I Grew Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Isolating Russia’s Art and Artists Will Not Help Us Achieve Peace

A cultural boycott is not the answer.

András Szántó, March 7, 2022

Just two weeks ago, days before the unprovoked assault on Ukraine, I found myself in Prague for the opening of the Kunsthalle Praha. The new institution is a monument to all that has been achieved in East Central Europe since the fall of Communism. Its building, financed by a private foundation, is a marvel of modern architecture installed in a former electric substation. Its opening exhibition is a buzzing and flashing kaleidoscope of kinetic art from around the world. The assembled crowd was multilingual, well-traveled, well-dressed, well-informed. A celebratory toast proclaimed wonderment about how, after a long hiatus, the Czech capital once again could play host to such a future-blazing event. 

Among those invited for the opening were a group of museum directors from all corners of the globe. We gathered for a discussion about starting new institutions, aware of the mounting threat to the east, yet confident the worst could be avoided—a colleague from Moscow assured us of as much. One by one, the directors talked about their plans: how they would make institutions more open, politically engaged, less harmful to the planet. It was a portrait of the art world in the 21st century—committed to community, sensitive to inequity, globalist in outlook, intertwined via ideas, networks, and technologies. Exterior view of the Kunsthalle Praha. Photography by Lukáš Masner.

Exterior view of the Kunsthalle Praha. Photography by Lukáš Masner.

The invasion started days later, and now all that optimism feels quaint. Our time in Prague may turn out to be the closing moments of a three-decade-long intermezzo of renewal in eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain, in 1989. During that era, the region became re-engaged, re-energized, and reconnected with the world, making the wholesale murder and repression that wrecked these parts through much of the 20th century a distant memory. 

Those of us active in the cultural community will now have to relearn reflexes that will be familiar to people in my generation, who have memories of the Cold War, but which will be new to those born after the 1980s. Because times like this burden artists and arts institutions with a unique responsibility. As the world falls apart, as economies decouple and truces unwind, art remains one of the few ways in which we can continue to engage with those “on the other side” who share our values. We need them. And they need us. 

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For this reason, I admit to mixed feelings about the wave of exhibition closures and resignations that has come, with remarkable swiftness and razor-like finality, in the wake of Russia’s incursion. This outpouring has been an impressive demonstration of solidarity. Almost on the hour, we’re hearing about cultural boycottsdepartures of curators and directors, and the shuttering of institutions. The moral convictions behind these choices cannot be doubted. Yet I feel compelled to caution about cutting ties too rashly, and with no clear pathway back to normalcy. 

The dilemma of the hour for artists and institutions alike is whether to connect or to disengage. The impulse to rip the cord is understandable: Instead of helplessness and frustration, it offers instant emotional gratification. But will such gestures stop the bombs? Can they deter the invaders? Do they provide material help to the cultural workers and citizens stranded in the war zone, or to those in Moscow or St. Petersburg who deplore the war and are likewise seeing their world disintegrate?

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