Gulags Are for Artists Like Me

Two weeks ago, I posted a snap from a friend and photographer at the Age newspaper.  The controversial pic was of an elderly woman of Greek heritage in her 80s looking on to the militarised police response unfolding at Northcote Plaza in Melbourne’s inner north. I stated the facts as I understood them on a social media platform. Within a short time, I was inundated with a flood of opinions. I received multiple messages reprimanding me as a formal artist who should know better and “STOP it!” Someone even inboxed me that “artists like me should be sent to the Gulags!”

A woman caught up in protests outside Northcote Plaza on Friday, September 24th, 2021. Luis Enrique Ascui

But wait. Isn’t this the definitive role of the arts? Artists pursue their preferred medium from the various branches of creativity to express their ideas. As an artist, I was trained to question realities and view them through this lens to illustrate my opinion of the world.

In the early 1990s, when I studied conducting in Eastern Europe, I met conductors who told me their experiences of artistic censorship.

These musical giants of this era I studied under were in the winter of their lives of “conductor suppression.” I had never heard of this term which was used during the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc to ensure that orchestral conductors did not conduct with too much emotion for fear of provoking passion in the audience who may be incited to riot. The consequence which could result in being sent to forced labour camps known as Gulags.

Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, titled the “Pathétique Symphony” or “Symphony of Passion,” ends with a pensive and mournful movement. This sombre movement was often swapped with the third triumphant movement to ensure that it did not incite riots but rather oppose Western music ideals and instead seek to encourage traditional Russian music. Conductors were often directed to conduct this work with no passion (pardon the pun), or they risked being expelled to the Gulags.

The Gulags were a system of Soviet labour camps, detention, transit camps and prisons that from 1918 until 1960 housed the political prisoners and criminals of the Soviet Union. This punishment wasn’t limited to conductors but included composers, novelists, intellectuals, visual artists and anyone that was considered a threat to Stalin’s political establishment.

Artists have throughout the ages been subject to torture and forced labour. Theodorakis, considered one of Greece’s greatest composers, was interned in 1967 for five months in the concentration camp of Oropos by the Regime of the Colonels that overthrew the Greek government. He passed away a few weeks ago. This far right wing authoritarian military junta banned the playing of, singing of, and listening to Theodorakis’s music.

Víctor Jara, a Chilean activist and folk singer who moved an entire nation of people with his guitar playing and songs was murdered for his music. He had his arms broken and became one of the countless fatal casualties of the neo-liberalist experiment which spearheaded Pinochet into Chile to overthrow Allende. Today, the Chile Stadium is named the Víctor Jara Stadium and immortalises every labourer and their prayer for greater justice.

Journalists are not excluded from the arts. Those who abide by the principles of ethical journalism deliver daily narratives provided for us to interpret and question the unfolding events across the lands. Journalists serve as motivation or incentive for actors and civil society organisations. According to UNESCO, between 2006 and 2020, more than 1,200 journalists were killed for doing just that. For following their calling and being journalists. Nine out of 10 of these killings remain unsolved.

There has been a disturbing trend in Australia, accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, that is, the erosion of many of the foundations of our democratic values with its checks and balances in a deliberate attempt by both Federal and State governments to block free press and impede informed and diverse debate. There have been concerted efforts to reduce transparency and limit public accountability so that governments can increase their power. This has led to arrests and responses which are disproportionate to the threats posed.

The apparent fear instilled in many and the blind allegiance towards our government has led me to a determined investigation. Particularly, I ask why so many progressives are not questioning these tactics. Is it not a burden on their conscience? Could the rise of identity politics during the past two decades have diminished our empathy and compassion?

Have we forgotten the raids on ABC journalists in Australia and the persecution of independent journalists by our allies? I personally know of mainstream journalists who have been threatened over the past few weeks for daring to cover police brutality towards innocent civilians. Even environmental activists, whistle blowers, and many ordinary citizens have are afraid of reprisals being made against them.

Then we have the swathe of anti-protest laws which have been in motion from well before the pandemic. The excessive force we’ve witnessed against protestors is only the beginning of what is to come. As we move through to the other side of this pandemic we need to ensure that the right to assembly is restored to every citizen and on any view whether it’s Black Lives Matter, anti-lockdown, anti-green pass protests, and so on. Civil societies must be given this freedom to effectively advocate for human rights. This fundamental right needs to be granted to all people including vulnerable groups.

