Gillian Jakab is associate editor of the Gagosian Quarterly and, since 2016, has served as the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.
Socrates would not have thought of himself as an artist, but his dialectic practice in the streets and squares of ancient Athens shared something with the spoken-word street artists of today: wordsmithing, provoking, speaking truth to power. Socrates evidently did too much of it, and maybe on the wrong streets, because the Athenian powers-that-were indicted him. In Plato’s account of his trial, in 399 bce, Socrates spoke of himself as a “gadfly” pestering the state into action.1 His exquisitely designed expressions of social and cultural critique goaded even free-speech-loving Athens to silence him. By plying his craft, at least in part, as public performance, Socrates blurred the line between art and philosophy, and one could argue that his trial stands as the best-known case of artist-intellectual persecution in the classical Western canon.
In the East, ancient China saw a cycle of artist persecution that coincided with revolutions in local or dynastic rule: a new regime would try to purge the teachings of its predecessor. Writers, as a result, would take to more and more allegorical or poetic expression to elude direct conflict with authorities, their work transitioning from essay or treatise into art. The persecution of these scholar artists, to the point of execution and death, is known as wenziyu, variously translated but fairly meaning “cultural inquisition.” The best-known case of wenziyu was an event that has come to be called “the burning of books and the burying of scholars,” when the emperor Qin Shi Huang, in 213–12 bce, attempted a purge of the principally Confucian culture preceding his reign. According to an account (believed by some to exaggerate) from the following dynasty, the Han, over 460 poets and scholars were investigated and buried alive.2
Dissident artists and their maltreatment occasionally dot the pages of ancient and medieval history, but perhaps because artists in those eras tended to be members of, or controlled by, the ruling elite, these cases, or at least accounts of them, are not terribly frequent. It wasn’t until modernity, and the ascendance of the patronless artist, that the phenomenon of subversive political artistic expression emerged as a social force. As these artists grew increasingly effective, it was not long before they drew persecution from their targets. “If you look at closed societies, restrictive governments go after journalists, they go after human rights activists, they go after artists,” I was told by Miriam Mahlow of Human Rights Watch.3
Alas, there was no one to save Socrates or the Confucian scholars. But today, individuals and organizations have arisen to aid “threatened artists.” This term, along with “artists at risk” and “displaced artists,” has become an established category for those working at the intersection of art and human rights, and encompasses a range of situations. Artists may be targeted by a ruling class objecting to the form or content of their work, or they may be oppressed by systemic inequities based on race, ethnicity, gender, or other identity traits.
An example of this systemic kind of oppression is the persistent racism, of which the United States has been unable to rid itself, that has driven so many Black artists and writers to flee for Europe. Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Sidney Bechet, Harold Cousins, Dexter Gordon, Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Richard Wright—the list goes on. In a joint interview with Baldwin conducted by the scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Baker reflected, “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States. . . . A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore. . . . I felt liberated in Paris.”4 Describing his emigration, years after Baker’s, to the same storied city, Baldwin posed the decision as one intertwined with his art: “I left because I was a writer. I had discovered writing and I had a family to save. I had only one weapon to save them, my writing. And I couldn’t write in the United States.”5
Baker moved to Paris in 1925, Baldwin in 1948. Between those years, in 1938, a woman escaping a different kind of oppression found a haven in Paris—for a while. Lisa Fittko, born Eckstein Erzsébet in 1909, hailed from an artistic Jewish family in Austria-Hungary and grew up in Budapest, Vienna, and eventually Berlin. There she became involved in antifascist activities that got the attention of the Gestapo, and in 1933 she fled, passing through Prague, Basel, and Amsterdam before eventually reaching Paris. En route she met the man who would become her husband, Hans Fittko, a man of kindred political convictions, and in Paris the couple began to work to assist fellow refugees. Two years into her life there, the Germans invaded France and detained her in a concentration camp for women for some months. The philosopher Hannah Arendt, a friend of Fittko’s, was sent there too, and eventually, with a group of fellow prisoners, the two managed to escape. Once out, Fittko made her way from town to town until she reunited with her husband in the South of France.6
There, instead of taking the opportunity to escape themselves, the couple stayed to become legendary saviors of artists and others trying to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. Through 1940 and 1941 they guided hundreds of refugees to safe passage along the mountain routes across the Pyrenees to Spain. In the first group was the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who, after being turned back by Spanish border authorities on the pretense of a new visa policy, took his own life in a hotel in the border village of Portbou. The Fittkos then joined forces with Varian Fry, an American editor and journalist who had written early news reports on Nazi Germany and had returned home horrified, urging his country to act. When little was done, he gathered university presidents, museum curators, artists, journalists, and prominent Jewish refugees in a meeting at the Hotel Commodore, New York, in 1940, during which the group founded the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to help refugees escape occupied France.7 With this network behind him, Fry volunteered to go back to Europe to carry out the committee’s mission. Among the 2,000 Jews and anti-Nazi activists he aided were noted artists and intellectuals including André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Arthur Koestler, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Ophüls, and many others.
