A Tragedy of Errors

The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ conjured up ideas for a murderous doomsday cult in the mind of Charles Manson. Mark David Chapman stated that J.D. Salinger’s raunchy, lingering coming-of-age novel ‘Catcher in the Rye’ inspired him to assassinate John Lennon. The Teutonic aggrandizing operas of Richard Wagner served as muse for a struggling young artist named Adolf Hitler to carry out the most heinous genocidal campaign in world history.

The true power of art lies in its interpretation. How one interprets art is out of the hands of the artist, whether a patron’s thoughts reflect the creator’s vision or not. That is what makes it powerful, compelling, and dangerous all at once.

The right-wing media in the wake of the assault on members of the Congressional Republican baseball team, which left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, as well as several Capitol Hill police officers and staffers severely injured, have been rabid searching for an outside party to blame for the actions of shooter James Thomas Hodgkinson. Their scapegoat: The New York Public Theater, which recently staged a production of William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ featuring an obvious parody of President Donald Trump as a stand-in for the title character.

The New York Public Theater production of William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ featuring a familiar face in the role of the title character (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus/The Public Theater via AP)

Whether Hodgkinson was inspired to act because of the performance is unknown. That has not stopped Trump’s most voracious supporters (Most prominently Fox News pundit Sean Hannity, and former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich) from laying blame on the theater company’s production for the attack. The performance has been more or less interpreted by members of the right as a blatant call to arms against a divisive president, whose detractors cast him as a tinpot despot. The assumptions being drawn from the Shakespearian theater have inspired a new act of political theater, dare I say.

The question that has to be asked is not whether Hodgkinson saw the production as a call to arms, but rather is the right using the performance to cast undue blame on left-leaning activists for the recent sting of political violence. It makes you wonder, have Hannity or Gingrich seen ‘Caesar’ from start to finish? Theirs is an interpretation, or should I say a gross misunderstanding of what Shakespeare was trying to get at about the consequences of political violence.

Attention to ‘Julius Caesar’ is so often focused around the third act, where an emboldened and hubris-consumed Caesar meets his fate to the daggers of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March. Hannity, Gingrich, and company must have slept through the fourth and fifth acts, where Caesar’s loyalists hunt down and destroy the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, and anyone who may sympathize with them in their desperate move to save the Republic. These violent reprisals sets the stage for Caesar’s own adopted son Octavian to deliver an eventual coup de grace to the free Republic and rebrand Rome as an Empire under the control of an absolute monarch. Do they know that the slaying of a dictator is not the end of tyranny for Rome, but rather the beginning of it?

What we have here is yet another misinterpretation of a timeless work of art. This time the intention is to widen the chasm of our modern political discourse, to spur a defunding of public arts programs such as the NEA (a prominent part of Donald Trump’s proposed budget), and vilify the anti-Trump movement whose opposition to the new administration has been overwhelmingly based around peaceful resistance.

This is not an indictment of the American right as a whole. There are plenty of conservative Americans who take a great deal of pride and enjoyment in the arts, and relish its many interpretations. This is a damnation of those public figures who seek to cast unduly blame on the arts in order to further their own personal agendas. One possible solution to resolve our differences of opinion could be to engage these the Trumpist right in further discussion of the arts and their deeper meaning, but that could just as likely fall on deaf ears. There’s no convincing some people.

Those who truly want to interpret art in their manner will stick to their guns. This writer is no different. Art is what you make of it, and as long as our prehistoric ancestors painted on cave walls there has be disagreements of the meaning and value of art in society. Instead of just overanalyzing one tiny detail of the piece let us at least try to see the bigger picture. Let’s talk about art again.

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