Has anyone asked themselves why such overarching powers have been given to certain agencies? The Draconian measures we are experiencing essentially advance the interests and provide preferential treatment to big business with no regard for small to medium businesses.

The role that journalists must play to uphold our democratic values is integral to democracy and social cohesion. Journalists hold governments and their agencies to account. This position is being compromised as our societies become more corporatised and our governments continue to advance large business interests through back door and offshore deals.

A pillar to creating thriving democracies and peaceful societies is to ensure free speech, the free flow of information, and that journalists be given the opportunity to provide us with real news so we can make informed decisions.

The essential quality of democratic societies is to ensure that they represent their community and if they do not, then they are failing. Artists and journalists alike need to be given a safe haven to demonstrate their views through their medium. Not silenced. Not threatened. Not punished.

We all have a role to speak out at injustice and to preserve the rights of artists to illustrate the world as they see it. Continued inertia will edge us closer towards a world we may regret. A world where artists and journalists risk ending up in a position where their fates are similar to their counterparts in authoritarian autocracies.

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it—the Gulags were an ugly, cruel moment in humanity’s past, but we need to remember them for what they were. We need to always keep in mind the role they played in censoring the people—notably, artists, journalists, and others who sought to hold up a mirror to society with their creations. We cannot censor, threaten, or silence the Arts—we cannot return to the era of the Gulags.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/10/18/gulags-are-for-artists-like-me/
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I agree with the general sentiment in this article, but as an ignorant American, I thought it could have benefited from some more specifics re: government overreach, erosion of checks and balances, and the other issues mentioend. I mean, I know how my own small-r republican government is decaying into a sort of bizarro oligarchy of bureaucrats, contractors, and activists (sort of a three-legged Baptists and Bootleggers coaltion, if you will), but I would benefit from hearing more about Australia’s struggles in a similar or wholly different vein, as the case may be.

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The Gulag is in your head.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery (whoops, TRIGGER WORD!!,) etc.

No doubt in some instances excessive police force has occurred, should be reported & investigated but it’s also important that it’s accurately reported. Often the pictures & the accompanying stories only reveal the narrative a particular outlet/groups wants to portray without including the full context of the preceding events leading up to the incidents. Many individuals ‘peacefully’ protesting these days are anything but who regularly defy laws risking other peoples safety/property, resist moving on or arrest & in some cases have taken to using terror tactics including using young children as shields. Police have been forced into taking a more excessive approach & are damned if they do & damned if they don’t often sustaining serious injuries or criticism for not protecting the public & their wishes. Who would want to be a police officer these days with such impossible demands where they can’t depend on the protection of laws because bad actors are exploiting the use of protest? The reduced capacity for effective law & order is hardly advancing freedoms.
Sure, people should be allowed to protest but if it’s going to risk other peoples lives by spreading disease & violence there are more effective means such as using social media which they already do. It’s not like they don’t have any alternatives that they now have access thanks to access to technology. The freedom to protest doesn’t nullify another’s to safety especially when restrictions & public health laws have been overwhelmingly democratically supported by the public.
Why citizens aren’t questioning the temporary limitations on freedoms is simply because they want them so they can protect themselves & loved ones until they have had the opportunity to get protection from the vaccines that had been delayed in Australia. This is obvious & the deliberate omission to mention this in the context of such discussions along with wildly exaggerated authoritarian claims is another example how the disingenuous & unscrupulous have been exploiting ‘artistic freedom’ for political gain. The reality is Australia’s unremarkable but nevertheless exaggerated portrayal of their covid response is unrelated to the real loss of freedoms but is related to the weaponisation particularly in the US by the right against left.

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There have always been defenders of totalitarian regimes.

Far fewer are the defenders of liberty in human progress.

Those who trade liberty for safety will get neither. It never happens. In no history, and not within the human condition.

Temporary? name any measure that has been rolled back without war. Sure they might let you live your life with your paperwork in order, obeying new rules, with new restrictions, etc. But clearly, that’s permanent isn’t it?

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I agree with this completely. I made a similar point a while back.

Though again it needs to be remembered that different countries can have different ideas of “liberty”. That’s not a blanket statement to pretend all freedoms are equal, but just to recognize that there is no one-size fits all solution to such a complex idea.

