Originally written as a commission for the #JeSuisBirmingham event held on Friday, in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.
Napoleon Bonaparte is credited as once saying
‘quatre journaux hostiles sont plus à craindre que mille baionnettes’*.
He wasn’t wrong.
For centuries philosophers have claimed that the tongue is a blade; and if the tongue a blade then the pen a rifle, the printing press a battalion of artillery.
Against this bombardment of ink and sound, there was but one choice – to end by the sword that which pretended to be one.
Fast forward, switch language.
1937, the exhibition of Entartete Kunst is held in Munich. Kirchner, Beckmann, Matisse, Picasso, van Gogh, sculptures, prints, paintings and more all lumped together, too subversive, too immoral, their creators’ arrest lit by the flames of a thousand burning books.
Some made it. Some didn’t. Beckmann fled to Amsterdam, Ernst to America. Kirchner killed himself in Switzerland the following year, death the only way he would accept silence. Others were killed in Action T4, marked as everything that was wrong with the creative spirit.
Behind the iron curtains of Stalinist Russia, one dared not breathe criticism of the government, the telltale stain of ink and paint on fingers a bulls-eye warning. Between 1920 and 1945, more than 2,000 writers, intellectuals and artists were imprisoned and 1500 died in prisons and concentration camps.
Osip Mandelstam was arrested for reciting his poem Stalin Epigram among friends in 1934. After four years imprisonment he died in December 1938 in a correction camp near Vladivostok.
Babel, Pilnyak and Meyerhold – all arrested on charges of treason, tried and summarily shot.
After being imprisoned, beaten and tortured, Titsian Tabidze refused to break, and named only the 18th century poet Besiki as his accomplice.
Over and over and over again, the same story, men and women who lived by their art were dragged from their homes, their places of work –
and still more came.
These writers, from Iashvili to Platanov, condemned to obscurity as ‘pornographic scrawls in the margins of Russian literature’,
denied privacy, light or tools to ensure that they would not commit Art in the silent hours of the night, they were gone –
but in garrets and gulags, coffee shops, parlours and farms,
This is the inheritance my mother gifted me.
‘Ljusinka,’ she says, ‘remember that your words are a blade.
Remember that a poem can start a revolution,
a painting can fell an empire,
remember that those who live for their art must become masters of their chosen weapon,
and pray for mercy from those who chose weapons of steel and not ink.
Remember that everywhere there is fear, everywhere there is silence and oppression, Art happens.
And more often than not, Art wins’
2005, Belarus. Nikolai Kalezin and Natalya Kolynola are arrested for a play about state sanctioned disappearances.
2008, Cameroon.Lapiro de Mbanga is sentenced to 3 years in prison for a song.
2011, Iran. Jafar Panahi defies a 20 year ban on film-making and smuggles his latest film out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake.
2011, Bahrain. Ayat Al Qurmezi, a 20 year old student is arrested and imprisoned for 4months for reciting a poem in Pearl Square criticising government policy. While in jail she endures harassment, abuse, intimidation and threats of rape.
Meanwhile, in street bars and run down theatres, junk yards and kitchens and parks, Art happens.
Fast forward. 2015.
The Belarus Free Theatre continues to produce uncensored plays under the nose of Lukashenko.
Panahi’s ‘This Is Not A Film’ has been seen in more countries than its maker will ever see, being hailed as an essay on the struggle between political tyranny and self expression. His newest film is due to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.
Al Qurmezi’s sentence has still not been revoked, and her family lives in fear that she will be recalled to prison. She has not received an official pardon and her conviction has not been overturned on appeal. This year, she is to receive the Student Peace Prize for her ‘unwavering struggle for human rights and democracy’.
Where there is silence and oppression, Art happens.
Twelve members of staff are killed and 11 injured at Charlie Hebdo newspaper for adding Islamic leaders including the prophet Muhammed to the long list of those it has lampooned.
In the week that follows, thousands of people across the world stand vigil outside French embassies, but they do not raise the Tricoleur. They raise a pen.
The news is nothing new. The reaction is.
‘I don’t agree with killing people, but…’
‘It was horrible, but what were they thinking publishing that…’
‘It’s not their place to say what they said.’
And the painters and playwrites, the singers and film makers,
the poets remain silent.
In student digs and damp council houses, on laptops and phones and hidden diary entries,
there is no Art.
It’s not their place – there are some things it doesn’t do to criticise,
to write about, to paint or scribble or say.
So here we are. The greatest potential of my generation made mute, scrolling through social media hashtags,
angel-minded hipsters sipping overpriced coffee criticise those asking the wrong kind of questions,
identical populist opinion cited in different tones and called debate,
young artists distracted by crushes, celebrity scandal and endless tits.
There is no space for privilege here – this a guild of master swordsmen,
our tongues unsheathed blades, brushes and beat machines the infantry,
and there are questions that no-one else is placed to ask.
This is our place. On the front line.
In classrooms. In dive bars. In the halls of academia.
Because in a bitter twist of irony, it was the prophet Muhammed who once said: ‘the ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr’.
Because art is not always just art.
Because a poem is not a poem –
Because this is a revolution in ink.
* The quote translates as ‘four hostile newspapers are more dangerous than a thousand bayonettes’