I Grew Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Isolating Russia’s Art and Artists Will Not Help Us Achieve Peace

A cultural boycott is not the answer.

Visitors walk along the East Side Gallery, a mile-long section of the Berlin Wall still standing that is covered in murals and graffiti, on March 5, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. The work of 118 different artists from 21 countries is on display. Courtesy of Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images.
Visitors walk along the East Side Gallery, a mile-long section of the Berlin Wall still standing that is covered in murals and graffiti, on March 5, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Courtesy of Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images.

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 East Central Europe since the fall of Communism. Its building, financed by a private foundation, is a marvel of modern architecture installed in a former electric substation. Its opening exhibition is a buzzing and flashing kaleidoscope of kinetic art from around the world. The assembled crowd was multilingual, well-traveled, well-dressed, well-informed. A celebratory toast proclaimed wonderment about how, after a long hiatus, the Czech capital once again could play host to such a future-blazing event. 

Among those invited for the opening were a group of museum directors from all corners of the globe. We gathered for a discussion about starting new institutions, aware of the mounting threat to the east, yet confident the worst could be avoided—a colleague from Moscow assured us of as much. One by one, the directors talked about their plans: how they would make institutions more open, politically engaged, less harmful to the planet. It was a portrait of the art world in the 21st century—committed to community, sensitive to inequity, globalist in outlook, intertwined via ideas, networks, and technologies. 

Exterior view of the Kunsthalle Praha. Photography by Lukáš Masner.

Exterior view of the Kunsthalle Praha. Photography by Lukáš Masner.

The invasion started days later, and now all that optimism feels quaint. Our time in Prague may turn out to be the closing moments of a three-decade-long intermezzo of renewal in eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain, in 1989. During that era, the region became re-engaged, re-energized, and reconnected with the world, making the wholesale murder and repression that wrecked these parts through much of the 20th century a distant memory. 

Those of us active in the cultural community will now have to relearn reflexes that will be familiar to people in my generation, who have memories of the Cold War, but which will be new to those born after the 1980s. Because times like this burden artists and arts institutions with a unique responsibility. As the world falls apart, as economies decouple and truces unwind, art remains one of the few ways in which 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 resignations that has come, with remarkable swiftness and razor-like finality, in the wake of Russia’s incursion. This outpouring has been an impressive demonstration of solidarity. Almost on the hour, we’re hearing about cultural boycotts, departures of curators and directors, and the shuttering of institutions. The moral convictions behind these choices cannot be doubted. Yet I feel compelled to caution about cutting ties too rashly, and with no clear pathway back to normalcy. 

The dilemma of the hour for artists and institutions alike is whether to connect or to disengage. The impulse to rip the cord is understandable: Instead of helplessness and frustration, it offers instant emotional gratification. But will such gestures stop the bombs? Can they deter the invaders? Do they provide material help to the cultural workers and citizens stranded in the war zone, or to those in Moscow or St. Petersburg who deplore the war and are likewise seeing their world disintegrate?

An anti-war protester in Moscow. Photo by Daniil Danchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

An anti-war protester in Moscow. Photo by Daniil Danchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

The barbaric events in Ukraine are colliding with a cultural moment in the so-called West in which we have become very good at stopping, declining, suspending, condemning, terminating, walking off the set. Whether you call it cancel culture or consequence culture, one thing is clear: we are not so good at conducting a dialogue in contentious situations. The media circus that now passes for a public sphere is excellent when it comes to trumpeting polarized messages, but does poorly with shades of gray. Even so, as we learned in the Cold War, complex realities demand a very long game, and one in which the cultural community has an outsize role. 

By all accounts, the war in Ukraine will be a long-duration conflict. And sadly, as we have already seen elsewhere, people’s attention spans are short, and likely to shift to other emergencies. Therefore, it is important to prudently calibrate decisions, especially institutional ones, with a view to a longer future. Once a door is closed, it’s closed. The question remains: What about the day after? The years after? What about the people on the other side of the door?

Visitors photograph graffiti by Dmitri Vrubel of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev and East German General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party Erich Honecker kissing on East Side Gallery, a section of the former Berlin Wall, during celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on November 9, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Visitors photograph graffiti by Dmitri Vrubel of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev and East German General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party Erich Honecker kissing on the former Berlin Wall during celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on November 9, 2014. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

I know about the importance of cultural ties from personal experience. As a youth in Budapest in the 1980s, I was on the other side of that door. I know how much it meant for us to be exposed to art, literature, and music from the West. We relished watching American movies. We traded recordings of the Rolling Stones. We lined up for concerts by second-rate western rock bands and by occasional touring jazz musicians. I was mesmerized by listening to music by Steve Reich at the Academy of Music, and by catching glimpses of the avant-garde in our museums. I have personal memories of attending a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg and reading books by the likes of George Orwell. The Young Artists Club in Budapest circa 1985 was a pretty close approximation of what we imagined a rowdy night in Max’s Kansas City to be like. The democratic energies that could lead to an institution like the Kunsthalle Praha may not have crystallized since 1989 had we not been so enamored of Western ideals and creativity. 

Cultural diplomacy—a term with a hollow ring of obsolescence in the U.S., three decades after the sages of Washington declared history to have ended with the conquest of American values—now needs to be revived, and with new gusto. Cultural exchange can take advantage of new tools and the very networks and relationships that were on display in Prague, which we have successfully established worldwide in the intervening years. 

When political and economic ties between East and West were fatefully severed in the 1940s through the 1980s, scientists and artists continued to connect in ways both overt and clandestine. Those ties were crucial then, and so they will be today and in the testing period to come. 

It’s easy to preach the virtues of globalism when borders are open. It requires courage and determination to keep contacts alive when there are risks involved. Let us hope this anachronistic descent into war will soon pass, and there yet may be a hopeful turn in geopolitical relations. If not, however, we need to revisit the playbook of cultural engagement in times of sustained conflict. We cannot cancel our way out of this crisis.

 

András Szántó, Ph.D., a sociologist and founder of Andras Szanto LLC, is a strategic advisor to museums, educational institutions, and corporations active in the arts. His most recent book is The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues (Hatje Cantz, 2020).


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