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Freedom and the Arts

Freedom. Mankindıs license to move freely, to think, write, read, speak, worship without fear of recrimination. It has been manıs dream from earliest recorded time to the present moment. Perhaps no one treasures it more than those who have lost or never had it. It has been the yearning to be free that has inspired some of the worldıs greatest art.

What anguish Dmitri Shostakovich must have undergone when he was chastised by Joseph Stalin and his henchmen for not toeing the line, for writing music deemed by the State as insufficiently reflective of that State's agenda. What could one man do but knuckle under and give them what they wanted (which he did), or write music with a hidden message of his own (which he also did), hoping that one day his meaning might be decoded or that he could sing his canti di liberazione without fear. (Alas, by the time liberation arrived, he was gone.)

In the century before, Friedrich von Schiller was among the poets singing of universal brotherhood, his Ode to Joy being universalized in the final movement of Beethovenıs Ninth. And who will forget the aging Leonard Bernstein performing that musical monument at the Berlin Wall, substituting — just to make sure the world was getting the message — the word Freiheit (freedom) for Schiller's Freude (joy)?

These thoughts came to mind on reading a dispatch that originated in the London Sunday Telegraph, was then reprinted in the Washington Times, and ultimately found its way to the electronic pages of MusicalAmerica.com. The report told the story of Qian Cheng, music director of the China National Symphony Orchestra in Beijing, who had been put under house arrest by the Communist Party for his programming of European classical music "at the expense of Chinese classical pieces." Moreover, it seems that Party officials sought to impose a news blackout, one musician reporting that "This is something weıve been told not to talk about. The investigation is being controlled from the highest levels."

Encouraging local or national performances is neither new nor wrong. Many countries, in an effort to foster their own arts, insist that a certain percentage of their governmentally supported arts presentation be dedicated to their own cultural product. But to dictate programming by governmental fiat, and then even to mete out punishment to those perceived in violation of the State's decree is a pernicious infringement of civil liberties.

No mere coincidence is it that tyrants and autocratic regimes have always feared artists and their arts. They have sensed that arts can not only move people, sometimes dangerously and to action, but even worse, the arts — unlike tyrants or their regimes — are not subject to the frailties that flesh is heir to. Potentially they can last forever. They could be around, having who knows what impact on future generations, long after their creators' lifespan had ended.

And then there's the "foreign" element. Insecure nations, just as insecure individuals, have always fussed and worried about strange, alien, foreign influences. Remember Dr. Goebbels and his exhaustive efforts to Aryanize not only the German Volk but even the German language? (And look at both the German populace and the language in common currency with the lid off today.) The effort of totalitarian fundamentalists to seal their people off hermetically from the world-at-large, be it in the Islamist world or in any spot where maximal power is concentrated in minimal circles, is all too much with us. Its effect needs no belaboring.

But there is good reason for hope. For one thing, our dazzlingly expanding technologies make it more and more difficult to keep the flow of information from entering every nook and cranny as globalization becomes the world's reality.

And then, there are the arts, those magical human messages that can uplift and ennoble, entertain and inform, and keep us tuned in to the humanity of our fathers and our fathers' fathers, to the promise of our children and our children's children, and most of all, to the world in which we have the chance and challenge of spending our lives.

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