Art and Europe's Last Dictatorship
January 27, 2011 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Fascinating and inspiring interview with playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard by Riz Khan on the subject of Belarus, a country ruled by the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and whether artists can have an impact on the world of politics. Recently, the troupe Belarus Free Theatre has been touring the West with Being Harold Pinter, to rave reviews. Stoppard himself was a child refugee, escaping with his family from Czechoslovakia in 1939.
posted by Kattullus (15 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
And today, theatres all over are doing staged readings of Being Harold Pinter in support of BFT and democracy in Belarus. I'm in one!
posted by Mngo at 8:11 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, list of readings is here, and the text is also available by request.
posted by Mngo at 8:15 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

BFT is currently in Chicago. I'm planning on seeing them at some point. More info here
posted by Uncle at 8:38 AM on January 27, 2011

I saw Being Harold Pinter at La Mama last week. If you have this slightest possibility of an opportunity to see it, don't pass it up. It's astonishing.
posted by davidjmcgee at 9:22 AM on January 27, 2011

Wow, what an awful interview. Western fetishization of liberal activists is one thing, but this takes it to a whole other level. He didn't say one thing about the actual effect of writers and artists that went beyond the feel-good clich├ęs that play so well to the same crowd that went gaga over Twitter and Iran a few years ago. Raising awareness! What an inspiring new idea!

I'm not objecting to the Belarussian writers themselves. Everyone in an authoritarian regime has to adopt some kind of posture in relation to power, and they've adopted a critical one--more power to them. But they're not going to be the ones who change anything, just like Havel and the other dissidents were not the ones who changed anything in 1989 (see Kotkin's Uncivil Society, which I've referred to here before).

By all means, do readings of Being Harold Pinter! I'm sure it's good work. Just don't participate in the ridiculous fantasy that you are helping to change something. I mean, at this point even the Russian media is making state-funded documentaries about how evil the Bat'ka is.

Also: great article on Belarus by Tim Colton (a fantastic historian of Eastern Europe).
posted by nasreddin at 9:28 AM on January 27, 2011

I think you are giving Stoppard too little credit here, nasreddin. He's been quite active on behalf of Belarusian activists for a number of years. And a bit too down on Vaclav Havel as well. Let me quote one of Havel's essays, Power and the Powerless, slightly out of context (note: by post-totalitarian he is referring to the Czech system in the late 70s):
The real sphere of potential politics in the post-totalitarian system is elsewhere: in the continuing and cruel tension between the complex demands of that system and the aims of life, that is, the elementary need of human beings to live, to a certain extent at least, in harmony with themselves, that is, to live in a bearable way, not to be humiliated by their superiors and officials, not to be continually watched by the police, to be able to express themselves freely, to find an outlet for their creativity, to enjoy legal security, and so on. Anything that touches this field concretely, anything that relates to this fundamental, omnipresent, and living tension, will inevitably speak to people.
Artist activism doesn't do much, it's true, except create a space, often a mental space, where relief can be found. Foreign artists can only do so much, but they can help create that space. By supporting the Belarus Free Theatre, in action and by raising funds, Stoppard supports them in that. Yeah, it's naive to think that Lukashenko is going to brought down by a theatre troupe, but it's cynical to think that political art does nothing, and cynicism is simply inverse naiveness.

I think likening trips to Belarus, fundraising and long-term advocacy to Twitter activism is cynical. By assisting the Belarus Free Theatre Stoppard helps them express to foreigners and the Belarusians themselves, the experience of living in Belarus. One doesn't need to live in a police state to understand the power inherent in having one's felt experience described in words or art. It helps make life bearable. Yes, a poem will not overthrow a dictator, but it can soothe mental wounds and maybe, just maybe, inspire someone to struggle against an unjust state.
posted by Kattullus at 10:21 AM on January 27, 2011

Oh edit window... the essay is called The Power of the Powerless. It can be found here.
posted by Kattullus at 10:22 AM on January 27, 2011

Kattullus: "except create a space, often a mental space, where relief can be found"

Or create a tension and unrest that can lead to real change.

