The power of art

images-2In repressive states, the role of the artist is unambiguous: to assert the individual imagination, the singular power that all dictatorships fear. I remember once talking to the Czech dissident and writer Ivan Klima, who had been subject both to the arbitrary horror of a Nazi concentration camp as a child and the long grinding years of Soviet occupation in which he had become a “non-person” for two decades, harassed constantly by secret police and unable to speak or write in public. He survived by “living in truth”. “I have always pursued inner freedom,” he said. “I have never been censored.”

Klima was part of that group of artists and writers who gathered in the Magic Lantern theatre in Prague in 1989 to orchestrate the “Velvet Revolution” and see their dreams of liberation realised. And how did it feel to experience freedom, to have the external world finally correspond with that interior life for the first time?

Czech writer Ivan Klima: ‘I have never been censored.’ Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

“It is interesting that a man very quickly accepts freedom as a normal thing,” Klima said. “Though we had fought for it for so long, after a few weeks or months we did not think about it. Rather you start to see things you would like to change, things that make you angry, corruption and so forth, environmental problems, the obsession with the market…” Habits of protest die hard.

There are, of course, many courageous artists across the world with Klima’s stubborn courage. Ai Weiwei is only the best known, but he remains a crucial figure, one irrepressible man living in truth who reveals the billion lies attending China’s advance into the world. Weiwei used to reject the idea he was a political figure, insisting that he was only an artist (as if the two were distinguishable). After his imprisonment in 2012, his tone seemed to change. “People are always wondering if I am an artist or politician,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just clearly tell you: whatever I do is not art. Let’s say it is just objects or materials, movies or writing, but not art, Ok

In Russia, Pussy Riot have acquired something of Weiwei’s power – the power to prove the futility of censorship and the integrity of protest. They took their inspiration from the Voina, a group which, like all the best art political movements, trailed a manifesto. Point one read: “Create the rebirth of heroical behavioural ideals of an artist-intellectual… the artist as romantic hero, who prevails over evil. Produce lively romantic models in contrast with today’s soulless commercial conceptual art.” Voina’s most famous performance was a protest against the 2008 election of President Medvedev. This “lively romantic” act took place in the Moscow Biological Museum, beside a stuffed bear. Five couples from Voina undressed and had vigorous sex in the hall. One of the participants, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, described the work as the only honest portrait of pre-election Russia: “Everybody fucks each other, and the puppy bear” [a nickname for Medvedev] “looks on with an unconcealed scorn.”

Pussy Riot perform in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral to protest Putin’s return to the Kremlin, 2012. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/AP

In the west, where freedoms of speech are, theoretically at least, guaranteed in law, the challenge for an artist to make an effective political statement is more complex. Where anything goes, where we are flooded daily with millions of uncensored images, what honestly gives us pause, or makes a statement? Perhaps as a result of this, the art world, that moving spectacle of expos and fairs and biennials – Voina’s “soulless commercial conceptual art” – can appear to exist in a self-referential bubble. The suddenly hardening political moment, however – where across Europe and in the US, liberal certainties feel under threat – seems to call for a different kind of artistic engagement. What that might look like is still under construction.

Street art and the outlaw sloganeering of Banksy was one effort to test the in-house freedoms of the gallery in less permissive spaces. Another, more rigorous attempt would be the inspiring project of the American Theaster Gates in Chicago’s South Side. Gates is using the material of his historically blighted neighbourhood, repurposed as art, to regenerate entire blocks of that community and connect its residents with a radical civil rights past, making black lives matterin bricks and mortar. His 2011 collection, In the Event of a Race Riot, coiled a series decommissioned fire hoses from the civil rights era in gilt-frame boxes. They sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and Gates ploughed the money directly back into community projects.