The Relationship Between Art Censorship and Dictatorship

A person with their mouth sewn shut.

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When most people think of a dictator, they picture a violent leader who physically enslaves his citizens. But the modern-day tyrant is much more dangerous due to his subtle approach to totalitarianism. Rather than commit overt acts of oppression, he’s much more likely to engage in indirect forms of it. One common tactic involves the suppression of creative expression, which is a form of slavery on its own.

In Russia, for example, it is illegal to use obscenities in public performances and to insult the “feelings of religious believers.” And while many would argue that these laws are loosely enforced, there is evidence to the contrary.

In 2012, for example, three members of the feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Their crime? Performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow church.

But truth be told, their imprisonment had nothing to do with the fact that they used profanity in their songs or offended religious believers. They were imprisoned because they challenged the status quo, and as every dictator knows, dissent like that can topple a government.

“The artistic community at large rarely sees eye to eye with the state,” writes Russian art curator Marat Guelman. “This conflict may not always boil over, but it exists because of a fundamental truth: Artists will always seek to be open to the world, looking to the future and seeing their place in it.”

A similar situation can be seen in China, where state-sponsored media outlets filter information before it is broadcasted to the public. Much like Pussy Riot, world-renowned activist Ai Weiwei was also imprisoned for creating art that was critical of the Chinese government.

“The censorship in China places limits on knowledge and values, which is the key to imposing ideological slavery,” Weiwei wrote in a New York Times piece. “I do what I can to show cruelties, the subtle and the not so subtle. As things are here today, rational resistance can be based only on the small actions of individual people. Where I fail, the responsibility is mine alone, but the rights I seek to defend are ones that can be shared.”

Weiwei’s statement provides further evidence that while oppressive governments and regimes are nothing new, the tactics that are being used to control the population are. Dictators have had to adjust their tactics over time to account for a baseline population that is more educated and informed than ever before. What this means is that their strategy is likely to rely more on manipulation than it is brute force.

Modern-day dictators know that ideas have the power to topple their regime, so they do their best to censor them. It’s up to artists to fight back.

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