Censorship, Controversy and the Role of Art

January 23, 2011 in Blog by Willa Taylor

Goodman is about to host the Belarus Free Theatre, a company of artists who at the moment cannot return to their country because the repressive regime in this former Soviet republic does not like what these artists’ works say about repressive regimes. Government agents have gone to the artists’ homes, interrogated their relatives, jailed some of their colleagues. A few weeks ago, before they started their current tour with an appearance at the Public Theatre’s Under The Radar Festival, the husband-and-wife leaders of Belarus Free Theater were arrested and roughed up during demonstrations against the government; Natalia was threatened with rape by the police.

That we will host them is wonderful. That this theatre would move quickly to give artistic refuge is one of the reasons why I am proud to work at Goodman.

Freedom of speech is a basic tenet of our society. Freedom of the expression is the right of every American and the mandate for every artist. But in this increasingly polarized society, is freedom of expression possible? When Mark Twain’s Huck Finn can be rewritten to make it more palatable to the squeamish, when government pressure forces the National Portrait Gallery, a gallery supported by my tax dollars, to remove an art work to assuage a politician, how do artists, artistic institutions and cultural collaborators like critics, make space for the debates that art should engender?

In her remarks celebrating World Theatre Day 2010, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage said this of art and artists: We must be unafraid to look honestly at the human condition and try to come to terms with its contradictions and flaws. That means approaching our work not as journalists, but as fabulators, storytellers, breaking rules to help reimagine the world. We must be truthful, while spinning yarns. It is the paradox of our creative process that gives us access to places we dare not go in our everyday lives. It emboldens us to ask difficult questions about war, race, religion, poverty, love and hatred.

Art should provoke thought and promote discussion. In light of the Belarus Free Theatre’s plight, we must remember what is truly at stake.