Fry had had an early inclination toward the arts; as a classics student at Harvard he had cofounded the literary magazine Hound and Horn, along with Lincoln Kirstein, who, with George Balanchine, would go on to found the New York City Ballet. Fry harnessed his own cultural sensibility and that of those around him to gain the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, then the first lady; with the support of Congress but without much help from her husband the president, Eleanor secured visas and asylum protections for the endangered artists and intellectuals Fry set off to rescue. While providing on-the-ground aid in France, he teamed up with art historian and scholar Marga Barr, wife of Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to assist the museum’s efforts to communicate with artists and facilitate their passage to the United States.8
Fry’s mission also intersected with the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Scholars, founded in 1933 by the Institute of International Education (IIE), New York, and active until the end of the war, in 1945. It is widely acknowledged that the path toward creating international networks to support artists at risk was paved by such ventures as this in the scholarly and literary worlds, with what is today called pen International leading the way. Founded in London in 1921, pen (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) set out to foster fellowship among writers of many kinds across nations and ethnicities. Over time, the mission evolved to address an array of human-rights concerns facing the writing community. In the run-up to World War II, pen led advocacy campaigns on behalf of writers persecuted by fascist governments, such as the Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler, imprisoned by Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
If you look at closed societies, restrictive governments go after journalists, they go after human rights activists, they go after artists.Miriam Mahlow
Institutional efforts like these—the ERC, IIE, and pen—make up the ancestral DNA of today’s aid organizations on behalf of threatened artists. Later in the century, in 1987, pen created a database of “writers at risk,” marking the 1980s and ’90s as a period when public support grew for freedom-of-speech issues. This work gained international attention in 1989 when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s ruling theocracy, issued a fatwa calling for the death of the novelist Salman Rushdie for the supposed insult to Islam contained in his book The Satanic Verses.
The Rushdie affair spurred the formation of other nongovernmental bodies dedicated to the cause. In 1993, Rushdie himself served as the first president of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW), formed in part in response to the assassination of writers in Algeria. The organization created a network of twenty-five cities that would give writers safe haven to continue working. In 1998, following the first World Conference on Music and Censorship, Freemuse emerged as a similar organization devoted specifically to musicians.
As the threshold of the new millennium receded, a shift took place: new organizations popped up to support creative voices across media and disciplines. The IPW dissolved in 2005; a year later it was replaced by ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network), which worked in cooperation with pen International. In 2014, pen expanded its scope to include visual artists and musicians; meanwhile, in 2011, Freemuse too had expanded its scope beyond music to include all art forms. That same year, Chinese visual artist and activist Ai Weiwei was arrested and detained for eighty-one days. His confinement helped him to become one of the world’s most universally celebrated cultural critics, stimulating support for threatened-artist aid organizations.
