SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts

H-Art for Ukraine, not Russia

The bitter and largely unexpected reality of war in Ukraine has galvanized the free world in a manner unseen in decades. The arts world too has been quick to take up the banner for Ukraine. Here in the Netherlands the H-Art for Ukraine initiative sees dozens of museums, galleries, concert halls and arts cinemas donate some or all of their profits to a group of aid organisations for inhabitants of the war-torn country. This positive, constructive approach sits somewhat awkwardly however, with other, more ambiguous decisions regarding the place of Russian artists in the West.

Last week, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra announced that it had cut ties with world renowned Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, because he has refused to make a statement condemning the invasion of Ukraine. Describing the divide between the 68 year old conductor and the orchestra as ‘unbridgeable’ the decision ends a 35 year long artistic relationship. Yet Gergiev’s outspoken support of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his friendship with Putin failed to draw similar reactions in the past.

Initially silent on the war in Ukraine, the Hermitage in Amsterdam has taken a different approach and recently announced its decision to cut ties with its sister museum in St Petersburg and close the museum as it will no longer be able to borrow works of art from the Hermitage in that city. “War ruins everything” admitted the Amsterdam-based museum. A sentiment shared by Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema[i], who has not ruled out support for the Hermitage from the city council, now that it has cut its Russian ties.

Previously however, a clear stance against Putin’s Russia had been missing. In the case of some artists like Gergiev and prominent Russia opera star, Anna Netrebko[ii], a refusal to speak out against the regime has only now caused large Western orchestras and opera houses to cancel contracts and cut ties. Russia has also been banned from participating in this year’s Eurovision Song contest and the Royal Opera House in London recently cancelled a tour by the Bolshoi Ballet. The European Film Academy (EFA) will exclude Russian entries from the European Film Awards. Where does one draw the line when it comes to art and politics?

The Arts, like sports, are easily politicized and yet there are many for whom they represent a space of cultural exchange, sanctified ground where the messy realities of life do not interfere. Is this reasonable or even desirable however, when one country invades another without provocation and war rears its ugly head?  Perhaps it is a luxury to imagine that the Arts, like sports, can simply exempt itself from the moral sphere. Perhaps cultural institutions like the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the New York Met should have distanced themselves from individuals like Gergiev and Netrebk long ago,  as neither one made a secret of their loyalty to Putin and his regime.

Russia’s cultural capital in the form of the Bolshoi ballet, it’s classical musicians, writers and artists  has long been a source of pride and diplomatic currency for the country. Yet the Arts hold at their core a respect for humanity, for the unique artistic vision of the individual and this sits uncomfortably with autocratic regimes where individual freedoms are limited and personal truths policed. Freedom and art are inextricably intertwined. Sadly, it has taken a war to remind us of this fundamental truth.      Souwie Buis  11th March 2022