In the Western world, the free world we are proud of our freedoms, eponymously so. As creative professionals, as artists, we claim freedom of expression as a cornerstone of civilisation and our very lifeblood. But is this necessarily so? Do we really understand, exercise and take responsibility for the G-d given right we say we cannot live without? How often do we look beneath this intoxicatingly shiny surface with the awareness of what lies beneath and feeds the furnace of our expression, what creates or possibly disfigures the words that appear to come freely from our mouths. What worth is our freedom to speak unfortified by integrity and freedom of thought?
In late 2009, I was invited to come to Zimbabwe. I went despite apprehensions underscored by consistently dire news headlines, despite government travel advisory website advice to refrain from travelling to the country as they would not be able to provide me with consular protection in case of any calamity. Neither was I comforted when my Zimbabwe-based journalist friend asked me to refrain from sending any SMS messages referring to Mugabe, because you just never know…
Now, with a childhood spent in Brezhnev era Soviet Union, I am an old hand with bureaucratic and corrupt dictatorially inclined regimes. There is a method for understanding their censorship: once you know what they like and what they don’t like, you can generally rest assured that they will be too lazy to delve beneath the surface into metaphor, sub-text, context or allegory to discover the thinly disguised critique of the political status quo. So in Zimbabwe, it came as no surprise to find out that while structures of censorship and political repression are alive, equally so are ways around them and opportunities to express opposition. For example, I am told, many literary and dramatic works in English are approved for performance with only a cursory review of the content as opposed to works in the native majority Shona language. Although English is universally spoken, it is Shona that is considered the dangerous language of dissent.
I was also told that the government view the visual arts as colonial and elitist and therefore treat art as generally unthreatening.
The biggest threat to the creative freedom of visual artists in Zimbabwe it turns out is not the government, but poverty. There is no street art and almost no graffiti, not because of repressions, but because artists cannot afford to waste expensive art materials on work that cannot be sold.
Fear exists, repressions exist, corruption exists, political manipulation exists, but equally so does the ability to communicate your message if you want to be heard. This is the artist statement of a young Zimbabwean artist who was happy to have me reprint it verbatim, using his name, although I dare not:
“I paint. Art has become a means to come face to face with my fears. Like a baby, I construct and deconstruct. Mr President, next time you visit my studio, I will paint a portrait of you, a bleeding torso with dogs eating your limbs in the background. Hanged next to your painting will be portraits of victims suffering your misrule. On your way out, just behind the door you will find my unfinished portrait of a corpse. I died in this painting hoping my death meant something to you.”
What he is saying and painting is risky, but his need to be heard and the urgency of his message outweigh the risk.
In Zimbabwe artists of all disciplines from music to visual arts to theatre and poetry, can and do make a living from their art. How? Well because they have no other choice. In a country with 85% official unemployment, the frictional jobs in sales and hospitality on which artists in the developed world commonly fall back on to subsidise their art practice, are not frictional jobs and they are not their for the taking. Moreover there is no government arts funding and no arts policy. To my surprise, attending an exhibition at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, I found that all the works were for sale! Artists are not uniquely disadvantaged in this regard. The whole country is in a state of having to fend for itself.
Unlike their counterparts in the developed world, artists are not seen as eccentric and suspicious fringe-dwellers. Their role as the voice of the people is deeply felt, respected and understood. So, believe it or not, an art opening or any launch event – book, project, CD etc, frequently features a performance poet who will be paid for the effort of composing a poem on the event. Despite economic collapse and the closure of many venues, the live music scene is still extremely active. The cooperation between artists at the grass-roots level, as well as support from the general population, is a widespread quotidian reality.
This made me think about the shallow waters in which many artists in the free world swim and made me wonder whether a degree of repression and poverty, are necessary catalysts for artists to create work of genuine artistic depth. I think not. Not in my wildest dreams would I advocate the living conditions that I experienced in Zimbabwe. However what it did do is re-awaken my consciousness as to the responsibilities that freedom of speech carries and the true role of artists in society. Having obvious political targets and repression, just makes this easier – but bring back the days of Bulgakov’s Master and Marguerita or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago or Arthur Koestlers Darkness at Noon.
Shortly after my arrival back in Australia from Zimbabwe I spoke to a few colleagues about organising a regular event to bring together art critics to discuss art exhibitions on the merits in front of audiences. The initiative was supported widely, but almost invariably subject to a rider. It could be a challenge I was told to get art writers and experts to go on the record with their opinions. The phrase used was “it could be dangerous” to critique major institutions or artists with the ability to influence project funding, grant applications or career prospects.
This is symptomatic of the self-censorship that is widespread throughout the art communities of the free world. We know how to vocalise vociferously, but so as not to alienate our key clients: the State, the big dollar patrons and let us not forget the sponsors.
What becomes of freedom of expression with generations of artists who learn to express themselves and align their thoughts with those of their bureaucratic and plutocratic paymasters? Moreover, what right has that artist community to the support of a public it has turned its back on?
The structures and strictures of political correctness, which underpin contemporary art funding and philanthropy as well as the art market, have become oppressively commonplace and predictable. We will not be beaten up or thrown in jail if we say “fuck the system”, nor do we risk hunger or homelessness. The golden cage of big pocket funding is a boring illusion, which keeps feeding and fighting over scraps masquerading as cake and forgetting where the real battles are.
So if there is a lesson to be learnt in Zimbabwe it is this: freedom is first and foremost a responsibility. As artists, we have a responsibility to our art, to our societies and to our public. It is a responsibility to choose integrity over personal comfort, moral courage over self-censorship. Great art is not born from convenience or slick career moves. Great art is born from looking outward at the world rather than the acrobatic contortions of the next grant application. If we are not doing it for the people in our society, then we are not doing it right. If our speech is coloured by fear of biting the hand that feeds, then we lose the right to speak.
We must take responsibility for the freedom that we hold dear and are proud of by disengaging from the chains that really do bind. To do so meaningfully is to face our genuine grassroots by developing bridges with our real audiences rather than the keepers of deep pockets we have permitted to usurp our freedom.
Have we bought into the illusory promises of glittering cocktail parties and cutting the elegant figure of a tortured enigmatic artist in black for wealthy clients? As artists we know that art is not a luxury but a necessity. The best of creative achievements of humanity are the patrimony of humanity in a universal and not elitist way. If we believe it, then we should have the courage of our convictions. If we want art to be free, important and relevant, we cannot dismiss the general public as undereducated and uninformed. We need to take responsibility for rebuilding our road back to them and their road back to us, because that is the umbilical cord, which nourishes our art and enables our art to nourish our societies. If we need to be shamed into it by the example of artists who cannot take freedom for granted, so be it.