The Artist's Right to Remain Silent in the Face of War

March 13, 2022, 11:15 AM · Early on the morning of February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the Ukraine. Human life in the region Professor Timothy Snyder so cogently refers to as "the bloodlands" has become untenable. Millions of innocent civilians have become victims in a shocking, unforgiving geopolitical calculus masterminded by Vladimir Putin who claimed that the U.S. and its NATO allies provoked "necessary measures."

The Russian Army's path of destruction and terror have stunned the globe, as our focus has moved away from the COVID-19 pandemic to the visceral gore of unfolding war. President Biden and NATO leaders have repeatedly stated, 'no boots on the ground,' uniting behind increasingly severe economic sanctions on Russia while moving forward to strengthen the NATO alliance and increase humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered Ukrainians.

Silence in a larger context has governed reactions to conflict. Even in recent history, the West has been for the most part silent vis-à-vis Russian aggression: recall for a moment the March 2014 assault on the Crimea (Ukraine) not to speak of the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Are there appropriate artistic responses to Putin's war?

Ukraine msuicains

History lessons aside, a burning question lingers, should we engage in active anti-Russian censorship? In our small corner of public opinion, the arts world, silence has become a low-ranking commodity. Although the right to remain silent is etched in the cornerstones of democracies worldwide, cultural institutions and performers have recently been confronted with a duty to speak out.

Around my corner, Amsterdam's Hermitage Museum has been forced to close its doors due to its direct connection to its 'partner museum,' St. Petersburg's famed Hermitage. Russia has been banned from participation in the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest and almost every tour and cultural exchange has been canceled. While many Russian musicians and cultural workers have spoken out against Putin's war, an increasing number fear retribution in the wake of damning public opinion.

While Vladimir Putin's close associate and proclaimed friend, conductor Valery Gergiev, once the darling of world concert stages (Gergiev Festival Rotterdam/La Scala Milan/Metropolitan Opera), is now banned from performing at almost every international venue, should the politicization of the arts be left behind at the front door of the concert hall? Was the Metropolitan Opera correct in forcing star soprano Anna Netrebko to back down from her performances? Should we target only those artists who associate themselves actively with tyrants/aggressors?

There is a marked difference between 'influencer' artists who put themselves into a political limelight and those who go about answering to the demands of their art. Is it not possible to draw a line to exclude non-public figure performers from blacklists of pro-Putin artists?

Politically Correct Artistic Policing

Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc posts starting on March 11, 2022 placed a list of international musicians on its webpages for scrutiny with the banner text: "We'd like to hear opinions on the Russian invasion from a number of brand leaders who appear to have gone missing in action." The hotlist included such VIPs as Lang Lang and Placido Domingo along with notable Russian performers.

When a prominent Latvian-born American pianist queried Slipped Disc with regard to its questionable role as arbiter of 'good' and 'evil,' Mr. Lebrecht responded, "it strikes us that people who are role models and spokespersons for classical music need to make clear where they stand on Europe's worst aggression since World War Two. Silence could be construed as complicity. That is why we published this list."

Perhaps we can ferret out a grain of truth when applied to superstar spokespeople on center-stage. After all, artists such as Daniel Barenboim and in past decades, Leonard Bernstein and Mstislav Rostropovich, elected to use their celebrity stature to create platforms for political statements and conscious-raising actions.

Are all performers now equatable with these luminary figures? Are we entitled to attribute a partisan status to all who perform? An ongoing frenzy of social media posts point to mounting support for reaching culturally appropriate verdicts without any semblance of trials.

How far should prohibitions of those who are allied with aggressors reach?

As of this weekend in the Netherlands, concerts featuring Russian composers have been sanitized: incredible but true, even the 19th century has become an object of scrutiny, as Tchaikovsky has been removed from some programs. Young Russian artists enrolled at a top Dutch conservatory received emails barring their participation at an international competition based solely on their nationality.

From around the globe, reports of concert organizations that have prepared checklists to ascertain whether or not certain Russian musicians should be allowed to perform have spread. We now run the risk of creating a system dominated by self-patronizing, hypocritical, good vs. evil judgments akin to the lists of banned composers and performers distributed by the Nazis during their reign of terror.

If we go so far as to exclude Russian nationals from culture and sport arenas, we run the risk to place the Russian people in total isolation. And, if we point a finger at Russian emigres in our midst, we sink into a quagmire of political correctness.

Importantly, are we as 'free Western citizens' able to judge the decisions taken by Russian musicians? Do we hold the right to demand the political stance of our peers? And even more crucially, can we judge the constraints these individuals might operate under 'back home' in Russia?

Turning to history for a moment of reflective solace, a closer look at the example of the great Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich warrants repetition. Western journalists questioned why Shostakovich had not taken steps to emigrate, and then instead of suffering under the Stalin regime, criticize from a safe distance? The great Russian U.S. émigré poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who penned the words that inspired the texts in Shostakovich' Symphony no. 13 ('Babi Yar'), provided the answer in a U.S. radio interview: "A monument cannot emigrate. And Shostakovich knew, if he had left his homeland not only the members of his family, but all of Russian music would have been taken hostage."

In Yevtushenko's weltanschauung, we need not remain silent: we need to speak out in the most 'appropriate way possible.'

The poet writes, the musician performs. All of us can look within our own hearts to come to the aid of the Ukraine: adopt a refugee family; contribute funds to one of a myriad of vital appeals; organize charity concerts. But do not feed the hypocrisy of banning Russian music and/or randomly assigning politically correct titles to artists and performers.

