Brady, Kaepernick, Eastwood and Trump 


The arts confuse us regularly, somewhat like life itself.  One minute we’re kept at a distance by a performance using some alienating device calling attention to the artifice, the next we’re sucked into the world we’re watching.  I believe we’re still in the long shadow of the romantics, who were so enthusiastic in their encouragement of our identification that we end up confused and even addicted to the illusion.

If the “willing suspension of disbelief” that occurs in a theatre during a performance is literally a matter of lifting and holding something –like weight-lifting—then we opera fans are especially strong of mind.  I believe genuine opera fans are either trained by our exposure to this artform to have stronger and healthier imaginations, or naturally selected.

  • We have to deal with characters who sing
  • We have to deal with characters of every size and shape
  • We have to deal with characters of every age

So to repeat, whether we are trained by this to be able to suspend logic and hold these concepts in the thin air of our minds OR simply selected (those who are drawn to opera come back for more while those who find it implausible and unbelievable walk away shaking their heads): opera is a special form in this regard.

I wonder, is it the same mental capacity that comes into play when we are asked to ignore aspects of a person?  I mention this because there are some curious examples in the news, that are similar to what some opera fans are doing all their lives.

The biggest and best example I know of concerns Richard Wagner, the composer who often challenges us:

  • By writing remarkable music
  • By telling stories of astonishing depth
  • All the while he’s drawing us closer, he pushes us away By being a complete jerk, thinking for example of his anti-Semitism
  • And lurking in our memories is Wagner’s biggest fan: Adolph Hitler. Yes Wagner could have written the soundtrack for the Third Reich.

Do we let the character of the artist stop us from enjoying their art? There is a phenomenon that criticism teaches us called the “biographical fallacy”.  Tempting as it might be to extrapolate from the life of an artist to an understanding of their work, it is not a good idea.  Wagner is a good demonstration, that one can separate what a person does from who they are, even if part of us never forgets.

I find the same thing coming up outside the realm of opera.

The quarterbacks:
Tom Brady is one of the most successful quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, winner of several Superbowls. Colin Kaepernick is not, a younger player whose early promise has not panned out in the desired championship for the 49ers.

Both have been in the news for their political views.  Brady plays golf with his pal Donald Trump.  Kaepernick famously refused to stand for the American National Anthem, drawing a great deal of ire, while stirring up a controversy about freedom of speech.  Whatever positions they took (and I am no fan of Trump, and an admirer of Kaepernick’s bravery, in taking such a stand in the conservative stronghold as the NFL), these are separate from the enjoyment of their performance.  Painful as it is to admit, Brady is a pleasure to watch, a brilliant tactician, while Kaepernick has never had comparable success.

In other words, the aesthetics of the performance are a separate category from the positions taken by the performer, not unlike the separation we are challenged to make in our head for someone like Wagner.

The actor-director:
Clint Eastwood’s films represent an impressive body of work. Like Marty McFly (in Back to the Future), I confess that I’ve long admired and enjoyed Eastwood’s work in the westerns from the 1960s: although nowadays I am more likely to ascribe my responses to the collaborative team that includes the director (Sergio Leone) and the composer (Ennio Morricone) alongside the actors.

Yet in his attempts to influence the public, I’d say Eastwood has not been at all impressive.  In a previous election we watched him self-destruct at a GOP convention in the presence of an empty chair that easily upstaged him.  More recently he complained about Hillary Clinton’s voice.

The candidates:
There’s an unmistakable echo of 1964 in the current campaign. Back in ’64 the GOP candidate Barry Goldwater said he would use nuclear weapons in the Vietnam war.  Lyndon Johnson capitalized on this in his campaign, winning in a landslide.

This time around it’s Donald Trump and his passionate pronouncements. Is he someone who could be trusted with the nuclear codes?

The intriguing thing –as far as the pattern I’ve been demonstrating—is that at least in theory, a person can transcend their history.  Wagner was more than just an anti-semite, Brady and Eastwood are more than just a friends / fans of Trump.

But voting isn’t theatre, is it?  We can suspend disbelief, ignore who a person is while surrendering to their performance, or the fantasy of what they promise.  I have to think that one of the attractions of Trump is that he is very theatrical.  If one looks at policies and qualifications it should be no contest.

But Trump keeps getting headlines regardless of the content of what he says, because of his aesthetics, the outrageous quality of his extreme positions.   As Tom Green pointed out:

If you say something negative, that information travels faster. If you say something bigoted, and you’re a presidential candidate … everybody has to talk about it. The outrage is actually what’s been promoting his candidacy.

The conversation around Trump sometimes gets lost in irrelevant details

  • Do you like his voice more than Hillary’s?
  • … his hair??!!
  • … the size of his hands??!!

What I see on social media suggests that at least some people are very clear, with a focus on policy rather than theatre. But social media can’t be trusted, given that one is usually preaching to the choir.

I can’t wait for the debates, to see whether he is able to invite a suspension of disbelief.  I am afraid to see whether this will be an operatic moment or not, whether the audience remain within their senses or opt to surrender to myth and illusion.

This entry was posted in Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Popular music & culture. Bookmark the permalink.

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