Dear Mr. De Caluwe,
As a collective of Belgian, Ukrainian and European citizens we read your statement on the website of La Monnaie with concern and even dismay. (https://www.lamonnaiedemunt.be/en/mmm-online/2363-to-build-bridges-between-people)
We are keenly aware of the status of La Monnaie in the Belgian cultural landscape and know that your institution is one which prides itself on its professional excellence as well as its humanist perspective. Furthermore, we appreciate that the performance of opera comes at the end of the process in which artistic decisions are made years in advance of the moment of première. In its nature Opera is one of the art forms in which the process of artistic gestation is very long and requires the input and work of a large variety of people along the line. We are convinced that this season’s line up reflects artistic decisions taken years ago.
And yet we find your statement highly problematic as it highlights a number of challenges Ukrainians active in culture and beyond face when they engage with their counterparts from the west. You say:
I consider our house to be an anti-war and pro-peace institution, as borne out by our position in the heart of the capital of Europe, by our purpose, our programming, our leadership style and our way of working. Our model is one of harmony, not conflict. This constitutes our moral base and there is a greater need than ever to defend it. We are therefore taking a clear stand on this matter: strong towards those who are responsible, supportive towards those who are suffering, empathic towards those who are caught in the middle.
This statement cuts to the heart of those of us – all Ukrainians – who have been hit by this war. Apart from being anodyne (who presents themselves as pro-war?) it negates the specifics of this conflict. Rather than being an abstract conflict between states, what is happening in Ukraine now is the culmination of a decades long campaign waged on the political and cultural front to negate Ukrainian nationhood by, among other things, positing Russian culture as a Slavic standard and denying the existence of Ukraine as an autonomous cultural space. We now see how this campaign, notable by the constant repetition of the term “de-Ukrainisation”, has led to a campaign of cultural and physical genocide the scale of which is unseen and the end of which is not in sight. It is a question for us as western intellectuals how to position ourselves in this and to ask ourselves if we are not being used as an unwitting tool of the efforts of Russian state propagandists. It is a question of programming, people management and leadership style.
Is your organisation questioning itself on its position versus this imperialism? Over the last years we have learned many things on how to deal as institutions with the problems of endemic racism and sexism – are we using the same tools to engage with imperialism?
– Are you giving voices to the marginalised? Are you promoting work opportunities for Ukrainian artists?
– Are you engaging in conversations with Russian cultural workers about their roles as artists and citizens?
– Are you flanking your cultural programming with workshops discussing the political aspects regarding cultural production? From the roles of Tchaikovsky and Pushkin legitimising imperial projects in their lifetime and the use of their works in present political discourse to studying the complicated work and life choices of artists like Shostakovich?
– Are you providing space for the victims of imperialism and genocide to speak with their own voices on projects of their own, possibly linking their classic cultural practice that is being done to them right now? Know that a Ukrainian repertoire exists and is documented. Several initiatives have both orchestral and smaller scale works available.
– Are you questioning Russian dissident voices and – if possible – have you tried to amplify the voices of those who publicly stand against the politics of their mother country. Those who are not merely content to stand silent.
– More generally, we have grown up with the discussion “Can there be poetry after Auschwitz?”. Have you considered the analogous discussion of “Can there be Pique Dame after Bucha or Mariupol?” – knowing that Bucha is only one of dozens of places hit with genocide?
You quote Ukrainian artists who posit ‘Art has always been at the forefront of humanitarian values. We strongly believe that art cannot be subservient to political propaganda; instead it should be utilized to develop critical thinking and promote dialogue.’”
And yet we feel that in your text there is very little of this critical engagement visible.
What is more visible, is the notion that art is somehow divorced from politics, a mere thing of beauty. This is odd to hear from an institution whose programming lit a spark that caused the Belgian revolution of 1830. And indeed Russian culture has been aggressively pushed to demonstrate the political agenda of Russian culture being superior to the decayed moralities of the west with its emphasis on gender freedoms and the like.
Though we cannot emphasize enough that we do not understand the motivations of the aggressors, we do believe that Russian culture is part of our shared heritage. European arts, literature, cinema and music will always be connected to Russian culture, which has inspired some of the most eloquent works on our shared continent.
The best way to understand the motivations of the aggressors is to read their texts and listen to their speeches. It is a discourse of pure violence comparable only to the inphamous “Radio Mille Collines” which encouraged the genocide in Rwanda and it is furthered by all the great names of Russian classical culture like Valeriy Gergiev, Anna Netrebko and the Bolshoi Ballet (who are at this moment playing benefit concerts to support the Russian troops who have covered themselves in global shame)
Re: Tchaikovski and Shostakovich Neither composer turned his back on his country but tried to walk the fine line between acknowledging the regime and rejecting it. They were Russians, but they were first and foremost humanists. They themselves suffered enough under the political conditions of their time.
This phrase seems to say the duty of an artist under an oppressive regime is to accommodate himself to it, and that this is a praiseworthy thing. How can this be a statement by a cultural institution priding itself on its humanism? Since when is not standing up to oppression something to be proud of rather than the opposite? The silence of the Russian cultural world in this genocidal war is devastating to the victims. This silence suggests that individual career opportunities come before standing up against the rape and murder of innocents. Quoting the problems of Shostakovich in this respect is particularly disingenuous as the silence of present Russian intellectuals contrasts greatly with cultural statements of the composer himself through his 13th symphony “Babi Yar” in which he publicly set music to the words of the poet Yevtushenko denouncing anti-semitism, nationalism, cowardice and conformism.
We are here to make art, not war.
Unfortunately, faced with genocide – publicly announced and planned genocide – this statement is insufficient. We invite you to reflect on this reality both intellectually and morally – knowing full well your responsibilities to the audience, various stakeholders, employees – but posing the questions “How do my activities reinforce the message of the imperialist aggressors? How do we treat the victims of those aggressions? How do we give voice to the oppressed? A worthy cause for an institution whose history is longer than that of the Belgian state and that stands for liberty and self-determination.
*The author responded to the NGO Promote Ukraine’s initiative to write an open letter.