless the artist says something that is actually true, he will have said nothing lasting. He will only have made a mire of that sacred ground he was granted.
In the case of "The Death of Klinghoffer," the artist was successful in stirring emotion and capturing something relevant to his audience, but has he said anything new and lasting? By running "The Death of Klinghoffer," the Metropolitan Opera has allowed New Yorkers time to answer these questions. If New Yorkers begin to evaluate the opera as a piece of art, they may discern whether "The Death of Klinghoffer" has tended to or destroyed its sacred ground.