Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian president who is more concerned with consolidating his own power over Russia than addressing the country’s shocking track record of human rights violations, can play the piano.
That’s right, the leader of the world’s largest nation, who has threatened the very bedrock of free press and potentially encouraged the delegitimization of Western democracy, has some semblance of a musical talent.
Proof of such talent hit the internet on Monday morning in the form of a video of Putin playing Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi’s “Evening Song” and Tikhon Khrennikov’s “Moscow Windows” in Beijing. While you might have imagined such a recital unremarkable, others would disagree.
“The recital showed perhaps a softer side of Mr. Putin, an authoritarian leader who has been in power since 1999 and has often appeared eager to be seen as manly,” Ivan Nechepurenko wrote in a piece that appeared in The New York Times. The story was picked up by other outlets (including this one) and reported in a similar fashion by other publications, who made it a point to note that the piano playing represented a “softer” skill.
When compared to his knack for invading other countries or supporting internationally condemned dictators, perhaps piano playing is a “softer” skill. But the arbitrariness of that comparison reveals the absurdity of the framing: Putin’s ability to play the piano doesn’t make him any softer, or even reveal a supposed “softer side.”
As many people have pointed out on social media, several other men capable of heinous things have demonstrated a talent for the arts. So what?
Putin’s seemingly spontaneous public outings, always chronicled by a photographer on hand, have been covered before. He hunts, he fishes, he rides horses shirtless. His piano playing is but another public gesture, meant to humanize, even aggrandize, a president whose regime is riddled with corruption. But does it make a difference to anyone that Putin, capable of the atrocities mentioned here, has a “softer side”? Is artistic talent that redemptive of a quality?
Artists are certainly not innately good or soft. (“Hard,” “evil” people can make art, too; to use a particularly popular example from history, Hitler was an acclaimed painter.) Neither is art itself. It can be uncomfortable, dark, provocative, nauseating. Just ask Hermann Nitsch. “The gooey notion that art should somehow be good for you ― Vitamin C for the soul ― is very American,” critic Christopher Knight wrote back in 1992.
When former American President George W. Bush announced his painting hobby, the internet was quick to praise such a nice, quaint retirement pastime. When he came out with his own art book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, the praise continued, until a Hyperallergic article proposed that maybe we were focusing too much on “the transformative power of art.” He was, after all, the same president who’s believed to have “misled a nation into the Iraq War.”
Perhaps what’s particularly annoying about the framing of an article that suggests Putin, a totalitarian head of state, is somehow more sensitive after putting on a piano performance, is that it proposes that his talent is also the opposite of “manly” ― as opposed to his more “virile” hobbies: hunting and fishing and shirtless horseback riding. The overtly masculine descriptors are perplexingly outdated and sexist, because, obviously, virile men can play the piano and feminine women can hunt.
At the end of the day, Putin’s piano playing means much less than he or his administration would like you to believe. Whether he’s performed before ― or done so badly ― does not matter.
Deborah Rothschild, the curator of a show of Hitler’s paintings, once said that, “The union of malevolence and beauty can occur; we must remain vigilant against its destructive power.” But Peter Schjeldahl, an art crtic at The New Yorker, probably said it better:
We must remain vigilant against malevolence, and we should regard beauty as the fundamentally amoral phenomenon that it is.
It does not matter.