On July 4, remember Solzenhitsyn's words: 'Art serves to battle lies and preserve the moral history of a society without the transitory and debasing rhetoric of bureaucrats.'
This Fourth of July, as Americans think about freedom and wonder at its costs, think for a moment of a future where art is not permitted.
Take, for example, the sci-fi classic, "Fahrenheit 451," in which Ray Bradbury described a future where art and books are banned and burned by a totalitarian government. Artists in that future responded by memorizing books, literally preserving them in their minds. The controversies that arise related to artistic freedom range from paintings and film to banned books and provocative movies. It is sometimes a surprise in a democracy, but the case can be made that the desire of governments to control art stems from their fear of the power of truth in art.
To grasp the real-life significance of artists as political agents we have only to remember Cambodia, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and China. In those countries, as in Latin America, the first citizens sent to the gulag or the "reeducation camp" were the artists.
It's no coincidence that repressive governments often go after poets, painters, and playwrights. The artistic sensibility and the practice of making art create a habit of asking questions and – when a political structure is fragile – the right question and one artist can bring the whole thing down. Pablo Neruda did it in Chile by using poetry and fiction to undermine and ultimately overturn a regime, and Vaclav Havel used plays and poems similarly in the former Czechoslovakia.
In the United States, we don't murder artists but we do have culturally specific weapons for killing their work: We lower their status, minimize their contributions, and we cut their funding. We also belittle artists by suggesting that their opinions are irrelevant. It doesn't make sense.