Authoritarians and the Arts

Why artists always end up on the most-wanted list

Artwork by Ruby Guthrie

Artwork by Ruby Guthrie

The Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara was taken prisoner on Sept. 12, 1973, as part of a U.S.-backed coup d’état against socialist President Salvador Allende by right-wing military leader Augusto Pinochet. Jara, along with thousands of others, was taken to Chile Stadium where the guards smashed his hands and fingers, and mocked the folk singer by forcing him to play the guitar with his crippled digits. Jara was tortured and executed by gunshot to the head. His body, riddled with over 40 bullets, was then displayed at the entrance of the stadium for other prisoners to see.

Víctor Jara was a victim of circumstance. He was an actively political musician that infused left-wing activism into his traditional folk songs. His music told stories of poverty he’d experienced firsthand, and he provoked the Chilean right wing with songs that took direct aim at the government. When Pinochet took over Chile, he sent a message with Jara’s death that vocal criticism would not stand under the newly installed dictatorship.

Throughout history, authoritarians have targeted the arts as a part of their campaigns for power and control. They often brand the arts—or the artists themselves—as dangerous and have called for their seizure or destruction.

Stalin’s government systematically executed all the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian poets, writers, and artists in what has been called the “Executed Renaissance.” Under Brazil’s military government, authorities stormed museums and demanded certain “dangerous images” be taken down. One such image was a photograph depicting a member of the military falling off a motorcycle.

Authoritarians do this because they understand, perhaps better than most, the ways that art can provoke critical thought and examination. They don’t attack the arts because they want the world to be a drab, ugly place; they do it because they understand the danger the arts pose to their grip on control.

The Great German Art Exhibition of 1937 best demonstrated this duality. The event consisted of two different exhibitions. The first showcased a number of Nazi-approved works: blonde nudes, paintings glorifying soldiers and idealized German landscapes—the type of stuff Hitler himself painted before he was rejected from art school.

The second exhibition featured art that the Nazis deemed “degenerate.” This exhibit contained art that was modern and abstract, or painted by Jewish or communist artists. Much of the art was deemed blasphemous because it criticized German soldiers or offended the honor of German women. This art was displayed in a disarrayed and unflattering manner, with the Nazis’ clear goal being to discourage deviations from the norms of approved German culture.

Modern authoritarian governments are less overtly hostile toward art, but still retaliate. The Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei uses art to criticize China’s authoritarian policies. China has retaliated against Weiwei’s provocations by jailing him without charge, restricting his ability to travel, and even demolishing his studio. Another Chinese artist, Dai Jianyong, was detained and threatened with five years’ imprisonment for his satirical depictions of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“They don’t attack the arts because they want the world to be a drab, ugly place; they do it because they understand the danger the arts pose to their grip of control.”

Unfortunately, our current president has been showing frighteningly authoritarian tendencies, including his attitude toward the arts. Trump’s public feuds with Hamilton and Saturday Night Live have been laughable at best, but also underscore some troubling hostility toward artistic criticism. His proposed 2018 budget places the National Endowment for the Arts on the chopping block. The NEA accounts for a measly .004 percent of the federal budget.

While his justification for the cut comes from a desire to limit excessive federal spending, there are far more costly expenditures he could target—this is meant to be a message.

But, if there’s one thing we can learn from all this, it’s that art, along with its messages and invitations to think differently, will endure. The irony of the Nazi crackdown on art was that, outside of Germany, the so-called “degenerate” art was being lauded for pushing boundaries and shifting the paradigm. In fact, the art was made even more popular because the Nazis so despised it.

After Víctor Jara’s gruesome death, his music became even more popular, spreading throughout Chile and across the world. He became a martyr, and his music became a testament to the danger of the arts toward those who would seek to oppress. In 1990, after years of bloody dictatorship, Chile returned to a democracy.

“Yo no canto por cantar,” Jara sung in one of the last songs he wrote before his death, “Manifiesto.”

I don’t sing just to sing.