There is a message that I believe needs to be communicated right now: be brave. Do not accept being silenced. Do not let any voice convince you that your art is “not viable”. Don’t ever scratch out a piece of your art, a song, a section of film or your words because someone made you feel that they are not worth fighting for. Those who wish to discourage you are afraid of what you can bring to the world, and righteously so.
“The message is: widen the area of consciousness” wrote Allen Ginsberg in ‘Howl and Other Poems’, the book that dragged him to trial for obscenity in 1957. His work was redeemed in court because of its “social importance” – undoubtedly a big victory over censorship, a verdict that had the very effect of his words: it widened our perception of poetry, breaking the seal of what could be written and published. Eighteen years later in Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini was savagely murdered, a heinous crime whose true perpetrators were never identified. This didn’t stop lawsuits and court hearings aiming to ban and obscure his last film ‘Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ which continued well after his death. Eighty years before Pasolini’s murder, Oscar Wilde was condemned to two years of imprisonment and hard labour for “gross indecency”, a sentence that virtually cost him his life when, having never recovered from an ear infection he developed in prison, he died penniless and ostracised in 1900.
The often deadly clash between artists and censorship, desire and institution, between those who seek to “widen the area of consciousness” and a society that condemns, silences and censors creativity is a long blood-ridden thread running throughout the history of the arts. This very year, among the crisis that the current pandemic has brought to us, most governments have been affirming, either by direct or indirect statements, that the arts are not vital to society, that artists should “retrain”, that their sector and livelihood are expendable. Cinemas, theatres, music venues, museums and libraries are suffering just as much as any other business for
loss of revenue, and yet they find themselves overlooked and dismissed.
It’s hardly news that artists find themselves constantly caught in paradoxical statements such as, “you’re not a professional artist because you have another job”, or, “you might be a professional artist but that is not real job”. What is surprising is the sense of astonishment that
statements like, “the arts are not viable”, bring to the public and often artists themselves. “Society often forgives the criminal, it never forgives the dreamer,” wrote Oscar Wilde. No matter how long ago those words have been written, they ring truer every day.
In light of current events, I wish to write again these words: “The message is: widen the area of consciousness”. This is what artists are here for. This is what art does. Art is dangerous, it breaks walls faster and more effectively than any other measure. Art overcomes fear, it pushes mankind further, it creates empathy and connections, it keeps us alive and brings hope. In the current state of Western society, art is a weapon of freedom. It is not difficult to figure out why artists struggle, why the arts are the first to be targeted when it’s time to cut funds, save money, or “retrain”. There has always been and always will be a strong interest in censoring art, of silencing it, in shutting up those who push boundaries further, those who redefine reality, those who provoke, those who want change.
If we look back at history we see not only the struggles of LGBT+ men of letters, but all those who have not let the limits that society imposed on their work stop them. We should feel a huge sense of gratitude to those who continue to create art that stretches and widens the range of what we consider possible to write, to perform on stage, to watch on a screen. If any of them, and the countless others before and after their lifetime, had stopped fighting, much of the freedom of expression we know today would be unthinkable. Art has survived throughout history despite wars, deprivation, famine and censorship. Let’s remember this legacy and what we as artists represent, as we honour those who paved the way. Let’s fight for our art, today.
Words: Chiara Viale