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March 13, 2022 at 09:52 PM · I think this was a well written and thoughtful article. Ultimately, I believe we have the right and responsibility to stand up to tyranny whenever it happens; "evil triumphs when good people do nothing". I do think it is ridiculous to ban Russian compositions from being performed, and certainly those of Russian descent who have emigrated to other countries MUST NOT be discriminated against in any way.

At the same time, artists and sports figures and so forth from Russia shouldn't be allowed to pretend their country is acting civilized or that somehow they are above suffering any consequences for their country's actions. There are consequences to the Russia's continuing acts of barbarism. If those consequences including choosing not to allow a talented violinist to perform, or a well-known conductor is no longer able to work in civilized society, well, that price is microscopic compared to the death and destruction being inflicted on the people of Ukraine.

March 13, 2022 at 11:10 PM · Another aspect: If the West keeps up the sanctions millions of innocent* Russians will suffer quite severely. Compared to that some career setbacks for the few privileged Russian musicians who have an international career** do not bother me very much.

* Innocent in the sense that they 1. have no input into Putin's decisions and 2. are being lied to as to the true state of affairs.

** and are therefor in a position to know the truth.

March 14, 2022 at 01:54 AM · I agree with the article. As much as we condemn Putin for his invasion, the sanctions that are put on Russians are absolutely absurd in my opinion. While we must speak out against tyranny, we should not cancel civilians, such as musicians, as they are not at all responsible for Putin's actions. Regardless of whether or not you are pro-Putin, I do not think the withdrawal and cancellation of Russian artists is fair, especially when music is something that unites us across political divides. The amount of Russian hate that is going around is just absolutely over the line in my opinion. You may hate Putin, but this hate should not extend to civilians.

March 14, 2022 at 03:56 AM · So true Ella. I am just readingg about the Russians who have fled the country because they know their lives are over as a result of the war. They deserve our compassion too.



March 14, 2022 at 04:31 AM · I agree; those who chose to flee deserve our help and compassion, and we must not discriminate against them or against those of Russian descent. But those who know the truth and choose to remain silent and enjoy their privileged position are a different story, as Albrecht pointed out. That doesn't mean hate them, but it does mean they are not immune to consequences.

March 14, 2022 at 11:08 AM ·

I do think that the subject at hand is complex. I'm all for meaningful gestures, but much of what I see will have no effect whatsoever.

March 14, 2022 at 11:17 AM · Iraq war was raged for WMD which is never been found, estimated somewhere between 200k- 400k civilian dead. This month, US was bombing Somalia while Saudi is bombing Yemen. Does any American artists, or artists from the allied who started those wars been asked to come to denounce your governments? Did anyone ask who did you vote for in 2020? Why do you think you should be immune to the consequence? Would you also like look into your heart and ask how you should atone for the people your country killed in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Somali and the list goes on?

To target Russian artists, regardless on his/her political view, while not applying the same standard to the American and European artists, is to show how morally bankrupted some of you can be.

What does removing Tchaikovsky from your music program tell us about you? Does that make you righteous or just downright petty? If you dare, go ahead remove the Mendeleev's periodic table from the Chemistry class. In fact, you can stop teaching a large part of Chemistry, since a lot of the discovery are made by Russian chemists.

March 14, 2022 at 03:36 PM · Richard Jackson shared the familiar quote, "Evil triumphs when good people do nothing." However, just because someone is not "speaking out" in press conferences, social media postings, and such, doesn't mean they're "doing nothing." They might be doing things you can't see.

I teach university chemistry. I'm happy to talk about the contributions of Mendeleev, Nesmeyanov, Chugaev, and Volpin in my courses. But I don't think I should labor my students with my political views. When students ask me who I voted for, my answer is always "I voted for the best candidate."

Personally I think a violin teacher who has a strong political opinion should not inject that opinion into the lesson environment. My violin teacher has a "no talking about politics" rule in his studio and I'm glad.

Assigning responsibilities to someone beyond the scope of their training, experience, and aptitude seems patently unfair to me.

March 14, 2022 at 03:58 PM · I do totally agree that the classroom should be free of political views but that wasn't what I was talking about at all. The case of privileged Russian artists, sports figures, etc. who know exactly what Russia is doing but choose to remain silent is what I was referring to, not violin teachers injecting political opinions into their lessons. Those Russian public figures are paying the consequences of their country's barbaric acts now in the sense that civilized nations are choosing not to employ them.

March 14, 2022 at 05:10 PM · Richard, if you're talking about a musician who lives in Russia and is sponsored by the Russian state, that's one thing -- I assume that's what you mean by "privileged." In that case I'm inclined to agree with you except I have to admit that it's very easy for me to say because I'm not facing imprisonment for expressing my views. I'm always cautious about assigning other people responsibilities that I'm not 100% sure I would so eagerly accept were I in a similar situation.

Is there a list somewhere of "privileged" Russian musicians that I could peruse so that at least I know whom I would be accusing of cowardice and complicity?

March 15, 2022 at 06:11 AM · Being obnoxious, as is my wont on such matters, I feel compelled to ask, Why not perform Tchaikovsky's 2nd Symphony, but this time advertise it using the name "Ukraine", instead of the patronizing "Little Russia". Then donate the proceeds to the Ukrainian refugees. Just my 0.02c worth.

March 17, 2022 at 12:23 PM · A very good idea, Wesley.

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