Performative Hypocrisy: Classical Music and the War in Ukraine

“Yeah, sorry mate, I can’t really get involved in that sort of joke any more. I’m sure you understand why.”

A few years ago, my friend had been appointed to a high-up job with a major UK-based arts organisation, and I’d just made a lightly provocative comment about questionable sponsorship money from Russian oligarchs. A few weeks before that, my friend would have taken the joke and run with it. Now, my friend felt unable to respond.

And yes, I’m sure I understood why.

Over the last fortnight, across the Western classical music world pressure has been growing on Russian artists to denounce the actions of the Russian state in Ukraine. Rarely in recent times has a geopolitical situation resolved itself so clearly into Right and Wrong. In an era of moral relativism, where so many issues seem to involve vast grey areas and ethical minefields, maybe it’s some sort of relief to focus exclusively on a moment where the forces of Good and Evil seem so clear by comparison.

Inevitably, the highest profile abstainers have grabbed the headlines and opprobrium, Valery Gergiev (entirely fairly) and Anna Netrebko (perhaps a little more harshly) being the most notable examples. Both, in their own ways, have done pretty well out of the Putin years, and so perhaps we shouldn’t really be surprised at their reticence. Money is a powerful master.

But we’d be far better spending our time and column inches on their many, far braver compatriots who, in many cases without hesitation or equivocation, have come out publicly against the actions of the Russian military, whatever the cost or the risks.

Because the truth is not so simple, and the moral responsibility of this situation is far more widely distributed than glib PR statements might have us believe. Russian artists who make these public declarations of unequivocal condemnation run the risk of damage not just to their careers and livelihoods, but to the liberty, safety and potentially even lives of themselves and their friends and family members back home. This has been the harsh reality for Russian public figures for many, many years, not to mention those from neighbouring countries. No Western artist has faced those dangers for a very long time; would we have the moral and physical courage to do what we’re asking of them? We have the privilege of not knowing. And meanwhile we’ve treated the situation in Russia as a bleakly cynical joke, with Putin as its dark punchline.

Now that we in the West have finally deigned to admit the truth about the nature of this Russian regime, we also need to acknowledge the bravery of those who have opposed it, in Russia and abroad. Many have suffered and died for their convictions. And the least we owe their compatriots now is clarity about why we require a public statement of their opposition. For one thing, that clarity of thinking from us forms part of the antidote to the real danger of generalised Russophobia – cancelling performances of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony can surely only get us further, far further, from the solution to our catastrophic human condition.

I can think of two clear and legitimate reasons for our demands of our Russian friends. Firstly, as a basic duty of care, in an international art form, where trust and emotional openness between colleagues is of paramount importance, it cannot be right to expect Ukrainian artists to work alongside their Russian counterparts if there is not absolute clarity about the latter’s attitude, privately and publicly, towards the profound inhuman horrors being inflicted on the former’s countrymen, family and friends at the moment in the name of Russian interests. When those shared feelings are open and clear, art can truly be a force for good, providing a message of hope, unity and peace. But the statement has to be explicit and unambiguous. To argue that art and politics don’t mix simply won’t wash; the act of making art together across personal, cultural, and national boundaries is implicitly a political statement, whether we like it or not, and to pretend otherwise is shambolically naive.

Secondly, the situation in Russia itself. The atrocities in Ukraine are the work of Putin, we reassure ourselves, not of the Russian people. While that’s undoubtedly true in essence, there can still be no denying that Putin does retain the support of a significant proportion of his subjects. Ah yes, we again reassure ourselves on their behalf, but they are under the influence of an overwhelming amount of state propaganda. Very well: it is therefore entirely right that we make sure we are doing everything in our power not to be complicit in that propaganda. Ensuring that there can be no ambiguity about the role of Russian artists working in our countries, for our state-subsidised national organisations, must surely therefore be an entirely reasonable request. By appearing here they are endorsing our national values, not we theirs.

But we need to tread carefully, particularly at a time when the precise nature of those national values is under more scrutiny than at any time in our recent history. We require our artists to be politically engaged? Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. What about their views on other international conflicts where the lines of right and wrong are far more blurred? What do we say to singers who declaim their scepticism of Covid safety measures, of masks and vaccinations, when we cheerily engage them to work in close proximity to colleagues and audiences many of whom have all sorts of clinical vulnerabilities to that disease, which is very much still with us? What about artists who feel that their views on transgender rights are incompatible with colleagues who have strong opinions on feminist politics, or vice versa, in an industry which still has much soul-searching to do on both its deeply ingrained transphobia and misogyny? And what happens when the prevailing national consensus on an issue changes? Do we then expect our artists to change their opinions accordingly?

