Barry Seldes


On his book Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician

Cover Interview of October 06, 2009

A close-up

I wrote the Introduction as a mise en scène that would set the stage for what comes next—a tale of presidential betrayal of an American artist (by Truman and Eisenhower).  In a larger sense, my work indicates how the arts are not separated from the domestic and international political milieus, from political and social forces.  In other words, the aesthetic terrain is not in some pristine place but is instead linked to structures of power.

I think that my book makes much of this clear by focusing not on abstract theory but on the concrete, human case.  Leonard Bernstein was, of course, a composer and conductor living in Cold War America.  As composer of Broadway musical theater, he was subject to the demands of the Cold War culture industry for creative expression.  Dissident and daring, Bernstein tested the limits imposed by orthodoxy—e.g., by naming and opposing the military-industrial complex and its adventures and expeditions around the globe.  But Bernstein did not broach those limits. 

In the sixties and later on, Bernstein did attack that complex, its promotion of an expansionist foreign policy and its most visible manifestation, the war in Vietnam.  And Bernstein did not stop there: he also attacked racism and homophobia, in the 1977 Songfest and in public address.

The reader will learn from the section on Gustav Mahler how Bernstein’s championing of that composer fits into the socio-political analyses of Bernstein’s life-long projects.