Can an Artist Be Free? – Friday Thoughts

So I was watching Rush Hour (1998) for the first time yesterday… I hadn’t watched a movie solo in a while, and my slow-paced quest is to watch all the martial arts classics. Anyways, it was interesting. A biracial cop/action comedy, Rush Hour is goofy, terribly dated (the black/Asian stereotypes were hilariously awful), and story-wise, pretty fun. It makes you realize how much has changed in 20 years in American culture, for both better and worse. But I digress.

Somewhere in the middle of it, I started googling (big mistake). I hadn’t realized Jackie Chan has become very pro-CCP in recent years. Naturally, you’ll find all kinds of opinions on that on the internet. I was at first disturbed, but the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became.

See, in the past half year, I’ve been thinking over the subject of art and politics. Specifically:

  • Sanctions – artists being banned from projects, venues, countries, etc, due to their political views or associations
  • Political coercion vs political freedom and discerning the difference
  • The role of the state in arts and culture

Let’s start with sanctions. Over the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a number of “cancellations” were enacted by various arts organizations/companies against Russian artists. The ones I was most familiar with were soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, both regulars at the Metropolitan Opera. (This article summarizes Netrebko’s situation with asides to Gergiev.) I’ve enjoyed her performances many times, most especially as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin (2014).

There is some relation to my second point, which is that it is difficult for outsiders to perceive what is sincere and what is a sham when it comes to artists’ political beliefs. Every society which has a strong political culture—or rather, a specific flavor of political correctness, which is all of them—is unfriendly to the careers of anyone who does not support that culture. In some countries, this may have big ramifications on the mere existence of an artist’s career. Thus, when so-and-so comes out speaking “in favor of” or “against” a political person or idea, how do we know they are saying it sincerely vs. under a kind of duress? It is comparatively easy for one to take a stand if you are economically independent…not as much if you are reliant on patronage and social acceptance.

This is no hand-waving excuse for those artists who genuinely support the tyranny of Putin or of the CCP—or some more local tyrannies I could name. There’s just two questions I have:

  • Is it even possible to discern when an artist is being politically coerced vs. being honest?
  • If they are being honest, is it possible to separate their politics from their art, and ought we to? (Apart from other considerations, such as workplace environment—I can imagine political opponents performing in the same opera could cause emotional distress, jeopardizing the success of the production.)

I am trying to frame this in a way that is not loaded, because I don’t see a clear answer here.

The last piece of this sad-ballad tuna salad is the role of the state. I do not think the government should take a heavy hand in the arts, but I see a space for some public funding of less popular but worthy art. Of course, we have this in the US with the National Endowment for the Arts which supports such things as various classical orchestras. More could be said about how this ought to work and what checks and balances could be in place to avoid negative consequences (e.g. propaganda). I view public funding of the arts as a generally positive thing, but as with any use of tax dollars, it has the potential to be abused.

Ultimately… I wonder if an artist can be free. I do believe writers have the advantage in our medium. Books are portable and are typically written solo. They don’t require an elaborate team of producers, costume designers, sound technicians, etc. In the most extreme circumstances, stories can exist in your head until you find the right time and place to put them on paper. There is a long and inspiring history of dissident writing (see Václav Havel).

But to be an actor or a musician and to be free? There has been some progress made with YouTube, crowdfunding, and other digital platforms. But these forms of art often rely on institutions (private and public), and institutions are where you find the pressure to conform. So I remain skeptical.

Would welcome others’ thoughts on this topic…

3 thoughts on “Can an Artist Be Free? – Friday Thoughts

  1. Great post and great questions with no easy answers.

    This:

    “Every society which has a strong political culture—or rather, a specific flavor of political correctness, which is all of them—is unfriendly to the careers of anyone who does not support that culture”

    And in the event of unreconcilable views, -and even if we believe ours to be morally superior and more enlightened-, is there a way to still partake on some of the art while not becoming complicit with the ideology or propaganda?

    Ishiguro comes to mind as a writer who poses this questions in his books. Shen Yun the show which is wonderful comes to mind. At the end they share their “agenda” because it’s their way of life -they don’t separate it-, but I appreciated the art and “spit the bones” of that message, or reframed it within my own life values.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “is there a way to still partake on some of the art while not becoming complicit with the ideology or propaganda?”

      Really good point… I am not sure about this one, either. It was one reason I didn’t ultimately decide to watch the new Mulan remake (apart from Disney butchering their own story).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hear you. Everything seems wrapped in past biases -which we may be able to discern better but not always-, and our contemporary biases and we’re usually blind to those or totally unabashed. The artist is at a difficult position. I even read a book in which the couple collected rare books and they talk about author falling in an out of fashion depending on the ideological atmosphere of the times.

        Liked by 1 person

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