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Artists’ Freedom of expression as a bulwark against misinformation and memory manipulation

par Pierre-Alain Lévy

Art is universal in essence, in substance, and this universality, this community of beauty, emotions, creations and values, is both temporal and human, and is therefore part of history, unfolding everywhere in the world, without borders, without censorship, freely. But that doesn’t mean we can be short-sighted and ignore the political conditions facing artists in countries that corrupt thought and seek to restrict the imaginary. These are the same countries that place a totalitarian blanket over their peoples, with justice at their beck and call, and press freedom reduced to nil. 

In Cuba, it’s still the reign of censorship, political oppression and the enregimentation of consciences, and artists must submit to the dictates of power. On September 1st, an open letter signed by numerous Cuban artists and addressed to the international community of artists on the situation of art and human rights in Cuba was published, and we relay it in extenso in WUKALI. A new penal code has been implemented, reinforcing censorship and preventing artists from expressing themselves freely and creating. However, the country is still fantasized about, particularly in certain European political and intellectual circles, who maintain a misleading legend about it; rum, cigars and the island’s beauties perhaps acting as zealous propagandists. 

Elsewhere, Ai Weiwei has been forced to leave China, where there is no salvation outside the primacy of the Communist Party! In Russia, civil society is still dominated by the heirs of the KGB (now FSB), and the Lubyanka facade continues to inspire terror. History books are rewritten and revisited there, a clear sign of the dictatorial totalitarianism that is spreading its tentacles. The population cowers in on itself, petrified by its impotence in the face of the regime.

Art history, in its broadest sense, is a long-term process, drawing on all cultural and intellectual resources to understand a particular civilization or period. This is as true for the past as it is for the contemporary period. Culture, as we call it (at least in French), is in part the aggregation of memories. Unfortunately, there are also toxic memories, corroded memories and, worse still, manipulated memories.

Olécio partenaire de Wukali

Although the twentieth century has opened up a whole new field of research, the Communist and Nazi totalitarianisms were the matrix for this manipulation of consciousness and memory. George Orwell deciphered the workings of these systems, and Simon Leys, the great sinologist, studied their implementation. We must not forget to mention Antonio Gramsci, who theorized the use of culture as a tool of militancy and influence.

Three generations to forget

In one form or another, we’re all familiar with the story of fortune: the father creates it, the son maintains it and the grandson squanders it; it’s a bit like memory in politics! Could we not also see it as a metaphor for humanity?

Even today, with events in turmoil, Putin’s attack on Ukraine has turned the tables, and our suffering certainties have evaporated! For the most idealistic of us, just a few months ago we believed in the “end of history“. The French humorist and comedian Jean Yanne would have quipped in his own way in a song: «Tout le monde il est beau, tout le monde il est gentil», (Everyone is nice and gentle) and I won’t tell you what the mischievous heroine of a famous Raymond Queneau novel, Zazie*, would have said in her crude language!

History rigged? No doubt, and a few weeks before the special operation in Ukraine (i.e. the war), the Kremlin dictator had the Memorial association, a Russian human rights NGO, liquidated and dissolved, to shed light on the crimes committed during the USSR era. With Stalin, the Katyń massacre, police terror, political trials, the doctors’ plot affair, the Gulag, then with his successors and heirs, Soviet tanks and murderous repression in Budapest and Prague… but also Cuba and the missile crisis that brought the world to the brink.

What has been forgotten? But let’s take a look at Russian literature, starting with Victor Kravchenko’s J’ai choisi la liberté, (Chose freedom)- published in France then the USA in 1947, and the works of Vassili Grossman and Alexandre Soljenitsyne, as well as The Joke by the recently deceased Czech born writer Milan Kundera. These books, beyond the literature and ink on their pages, are blood, tears and pain, not just words, but our European history! It’s this very history that today seems to have evaporated, gone to decay and of which the younger generations in any case seem to be ignorant, and that’s the problem! A decerebration of the mind.

Romanticism to seduce the ingenuous and the candid

The rebel – the one who opposes, breaks free from the law and makes a mockery of the representatives of authority – is often the hero, especially when in the cinema, for example, it’s Cartouche (1693-1721), a famous highwayman who actually existed and whose character was played in cinema by the talented J.P Belmondo.

Modern mythologies, too, are searching for new ones, so it’s hardly surprising that in the sphere of politics, where the balance of power is constant, divisive individualities come to the fore wherever we stand. Our materialistic age needs new saints, models of sorts! What’s more, in totalitarian and dictatorial regimes, it’s piquant to note the almost deified image that leaders want to give of themselves to their people, especially in the case of Marxist regimes! You’d have to pinch yourself to believe it, even in the 21st century!

Equally astonishing in appearance are the subjective alliances between ultra-conservative American circles and the European far-right in support of Putin. Putin’s rhetoric, which revitalizes a reactionary political philosophy and an angelic image of a pseudo-Russian society in direct opposition to liberal democracies, feeds the propaganda and manipulations of populists of all stripes, including Americans and Europeans. It’s true that Russian gas revenues flow into the treasuries of many extreme political parties, and that some of the most eminent figures in the world benefit from the Kremlin’s largesse!

Incidentally, we all need a shadowy side to structure ourselves, a facetious, provocative and useful double. The image of the rebel is a popular one, the one who opposes legitimate authority (Guignol versus the gendarme, for example, and every child in France has laughed at his adventures, or Punch and Judy to the Anglo-Saxons).

Raychel Carrión, “Maykel Osorbo” (2022) (image courtesy the artist)

For over fifty years now, Che Guevara has been a saint and martyr. He has virtually become a media idol for young people. Indeed, his bearded face, topped with a beret bearing the red star, is reproduced on posters and T-shirts in every possible commercial setting (no copyright, which is very convenient!). Yet the guerrillero was hardly a model of political virtue, and his dogmatic intransigence was the reason for his separation from the lider maximo, which is an understatement!

As for Fidel Castro, his fellow traveler for a time, no one in certain so-called progressive circles would dispute his charisma! Let’s not forget that this very dear man had asked Nikita Khrushchev, Secretary of the USSR Communist Party and head of government, to respond to the Americans during the 1962 missile crisis, and send an atomic bomb to New York… no less!

But then, tropical political exoticism allows many compromises with ethics and morals, and seen from Paris (other capitals would also do), it’s so much more comfortable. A trifle of history, isn’t it, as a certain other would say at the table of extremes, or as a retarded «Bolivardian»** would bellow? Insidious propaganda makes its way.

But Cuba and the Cubans in this story, and respect for human rights, and respect for the individual, and the independence of the judiciary, and freedom of expression and freedom of thought and freedom for artists to create, and the fight against corruption, well, dare we say it, and democracy…? The same in China, the same in Russia, the same in the clientele of certain servile states as we see today! A new iron curtain, this time an information curtain, has descended on the world.

Ah the revolution…! «Everything must change for everything to remain the same », wrote the Italian novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his 1958 novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). Power of literature!

*Raymond Queneau. Zazie dans le métro  : « et mon cul, c’est du poulet ?», published in France by éditions Gallimard in 1959, plus later a film by Louis Malle with Philippe Noiret
** Allusion to a French politician

Heading cover: Ai WeiweiStudy of Perspective, Tiananmen, 1995-2010
You’ll find this text in its original French version, just click on the flag up page
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