Why We Shouldn’t Boycott BDS-er Brian Eno

I’d like to encourage everyone to put on a pair of headphones, crank up the volume and listen to some music composed by Brian Eno.

In the wake of the recent news surrounding Eno’s letter forbidding Israeli dance group Batsheva Dance Company from using one of his compositions, this might be a strange activity for a Zionist Jew such as me to advocate. But I propose engaging in this pastime for a reason. And no, it’s not based in any “know thy enemy”-type motivation.

It’s because I don’t believe artistic works by people who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement should be dismissed outright because of their political beliefs, however much I may disagree with them. And there’s a precedent for that.

A very big precedent.

I come from a family of musicians. My father is a composer who has perfect pitch and can play by ear on the piano. My mother sings and plays multiple instruments. I used to perform in productions as a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus. I’ve also tinkled the ivories in my day, though I can’t claim any proficiency in that medium.

All three of us love and frequently listen to the music of notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner.

Wagner’s works, of course, have long been associated with the evils of Adolf Hitler, who greatly admired the composer. At one point, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone willing to perform his operas in Israel … and even now, such initiatives are controversial. There certainly are good reasons for this, as the modern connotations of his pieces in connection with the Nazi regime remain disturbing, and there are even characters in Wagner’s masterpieces that may be anti-Semitic—notably Beckmesser, the chief villain of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Yet to avoid hearing the melodies created by one of the top innovators in musical history is to eschew bliss because it sometimes precedes or follows sadness. It is denying oneself the pleasure offered by some of the most sublime works of art ever crafted. And playing them, in my opinion, is the best remedy to the concomitant political contexts that may lessen any potential enjoyment of his oeuvre. Wagner was one of the best composers on earth. We cannot easily throw him away.

Eno obviously is nowhere near Wagner’s caliber, though some of his compositions, such as his “Music for Airports” are reminiscent of the “cells” exhibited by Jean Sibelius—who, admittedly, is one of my least-favorite tunesmiths. Still, there is interest value there, and pushing Eno’s works to the side because of his beliefs seems strange to me. If anything, we should avoid listening to his pieces because we don’t like them, not because we don’t agree with what he espouses. Plenty of artistic geniuses throughout the ages perpetuated bigoted sentiments. Shall we disregard them, too?

Back when I was in college, a dear friend of mine introduced me to the nuances of seminal rock band Pink Floyd, and I ate the songs up … particularly those on The Wall, one of the group’s most accessible (and pretentious) albums. In light of PF co-founder Roger Waters’ distressing predilections toward anti-Semitism, such diversions may seem antithetical to all I stand for, and yet although I do not champion his credos, I can’t deny that I continue to like some of his music and appreciate his craftsmanship. I won’t boycott his creations because his own personal convictions are revolting.

So it should be with Eno … and Wagner and J.S. Bach and Voltaire and Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard. We should judge their art for its aesthetic merits, not its politics. If we did the latter, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by missing out on quite a lot of things to treasure. We’d also be rejecting humanity’s past and its cultural development, elements that have contributed to our growth and evolution. I say it’s right to denounce their views, their prejudice, their narrow-minded ways of thinking. It’s not right to limit our appreciation of their works.

As long as we can continue to put on the proverbial headphones, we can avoid doing exactly that.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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