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No Ivory Tower: Oxford, as seen in a pre-war Great Western Railway poster, has always played a public role (Getty Images)

Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural enforcer, opened his address to the 1948 Moscow Congress of Composers thus:

Comrade Musicians, permit me a few opening remarks on the role of the creative artist in society. In the West, the artist is a mere ornament, victim to market forces. He can be made, or broken, by the vogues of a narrow intellectual elite. Whether he lives or starves depends on how fashionable he is. Freedom is a struggle to survive. We — we value our artist. We recognise the gift he brings. As any science — any technology — poetry, art are vital to our humanity. Our institutions, therefore, accord the artist proper status. In our society, he enjoys his rightful place. But with that status comes responsibility. In the West, yes, the artist is free to dabble in abstractions, in sentimental nihilism, in meaninglessness itself. We, the People, demand that you touch us, that you reach into us, that your creations be of meaning to us. In a word, that you speak. Have we, in our Soviet music, the beginnings of a failure to speak?

And down in the audience, about to be denounced for the "hooligan squawkings" of his Ninth Symphony, Dmitri Shostakovich leans over to his neighbour and mutters: "The trouble with Zhdanov is that he's so often right."

Well, half-right: right, that the artist has a public responsibility; wrong, that the responsible artist is always harmonious and upbeat. 

Like Zhdanov, today's Western governments are also half-right. They are right that universities have a public responsibility but wrong that this responsibility amounts to little more than economic responsiveness. Actually, in his less shrunken, fuller conception of public responsibility — if only in that — Comrade Zhdanov was somewhat wiser than our own rulers. 

The first time that I spoke on what universities were for was just over five years ago, when I was teaching at Trinity College Dublin. I had been asked to preach in the College Chapel at a service to mark the beginning of the 2004 academic year. A few months earlier, the university had buckled under pressure from government, and had embarked on a wholesale reorganisation towards an allegedly business model of corporate structure. It had done this in the vain hope of appeasing its political masters into reversing the 18 per cent cut in core funding that had suddenly been imposed. (And this was while the Celtic Tiger was still purring along very happily — or so it seemed at the time.) 

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Andrew Troup
November 20th, 2010
4:11 AM
I had resolved to follow the example of others who have not dignified Masha's 'suggestion' with a reply, but I was troubled by the possibility that an impressionable mind might mistake the absence of refutation for some sort of tacit affirmation. Biggar's contention in this article is that Zhdanov was half right on one specific assertion. Dmitri Shostakovich was prepared to make a larger claim, namely that Zhdanov was '(so) often right' - a startling claim from someone so obviously in Z's sights at that moment. Given Zhdanov's gulag-populating proclivities, it is striking to me (as clearly it was to Biggar) that someone in so much danger could still entertain the possibility that Z was not automatically wrong about everything - whereas Masha, despite the fact that s/he is presumably not accessing the www from within a gulag, seems disposed to tap-dance on the coffin of that possibility with a complacent certainty which seems to me to characterise a closed mind. The tenor of the article suggests that Biggar chose the example because of this dramatic contrast between Z's wrong-headedness and the fact that he nevertheless had a valid point (or half a point) on this issue. Masha seems to prefer to infer that Biggar chose it because he saw Zhdanov as some sort of moral oracle; M offers no refutation of the idea, preferring simply to 'denounce' the source. This seems to me to be an example of the sort of Orwellian political correctness (in the original sense) which collapsed the Soviet Union. The suggestion that Biggar stick to his own field reminds me of a similarly reasonable suggestion I saw recently. A letter to the editor of my local rag suggested that those who sought to disallow dogs on certain local beaches were clearly not dog owners, and hence had no relevant expertise to bring to the discussion. I am inclined to disagree. I do not believe I require expertise on dogs, or on oysters, to recognise that what dogs lay on beaches are not pearls. Conversely, Biggar does not need specific (presumably historical) expertise to assess an idea from any source on whether it might contain a germ ... or a pearl ... of present-day merit.

September 16th, 2010
8:09 PM
Is this guy for real? Quoting "Comrade" Zhdanov,who made a solid contribution to the gulag population, when talking about the artist and moral contributions. Can I suggest he sticks to his own field?

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