Eliza Easton: If the arts and culture are a third front in the Ukrainian war, here’s what Ministers should do

31 Mar

Eliza Easton is Head of the Policy Unit, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC).

The Prime Minister has promised to pull every lever he can to help the people of Ukraine in the war against Russia. State and sector-led sanctions have become a focus for the Government in a war where it feels that it can’t commit boots on the ground.

The headlines have been dominated by state economic sanctions, but cultural sanctions offer significant advantages. While economic sanctions can harm citizens as well as leaders, cultural sanctions may be able to grow the anti-Putin Russian population without putting them into material poverty. In short: they offer an untapped reserve of options to help Britain to achieve its strategic aims.

Cultural sanctions have been spoken about by policymakers – particularly by Nadine Dorries – but they are not enforced by the state. It has fallen to individuals, arts organisations and industry to decide what and who to cancel.

This has bred controversy. How could it not? Glasgow Film Festival spent two weeks addressing the fallout from cancelling two Russian films from directors who have nothing to do with Putin’s regime. The New York Times has reported that one has Ukrainian roots, has denounced the war and has a grandmother hiding from the bombs falling on Kyiv. Eventually, it was revealed both films had received Russian state funding.

On the other side of the coin, we have seen big names questioning the wisdom of banning Russian artists. Julian Lloyd Webber has pointed out how powerful it can be when you let artists play.  He recalls Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at the BBC Proms with “tears pouring down his cheeks” after the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Lloyd Webber argued that this “spoke more than words” and, implicitly, more than sanctions could.

The fact that the Government ’s promised Soft Power Strategy remains unpublished (replaced by a short section in the Integrated Review) has left those cultural organisations keen to follow official advice rudderless.

Instead, we find ourselves in a bizarre reality, whereby often low paid communications assistants are trying to communicate complex diplomatic statements to the world on Twitter.

We need a systematic approach to cultural sanctions, although not one mandated by the Government: perhaps Putin himself could attest to the fact that soft power approaches work better when not forced by the heavy hand of the state.

Instead, when our Government introduces state sanctions against another country, it should trigger a conversation convened by the Government between relevant industry players and arms length bodies – i.e: the arts councils, the British Film Institute, the British Fashion Council – and the British Council. Together, they should agree on a suggested approach for individual creative companies and charities, informed by intelligence from both cultural and diplomatic experts.

There are risks if the Government doesn’t use its convening power to help the sector to pursue such an approach. While the public mood prevents cultural events which might sanitise Putin’s position, the news cycle may move on, and industry sanctions may be at odds with public interest.

Equally, smaller organisations may unknowingly undermine the sanctions upheld by larger organisations, cancel anti-Kremlin artists – or simply go too far and play into Putin’s hands.

We have already seen the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra heavily criticised for the decision to remove Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture from their programme: a move surely made with good intentions, but which dangerously plays into Putin’s narrative of Western ‘russophobia’ – and one that he has moved to exploit.

Such a directive would not (and, in my view, should not) stop artists from performing in Russia or Belarus if they wish to, although once guidelines are in place it becomes a much more political decision for those artists to take.

When Frank Sinatra went against United Nations’ advice and performed in South Africa, the public outcry did aruguably more for the anti-apartheid movement than for those paying him millions of dollars to improve their public image.

Organisations would also still be able to choose to boycott, regardless of official state sanctions – and they might. It was revealed just last week that some of the largest cultural institutions, including the V&A, British Museum, National Gallery and the Tate, did not sign a cultural agreement between the UK Government and Saudi Arabia, aiming to strengthen cultural links between the two nations.

The best example of this approach so far comes in a statement from Arts Council England. This advised publicly funded arts organisations to cancel events which involve Russian or Belarussian state-sponsored and/or state-funded organisations, echoing similar statements from other sector bodies.

But the Arts Council went further in their advice to grantees, recommending, for example, that “organisations do not require Russian/Belarussian artists to issue a statement condemning the war in Ukraine as a condition of contract.”

People on social media had already started to identify and hound individual artists. It is sensible that Arts Council England point out that artists need to be able to make their own choice on whether to speak out based on their particular situation and the risk involved. We need consistent messaging across the entire cultural sector to avoid ostracising those who might condemn the conflict in private, and become important allies in the future.

Alongside directives of this kind, I suggest the Government ensures there is a budget to support those organisations who incur financial losses from cancelling performances, at least in the short term.

Following a pandemic which hit arts and culture hard, cancelling that tour may be the final blow for organisations which have been encouraged, by the Government, to be more international. This is the first time cultural sanctions have been recommended by a UK Government this decade, but it is unlikely to be the last. They should see this as a test case.

Advice on cultural sanctions should only be the start of a re-invigorated soft power strategy. As Julian Lloyd Webber hinted, our current approach means we are not taking advantage of the soft power opportunities we have.

While sanctions are a useful tool, opportunities to speak to the Russian public are going to be important too. We know that the numbers listening to BBC World Service in Russia have risen to from three to more than ten million each week. We should go further. Why should the cancelled London Fashion Week in St Petersburg not be an opportunity to profile those designers speaking out against Putin? Why shouldn’t London Film Week be an opportunity to show ‘dissident’ film makers? Which stars could follow in Arnold Schwarznegger’s footsteps and use their platform to make a compelling plea for peace?

If, as Dorries has said, culture is “the third front in the Ukrainian war”, then we need to start seriously – and the sector and the Government need to give it budget, strategy and diplomatic support.