The Black Panthers were, among other things, explicitly a performance art group.

Sorry to beat on one of my favorite drums, but art isn't just there to make you feel better. It can also be about making you feel worse in a way that leads to actual changes in the world... which then might make you not just feel better but live in a better world.
posted by idiopath at 10:29 AM on January 27, 2011

Well, obviously Havel is going to emphasize the kind of thing he was actually good at as opposed to the kind of thing he massively failed at, which was actually changing the system.

I've heard the "cynicism is simply inverse naiveness" line before, in similar contexts to this one. While that may be true, without further substantiation it rings pretty hollow. The issue is that practically no Westerner--and judging by the essentially-self-admitted hot air in this interview, not Stoppard--who supports dissidents in other countries, whether China or Belarus or Iran, is in possession of sufficient cultural background and other kinds of information to make an informed judgment about political strategy, organization methods, media pressure, whatever. Instead, people in liberal-democratic parties hear the word "dissident" or "activist" and promptly fill in the completely blank space in their heads with all kinds of cultural baggage drawn mainly from Hollywood movies. This is understandable, because dissidents appeal to precisely the kinds of values liberal-democratic countries hold dear.

Of course, activists are very good at recognizing this kind of thing and exploit it as much as they can. (Obviously I'm not condemning them for that on any level.) They tell the Western audience what it wants to hear, and then, hopefully, try to convert the clout they gain into pressure on the regime or more vague kinds of political gestures. But this often enables a toxic dynamic in which external support delegitimizes activism internally while separating activists out as a privileged category, which means that the people who have the ear of the West are further and further away from the populace in whose name they're supposed to be speaking. And then, once the fickle Western public moves on to another issue du jour, the political debate in the regime is left even more lopsided.

I just wish people would spend less time calling objections "cynical" and more time applying critical thinking to their reflexive judgments about heroic underdogs.

Also, you're going to have to be more specific about what you think a "mental space" is. The idea that the only legitimate site of let's say spiritual refuge in an authoritarian regime is an activist-created and politicized mental space is a fantasy that is in essence a direct reflection of the regime's own ideology. (Though perhaps that doesn't apply so much in this case, since Lukashenka's ideology appears to be fairly rudimentary.)
posted by nasreddin at 10:53 AM on January 27, 2011

They may not be changing the system, but at the very least through the actions of The League of Chicago Theatres, Northwestern University, and The Goodman...the lives of *these particular* people may be improved.

Those organizations created an Artist-in-Residence program to help the Belarus Free Theatre group stay in the country longer so that they can (perhaps) apply for asylum...or at the very least have some breathing room while they consider their next move. They've been threatened with arrest and imprisonment if they return (they'd been forbidden to travel to New York but did so surreptitiously).

Small victories and all.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 11:14 AM on January 27, 2011

Anyway, I can understand how Havel's specious pseudo-Sartrean bullshit about "living the truth" (which is not really any more sophisticated than "Wake up sheeple! Google Ron Paul!") would have appealed to Baby Boomers, but I'm a little puzzled that you seem to like it so much, Kattullus. I mean, as a recipe for political change it's not any more compelling than any of the Baader-Meinhof manifestos that came out a couple of decades earlier. I guess the only thing that makes it different is that the system Havel was attacking collapsed of its own accord and he got to take the credit for lack of any better candidate.
posted by nasreddin at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2011

the lives of *these particular* people may be improved.

Well, I mean, that's great as far as it goes, but it's also problematic in the way I sketched out in my earlier comment.
posted by nasreddin at 11:16 AM on January 27, 2011

(by "couple of decades" I mean "a decade," sorry)
posted by nasreddin at 11:17 AM on January 27, 2011

(And of course the Belarus article is by Tim Snyder, not Tim Colton, I really don't know what I was thinking.)
posted by nasreddin at 2:38 PM on January 27, 2011

Remembering Anna Yablonskaya: A promising Ukrainian playwright was among the victims of Moscow's airport bombing.
posted by kliuless at 5:43 AM on January 28, 2011

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