Speaking Art to Power: Advancing Democracy and Artistic Freedom

Speaking Art to Power: Advancing Democracy and Artistic Freedom

This article is based on remarks presented during “Advancing Democracy and the Arts”, a joint EngageParlDiplo and National Gallery of Canada event, June 8, 2022. Click here to learn more about the event.

Our cultural institutions represent the true essence of democracy – freedom of speech and expression.

What is artistic freedom? UNESCO defines it as the freedom to imagine, create and distribute diverse cultural expressions free of governmental censorship, political interference or the pressures of non-state actors. It includes the right of all citizens to have access to these works and is essential for the well-being of societies.

Artistic freedom goes hand in hand with democratic governance. In fact, they are inseparable.

Here in Canada, we are confident enough in our democracy that we can often forget this link. When we experience extraordinary art, we immerse ourselves in it without necessarily recalling how fortunate we are to live in a democracy that allows these artists to create without censorship or intimidation. We may forget that being here together tonight, to participate in cultural life, is a fundamental right protected under international law – yet too often violated in places where democracy is weak or lacking.

Throughout history, artists are often the first to be attacked and silenced by authoritarians. Lest we forget in the 1930s, Stalin clamped down to force artists to serve the state and systematically executed Ukrainian folk poets in the Soviet Union. Also, in the 1930s, Fascists built a right-wing network of international organizations for film, music, literature, and academic scholarship to cloak themselves in legitimacy and to lay the groundwork for their terrifying new idea of Europe. In the 1970s, Pinochet arrested, tortured and exiled muralists in Chile – many of whom ultimately found refuge here in Canada.

Today, we have many examples of courageous artists who are speaking art to power, like Cuba’s Danilo Maldonado (known as El Sexto) who uses his graffiti, video and visual art to criticize the abuses of the Cuban people at the hands of the communist dictatorship. There is Ai Weiwei, China’s dissident artist and activist who has made art out of the rebar salvaged from poorly constructed government school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He has also spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting crisis of refugees as an attack on democracy itself.

Both El Sexto and AiWeiWei faced prosecution, incarceration and destruction of their works. Both are now in exile but continue to speak out about human rights abuses at home and everywhere.

We also stand in solidarity with the many Ukrainian artists and dissident Russian artists who are valiantly waging a subversive resistance at incredible risk to their lives.

Why do authoritarians attack artists?

As author Eve Ewing explains, “Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Art empowers us to challenge power structures in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.”

Violating artistic freedom is a strategy of control. In attacking the arts, authoritarians create societies that replace free expression with propaganda and silence dissent.

This is why democracy is so essential to the arts.

Our responsibility is to defend artistic freedom and the right to free expression by defending democracy at home and abroad. We all have a role in securing artistic freedom by protecting democracy everywhere.

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