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It already has. Where I live in Sydney liberties have now mostly been restored with mask wearing going on December 1 as has already happened in many countries but with substantially fewer deaths, hospitalisations & illness.
Of course for those who live in a world of continuous exaggerated authoritarian alarmism & catastrophizing not so much…

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Australia has a very different relationship to the State than the US does, and it’s because of our unique history. When Australia was colonised by the English, they had learned the lesson from the Revolutionary War, and treated the migrants to their new colony much more respectfully than they treated the Yankees.

If you wanted to move to Australia, a far away land in with a harsh environment (as all of my ancestors did in the 19th Century) you couldn’t do it and expect to survive, much less thrive, without the help of the colonial government.

My ancestor, a farmer from Denmark, Jens Jensen, was given a large land grant by the Queensland Colony in the 1870s. Another one of my ancestors, Rob Robson, was with John Batman when he made a treaty with the Aboriginal people, on the settlement which would later become Melbourne, but only with the aid of the colonial Victorian government. Early Australians were not taxed, but the government provided land for farmers and support for small businessmen.

Crucially, when one thinks of Australia, one has to remember that we were founded when Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were writing in England. Their philosophy of utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) informed the bureaucrats who set up the State in Australia. The State came before society ever existed here, and it was designed by people who had a decidedly progressive outlook for the times. Society was grafted on after the bureaucracy was already set up.

In contrast, John Locke and his purist philosophy and social contract theory informed the Founding Fathers of the United States. In the US, society came before the State. The State only operates with the permission of the people.

The other thing to remember about Australia is that while we don’t have a purist understanding of liberty, and we do not have any concept of social contract theory, Australia is one of the most egalitarian and democratic nations on Earth. Men were given full suffrage in the 1850s, women in the 1890s, and the colonists invented the secret ballot to prevent corruption – an innovation which was copied around the world. And because we have compulsory and preferential voting (reforms that were implemented in the 20C), and a permanent Electoral Commission which is non-partisan, neutral (and basically a sacrosanct institution in Australia) every time someone or some party wins an election it is by definition a legitimate and majoritarian win. We hold elections every 3 years, and leaders are regularly tossed out. We had 5 different Prime Ministers in 10 years between 2008 - 2018.

We also have low corruption. People don’t retire massively wealthy after being in politics in Australia. One of our former Premiers of NSW had to resign because he didn’t declare a bottle of wine given to him as a gift. The notion of a political family dynasty like the Clintons, the Bushes or the Newsoms is as bizarre and alien to us Australians as our lack of guns are to you Americans.

But most importantly, our democracy works. Each time in our history, after there has been some strife (e.g. worker strikes, miner strikes, riots) change has been achieved at the Ballot Box. After the Eureka Stockade, enfranchisement for miners was introduced. After the Victorian police suppressed union riots in the late 1800s, the world’s first Labour Party – The Australian Labor Party – formed, and won 35 seats at the next election.

I predict that some serious change will occur following the trauma of Victoria’s lockdowns and consequent police overreach. But it won’t de done via cynical propagandising influenced by American media tropes. It will come from citizens who organise and demand change at the legislative level and citizens who make their voices heard at the Ballot Box.

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OK, so we have heard the case for artistic expression in the face of the repressive state apparatus, but there is another side to this comrades, like the case of the ideologically fluffed up petty bourgeois idealists who think that ‘their art’ gives them some self appointed special license to be the Greek chorus for the rest of us, as if their ‘creativity’ and ‘insight’ gives them a special hotline to the secular equivalent of God.

I would assert that all but a very few, you know, the ones who will be remembered once their demographic cohort starts to age, are opinionated wankers with their heads in places where the sun don’t shine…who can be guaranteed to be mouthpieces for the conventional wisdom of their drinking buddies…and in the case of the public media, their current institutional ‘leading edge’ paradigm, which in 20 years will likely be seen as drivel.

Let us remember how selective ‘leading edge’ can be. The ABC does an ‘expose’ on ‘scandalous’ ‘violence’ against aboriginal kids in a detention center by guards, but it would never cross their Woke minds to do something similar for the much more serious problem of the chaos inside the communities from which those children came. The very suggestion would bring forth a spray of ideologically euphemistic and dysphemistic stereotypes.

The same applies to Newscorpland when it comes to their free market sacred sites.

