Monday, 7 March 2022

A few more thoughts on the cultural boycott

State Hermitage Museum

I follow intensely the news about the invasion in Ukraine, thinking of ways in which we could contribute and be useful, both as individuals and as professionals in the cultural sector. My starting point is that Culture is anything but apolitical and, within this context, one of the most controversial topics is that of the cultural boycott.

Things are moving fast. Just three days ago, I wrote that I wasn’t aware of any formal action to cancel Russian artists just because they were Russian or to remove Russian composers from concert programmes. Then, on Saturday I read Javier C. Hernández’s article in The New York Times about Russian artists being expected to “clarify their position” regarding Putin; about young pianist Alexander Malofeev’s concert being cancelled in Vancouver “for his own safety”; or the Polish National Opera dropping a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov… This is definitely how things can get out of hand. Malofeev himself wrote on Facebook that “The truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.” I wonder whether it was “satisfactory” enough…

At the same time, a colleague brought to my attention the appeal of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, asking us, among other things, to “Cancel any cooperation with russian artists, no matter how great or famous, as long as they openly support putin’s regime, silence its crimes, or do not publicly and directly oppose it.” I won't be insensitive to the suffering and anger of all Ukrainians, and especially our colleagues in the cultural field. But we need to pursue ways of pressuring that will not indiscriminately target “anything Russian". This wouldn't be fair, respectful or efficient. We shouldn't also demand of other people, cultural professionals and everyone else, that they do things that we don't do ourselves, namely calling out on bad, corrupt or useless political leaders - we all have them and, if we did, we wouldn't face the kind of repression the Russians face.

Another point my colleague brought up is that, at the time of the war in Yugoslavia, nothing reinforced Milosevic in his crazy war frenzy as much as the cultural boycott and the total isolation of Serbia. "It nourished and encouraged nationalism and made it OK for normal people to just hate, fear and distrust anything coming from the West, even until today." This is a real possibility, of course, especially if we consider that Putin’s regime is exercising an absolute control on media. Many, too many Russians have no idea about what’s going on, because “it wasn’t on TV” and I´ve read more than one report about older people getting upset with their children who are telling them a different story. At the same time, even at this point, before the consequences of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) are actually felt by common Russians and before the bodies of Russian soldiers start coming back to be buried, fueling anger against Ukrainians, many, too many Russians come out to defend their President’s decisions and to show that they trust his judgment. I felt outraged when I read that Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak placed the letter “Z” on the front of his outfit (a symbol of support for Russia’s invasion ) as he stood on the podium next to Ukraine’s Illia Kovtun, who won the gold.

Thus, we need to think carefully about ways of not indiscriminately ostracising Russian artists and other cultural professionals just because they’re Russian, of keeping channels of collaboration and support open, of helping spreading the news and also of pressuring the regime in whatever way we can. And one option is BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), currently used against Israel and before that in South Africa. Its aims should be explained publicly and widely in the clearest possible way. Last year, journalist Chris McGreal, who served both in South Africa and Israel, wrote in The Guardian about how BDS helped raise awareness worldwide and pressure the Apartheid regime, until South Africans managed to get rid of it.

Some colleagues believe that, in front of a strong and generalised BDS movement against Putin’s regime, culture, and especially the arts, are exceptional. They say that culture is about collaboration, respect, values and understanding between people. Jacques Marquis, from the Cliburn Foundation, was quoted in the New York Times article saying that his organisation felt it was important to speak out as it watched Russian artists come under scrutiny. “We can help the world by standing our ground and focusing on the music and on the artists”, he said. I wonder, isn’t this what we´ve been doing all along? Is he suggesting we should carry on as if nothing happened? Is he prepared to collaborate with an organisation funded by Putin’s regime as if this was all very civilised, for the sake of art and the artists? And what kind of art would that be when artists and everyone else in Russia are not even allowed to speak in favour of peace or to mention the word “war”?

There was one more point in Hernández’s New York Times article that reminded me of how unprepared we are to acknowledge that culture and the arts have a political role and discourse, even when claiming neutrality. One reads that “The tensions pose a dilemma for cultural institutions and those who support them. Many have long tried to stay above the fray of current events and have a deep belief in the role the arts can play in bridging divides. Now arts administrators, who have scant geopolitical expertise, find themselves in the midst of one of the most politically charged issues in recent decades, with little in the way of experience to draw on.” Really? Aren’t arts administrators citizens as well? Do they live on a remote island, cut off from the world? What are their organisations for then?

Another point we shouldn’t forget is that Culture has always been important for dictators and autocrats. They use it in their propaganda of normality and civility. In her article How the Hermitage Museum Artwashes Russian Aggression, Rachel Spence reminds us that “long before the Ukrainian invasion, there were reasons to query foreign partnerships, most of which are utterly uncritical, with Russian state institutions.” She specifically refers to the Morozov collection being currently on display at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, exhibiting works on loan from the State Hermitage Museum, as well as the State Tretyakov Museum and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Although this is a private foundation, both Macron and Putin contribute texts to the catalogue and Putin writes eloquently about the power of cultural diplomacy. The Hermitage director, Mikhail Piotrovski, is proud to be Putin’s man in this “cultural offensive” (Putin’s words) and vice-versa.

Where do I stand and what do I suggest at this point?

  • I believe we all need to be very careful and vigilant and not to allow for any acts of discrimination against Russian cultural professionals or artists (dead or alive) on the basis of their nationality.

  • Russian cultural professionals must not be forced to express their political views or clarifying their position in order to participate in international projects.

  • At this point, we must not collaborate with Russian state cultural organisations or present works that have received funding from it. This is not about individuals, although they will be affected (like many more good people in other professional areas). This is about who these organisations represent and get their money from, this is about the way they use culture in order to minimise or even cover their brutal actions, both within Russia and in Ukraine.

This cannot be irrelevant to us, otherwise what culture are we talking about? And what values? Where do we draw the line? And what are we supposed to say to Ukrainian artists and cultural professionals who won’t be attending any conferences or artistic residencies any time soon because they are fighting a war defending their country, either because they have been conscribed or because they volunteered?

BDS can help raise awareness worldwide and within Russia. It can send a message of support and solidarity to Russians who find the courage to confront a regime that punishes dissent. It can send a message of support and solidarity to the Ukrainian people, fighting a brutal war defending their country. And, finally, it may send a message and perhaps pressure the silent majority, those who often feel impotent and rightfully scared when dealing with a totalitarian regime. Noone is in a position to ask for or expect heroic acts, it wouldn’t be decent. But we all need to understand that, although we are not to blame for the brutal or immoral acts of our rulers or governors, we have a responsibility towards our country, our fellow citizens and to the world.  


Read also

Pjotr Sauer and Andrew Roth, Empty galleries and fleeing artists: Russia’s cultural uncoupling from the west. In The Guardian, 17.4.2022

Still in the blog regarding the political role of cultural organisations:

Power to act

Our “tea and sympathy” values

“Just” a museum, “just” an artist?

Being “just”

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