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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

For the love of art: A testament to the truth

Freedom of expression is more important than ever in times of conflict and misinformation.


Protest signs are pictured against Russia’s war of aggression.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin escalated the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, launching a destructive invasion of Ukraine that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of innocent civilians. The invasion elicited a round of international condemnation and calls for action; sanctions were imposed and accusations of genocide were brought forward. While diplomats scrambled to draft press releases, a boycott against Russian art also came into effect. Even Russian artists who openly condemned their country’s foreign policy, such as pianist Alexander Malofeev, were not secure; Malofeev’s 2022 performance with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra was canceled in the wake of the invasion. Similarly, the National Gallery in London called off a joint initiative with Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.  

This begs the question: How does canceling exhibitions or concerts help the situation? Much of the powerful anti-war, anti-establishment art that has influenced generations of artists and creators would be lost if a boycott was instituted during every international conflict. In a Washington Post op-ed, art critic Philip Kennicott writes that “no one indicts Russia more acutely than Russian writers and artists.” Is this not true of many cultures? One only has to look at history to confirm. During the Vietnam War, much of the anti-war sentiment was grounded in art and counterculture in the U.S. such as the Woodstock festival or the anti-war poster that reads: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Consider the powerful works of Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso during the Spanish Civil War: grotesque figures, composed of twisted limbs and distended parts that emphasized the horror of war. A sweeping boycott of Spanish art during the Spanish Civil War would have meant that two seminal pieces of art — Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) and Guernica — which are trenchant reminders of the ugliness of violence, would lie forgotten in the dusty corners of a storeroom.

In an era of conflict, rife with propaganda and misinformation, anti-establishment art becomes a powerful form of protest, helping institute a legacy for future generations and telling a story of courage and determination. Russian writer Anna Akhmatova suffered heavily for penning anti-Stalinist poetry in the 1920s and ’30s. The fear of raids in those times was so potent that Akhmatova was forced to create a system to evade the culpability of dissent. In what Lydia Chukovskaya, Akhmatova’s friend and fellow writer, described as a “ritual,” the poet would write lines of poetry on parchment and subsequently burn the parchment after committing her lines to memory. “Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter,” Chukovskaya mused. Writing for Literary Hub, Harvard professor Martin Puchner addresses the dichotomy that writers like Akhmatova had to confront: “For a poet like Akhmatova, poetry was dangerous, but also nec­essary; it enabled her to channel the sadness, fear, and desperation of an entire people.”  

In 2023, the University of Pennsylvania became the subject of national outrage when it hosted an event titled “Palestine Writes Literature Festival.” Donors expressed anger over former UPenn President Liz Magill’s silence on the selection of supposedly antisemitic speakers. This lineup included former CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired for mentioning the slogan “from the river to the sea” in a speech before the United Nations in 2018. Much of the discourse surrounding the festival revolved around conflating criticisms of Israel with antisemitism. The organizers rejected such charges, asserting that the event was aimed at fostering a sense of shared identity among the Palestinian diaspora. Statements made by donors about antisemitism at the festival were disavowed by the university — Scott Bok, Chair of the UPenn Board of Trustees, affirmed in the Daily Pennsylvanian that donor Marc Rowan’s accusatory letter “[created] confusion and division at a time when clear thinking and solidarity [were] so badly needed.” How do such sweeping allegations impact values of freedom of expression? Such accusations only serve to turn a dialogue into a monologue.  

Of course, if art or cultural expression urges discrimination or cruelty and could actually lead to violence, it should be questioned. For example, the 2022 Indian film “The Kashmir Files,” which claimed to expose conspiracies about the 1990 exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the region, received criticism for its clouding of facts and Islamophobic tone. The director defended the film even when videos of audience members spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric spread like wildfire on social media. The film’s widespread success in India conveys a troubling message about the country’s secular fabric.  

I’d like to end this piece with a quote by one of the greatest artists of our time: Banksy. In an era where patriotism is eschewed for nationalism, when freedom of expression needs to be carefully preserved, his art endures with a simple message: “People who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one.”