There is no inherent reason why artists deserve to have their views platformed above anyone else’s just because their art delivers them sometimes large audiences, who perhaps enjoy their performances, or those performances reflect back their audience’s prejudices. We live in a world where people who can remember their acting lines and warble nicely for sound engineers are made authorities on climate change, #metoo and BLM…

But they are nothing of the sort, even if one happens to agree with them. 95% of them are not ‘questioning realities’. They are likely just retailing blind faith, and if they are young, retailing what the current wisdom was when they did their first year in the tertiary institution they went to. And if they are journalists, they are unlikely to ‘question the unfolding events across the lands’, so much as retail the Woke or corporatist narrative to which their boss subscribes.

Perhaps the reason why there is a developing tendency to ‘block free press and impede informed and diverse debate.’ is that there is no such thing, because long ago, they all devolved into public relations and marketing spiel. If you want to know why no one can have a frank discussion with a politician on TV, watch the frank and fearless Leigh Sales as she interviews herself while her interviewee listens in rapt attention to her ABC position statements that purport to be real ‘questions’.

And our Peter M talks glibly about ‘blind allegiance’ without a hint or irony as to how much of that is going round…

And oh yes, the ‘excessive police use of force meme’ is another cliché that does the rounds for anyone who decides to provoke a confrontation with the police because it wins sympathy, as sympathizers hang round with camera phones at the ready to capture the propaganda moment, after some dickhead has successfully ‘street engaged’ with a policeman and starts the victim histrionics that we have come to know and love since the Vietnam war.

Are Peter M’s ‘draconian measures’ by way of overarching government agency powers just Wokespeak for bunnies that have the sense to use their burrows when he’s on his frank and fearless hunting expeditions to get some pelts for his trophy cupboard?

Ah yes, and that old chestnut, ‘free speech’, as if it were a shining light in our current marketed milieu, which it isn’t, whether we are talking corporatelobbyworld or university Wokehavens.

Until very recently (weeks ago) if you were an anthropogenic climate change advocate, Newscorpland would edit you out, just as gender critical feminists get edited out of ‘The Age’ and the ABC. Deplatforming trumps free speech and everyone is doing it. One has to wonder how long one’s speaking rights would last down at the local public library if as a parent you advocate against drag queen story time.

‘Injustice’ is always a problem for people who cannot tell the difference between special pleading, sectional interest, rent seeking and adolescents who think not getting their way is ‘unfair’.

And no, ‘Artists, journalists, and others who seek to hold up a mirror to society with their creations’ are not necessarily doing anything of the sort, because whenever they hold that mirror up, there is always the suspicion that they are looking at their own reflection rather than that of of the front door of parliament house…

Their is more than a fair quotient of vanity in this little treasure trove of ideological conceits.

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My lord! That rant was glorious! Thank you :beers:.

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I remember reading something about it being a temporary tax to fund the war effort. Could be wrong.

From the recent reporting in the US about Australia’s “totalitarian” measures I’ve come to the conclusion that Americans and Australians have fundamentally different takes on liberty as you more eloquently stated. The fault line here seems to me to be that some Australians have taken on the American ethos.

John, I had a ball writing it…

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It read that way c.d.

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Jim Crow laws for $50 thanks Tony. A local example would be something like the “budget repair levy” for higher income earners, to repair a budget that they had no hand in damaging - that’s gone thankfully. Stay tuned for the “COVID budget repair levy” that some people will pay for the good of the nation.

I kind of admire your guileless naiveté in the face of reality.

Here in the US, the left is reveling in restraining freedoms. Please examine the the actions of Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis to familiarize yourself if you’re unsure.

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Like a dog with a bone eh? I kind of admire American right wing dogged determination to associate the unassociated.
Please examine Australia’s vaccination rates, It has already surpassed the US as 60% of the entire population is now fully vaccinated & is well on the way to being the highest in the world in a matter of weeks so we won’t be in need of any reruns. IE we ain’t you. You’re comparing apples & oranges again but I’m sure you know that…
Of course thanks to the US’s very specific peculiarity of political polarisation the casualties still flow despite having access to vaccines eons before most. If you want to blame anyone for the loss of freedoms look in the mirror. Oh & condemning the vulnerable & your hospital system to a health catastrophe is hardly a freeing experience….for them.

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Thanks @Ella-B not comparing between our countries, responding to that very specific sentence of yours. Nitpicking, I guess :crazy_face: