Few have written more wisely on the relation of art and culture than Jacques Maritain. In Art and Scholasticism, written just after the end of the World War I, Maritain traced the deterioration in modern art to the artist’s turn toward ideology. When the artist becomes preoccupied with communicating ideas, the beauty of what he creates will necessarily be dimmed.
Much of the bad art of the 20th century can be traced backward to political agendas. Given Maritain’s premise, we should not be surprised to discover political motives behind the creation of ugliness. Yet ten years ago, an example came to light that would have surprised even Maritain himself.
Late in spring 1998, the Berlin office of the Associated Press published a story based on an interview with Hans Scherbius, an ex-Nazi colleague of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Then eighty-seven years old and living in Buenos Aires, Scherbius explained that the twelve tone music of Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg was deliberately invented as a means of relaying Nazi intelligence about the atomic bomb.
Scherbius laid a cardboard template over Webern’s “Variations for Orchestra” to reveal a code comparing the release cross sections of uranium isotopes 235 and 238. These compositions were never more than cover for encoding messages. “It was only because it was ‘naughty’ and difficult that elite audiences accepted, even championed it,” said the ex-Nazi.
If you don’t recognize the term “twelve-tone,” perhaps you will recall going to a concert where the orchestra played a series of noises approximating broken chalk dragged across a chalkboard. If that composition was, as is very likely, sandwiched between a Berlioz overture and a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, you very likely came to the conclusion that music died somewhere in the mid-20th century.
The Reich condemned twelve-tone music and adored the late romanticism of Wagner and Strauss. Goebbels evidently knew that whatever the Nazis condemned would be embraced by the intellectual classes, and he was right. Long before we heard the phrase “political correctness,” the elites let political agendas determine their aesthetic judgment, but this time the clever Goebbels was way ahead of them. The written notation of this ugly music was used to pass Nazi secrets in and out of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Twenty, even thirty years later, the same style of music had infected the concert hall, the recording industry, and, most sadly, the musical imaginations of successive generations of composers. Scherbius, who chuckled on his balcony in Buenos Aires while he told his story, must not have been a music lover.
Pierre Boulez, a brilliant musician and a champion of twelve-tone music, dismissed the news, saying regardless of this “funny business” at its outset, twelve-tone music had been “vindicated by the critics.” He did not mention the audience whose polite applause and silent groaning paved the way for the embrace of the neo-romanticism and minimalism fortunately now back in style. Boulez appeared unwilling to recognize what stared him in the face — that he was drawn to this music for nonmusical, political reasons. The perverse rejection of the diatonic scale, the series of notes at intervals sounding naturally pleasant to the ear, can now be understood for what it was — anti-Nazi protest.
The same artistic elite that so often levels politicized criticism at the bourgeois sentimentality of middle-class art did not recognize its own implication in the Nazi propaganda machine. They have grown so accustomed to the political filters of their aesthetic and cultural judgments that the loss of melody and tonality failed to alarm them. They needed to look no further than these lines from The Merchant of Venice that foreshadowed the whole sad affair:
The man with no music in himself, nor is moved by concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils…. Let no such man be trusted.
Maritain understood the spiritual roots of this malaise. He understood that by referring artistic creation to God, beauty was less likely to be reduced to the occasion for self-expression or ideology. Those who believe in God can become disposed to delight freely and simply in things beautiful, in part because they know God is their ultimate source. Maritain, the theist, spoke to artists about their freedom. Goebbels, knowing nothing more than a message of political salvation, guaranteed the arts of the Reich served this purpose and no other — certainly not mere beauty.
This column originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.