Beware the artist. In the struggle against authoritarianism, artists play an overlooked role as catalysts for social change, drivers of accountability, and prophets of freer futures. Amid intensifying repression of traditional political dissent worldwide, artists of all types and genres can flex striking expressive freedom even in the most constricted climates.
As the improbable rise of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy – a former comedian and actor – attests, when sitting leaders have the means to stifle the rise of opposition figures, entertainers and writers can be uniquely positioned to build public followings that can translate into political clout. In the struggle for human rights and democracy, artists embody the freedom to speak out, create, and reach others, powers that underpin the realization of all liberties. Protecting artists as catalysts for freedom and democracy can help fortify the fight for human rights.
The political potency of artists is well-understood by repressive governments. They are increasingly targeting creators with threats, harassment, and persecution based on the social or political messages in their work, be it a challenge to strict public morals, criticism of specific leaders, or challenges to government authority.
In 2022, PEN America, where I serve as CEO, documented more than 300 literary writers, poets, dramatists, or songwriters jailed for their work. Also last year, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection program received urgent requests for assistance from more than 2,200 artists, spanning 38 countries. Pleas came from a Zimbabwean playwright arrested and assaulted for a play with LGBTQ themes, a Spanish rapper convicted for insulting the king, and a Syrian poet who received death threats for writing about women’s rights, among many others.
Governments are no longer just targeting individual artists, but rather the sector as a whole. In April 2023, leaked documents revealed that Iran had established a secret committee to target and blacklist artists for supporting protests. In Afghanistan, artists were among the first to be menaced by Taliban officials during their 2021 takeover. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has gone after theaters, museums, and publishers.
The role of artists as catalysts for freedom assumes multiple forms: artists can inspire and nurture political movements, hold up mirrors revealing the flaws of authoritarian societies, and, in some cases, leverage influence to mount direct political challenges. Spanning from the Velvet Underground in communist Czechoslovakia to authors like J.M. Coetzee and singers like Miriam Makeba in apartheid South Africa to Paul Robeson in the United States’ civil rights era, there is a long tradition of artists catalyzing social and political change.
At a time of intensifying authoritarianism, artists can defy constraints that muzzle other forms of dissent. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has defied bans and imprisonment, in 2010 managing to make a film behind bars and smuggle it out of jail on a flashdrive hidden in a birthday cake.
With the rise of digital influence, and as governments bent on holding onto power have grown more sophisticated in thwarting the rise of political challengers, artists have taken on new political significance. In 2018 Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, stripped the Ukrainian citizenship of his leading political rival, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, stopping him from entering the country to rally supporters. What Poroshenko did not see coming was Zelenskyy – a television star and producer of a show featuring a schoolteacher who becomes president of Ukraine. Though initially dismissed as a joke candidate, Zelenskyy’s cultural following propelled him to best Poroshenko at the polls.
In environments where overtly political dissidents are muzzled, artists and creators can morph into opposition leaders. Uganda’s Bobi Wine was a reggae star when he crossed over into Ugandan politics, winning 35 percent of the vote in the 2021 presidential election. Taiwan’s Freddy Lim, former front man of heavy-metal band Chthonic, has become one of the loudest musical and political voices in the fight for the island’s independence. Former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales rose to prominence as a television comedian before pivoting to politics.
While international human rights instruments recognize artistic freedom and cultural expression, they do not address the role of artists as underwriters of democracy and the free flow of ideas. In recent decades, UNESCO, the United Nations, European Union, and other bodies have paid special attention to journalists and human rights advocates worldwide, acknowledging their importance as guarantors of the human rights of others, and developing tailored policies and systems to support them. These non-binding commitments create a baseline against which governments can be held accountable and offer a blueprint for investigators and advocates to spotlight breaches of the norms.
Artists enjoy no such special protections. Despite immense resources and reach, the art world has no counterpart to the international human rights movement nor the mobilization of news organizations to protect their own.
Governments, multilateral bodies, human rights organizations, philanthropists, and arts institutions should come together to afford artists the recognition and protection they deserve as forces for rights and expression under pressure. At-risk artists need access to legal representation to fight off challenges and persecution. They need sources of advice and resources for physical and digital security from attack. Like human rights defenders, exposed artists need support from the diplomatic community. EU diplomats are encouraged to meet regularly with rights defenders, visit detained activists, monitor their trials, and advocate for their protection with foreign governments. The same should be done for artists under pressure.
Knowing that such backstops exist allows human rights defenders and journalists to take greater risks with their work, and would afford artists a similar sense of security. Artists forced into exile need support from arts institutions to display and disseminate their work, connect with artistic communities, and forge new livelihoods.
At a time of rising authoritarianism, defenders of rights and democracy should be on the lookout for new ways to fortify freedoms and push back against autocrats. Socially-engaged artists are an overlooked yet potent force for open discourse. By mobilizing resources, attention, and support behind artists, human rights advocates can empower distinctive voices with the unique ability to expose truth and engender change.