How does asking, demanding that our artists be openly political live alongside a conviction that we all have the right to work without being confronted by beliefs we find offensive, especially in an international industry with a global, multicultural workforce? Will the industry’s answer be to invest time, money and radical change to nurture the wellbeing of its freelance workers in an atmosphere of openness, tolerance, and mutual respect? Or is this an industry which is more likely, in a time of ever-decreasing opportunities for those workers – and of dwindling funds and rising inflation – to shun, consciously or otherwise, those artists seen as “difficult”?

We demand politically active artists? Why then, for example, have British artists been so reluctant to campaign on far less controversial topics, such as the combined impact of government and industry indifference to the plight of performing arts freelancers during the pandemic? Succoured by the complicit flattery of knighthoods and MBEs, how many high profile British singers have spoken out about the impact of Brexit, on their powerless younger colleagues in particular? Far easier to ride out the storm, stick with what you have and take what you can get – no point risking getting a reputation for “being difficult”.

And at the same time, there are also a number of singers who feel unable to evangelise in favour of what they see as the opportunities presented by the UK’s post-EU era. I disagree with these colleagues in the most fundamental way possible, but the fact is that many of them feel left behind, unrepresented and voiceless, cowed into silence by the spectre of unemployability – of “being difficult” – and most likely for good reason. We’ve all been trained not to even think of biting the hands that occasionally condescend to feed us. But until all these voices can speak and be heard reasonably and rationally, we remain a nation incapable of having a vitally necessary conversation about who we are, what we share, and what we stand for.

Is the classical music industry all of a sudden truly serious about its desire for politically engaged artists, after a generation of hammering them into monochrome moulds of glossy PR-friendly “Living The Dream” bullshit?

As ever, the bulk of the moralistic artillery does seem to have landed on those precariously vulnerable freelance artists: a human shield for the organisations, and those who are sheltered by working for them, which should be facing the hardest and most pressing questions. It’s easy enough to light up a building in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, get the orchestra to play the anthem, pat on the back, another box ticked, and on to finding a hashtag for next month’s hot trending topic.

More meaningful answers might be provided as to the precise relationship of the UK’s arts organisations to Russian funding, from individuals, corporations, and indirectly from sponsors who still do business in Russia. How do conductors like Gergiev seem to live a charmed life with major venues and orchestras, often at the expense of far more capable rivals? What is the relationship between large and powerful international agencies, which run lucrative orchestral tours and whose singers dominate cast lists across the globe, and Russian money? Are we really willing to open every Pandora’s Box, to clean out the whole industry from top to bottom whatever the financial cost? Or shall we merely make a few performative gestures, express some comforting words and songs for our eastern European friends, then continue to turn a blind eye, take the money and move on to our next opening night? After all: the show must go on, and at all costs, mustn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong. I want the freedom for artists to be politically engaged. More than that: I want it to be an obligation, I want the public to demand it, to accept nothing less than a truthful, meaningful, human presentation of what art should be; of who and how artists should be if art is to mean anything. For that to happen, arts organisations, where the true power and security now lies in this business, need to take a long, hard look at themselves, and create the conditions where that can happen, whatever the corporate cost: to choose to respect, care for, and nurture their workforce, not just the output it produces. And to recognise that “being difficult”, in the sense of standing up for what’s right and making sure that what we do means something, should be part of any artist’s job description.

The other choice, the status quo – the “Old Normal” – is safe, lucrative, and in today’s world, utterly meaningless. My fear is that the industry as it exists now is incapable of taking anything other than that easy choice.

And yes, I’m sure we’ll all understand exactly why.


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All content Copyright © Paul Carey Jones 2010-2022. Paul Carey Jones is Welsh and also Irish. He used to be an opera singer back when that was a thing, and is now sometimes an opera singer again, as well as writing things. His first book, based on his hit 'Coronaclassical' blog series, is now on sale worldwide: - You can contact him via comments here or at: Donate now to help fund more online content from Paul Carey Jones:
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1 Response to Performative Hypocrisy: Classical Music and the War in Ukraine

  1. Pingback: Essay: Music, War, & The Reality Of Cancellation (Part 1) - The Opera Queen

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