Nigel Biggar

What are Universities For?

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. 

Claire Shuttleworth