In 2013, Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky, curators with a background in the visual arts, founded Artists at Risk to fill a gap in support for threatened visual artists, broadly defined: the plastic arts, performance, film, digital media, and more all came under their umbrella. “The twentieth century was a century of poets and novelists and writers in general,” Stodolsky told me. “Salman Rushdie bridges the millennium. But we now find ourselves in a very visual culture—that’s Pussy Riot, Ai Weiwei, and so on.”9
Necessity was the mother of Artists at Risk. In 2011, as part of a curatorial series featuring artists involved in protests and uprisings around the world, Muukkonen and Stodolsky had organized a project in one of the main squares in Helsinki, where the organization is based. The Egyptian revolution had begun earlier that year and the pair invited many of its leading cultural figures to participate, including the street artist Ganzeer and the musician Ramy Essam. At that point, under Egypt’s transitional leadership, artists were still able to travel, but once Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power, in July 2013, the regime cracked down and restricted their mobility. Jail and worse loomed. Muukkonen and Stodolsky were successful in facilitating visas and organizing safe havens for these artists in the form of residencies in Helsinki. Their work served as the prototype for Artists at Risk, which today runs an international network of residencies, programs, and other services. Among these is Safe Haven Provence, known as the “resistance residency” to honor the legacy of Lisa Fittko on the French Mediterranean coast, a site of today’s ongoing refugee crisis. Artists at Risk also undertakes global advocacy campaigns on behalf of threatened artists—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the Russian performance-art group Pussy Riot, for example, when she was jailed in Moscow in 2013. When the Egyptian filmmaker Shady Habash died in an Egyptian prison earlier this year, Artists at Risk pressed for an investigation.
Back in 2002, IIE established the Scholar Rescue Fund, a reincarnation of its Emergency Committee and earlier crisis-specific rescue efforts. In 2015, after finding itself unable to aid or provide support for artists who applied with needs distinct from those of scholars, IIE established a separate program, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, called the Artist Protection Fund (APF). “APF supports artists across métier and practice,” says Alison Russo, the program’s director. “The design of our year-long fellowship provides funding, mentoring, and a comprehensive artistic and social network. We place each APF Fellow within the host institution that is best situated to support their individual needs.” This entails a nimble dance in response to changes in local artistic resources and shifting political tides.
Indeed, APF came into existence the year before Donald Trump was elected US president, and had to be quick on its feet in navigating the various iterations of his Muslim travel ban and other xenophobic policies. One of the fund’s first fellows, the painter Rashwan Abdelbaki, stands as the only Syrian artist it has been able to host in the United States; the organization has opted instead to place such artists in countries with more welcoming visa processes. Abdelbaki dispels stereotypical images of war and destruction by painting his home country as the fraught but rich and layered culture that it is.
That work takes time and persistence. While fellowships like APF’s don’t last forever, they open many doors. “Many organizations look at APF Fellows and know the rigorous selection process—validating the quality of the artistic practice and the severity of threat—and understand why they’re most deserving of an APF award, and we hope that their fellowship year can also be a bridge to additional support elsewhere,” Russo said. And that’s what happened with Abdelbaki, who in 2018 earned a placement in the New York City Artist Safe Haven Residency Program. The residency program began as a partnership between Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI), Westbeth Artists Housing, Residency Unlimited, and ArtistSafety.net, and is now led by a growing coalition of seven arts and advocacy organizations. According to Ashley Tucker, a human rights attorney and Director of Programs at AFI, which entered the scene in 2015, “The needs and challenges of an at-risk artist are complex; it is not likely that any single organization is capable of accommodating all of those needs and helping artists to meet all of the challenges they face.”10 But while one organization cannot support an artist indefinitely, the growing network of players in the field is collectively developing the ability to augment the types and durations of its resources.
AFI’s unique contribution is the set of pro bono legal services offered by its team of immigration and human-rights attorneys, including Tucker’s former law professor Dinesh Khosla and other colleagues. In AFI’s role in the residency collaboration, it most recently teamed up with Tamizdat, a Brooklyn nonprofit that began working with Eastern European touring musicians in the 1990s and has since expanded to support and advocate for the mobility of all performing artists. With support from New York City Artist Safe Haven Residency Program partner organizations, Tamizdat and AFI host and support threatened musicians at the Westbeth residency.
