Share, Listen, Think

Suppressing Art

In Art, Life in Society, Music, Poetry on October 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm
Snow Geese NM:NWR

Photo by Roger Brown
Snow Geese
New Mexico

By Heila Rogers

Why did poets, musicians and dancers of the Stalin-era Soviet Union continue to create? Why not just stop, when they saw their loved ones and other artists being killed, or sent to the Gulag or jail?

What compelled them?

Why is art often suspect?

And… what is art actually … for?

Regimes like the Soviet Union, or Hitler’s Nazism,  – all have controlled, suppressed and hated art and artists.

This suppressive way of thinking is alive and well in every country.

Yet Adolf Hitler painted paintings. Propaganda was used in the above systems. As is sometimes the case in advertising, images were made especially to sway or manipulate.

If that’s not what art is for … then what is in fact its purpose?

Artists have been referred to as “parasites upon society.” There is a perception of making art as being a waste of time.

Glimpses of a world without art can be seen when looking at the functional-only blocks of apartment buildings in former “Soviet Republic” countries.

[Mongolia]

Much of nature consistently inspires people. Looking around us, at gloriously different varieties of creatures and plants; or unique, everyday sky and cloud patterns, we feel hopeful … and often moved to create.

Petra-RB

Photo by Roger Brown
Sandstone Formations
Petra, Jordan

When we feel, think and conclude – from an artistic place within us – we make things.

doorway

Photo by Roger Brown
Petra Cave Entrance
Jordan

Why is this threatening? What causes such a strong reaction against art and artists?

Human beings want to control other human beings. Perceived control makes us feel safe. When we tell others what to do, we have an illusion of safety. Really, we all think we know best, and how the world should be run. Therefore we’re ready to organize everyone and everything accordingly. So when someone (or something) challenges that, it must be suppressed. Or else we won’t win or succeed. We think.

This is the fatal flaw of totalitarianism. All forms of it eventually fail, because they don’t take into account (or understand) long-term reality. There is a force in the world and in human beings which will resist inappropriate control.

Whereas within art, although there are certainly elements of control and discipline, it’s viscerally about freedom. About exploring, questioning … and listening.

Real art loves, expresses truth, explores truth, attempts to honestly communicate what is true.

That doesn’t mean everything created is good or used for good.

It also doesn’t mean that everyone fights or resists wrong control. In the short-term, or without a certain perspective, it feels better to control others or to submit to (undue) influence.

Very obviously: humans can warp or misuse … well, pretty much anything and everything. But, the grace to create is there. It’s there for everyone. This might be a strange thing to say, but what if Hitler were not suppressed himself as an artist? His father forbid him go to art school. Might history have been different if he himself were not abused and wrongly controlled?

Take for example the swastika – the flag of the Third Reich, created by Hitler.

The arrangement of colors and the symbol together are visually attractive. The bent cross symbol is actually an ancient one – the root Sanskrit word “svastika” means  “to be good/lucky.” Many cultures use variations on the form:

[symbol, origin]

The Nazi swastika is self-described as being, “the symbol of the creating, acting life.” Wow. Wishful thinking on Hitler’s part? The four-arm crooked form was already being widely used in a folk-national movement, among others, when Hitler adapted it for his now infamous emblem. It is still used widely in Indian religions. [Wikipedia]

Hitler wrote (in Mein Kampf) what he wanted the symbol to mean: “As National Socialists, we see our program in our flag. In red, we see the social idea of the movement; in white, the nationalistic idea; in the swastika, the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work.” [63]

He robbed from widespread, already popular images to make, in an evil-genius way, a powerful (albeit warped) standard. He wanted so much to be an artist. Instead of representing what he stated above, the Nazi flag now represents horror, evil and … suppression.

Divergent or analytical thinking – a part of art – is discouraged and punished. As well are disagreements with policies. This intolerance for disagreement instead of being a strength, in fact indicates weakness. If someone called Stalin “a murderer and peasant slayer” (O. Mandelstam below) and the words were not true, what power would they have? But then, because propagandists have experienced success using words cleverly to manipulate people into believing certain ways, they suspect others of doing the same.

