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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

The role of the artist in troubled times

It’s a question long debated: What is the role of artists in times of political upheaval? Is it their job to be relentless campaigners for truth and freedom? Or is the production of escapist entertainment just as important for an audience living in fear? Years after their death, we still debate whether artists’ questionable politics or personal life should affect how we judge their art, from Knut Hamsen to Richard Wagner to the current debate over Roman Polanski.

Alan Riding, in the introduction to his new book “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris,” includes a quotation from Anthony Eden, Britain’s World War II-era foreign secretary: “If one hasn’t been through the horrors of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that.” (It’s a remarkably ironic statement coming from the British, but enough of that for now.) And indeed, reading Riding’s account of the lives of Irène Némirovsky, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pablo Picasso, Edith Piaf, Coco Chanel and Francis Poulenc in occupied and Vichy France, it’s difficult not to throw down some righteous indignation for the compromises they made to save their lives or careers.

But Riding’s book is part of a larger conversation — one about political engagement and the history of art made under tremendous pressure. “And the Show Went On” also touches upon the role of the audience — how much is required of us when we see evil going on? I asked Riding to talk about some of these issues, and he was kind enough to answer my questions over e-mail.

It seems like our ideas about what France was like during the occupation are forever evolving. From the myth that everyone was in the resistance to historians like Robert Paxton — whom you credit in the acknowledgments — who have thoroughly explored the reality of the Vichy government. I’m curious what made you interested in this particular angle, the role of writers and artists during the war, and why Paris’s entertainment industry functioned pretty well under the occupation.

I have long been interested in the relationship between culture and politics and, specifically, in the position taken by prominent artists and writers during times of oppression. Indeed, during my years as a reporter in Latin America, I saw how above all writers took a lead in denouncing military dictatorships and the torture, disappearances and murder that accompanied them. And I also noticed that these writers were expected to provide a form of moral leadership: the prestige they enjoyed during the good times translated into a responsibility in the bad times.

When I moved to Paris in 1989, I found myself in the home of the politically committed intellectual, the town where the very notion of the intellectuel engagé was born with Émile Zola’s brave denunciation of the French army – his famous “J’Accuse” — during the Dreyfus Affair over 90 years earlier. I was interested to see that, even a decade after the death of Jean-Paul Sartre, French intellectuals were still ready to be contrary on innumerable public issues. Yet in the 1990s and beyond, they faced no danger. For that reason, I was drawn to see how French artists and writers responded during the German occupation, a far more testing time for their principles and courage.

As you note, by the time I came to write this book, historians had had ample time to argue the resistance-versus-collaboration issue, with something of a nuanced consensus emerging, one that concluded that there were relatively few true resistants and not that many convinced collaborators and a large majority of people who were engaged principally in saving their own skins. And, as I came to discover, this majority included most people in the world of culture who, while waiting for a definitive outcome to the war, tried to go about their lives as normally as possible. They wrote and published, sang and danced, gave concerts and recitals, acted on stage and screen and painted – and most Parisians were glad they did. Culture offered a welcome respite from reality.

There are a lot of bad guys in this story. What was surprising to me was how their collaboration or resistance affected their reputations, as well as when sometimes it didn’t. Some of the composers and artists who collaborated may have been respected before the war, but because of their activities during the war, they’ve really fallen off the radar. And yet we still teach Céline, despite all of his despicable behavior. How much of a role do you think their political involvement played in how these artists are viewed today, whether their work outlasted their death?

In France, at least, only a handful of writers and artists – say, Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle among novelists, Alfred Cortot and Germaine Lubin among musicians – were permanently stamped as collaborationists. Others, like the playwright-actor-director Sacha Guitry, the actress Arletty and the poet-artist Jean Cocteau, were soon forgiven for having socialized with the occupier; certainly, in none of these cases has their stance during the occupation shaped their image today. Indeed, in their different ways, Guitry and Cocteau are beloved figures.

