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Dissident Artists Matter, Regardless of Their Fame

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

By Sidd Joag

“The delicate threads of imagination and creativity are the support beams of a healthy, flourishing society.”

- Kayhan Irani

Often when I explain what we do at freeDimensional, I am met with some version of, “So like that Chinese artist, what was his name… yes, Ai Weiwei. So like him, you work with artists like him?” To which I often want to respond, “NO! Not Ai Weiwei, every other artist but Ai Weiwei.” Despite their prominence, ‘Free Ai Weiwei’ and ‘Free Pussy Riot’—branded on the side of the Tate Modern and Madonna, respectively—signal not a strengthening global movement around artistic rights, but rather the fetishization of a criminal-chic associated with popular dissent. The argument goes that popular dissent raises awareness, but awareness does not always imply understanding, and the movement around figures like Ai starts to feel more like a battle between free market forces and a conservative government than an interrogation of the abuse of power and right to confront it. It is not coincidental that the governments in question were China and Russia, and that the critique was galvanized in the Western media.

Nor was it shocking that the assassination of community theater director Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin in the West Bank and the multiple assassinations of communitarian arts practitioners in Guatemala, which occurred around the same time as Ai Weiwei’s detention, went relatively unnoticed by the international news media. Conceptions of who is a contemporary artist, who is a relevant artist, and what kinds of art are most meaningful reflect layers of class hierarchy that determine not just whether an artist will become well known, but sometimes whether they will live or die. Those working outside the embrace of the fine art world are too often unable to escape dangerous situations in time, or find themselves stranded in unfamiliar landscapes, without access to resources or services and with few options for survival.

Much of the increasingly popular discourse around ‘art and human rights’ and ‘censorship and free expression’ mirrors the political binaries implicit in predominantly Western constructions of concepts such as equality, freedom and justice.  Existing structures of support as well replicate these constructions of the ‘Global North’ as inherently free democratic societies while those of the ‘Global South’ revert back to depictions of savagery, underdeveloped and so uncivilized, and therefore incapable of upholding democratic principles and basic human rights without Western influence/intervention. Artists who face exclusion, persecution, and violence, who are extracted from situations of danger, generally end up living in relative social and cultural isolation in hosting countries where their integration proves incredibly difficult due to issues of marketplace, class and mobility. In their new countries/cities these artists (considered the lucky ones), very often suffer intense depression as a result of separation from their families and communities, residual trauma from physical and psychological torture, discrimination and the stigma of statelessness, and grave uncertainty as to how and what their future will play out to be.  Here we find ourselves in a difficult space between urgency and balance. How do we address urgent situations, accurately and effectively, while ensuring long-term balance, both in terms of the structures of support we develop and how they ensure the stability of displaced artists.

The question at hand is one related to nuance and complexity, both of which are easy to overlook in the face of media spectacles of popular dissent. Take for instance the term ‘cultural rights’ which in varying contexts can imply government protection of the right of people to practice their cultural traditions freely, or the right of cultural groups to threaten or violently attack those who actions they deem offensive to their culture. The complexity here is that in one case cultural rights implies the responsibility of the state and in the other that of the citizenry, when in fact the responsibility falls on both, to negotiate these terms in relation to cultural difference and difference of opinion. We are at risk of terminologies defining reality rather than them reflecting our understanding of multiple, constantly changing realities. In order to understand the nuances of art and culture, of free expression and human rights, and all their points of connectedness, we need to revert back to the more basic emotional, ephemeral nature of creative practice as it allows individuals and communities to grow and flourish.

Free expression is not only the right to thumb your nose at a government. And censorship is not only the sophomoric response of an insecure government in silencing dissent. Free expression and repression are both practiced on every level of every society, and our response to rights violations must also happen on multiple interconnected levels in order for it to be truly effective in enabling long term societal change. Increased media coverage of high profile cases of artists facing persecution and violence as a result of their activism indeed indicates a critical moment of opportunity to build awareness and understanding, support systems and solidarity across movements. At the same time, we must not forget that for every persecuted culture worker whose story hits mainstream media, dozens of stories remain unheard, and those change-makers remain without access to networks of support or the means to defend themselves.

The arts educator working to deter young people from joining gangs is no more or less important than the famous international artist who uses their stature to voice a loud critique of government. In fact, their effect is compounded if they work in tandem. In indigenous communities, the struggle to preserve cultural traditions and practices in the face of uneven development, marginalization and neglect is deeply intertwined with policy reforms that promote free expression and artist mobility. We need to highlight these linkages from the grassroots to the international level in order to truly engage with the notion of free expression as a basic human right. In all of this, we face the danger of oversimplifying what is an incredibly nuanced and complicated web of social, political and structural relationships that need to be deconstructed, overhauled and reconstituted in order for free expression to no longer be a subject of debate. We need to dig deeper, much deeper.

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Sidd Joag is the Director of freeDimensional, an organization that supports human rights and free justice through the promotion of culture. Among other activities, freeDimensional provides creative safe haven for artists under threat. Joag is a visual artist whose work has been seen internationally. He has an MSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics.

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