In 2017, in an apparent response to the proliferation of organizations recognizing and catering to threatened artists in all disciplines (can you keep all the acronyms straight?), pen America created the program Artists at Risk Connection (ARC). Headed by Julie Trébault, with APF’s Russo on the advisory board, ARC serves as an outreach and networking platform, connecting artists with resources and service organizations. Its emergence brings us full circle, in a sense, to pen’s initial role in paving the path for the protection of creative voices.
And while the world faces the rise of nationalism and rides the waves of the covid-19 pandemic, these types of resources become all the more crucial. Some organizations are planning for the long-term future while others work to supply immediate aid. Artists at Risk whipped up its covid-19 Emergency Fund to address the double threat faced by threatened artists during the pandemic: “On the one hand you’re persecuted or followed; on the other, you’re a sitting duck—you can’t move,” Stodolsky explains. The fund either assists with relocation to a safer place within an artist’s country or helps with the basic needs required to stay put. In addition to issues of loss of employment, or of visas required for emigration, organizations are addressing other unique needs of this moment, such as legal assistance—whether with the rights on all the virtual programming artists are producing now that we can no longer gather in person (Tamizdat) or for immigrant artists arrested in Black Lives Matter protests (AFI).
Even if we take the global experience of the coronavirus out of the equation, artists are still at risk all over the world—even in countries that were once safe havens. AFI is currently at work examining the suppression of artistic expression in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. More hushed examples exist, Stodolsky told me, such as that of political prisoners in Spain, a topic that scratched the surface of public consciousness in 2018 with the removal of a work by artist Santiago Sierra from the art fair arco Madrid. The piece, Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain, comprised images of the deposed Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras and other figures imprisoned or charged for their roles in the Catalan independence movement. Artists at Risk has also received applications from artists living in the United States. The current capacities and funding rubrics of these organizations cannot accommodate artists at risk of economic precarity alone. But it’s worth considering who can survive as an artist in our societies, and how we can advocate for their rights, intervene in their struggles, and broadcast their voices.
The work of these organizations saves lives in many senses. Both Stodolsky of Artists at Risk and Matthew Covey of Tamizdat recalled the case and viewpoint of Essam, the singer widely considered the voice of the Egyptian revolution—and who, like Baldwin, fled his country for the sake of his craft. Essam embarked on a decade-long exile to avoid the threat not only of physical death but also of an artistic one. It was his art that put him in danger, but with the support of a global network, it is his art that paves a path toward freedom.
1“I was attached to this city by the god—though it seems a ridiculous thing to say—as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill such a function that I believe the god has placed me in the city.” Plato, Apology 30e, Five Dialogues, second ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube, rev. J. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), p. 35.
2See Lois Mai Chan, “The Burning of the Books in China, 213 B.C.,” The Journal of Library History (1966–1972) 7, no. 2 (April 1972): pp. 101–08.
3Miriam Mahlow, in an interview with the author, May 26, 2020. Human Rights Watch began in 1978 with a group of writers and lawyers who published written testimonials to human-rights abuses. Since then, the organization has embraced forms of expression in a variety of media, first with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, staged in a number of cities in North America and Europe, and now with plans for a new artists’ and activists’ program in the near future.
4Josephine Baker, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “An Interview with Josephine Baker and James Baldwin,” 1973, in Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt, eds., Conversations with James Baldwin (Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), p. 263.
5Ibid., p. 264.
6See testimony of Lisa Fittko, 1999, USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Available online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtRzJ7T7WbE (accessed July 28, 2020). See also https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/vha48643.
7See, e.g., encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/varian-fry (accessed July 24, 2020).
8See, e.g., www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2016/06/22/in-search-of-momas-lost-history-uncovering-efforts-to-rescue-artists-and-their-patrons/ (accessed July 24, 2020).
9Ivor Stodolsky, in an interview with the author, May 14, 2020.
10Ashley Tucker, in an interview with the author, June 23, 2020.
To learn more, visit: Artists at Risk, Artists at Risk Connection, Artistic Freedom Initiative, Artist Protection Fund, Freemuse, pen International, and Tamizdat.