If you want Australia’s arts and entertainment sector to be vigorous, life-filled, provocative and creative, this month’s boycott of the Sydney Festival was a depressing spectacle.

The Sydney Dance Company peforms Decadance at the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Daniel Boud
The Sydney Dance Company peforms Decadance at the Sydney Opera House. Picture: Daniel Boud

Paul Fletcher
The Australian
January 20, 2022

The lessons of history are pretty clear: if programming and curatorial choices are subject to political censorship, you end up with pretty dreadful art.

Stalinist Russia, with its turgid dramas and operas celebrating heroic workers exceeding their tractor production quotas, is but one of many examples.

But according to the self-appointed collective of artists who loudly proclaimed their boycott, the Sydney Festival had crossed a political red line.

The collective declared it was unacceptable for the Sydney Festival to receive a $20,000 sponsorship from the Israeli embassy. The funds supported Sydney Dance Company’s performance of Decadance, by renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

The collective’s views about Israel are, to put it politely, difficult to reconcile with reality.

When Australians look at Israel, what they see is the only multi-party democracy in the Middle East – not an “apartheid state”. They see an ally and friend: a country with which Australia has excellent diplomatic relations and longstanding cultural and people-to-people ties.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign is not supported by either of the major political parties. The principal cheerleader for this boycott has been Hamas, which is proscribed by the Australian government as a terrorist organisation.

Hamas controls Gaza – and notoriously deals with its opponents by throwing them alive off of tall buildings. Of course, the last thing Hamas cares about is a vigorous and lively artistic and creative scene in Australia. But it is surprising that a group of Australian performers and creatives would seek to sabotage one of Australia’s leading arts festivals.

It is doubly surprising that group would do so when the arts and creative sector has been hit hard by Covid, with performances cancelled, venues closed and artists losing their gigs.

The Sydney Festival board and staff have worked very hard, in difficult circumstances, to create the opportunity for multiple live performances and other creative events. They deserve praise, not criticism.

But criticised they were, with one member of the collective saying the sponsorship for Decadance made them feel “culturally unsafe”.

This is a very odd approach to the performing and creative arts. To describe a work of art, or an arts festival, as “safe” would not normally be seen as high praise. On the contrary, great works of art are often edgy or unsettling or disturbing.

An arts festival should be about creativity, expression, telling stories, making an impact, moving an audience.

If arts festivals are required to conform to a political orthodoxy then the first casualty will be the quality of what is programmed. The second casualty, of course, will be the audience experience.

To declare that a particular country is politically unacceptable, all association with it is forbidden, and the work of artists and creatives from that country is not welcome is utterly at odds with the achievement of artistic excellence.

The political significance of this propaganda action that advances the cause of Hamas has rightly been highlighted. Certainly, a lesson from political history is the role of the “useful idiot”, as Russian communists disparagingly termed their naive left-leaning sympathisers in other countries. Evidently, Hamas has some of its own useful idiots to call on.

But an equally troubling historical lesson, I believe, is the way political censorship stultifies and suppresses artistic and creative excellence.

Let us reject the idea that arts festivals must subject their activities to a test of political orthodoxy. Let us instead celebrate the vigorous and full-throated pursuit of open debate and diversity, of the free flow of creative energy, and of a commitment to artistic and creative excellence as the central purpose of arts festivals.

Paul Fletcher is Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts in the Morrison government.