When people take to the streets to express their support or displeasure over … art?
Artists and literary types tend to take things seriously. Anyone who's ever participated in a creative endeavour, from the high school stage to New York City publishing, knows how easily emotions can enter the fray and how intense those emotions can become.
But sometimes people take things really, really seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they're willing to go into the streets and smash things — and often each other — to express their support or displeasure over a particular work of art. The premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913 is the classic example, with supporters and detractors getting into a brawl over the music.
Here are a few examples of when people took to the streets over art:
An Opera Births a Nation
Daniel Auber’s The Mute Girl of Portici, a sentimental opera about tragic love set against the backdrop of an uprising against the Spanish, plays a major role in the history of the genre, establishing a new act structure and incorporating ballet and epic in a way that would prove influential for decades to come. It's also a big reason why we have the nation of Belgium.
Yes, you read that right: While tensions had simmered in the region for some time, it was Auber's romantic tale of doomed lovers and revolutionaries — one number in particular — that inflamed the populace to rebel. They exited the opera and went straight to the business of seizing government buildings, conjuring the image of opera-goers throwing up barricades and driving out cops. Normally, one would expect a massacre (an operatic one, even) to follow pretty damn quickly. But no, the ruling Dutch failed to throw back the opera-humming rebels, with their soldiers unable to retake the areas they'd lost. Imagine if Les Miserables led to the overthrow of a national government — mobs belting out “Do you hear the people sing?” — and you have some idea of how absolutely, unexpectedly absurd this whole thing seems. But it happened.
Opera fans have, perhaps somewhat regrettably, lost their willingness to mix it the up in ensuing years. As for the Belgians, they declared independence a few months later and the country's enjoyed a real — if sometimes shaky — existence ever since.
A Play Opens up the Purging of Millions
In the fraught and paranoid political environment of Mao's China, literary allegory could be a deadly business. In 1959, Beijing politician and historian Wu Han's play “Hai Rui Dismissed From Office,” about a famously upstanding (if notorious stick in the mud) Ming-era magistrate's attempts to fight against the corruption of his era, didn't initially cause much of a stir. But in the late '60s, as interest in it continued, Mao decided to use it to strike against his rivals. Literary criticism of the book emerged and this time, the streets were anything but quiet, with demonstrators condemning Wu (and, more importantly for Mao's purposes, his patrons) as secret reactionaries out to overthrow the communist regime. It wasn't true, but the riots and demonstrations continued, and Wu was thrown in jail, dying there in 1969. His superiors were also purged, and the riots over the allegorical meaning of a historical play proved just the opening act in the decade-long Cultural Revolution, a cycle of brutal violence and purges that would see millions dead and the entire country thrown into chaos.
A Concert Deteriorates into Chaos
Fresh off the high of Woodstock, big free concerts were all the rage as the '60s neared its end. In this case, it was less the content of the work itself (as seen in the classic documentary Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones seem to cluelessly drone on about love while the concert is clearly going to absolute hell around them) than a combination of music industry greed with crap logistics, the terrible idea of hiring the Hells Angels as security and the blindness of hippie culture to the very real possibility of things going very wrong very quickly.
Shifting venues put the attempt to create a “Woodstock of the West” four months after the New York festival in an increasingly bad place. The Altamont Raceway lacked toilets or the proper terrain to host such an even, and the short notice left little time to make preparations. The plan to use the bikers as security doesn't seem to have been clearly understood by any of the parties involved, with the property owner apparently more interested in warding against property damage than preventing violence. With hundreds of thousands of people in the small space (about 5,000 jammed around the stage alone when the Stones started to play), things deteriorated to the point where the Grateful Dead refused to take the stage, four people died (one at the hands of a Hells Angel) and over a 100 were injured. It may not have heralded political chaos or a new country, but Altamont sure as hell killed the illusions of an era during one very bloody night.
An Opera Rattles New York
Missing in much of the common narrative about the 1913 Rite of Spring riot is that the sort of incident wasn't unheard of at all in that era. Like with Mao's literary criticism or revolutionary Belgians belting out opera numbers, controversial works of art were often just the tip of the spear for much larger controversies about social roles, traditions, class and rapidly changing societies.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the New York of the early 20th century — as big a battleground for all these social pressures as has ever existed. When Oscar Wilde's infamous play Salome was adapted for the opera by Richard Strauss, it set New York society, which still had a major puritanical element, aghast. It wasn't the only place where this had happened — the Austrian Empire refused to even allow the work to be performed — but in New York most of the audience left, angry and violent, before the play had even ended and “the effect of horror was pronounced,” as The New York Tribune declared at the time.
The resulting property damage was relatively minor, but it was clear that even the commanding heights of American culture weren't quite ready for the modern world, especially its avant-garde edge, at the time. It would be a long, long time before Salome would grace such a lofty stage again, and the mainstream shock and riot at its sexual and sacrilegious themes presaged a long, long fight over the heart of American culture that still goes on today.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local papers and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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