Black ties, red carpets, gold statues and colorful acceptance speeches mark an awards season that hits full force over a fortnight spanning the Grammy Awards on Sunday and the Academy Awards on Feb. 26. This American celebration of artistic excellence is excessive, some say. But better that than the censorship and attacks on artistic freedom that darken too much of the globe.
“Artists continue to be silenced all over the world,” according to Freemuse, an independent, international organization dedicated to defending artistic freedom. Its annual report, “Art Under Threat,” tracks a record 1,028 attacks on artists and violations of their rights across 78 countries in 2016 — a striking rise of 119 percent from last year’s report — as artists were “censored, tortured, jailed and even killed for their creative expressions.”
Many of these cases occur under repressive regimes that also jeopardize journalists, like Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, China and Russia. But increasingly there is concern that the rising tide of populist politics worldwide — including in Western democracies — poses a threat, too.
“With populist and nationalist leaders questioning the universality of human rights, now is the time to document violations and use those facts to defend and amplify threatened artistic voices,” the report states.
Voices, and more generally music itself, are the art form that suffered the most violations of artistic freedom, with 46 percent of total cases, according to Freemuse. In extreme cases the suppression goes beyond harassment to assassination, as in the case of Amjad Sabri, a celebrated Suffi spiritual music performer gunned down by two anti-Shiite militants on a motorbike.
“The special thing about music is it reaches people much more than any art form because it transcends age, gender, social status and education level, and connects in many societies with differing levels of literacy,” said Ole Reitov, executive director of Freemuse.
Reitov, speaking from London, added that much of the music repression is from fundamentalist countries such as Iran, where women are particular targets. The Freemuse report details an internal power struggle within the country’s political, religious and social institutions that has landed music “in the middle of the battlefield” between factions, sending some musicians to Iranian prisons.
Music’s eloquence and power is matched by theater and visual arts, which surged from fourth to second place in the rankings of art forms attacked.
It happened to Silvanos Mudzvova, a brave Zimbabwean who staged a one-act play to protest the corruption corroding the resource-rich, governance-poor African nation.
“I specialize in challenging elected officials, members of Parliament, ministers and councilors by putting on a performance — I want them to know the challenges we face as a people,” Mudzvova said from the United Kingdom, where he can speak freely after being abducted and “severely tortured” by six armed men who stormed his house and took him from his family late one night.
Although now partly paralyzed, he stands unbowed in his belief in and commitment to the necessity of art as protest.
“They know people are no longer listening to the propaganda and are looking for alternative voices,” Mudzvova said, adding: “They want you to remain docile; they are watching what some other Zimbabweans are demanding and they fear that a lot.”
The theocrats running Iran and the autocrats (like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe) who rule in other countries may be increasingly joined by burgeoning populist and nationalist movements and leaders who, according to the Freemuse report, “often portray human rights as a limitation on what they claim is the will of the majority.” Amid the nationalist ascension, “artists continue to play an important role in expressing visions for society.” Poland and Hungary try to get artists to self-censor, Reitov reflected, and pointed to the example of Turkey, “a democratically elected government using undemocratic methods” to suppress discordant voices, including those of artists.
Another European nation, Ukraine, rose on the censorship list due to the blacklisting of 544 mostly Russian movies in just one example of how tense geopolitics can narrow cultural expression.
Sometimes, it’s not governments arresting artists or using other methods of coercion but artists themselves who form syndicates, censorship boards or unions that act as artistic gatekeepers in order to stave off state interference. This process of artistic permission is just as pernicious, however. For example, in Egypt, according to the report, no one can practice his or her art without syndicate approval and both the musicians’ and actors’ trade unions have judicial status to police and regulate their members. This has particularly impacted women and LGBT artists and performers, who also face hostility in some other mostly Muslim countries.
Here at home, artists are nearly totally free to create. And criticize. And in fact the political polarity gripping the nation will likely mean many Grammy and Oscar winners will go beyond thanking their agents and feel they have the agency to turn to social and political issues. So expect to hear some riffs of Meryl Streep’s speech at January’s Golden Globe Awards during this month’s Grammys and Oscars or at the Tony Awards in June.
This is to be expected in an open society where artists are often influenced by the political environment. “There has always been a clash within civilizations about who is the dominant ideology, what should we think, what should we say, what kind of expression should we use,” Reitov said.
Art is a right not just for artists, but for citizens to connect with their culture. And at its most powerful, it can transform lives, even at great sacrifice.
Even after his kidnapping and torture, Mudzvova defiantly performed, and Parliament noticed, he believes.
“A few are brave enough to bring it to the people,” he said. “I received a lot of threats. … If it means I die for saying the truth, then let me die.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.