Friday, 4 March 2022

Cultural boycott


Elena Kovalskaya. Screenshot from Facebook.

A few days ago, thousands of Russian artists signed an open letter denouncing the invasion in Ukraine. “On behalf of our professional community, it is important to say that further escalation of the war will result in irreversible consequences for workers in culture and the arts. Engagement with culture and the arts will be almost impossible in these conditions.”

It is impossible, for people on both sides and beyond; for all of us. It is impossible in the sense that the show can’t simply go on and it cannot be business as usual. It just cannot.

People, colleagues in the cultural sector and other concerned citizens, have started expressing their disagreement in what concerns what they call the “cancelling of Russian artists” or “censorship” or… or…. From what I´ve seen, the only two artists that we may say that they, personally, have been cancelled are maestro Valery Gergiev (a big and shameless Putin ally) and opera singer Anna Netrebko (whom I think is a rather unconscious citizen and for me, despite her excellence, a rather irrelevant artist). As far as I know, there hasn’t been a demand that “every Russian should have to repudiate Putin before being allowed to perform in America or Europe”, as Alex Ross stated in an otherwise very good article in The New Yorker. Neither am I aware on any formal “talk of removing Russian composers from programs”. Maybe these are not official proposals yet, they are just “talk”, so we should make sure that they don’t turn into official proposals or practice. Cancelling a living or dead Russian artist because they are Russian would be absurd and unacceptable. But is this what is happening at this moment?

The Cannes Film Festival issued a statement saying that “Unless the war of assault ends in conditions that will satisfy the Ukrainian people, it has been decided that we will not welcome official Russian delegations nor accept the presence of anyone linked to the Russian government.” At the same time, they “salute the courage of all those in Russia who have taken risks to protest against the assault and invasion of Ukraine. Among them are artists and film professionals who have never ceased to fight against the contemporary regime, who cannot be associated with these unbearable actions, and those who are bombing Ukraine.” And they add: “Loyal to its history that started in 1939 in resistance to the fascist and Nazi dictatorship, the Festival de Cannes will always serve artists and industry professionals that raise their voices to denounce violence, repression, and injustices, for the main purpose to defend peace and liberty.”

Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov cancelled his concerts this summer with the Russian Youth Orchestra. “I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.”

More cases of cancelled performances and collaborations were reported by The Guardian and other media (here and here).  As far as I can see, they refer to a boycott to professional (business) relations with state-funded cultural organisations or state-funded works. This is not new. It has repeatedly happened in the past regarding Israeli state-funded cultural organisations and works of art (here’s more on Cultural BDS).

Those who oppose the boycott express concerns that “By banning these people from international events, Europe is silencing the Russian voice of protest, isolating people who want to stop the war from those who want to intensify it.” They say that “Hundreds and thousands of Russian cultural workers openly disagreed with the government's decision to start a war: they condemn their actions, go to protests, support Ukraine, and risk being convicted of treason. Almost all of them did not vote for Putin.” My good friend and colleague Marta Porto questions:  “If cultural institutions in times of crisis are unable to protect artists and defend freedom of creation, mobility and artistic work, what is the essence of your work?” She even posed a more difficult question on Facebook: “After all, should they [the artists] be punished [or be held responsible] for the extreme decisions of their rulers?”

And this is the point I believe we need to think a bit better.

Should people (and not just artists) be punished for the extreme decisions and actions of their rulers? No, they shouldn’t. Are people (artists included) responsible for the decisions and actions of their rulers? I think yes, we all are responsible and the issue here is if and how we understand this responsibility and what we do about it. In this sense, culture, in my view, is not exceptional, people working in this sector (artists and others) are not exceptional.

In every economic activity that will be hit by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) we will find people who speak up against Putin and condemn his actions, go to protests, support Ukraine and risk their freedom or even their physical integrity. At the same time, in Culture and every other field, we’ll find people who remain silent, for all sorts of reasons. I don’t wish to judge anybody or demand any acts of heroism. This is just how it is. My main point here is that Culture is not exceptional. In moments of crisis and ethical dilemmas, people in Culture and business in Culture aren’t any different.

So, what are we to do?

Culture is not apolitical. Thus, it is only natural that in grave political moments, like the one we are currently going through, Culture will be involved. As I said before, cancelling artists because they are Russian is both absurd and unacceptable. Boycotting state cultural organisations and state-funded works, though, is a whole different matter. The BDS movement has shown us that it is a way of pressuring and also of breaking the silence and raising awareness. It is not a movement against individual artists and cultural professionals (although it does affect them), but against what these organisations represent, who they get their money from and to do what.

This brings me to a second point: on the very first day of the war, the artistic director of the Meyerhold Theatre and Cultural Centre, Elena Kovalskaya, resigned in protest over the invasion in Ukraine saying that “It is impossible to work for a murderer and get a salary from him”. More Russian artistic directors, artists and cultural professionals resigned from their posts or left projects and many-many more signed the open letter mentioned in the beginning of this post. These are the people on the Russian side that should be of greatest concern to us now. These are the people (and we shouldn’t also forget the journalists and many others) that usually form the minority that is not afraid to speak up, to take risks and which is ultimately responsible for the much desired change. These are the people whom, as Marta Porto would say, we should protect and support. But this will not happen, should not happen, by carrying on with business as usual with certain cultural organisations. I feel that this would not be responsible or respectful, it would simply cancel their acts of courage and decency.

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