Freedom of Art
Art is universal, so are its problems
Artistic freedom and freedom of expression have always been problematic and controversial issues. In particular, at a time when political pressure against freedom of expression has been intensifying, and with the Covid-19 pandemic that affected the entire world in 2020, the problems in the field of culture and art are now more visible than ever. Art Interrupted was created primarily with the aim of providing a comprehensive picture of the problems experienced in different branches of arts and culture in East and Southeast Europe.
Freedom: what art and artists need to prosper
These are times when people in power and their administrations all around the world seem to turn away from the requirements of democracy and freedom. In many different countries, yet another pandemic is in full swing – one where crises and political or social tensions take their toll on freedom. In these tough times, when authoritarian regimes and leaders are gaining strength and some administrations, which claimed to be the paragons of well-functioning democracies, are now just using the global crisis to establish themselves for perpetuity while limiting the exercise of constitutional rights, art can barely survive.
Art and artists need only one thing to prosper: freedom. Since the beginning of human existence, i.e., since humankind created culture, art has suffered from the limitations imposed by people, societies, and administrations that are bothered by the scope of this freedom. Even during the freest periods in history, the eternal realm in which the artist imagines and creates has been subject to restriction by those who cannot see the infinite number of doors that it opens for humankind. All around the world, even in today’s most “developed” societies, imagination can barely survive in the face of taboos, norms, laws, and sometimes direct prohibitions, although these differ in nature and context from those in the past. Art, which is supposed to be an authentic and autonomous realm, cannot free itself completely from political interventions or judgmental religious, normative, and societal values.
In addition, artists in most countries have to struggle against poverty, a lack of social security, and problems that arise from the absence of regular, adequate income. The pandemic that began in 2020 forced artists in many countries working in different fields to face a drastic escalation of this issue. Performance artists especially were literally out of a job for a long period of time due to the fact that their home countries failed to provide them with the financial safety and independence that they needed to be uninhibited and independent. This revealed that the art scene was by no means institutionalized or organized, and also provoked discussions regarding the relationship of states and governmental bodies with art.
The Art Interrupted project, which started in the end of 2020, aims to explore the difficulties in the field of art, to raise broader awareness of the problems faced by artists, and to develop collective solutions to problems of freedom of expression in East and Southeast Europe.
The project is a follow-up spin off from a concept developed during the Future of Freedom Consultation, organized by the Regional Office for East and Southeast Europe of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. The Consultation “The Artist and the Tyrant” brought together defenders of freedom from the region, liberal multipliers, artists, activists from visuals arts, film, literature, street art, to explore creative and artistic ways to counteract authoritarianism and to prevent shrinking spaces of democracy. The project evolved from a national edition in Turkey to a regional dimension.
First, a 10-video series titled ‘Paying it Forward with Art’ (‘Askıda Sanat’) was published on a web portal named Gazete Duvar in Turkey. The series, which was about many subjects such as the effect of the pandemic on artists, private theatre companies, the standing of women in the art scene, the problems of the cinema sector and so forth, reached hundreds of thousands of people. Gazete Duvar is probably the most popular news website of independent, democratic forces in Turkey. It is is known for dealing with uncomfortable topics like LGBTI rights, coping with the past, ethnic diversity, cultural rights, which are regarded by the state and by large majority of the population as taboos.
In late 2020, the project team undertook another project with direct support from FNF named ‘Art Interrupted: Further and Closer’ in order to discuss this issue on the international level and to have artists from different countries share their experiences. Within this scope, the hardships experienced by artists in four countries, namely Georgia, Armenia, Greece, and Turkey, were researched, the findings were turned into reports, and an online roundtable meeting with 19 participants from these countries was held. This meeting, which was attended by experts in the field of art, artists, academics, and representatives of non-profit organizations, revealed that artists in all these countries are struggling with both problems specific to their location and with experience issues common to all of them.
As part of the project, filmmakers from the above-mentioned four countries each produced a short documentary displaying the problems faced by the artists in their countries in terms of the freedom of artistic expression. The filmmakers were asked to take one of the problems specified in the Art Interrupted project – one that is a common problem in their respective countries – and discuss it by taking one artist or case as an example. As a result, these four documentaries convey an excellent understanding of the problems faced by artists in these four countries.
Georgian director Salome Sordia filmed the documentary ‘The Password’ which is based on the testimony of a performance artist, Andro Dadiani. Since Dadiani’s lifestyle and queer identity is not approved of by society, and because it also matches his style of artistic expression, he only performs wearing a face mask and defines using it as more of a “proactive image” rather than an “absolute necessity.” For Dadiani, the mask has become an integral part of his art, and also the representation of a truth he must not forget, which can be put forth as follows: Consistent social and political violence discreetly feeds self-censorship and that, in turn, influences one’s art and freedom of artistic expression. Dadiani talks about this in the film, saying, “The things I wanted to address but could not discuss openly accumulated as time passed, and caused me to employ and adopt the mask as an instrument of self-censorship.”
In Turkey, a documentary was made about one of the country’s most influential and deep-rooted bands, Kardeş Türküler. The band was formed in early 1990s by some students from Bogazici University, which is one of the best universities in Turkey. These people defined themselves as “one idea, one theme, one sentence” and have been active and outspoken since the beginning of 1990s in many fields of art like music, theatre, dance, and folklore. Turkish journalists Sercan Meriç and Anıl Mert made this 12-minute documentary about Kardeş Türküler named “Hatırla” (Remember), in which the background story, purpose, view on art, and a perspective of the band was related by current and former members. Another issue scrutinized in the documentary is the band’s struggle throughout the years to sing their songs in several different languages including Kurdish, Armenian and Greek, while their society pressured them and tried to hush them.
The next documentary, produced by the famous Armenian documentary director Tigran Paskevichyan and directed by Eduard Paskevichyan, is named ‘Rock’s Open Nerve: Lav Eli’ and tells the story of Lav Eli, one of the oldest Armenian rock bands, founded in 1994, and how they struggled and resisted throughout their career. During the 2008 presidency elections in Armenia, Lav Eli played an active role in resistance against election fraud by participating in protests and consequently the band had to endure major political pressure – not unlike numerous such examples seen throughout the history of music. We all know that rock is a something of a protest genre, and Mher Manukian, Lav Eli’s lead vocalist and guitarist, relates the obstacles and censorship that has been imposed on them, such as the press embargo they were subjected to and the cancellation of their gig at the Armenian Music Awards in the US upon the request of their homeland. The band, which has broken up and reunited several times, made outstanding efforts in the name of artistic freedom in a world where the pandemic, war, and political censorship have run rampant, aiming to show everyone how art could be used as an instrument to attain freedom.
In Greece, where art also has a historical significance, the painter and illustrator Maria Panagiotou speaks about the artist’s role in building a bridge connecting the past, the present, and the future, just as her country’s cultural heritage claims to do. In the documentary, which comments on the economic difficulties experienced by artists, Panagiotou draws attention to the difference between the art that is performed to “make a living” and the one that the artist makes to fulfil their soul’s calling. In this documentary, directed by Eleftherios Asimakopoulos, Maria Panagiotou personally relates the hardships she has faced as a freelance artist in keeping her head above water.
Art Interrupted aims to reveal the obstacles, both great and small, that art and artists encounter and to search for creative solutions to ensure more freedom of expression and art.