Regardless, during times of persecution and distress, the following artists were a part of creating – which sometimes did mean protest and disagreement with governmental policies or actions:

(Data, except as cited, from the book, “The Soviet Image: A Hundred Years of Photographs from Inside the TASS Archives,” by Peter Radetsky © 2007)

Anna Akhmatova:

A preeminent Russian writer of the twentieth century and a renowned poet, “In the presence of [her] I looked at the world as if I were on a new planet,” said writer Lydia Chukovskaya. Her husband was executed for alleged antigovernment activities, her son was exiled to Siberia, many of the people closest to her would be imprisoned or killed, she suffered a ban on her poetry that lasted, on and off, for three decades. She never left her home country and wrote the following in her poem “Requiem”: “No foreign sky protected me, / no stranger’s wing shielded my face. / I stand as witness to the common lot / survivor of that time, that place.”

Photo by Roger BrownPetra, Jordan

Photo by Roger Brown
Al Khazneh Ruin
Petra, Jordan

Osip Mandelstam:

Was arrested and died in the Gulag in 1938. “Poetry is respected only in this country,” he said. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Circa 1925.

‘This is what I most want’

This is what I most want

un-pursued, alone

to reach beyond the light

that I am furthest from.

And for you to shine there-

no other happiness-

and learn, from starlight,

what its fire might suggest.

A star burns as a star,

light becomes light,

because our murmuring

strengthens us, and warms the night.

And I want to say to you

my little one, whispering,

I can only lift you towards the light

by means of this babbling.

Note: Written for his wife, Nadezhda.

[http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Russian/Mandelstam.htm#_Toc485874609]

The treasury, Petra, Jordan

Photo by Roger Brown
The Siq (The Shaft)
Petra, Jordan

Lydia Ruslanova:

Folk singer who toured the front constantly during the war and performed for the troops. A beloved entertainer, she performed on the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin while parts of it still smoldered. Because of her popularity and friendship with Marshal Zhukov, Stalin began to regard her as a potential threat. She and her husband were sent to the Gulag in 1948. Upon Stalin’s death, she was released and resumed performing until her death, in 1973.

Dmitri Shostakovitch:

In August 1942, during the darkest days of the siege, his Seventh Symphony was performed in Leningrad’s Philharmonic Hall. Loudspeakers broadcast the concert throughout Leningrad and, as another act of defiance, to the German troops stationed outside the city.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtjAmaG7jjA

“Regardless of when Shostakovich initially conceived the symphony, the Nazi attack and consequent relaxing of Soviet censorship gave Shostakovich the hope of writing the work for a mass audience instead of a primarily esoteric one. To do so, he had to express his hidden feelings in a way to make them accessible to the audience, allowing it to experience catharsis. A model on how to do this was Igor Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms. Stravinsky’s compositions held considerable influence over Shostakovich.[13] and he had been deeply impressed with this particular work.[14]

Shostakovich’s plan was for a single-movement symphony, including a chorus and a requiem-like passage for a vocal soloist, with a text taken from the Psalms of David. With the help of his best friend, critic Ivan Sollertinsky, who was knowledgeable about the Bible, he selected excerpts from the Ninth Psalm. The idea of individual suffering became interwoven in Shostakovich’s mind with the Lord God’s vengeance for the taking of innocent blood (Verse 12, New King James Version).[14] The theme not only conveyed his outrage over Stalin’s oppression,[16] but also may have inspired him to write the Seventh Symphony in the first place.[17] “I began writing it having been deeply moved by the Psalms of David; the symphony deals with more than that, but the Psalms were the impetus,” the composer said. “David has some marvelous words on blood, that God takes revenge for blood, He doesn’t forget the cries of victims, and so on. When I think of the Psalms, I become agitated.”[17]

A public performance of a work with such a text would have been impossible before the German invasion. Now it was feasible, at least in theory, with the reference to “blood” applied at least officially to Hitler. With Stalin appealing to the Soviets’ patriotic and religious sentiments, the authorities were no longer suppressing Orthodox themes or images.[18] Yet for all the importance he placed on them, Shostakovich may have been right in writing the symphony without a text, in view of the censorship that would eventually be reimposed.[14]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._7_(Shostakovich)

The treasury

Photo by Roger Brown
Narrow gorge, East entrance
Petra, Jordan

Artists who are trying to express and share light and beauty as real and existing; along with describing the human condition, and grief, and the wrongs they see — speak in important ways for all of us.

Art lifts us, and somehow helps us to be free.

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