When Art Clashes With The Government, What Happens Next?

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By now, everybody and his dog has heard the tale of the New York dramatic production of Julius Caesar that has drawn opprobrium, the ire of sponsors, and pro-Trump protesters who interrupted the play — all because it depicted Caesar, who is ultimately assassinated in the play, as a Trump-like figure. Of course, the play, like all of Shakespeare's tragedies, is a lot more complex than criticism has made it sound (and it is also worth remembering that the play has been staged with Caesar as an Obama-esque figure, too). But while no one has made any moves to ban this staging and the administration has not commented on it, the outcry over the production plays into a very long history of art's relationship with power, and how people in high positions have negotiated with artistic freedom for centuries.

So what's this got to do with me? My own position on this is a specialist one: my PhD was focused on the state control of musical composers under Stalin, the Third Reich and the Stasi in Germany, many of whom had to make some very awkward choices about their musical and personal lives; I've also done research on satirical cartoons and how very unhappy they've made various rulers throughout the millennia. So I'm going to break it all down for you: "banned," suppressed or reshaped art isn't a new thing, and the Julius Caesar blow-up has some pretty uncomfortable historical precedents.

Art Wasn't Always Considered A Form Of Self-Expression

Nuremberg Chronicle

Understanding this giant yelling match in historical context involves looking at a pretty big question: what is art for? In 2017, most of us would say that it's about expression, entertainment, individual ideas, and standing on the outside of the world looking in.

But the idea of the artist as separate and individual, throwing him or herself around scandalously like Lord Byron and looking at society with a beadily critical eye, isn't as old-school as it looks. The whole idea of the "individual" didn't really show up until the European Renaissance in the West; before that, people were viewed as part of their families, communities and religions first. And when it comes to art, that matters.

Because before individualism showed up, art served other purposes related to communal identity: glorifying God, serving patrons, and helping societies reinforce their rules and ideas. When the modernist artist Kasimir Malevich declared in 1926 that "Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion," he was going against centuries of precedent. The ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, famously, advocated censorship of the arts in case they created too much emotional difficulty (music in particular, Plato thought, could distress the soul and confuse us). Art, they believed, was meant to be instructive, informing people how to be moral citizens and criticizing those who didn't do things properly. Introducing problematic ideas wasn't good at all, because it would destabilize the populace.

Many debates about art throughout history were about how it could "serve" societies, and what good could come of showing off less salubrious parts of the human character. The answer was often "not a lot." Censoring worrisome or "immoral" art has stretched throughout the centuries, from the Vatican's famous Index Librorum Prohibitorum (banned books index), which included Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and was only abolished in 1966, to the Hays Code that tightly controlled the output of Golden Age Hollywood films so that they didn't "lower the moral standards" of movie-goers. (Censorship of literature in particular was easier back before the introduction of the printing press, because books could be tightly controlled. As it's become easier to create and distribute art, it's been much harder for governments and moral authorities to clamp down on it.)

The perspective that audiences of art don't need to be protected from random immorality, and that society won't be fundamentally threatened by art that looks at problematic bits of human nature, is a pretty new concept. Explicit protest art really began to flourish in the 20th century.

Rulers Have Historically Not Taken Kindly To Artistic Criticism

"Les Poires", Honore Daumier 1831

The big issue people keep raising about the Trump Julius Caesar is that it's inherently disrespectful to the sitting President and his supporters, and is therefore worrisome for the country in general. While healthy disrespect is often seen as a sign of working democracy (and the boundaries of what's "offensive" and unacceptable are a constant topic of debate), this is actually a pretty old-school response. Historically, leaders have never enjoyed being made into on-stage targets or, worse, figures of fun — and some of them have taken disturbing steps to stop it.

For example, Napoleon loathed the British satirical cartoonist James Gillray so much, he once said the man did him "more damage than a dozen generals." The French King Louise-Philippe I jailed satirists as a matter of course. Unfortunately, Louise-Philippe only made life harder for himself, because while on trial for causing offense in 1831, the caricaturist Charles Philipon argued that basically any object could be made to look like the king's head, and used a sketch of a pear to demonstrate. The pear-king caricature caught on, led to Philipon being thrown in jail repeatedly, and is now one of the most famous political cartoons in history, all because Louise-Philippe was a bit over-sensitive.

Some leaders and their helpers have simply battled against unfriendly art by producing art of their own; Martin Luther's followers responded to woodcuts throughout the Reformation depicting him as a demon by spreading ones showing monks emerging from the feces of the Devil. And the satirist William Hone of Georgian England found that, even though he was jailed for five days for a poem mocking Parliament, after his release politicians kept trying to buy copies from him. But Ovid, he of the famous Metamorphoses, was actually banished from Rome because of some mysterious offense he caused the Emperor Augustus (Ovid himself thought it was largely to do with his poem Ars amatoria, which Augustus took as a personal affront to the morality of Rome); and famously bawdy poet Lord Rochester was thrown out of the court of King Charles II in 1673 after accidentally showing him a satirical poem about his sexual desires.

Producing art that goes against a particular ruler has never, frankly, been a safe pursuit. But what of art that goes against an entire regime?

Throughout History, Refusing To Toe The Line Has Been Dangerous

Censorship is a wide-ranging word, and artists who haven't toed the line and have produced art that goes against the rules have often not had a great time in history. Having your work banned or altered (the "fig leaf campaign" that meant modesty leaves were painted over Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel is one example) is one thing — but under various regimes in history, personal safety was also an issue.  

Many people, when they think of the grand gestures of suppression of art, think of Nazi Germany, but the reality there was more complex than simply burning books. The Nazis had a particular artistic "vision" for the future of their Reich, with acceptable types of art pushing big neoclassical visions and a bucolic Germany full of frolicking Aryan maidens. Art is a key part of state propaganda, and the Nazis took two approaches to it: give big patronages to artists who would toe the party line, and humiliate and terrify artists who didn't. Hence the famous Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937, which ran alongside a Great Art Exhibition of "good" work; the "Degenerate" exhibit was filled with modernist paintings Hitler hated. These images weren't burned; rather, they were put in a public arena to be laughed at and made an example of.

For another look at the same issue, take Stalin's Russia. The great composer Shostakovich put on an opera called Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District in 1934, and was horrified to discover that the official state paper, Pravda, published a review called "Muddle Instead Of Music." The suggestion was clear: if Shostakovich didn't produce stuff that was more in line with Stalin's tastes, he was in personal danger. Like many great artists under Stalin, he would balance artistic output and his own neck for the rest of his life. As the great Russian musician Vladimir Ashkenazy explained to the New York Times:

Serious consequences continue to threaten artists in regimes that maintain strong propaganda rules about art "opposing the state." Russia, with its censorship of Pussy Riot, is one example, as is China, which has censored political art, particularly around Tibet (including at an exhibition in Bangladesh). However, there's a small bright side: one Chinese artist noted in 2014 that it can actually be profitable to be censored, because it brings international outrage and attention.

So what are we to make of all this historical battling between artists, governments and rulers? The Julius Caesar debate is a very, very old one, and is in fact a lot milder than it could be, considering that nobody's getting sent to the gulag, exiled, or sent to jail. But what we should remember, when we encounter controversial art that we may or may not agree with or find to be in poor taste, is that the path of repressing critical art does not historically lead to good things.