I grew up behind the iron curtain. Isolating Russian art and artists will not help us achieve peace
Just two weeks ago, days before the unprovoked assault on Ukraine, I found myself in Prague for the opening of the Kunsthalle Praha. The new institution is a monument to all that has been achieved in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. Its building, financed by a private foundation, is a marvel of modern architecture installed in a former electrical substation. Its opening exhibition is a buzzing, flashing kaleidoscope of kinetic art from around the world. The crowd gathered was multi-lingual, well-travelled, well-dressed and well-informed. A celebratory toast proclaimed wonder at how, after a long hiatus, the Czech capital could once again host such a futuristic event.
Among the guests at the opening were a group of museum directors from all corners of the globe. We met to discuss the creation of new institutions, aware of the growing threat in the East, but convinced that the worst could be avoided – a colleague in Moscow assured us of this. In turn, the directors discussed their projects: how they would make institutions more open, politically engaged, less harmful to the planet. It was a portrait of the art world at 21st century – committed to community, sensitive to inequalities, globalist in outlook, intertwined by ideas, networks and technologies.
The invasion started a few days later, and now all that optimism seems strange. Our time in Prague may prove to be the final moments of a three-decade interlude of renewal in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. During this period, the region has re-engaged , revitalized, and reconnected with the world, making the large-scale murder and repression that destroyed these regions for much of the 20th century a distant memory.
Those of us who are active in the cultural milieu will now have to relearn reflexes that will be familiar to people of my generation, who have memories of the Cold War, but which will be new for those born after the 1980s. Because times like this burden artists and art institutions with a unique responsibility. As the world crumbles, economies decouple, and truces unravel, art remains one of the few ways we can continue to engage with those “on the other side” who share our values. We need them. And they need us.
For this reason, I admit to mixed feelings about the wave of exhibition closures and quits that have occurred, with remarkable speed and razor-sharp finality, following Russia’s incursion. . This outpouring was an impressive show of solidarity. Almost every hour, we hear about cultural boycotts, departures of curators and directors, closures of institutions. The moral convictions behind these choices cannot be doubted. Still, I feel compelled to caution against cutting ties too recklessly and without a clear path back to normal.
The dilemma of the hour for artists and institutions alike is whether to connect or disengage. The urge to tear the rope is understandable: instead of helplessness and frustration, it offers instant emotional gratification. But will such gestures stop the bombs? Can they deter invaders? Are they providing material aid to cultural workers and citizens stranded in the war zone, or to those in Moscow or St. Petersburg who bemoan the war and also see their world disintegrating?
The barbaric events in Ukraine collide with a cultural moment in the so-called West in which we have become very good at stopping, declining, suspending, condemning, ending, leaving the board. Whether you call it a cancel culture or a consequence culture, one thing is clear: we’re not that good at conducting dialogue in contentious situations. The media circus that now passes for a public sphere is great at trumpeting polarized messages, but does poorly with shades of gray. Even so, as we learned during the Cold War, complex realities demand a very long game, and a game in which the cultural community has an outsized role.
By all accounts, the war in Ukraine will be a long-lasting conflict. And unfortunately, as we’ve seen elsewhere, people’s attention spans are short and prone to shifting to other emergencies. Therefore, it is important to carefully calibrate decisions, especially institutional ones, in view of the longer future. Once a door is closed, it is closed. The question remains: what about the day after? The years after? And the people on the other side of the door?
I know the importance of cultural ties from personal experience. Growing up in Budapest in the 1980s, I was on the other side of that door. I know how much it meant to us to be exposed to Western art, literature and music. We loved watching American movies. We exchanged Rolling Stones recordings. We lined up for gigs from second rate western rock bands and the occasional touring jazz musician. I was fascinated by listening to the music of Steve Reich at the Academy of Music and by glimpses of the avant-garde in our museums. I have personal memories of attending a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg and reading books by George Orwell. The Young Artists Club in Budapest circa 1985 was a pretty close approximation of what we imagined to be a rowdy night at Max’s Kansas City. The democratic energies that could lead to an institution like the Kunsthalle Praha might not have crystallized since 1989 if we had not been so enamored with Western ideals and creativity.
Cultural diplomacy – a term with a hollow ring of obsolescence in the United States, three decades after the wise men in Washington declared that history ended with the conquest of American values - must now be revived, and with new enthusiasm. Cultural exchange can take advantage of new tools and the very networks and relationships that were on display in Prague, which we successfully established around the world in the years that followed.
When political and economic ties between East and West were fatally separated from the 1940s through the 1980s as scientists and artists continued to connect both overtly and clandestinely. These links were crucial then, and so they will be today and in the testing period to come.
It is easy to preach the virtues of globalism when the borders are open. It takes courage and determination to maintain contact when there are risks. Let’s hope that this anachronistic descent into war will pass soon, and there may still be a promising turn in geopolitical relations. If not, however, we need to revisit the playbook of cultural engagement in times of protracted conflict. We cannot undo our way out of this crisis.
András Szántó, Ph.D., sociologist and founder of Andras Szanto LLC, is a strategic advisor to museums, educational institutions and businesses active in the arts. His most recent book is The future of the museum: 28 dialogues (Hatje Cantz, 2020).
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