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?
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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