Once again classical music finds itself embroiled in a war, fortunately only of words, connected with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu has condemned plans by Cape Town Opera to visit Tel Aviv next month on the grounds that the plight of Palestinians today equates to that of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa, obliging the international community to impose similar sanctions.
The other side of the argument was represented in the press by Hanna Munitz, director of the Tel Aviv Opera, who will be hosting the Cape Town company. She was quoted as saying:"The agenda is culture and art, and definitely not politics. Both houses relate to culture as a bridge, the aim of which is to be above any political dispute."
The previous high profile intervention of the Middle East conflict in the smooth running of the classical music world came in March this year, when demonstrators disrupted a performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at Wigmore Hall in London. On that occasion too the press turned to the management to act as the voice of classical music reason. James Gilhooly, Director of the Wigmore, said that: "By disrupting performances, the protesters completely take away the whole meaning of an artistic event, which is something that transcends politics."
So what exactly is this nebulous hierarchical relationship between art and politics? The suggestion is that art has no political dimension, or rather that its functioning is unrelated to political activity.
Does anybody actually believe that? Clearly, arts administrators would have a much easier time of it if what they promoted was insulated from the outside world, with no social or political connotations. But sublimating those connotations through notions of 'transcendence' isn't going to make them go away.
And it is a myth that does the art itself a disservice. Art and music that consciously engages with political issues is a rarity these days, but it is important that audiences have the right to interpret all art and music as having a direct relevance to their social situation. Anything less and it becomes merely entertainment. The performers in the situations described above are in a catch 22 if it is their employers making these claims. So perhaps musicians should be grateful to Archbishop Tutu for highlighting the political dimension of their work. On the other hand, it is probably just as well that he is not doing so loudly from the auditorium while they are trying to get on with it.