In a complicated world, there is one simple way to evaluate the integrity of a government: are artists free to create?
This does not mean analyzing how well a government supports the arts and artists, or provides artistic opportunities, or educates audiences. Those are separate and distinct issues. The question is whether one gives legitimacy to a government that views free expression as an illegitimate right.
In the 21st century, how can anyone make an acceptable argument for a government that criminalizes art?
KadmusArts’ Culture News feed tracks the continuing tension between artistic expression and governmental control. Some of the low-lights over the past days include:
– Members of the Belarus Free Theatre were arrested and harassed for participating in peaceful demonstrations. They had to sneak out of their country to be able to perform in New York with one of their signature pieces about the price of freedom.
– The Hungarian government cracked down on a free press and demanded the equivalent of loyalty oaths from arts institutions.
– The Iraqi government fortunately suspended an earlier minister’s decision which had banned the teaching of music and theatre in secondary education.
– Zimbabwe police arrested actors on stage, along with their tour manager and driver, during a performance about “national healing and reconciliation”. The charge? Criminal nuisance.
– The Chinese government razed the studio of Ai Weiwei, who is one of China’s best known visual artists and one of the government’s most outspoken critics.
Why are governments afraid of artists connecting to audiences?
Last week, to protest the Russian justice system (which does not allow defendants to sit during their trial), playwright and director Mikhail Ugarov created a movement: “drop-a-chair-off” at the doorstep of the Tverskoi Court. A simple form of participatory art became a significant political action.
And, in a still developing story, the Tunisian government cut and ran after a perfect storm of blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, and other social nets challenged presidential decisions. Today’s user generated tools shine a light on old methods.
Has a work of art ever created a political revolution? No. But, has a work of art given us insight into crimes committed in the name of politics? Yes.
In today’s world, governments have a more difficult time isolating their population and silencing their artists. That’s not just a good thing; that’s a great thing.
- Bill Reichblum