But the case of Céline, as you note, is different. Guitry and Cocteau were essentially narcissistic opportunists, ever eager for the limelight, savoring applause even if Germans were doing the clapping. But they weren’t evil. Céline, on the other hand, not only held hysterically anti-Semitic views, but he also campaigned whenever he could against Jews, going as far as demanding their elimination. He escaped France before the liberation, spent some time in jail in Denmark and was eventually amnestied and allowed home in the early 1950s. And today, many French revere Céline and are able to separate the writer from the anti-Semite. In fact, so far, only a few voices have protested plans to mark the 50th anniversary of his death this year.

All this of course touches on the broader question of whether an artist should be judged by his oeuvre or his personal behavior. And in this context, as you know, Wagner has been debated far more widely than Céline.

Were there any figures who, when you started researching this era, you personally wished you’d perhaps stayed ignorant about? Perhaps learning about their politics or activities changed the way you think about them? Myself, reading your book, I spent some time thinking, “Come on, Coco Chanel. Really?”

You’re right that Coco Chanel hardly emerged as an idealist’s role model, not only taking a Nazi lover but also trying to annul the earlier sale of her company to a now-exiled Jewish family. For the most part, though, the fascists of the 1930s were the active collaborationists of the occupation and, in that perverted sense, they were true to their beliefs. Perhaps more disturbing to me was the recognition that, for most artists and writers, their art and their writing were more important to them than taking a position on the occupation. And that included those who eventually did join the intellectual resistance. Even Sartre and Camus, for instance, were willing to accept German censorship as the price of publishing their books and plays. In fact, I found it difficult not to agree with the essayist Jean Guéhenno, who on November 30, 1940, wrote in his private journal:

The species of the man of letters is not one of the greatest of human species. Incapable of surviving for long in hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print. He can stand it no longer. He quarrels only about his importance, the size of the print in which his name appears, its ranking in the table of contents. It goes without saying that he is full of good reasons. ‘French literature must continue.’ He believes that he is French literature and thought and that they will die without him.

I am an American living in Berlin, and I know you don’t really go into this in your book, but I’m wondering what you think about the moral responsibility of the artist in the post-war period. As you point out, post-WWI, the French painters in particular were not really engaged with the conflict, certainly not on the level the German artists like Otto Dix were. And the German writers and artists post-WWII have certainly been digging around in that territory. This is probably too big a question for a Q&A, but I’m wondering what you made of the post-war art scene.

Despite the mixed record of artists and writers during both the inter-war years and the war itself, they are still looked to for moral guidance in many countries. Indeed, they are almost too numerous to mention: Solzhenitsyn and Havel in the former Soviet bloc, Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer in Africa, Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes in Latin America, Liu Xiaobo most recently in China. And since you mention Germany, Günter Grass was part of a generation of artists who explored not only the Nazi years but also post-war society.

Writers of course address political issues with a directness that is less suited to other art forms, not least painting. But even though no German painter examined World War II with the bluntness of Otto Dix’s portrayal of trench warfare in World War I, I think that democratic post-war Germany’s struggle to address – and wish to ignore – its recent Nazi past is very much present in German visual art in the 1960s and 1970s and even later. Certainly, someone like Joseph Beuys cannot be understood outside the social and political context of his day.

In contrast, in France, except for a couple of Picasso’s oils, young painters who had lived through the occupation fled instead into abstraction. And it would be years before someone like Christian Boltanski emerged to examine a wartime legacy that many preferred to forget.

And on a personal note, you’ve worked as a foreign correspondent in any cities, from Paris to Mexico City to Madrid. Yet you’re still living in Paris — are you settled there? If so, what made you choose that city over the others?

I had the good fortune to be assigned to Paris by The New York Times. And, after five years as the paper’s bureau chief, I was again lucky to be named its Paris-based cultural correspondent for Europe, a job I held for 12 years. So that did it.  When I left The Times, I had no hesitation in remaining in Paris: for its culture, its food, its buildings, its streets, its theatricality. And, anyway, I had a book to write!