Tiffany Jenkins: Sing a song of freedom, the show must go on

POLITICAL boycotts may have a place in activism but art must be allowed to champion free expression, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Twenty-five years ago the singer and songwriter Paul Simon created his greatest album – Graceland. In so doing he became the focus of a bitter controversy about the intimate relationship of art to politics, and the responsibility of the artist to society.

Simon recorded the album in Johannesburg working with local musicians, which broke the UN cultural boycott of South Africa under apartheid. He was denounced as a traitor to freedom, but was unapologetic, pleading artistic license.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Despite the placards and protests, a quarter of a century later it is clear that the album has stood the test of time. Musically, Graceland remains a great achievement. More importantly, South Africa no longer has apartheid. This is worth reflecting on when considering the role of cultural boycotts in forcing political change.

Graceland caused a great fuss, but it appears not to have impeded the fight for freedom, which was successful due to the fortitude and struggle of the people demanding change. Had Simon participated by not collaborating, we wouldn’t have the music, but people would still be free.

To boycott or not is a pertinent question and one currently confronting the Edinburgh International Festival. A dance company from Israel – the Batsheva – is due to perform three shows this summer at the Edinburgh International Festival, as part of a UK-wide tour. Internationally renowned, they wowed audiences at the Festival once before, in 2008. This time they intend to perform Hora choreographed by artistic director Ohad Naharin, before going on to The Lowry in Salford, the Alhambra in Bradford, and Sadler’s Wells in London. Whilst dance can be political – take, for example, DV8’s recent show Can We Talk About This? which examines multiculturalism, free speech and Islam – Hora is not an explicitly political work. It explores, through movement, dancers losing themselves in a collective.

Protesters have other ideas. A letter has been sent to Festival director Jonathan Mills, asking him to withdraw the invitation to the group to perform. Pro-Palestinian activists in Dundee have called for people to disrupt the show, on the basis that Batsheva is “actively complicit in whitewashing Israeli human-rights abuses, apartheid, and occupation of Palestinian land”, an accusation based on the fact that it receives funding from the Israeli government.

That the troupe has as many dancers that are foreign as those that are Israeli; that Naharin has asserted their independence from the government, despite the funding, doesn’t sway the objections.

Mills has declined to withdraw the invitation, and I think he has made the right decision. Whilst I have some sympathy with the Palestinian cause, I cannot back the call to prevent the Batsheva from performing. It is not a solution to the problem; it begets them.

This particular campaign is the tip of an iceberg of calls to – what amounts to – censor art work.

Whilst there is no official boycott equivalent to the UN-supported one on South Africa, an alliance of Palestinian organisations, and those in sympathy with them, have called for a boycott, divestment and sanctions – BDS – campaign against Israel, since 2005. Ultimately, whilst well-intentioned, it has had a corrosive impact on creativity and cultural exchange rather than furthering their cause.

Last year demonstrators at a live Proms performance by the Israeli Philharmonic, led to the BBC suspending the show, with silence briefly broadcast in its place. In May, important actors and directors, including Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance, called on the Globe Theatre to withdraw the invitation to Habima – an Israeli theatre company – citing, as a reason, the few productions that they have performed in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel. This has meant that audiences missed out on wonderful music, and felt threatened whilst watching Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice, ironically), which is hardly a triumph. These actions probably stimulated more resentment than support.

The censorious demands are not confined to Israeli artists performing in the UK. The critique extends to artists performing there. In recent years, musicians and bands that were due to perform, including Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron, Pete Seeger, The Pixies, Santana, and the Gorillaz Sound System, bowed to pressure – as well as their conscience – and cancelled shows, which is a shame for their fans who wanted to hear them.

Whilst it is not possible to completely separate art and the artist from society, it is a different matter to make it and them a target of political demands, especially when the art work in question simply originates from the same country as the governments under scrutiny. That is an accident of geography.

Consider what would happen if the audience boycotted artists from America, England or Scotland because of the policies of their governments. These nations may not be quite like Israel, but allow me the comparison in making what is a crucial point. We – the people – would be treated as one voice that endorses the actions of our leaders. But this is hardly the reality. Artists taking a shilling from the Scottish Government are often very critical of the politics. We should expect similar feelings from others. Artists and performers do not act and feel the same way as their leaders. Confusing the two can distract protestors from targeting those that wield real, objectionable, power.

Closing down and curtailing performances prevents people from different countries from exchanging ideas, songs, debating issues, and finding out what they have in common. This may well come to nothing more than enjoyment; I am not suggesting that the performance would be a political act of solidarity with others in trouble – that is too great a claim, but I am arguing that we see beyond borders in appreciating art, and in any future struggle for a better life. More art and more dialogue is always preferable to less.

Boycotts simply mean that many people lose out on a chance to hear great work that has little to do with the issue protesters are agitated about. The writer Alice Walker, author of the novel The Color Purple, recently refused translation rights of her book to an Israeli publisher, explaining that this was because Israel is an “apartheid state” with policies worse than the treatment of blacks in the southern United States and South Africa. A fair enough opinion, but it is an act that deprives people of her thoughtful and poignant novel. It harms readers and thinkers, not the political elite.

There are other ways to make a difference. Last year the writer Ian McEwan rejected a request that he refuse the Jerusalem prize for literature, making, instead, a more purposeful point. In McEwan’s powerful acceptance speech he raised the question of individual freedom, he called for an end to illegal Israeli settlements, and he urged people to donate to an organisation that brings together former Israeli and Palestinian combatants.

McEwan’s way means you can continue to write and be read by a world public and still say something about the state of politics.

It is also important to defend the right of the artist to not be political, to not even have opinions – so long as their work is good.

Artists should be judged first and foremost on the quality of their work. In troubled times we will always need them. The show must go on.