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Alexander Malofeev performs at the Festival International de Piano de La Roque d'Anthéron, France with Maestro Alexander Sladkovsky.Liudmila Malofeeva/Handout

The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic Kelly Nestruck and visual art critic Kate Taylor discuss the merits and perils of recent boycotts and sanctions of Russian artists.

Kelly Nestruck: Hi, Kate. Last week, Canada Council for the Arts CEO Simon Brault posted a message “in solidarity with Ukraine” online announcing that “all activity involving the participation of Russian or Belarusian artists or arts organizations will cease to be funded” by the Crown corporation.

This didn’t land entirely well with me, or, it seems, others, as Brault added an update a few days later emphasizing the measures were “temporary” and “intended to ensure that public funds from Canada are not used to contribute to the Russian or Belarussian economy, thereby prolonging the invasion of Ukraine.”

I understand the Council not funding orchestra tours to Russia at the moment, of course, but isn’t there a case for Canadians seeking out or continuing collaborations with Russian or Belarusian artists right now – keeping those lines of communication and creativity open with individuals who are, in many cases, opposed to Vladimir Putin’s regime (or victims of it)? Or am I naive to believe that art might be part of the solution to this war?

Kate Taylor: Hi, Kelly. I took Simon Brault’s statement to be the natural extension of sanctions to the arts portfolio. Sanctions are always a blunt instrument that tends to hurt ordinary people more than the tyrants who rule them, but guns and tanks are even blunter.

Yes, the artists might generally disapprove of Putin – although there is still lots of state culture in the former Soviet Union – but how are we going to distinguish them? When the Vancouver Recital Society cancelled concerts by the 20-year-old pianist Alexander Malofeev I was appalled by some people’s suggestion that he needed to distance himself from the Putin regime: What a thing to demand of anyone living in an authoritarian country let alone a very young artist. (Although he did eventually post a statement on his Facebook page calling the war “a terrible and bloody decision.”)

Kelly Nestruck: I agree it’s dangerous to require or expect Russian artists to denounce Putin or his invasion. It seems to not really be at the core of these decisions, though. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra cancelled its own concerts with Malofeev even after he took that risk to speak out against the invasion.

Appearances by Russian pianists cancelled across Canada

It’s crucial for arts organizations to communicate the economic rationale for any cancellation: Russian artists are paid a fee, and X amount goes to taxes and Putin’s war chest. Those muddying that point are in danger of having their gesture of solidarity backfire – like the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra calling off its Tchaikovsky concert.

The 1812 Overture is in the public domain; if you really want to show support for Ukraine, why not cut the melody of God Save the Tsar at the end of this composition inspired by a heroic resistance to invasion and add in the Ukrainian national anthem instead!

Kate Taylor: Sounds like a great idea. And yes, one is reminded of all those anti-German gestures during both world wars. Renaming Berlin, Ont., Kitchener in 1916 didn’t do much to shorten the First World War.

Kelly Nestruck: My fear is that cultural boycotts are unproductive if they are too broadly applied to individual artists of certain nationalities – and inhibit anti-Putin voices from getting their messages out. Brault tells me the Canada Council policy on project grants with Russian and Belarusian artists is not blanket – and they will consider work on a case-by-case basis.

I think of Burning Doors, seen in Toronto at Luminato in 2018 – a collaboration between the Belarus Free Theatre and Russian Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot that raised awareness of artistic dissidents across the region including then-imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov.

By the way, Sentsov, since released in a prisoner swap, is currently on the front lines in Kyiv. He’s called for “a boycott of Russian cinematography in all dimensions.” So the issue is complicated. It’s a tough time for nuance.

Kate Taylor: Yeah, there are a lot of shades of grey here, and I agree you want to make impactful economic sanctions, not futile gestures. But I also think we have to remember that if the pianist Malofeev is losing his job, so has every Ikea clerk, McDonald’s server or Starbucks barista in Russia, as those chains pull out. Do those anonymous workers support Putin or revile him? We don’t know. I think the arts are hugely beneficial to societies and can be a strong bridge between them – soft power and cultural diplomacy are real. But the democrat in me is very hesitant to argue artists themselves should get special treatment. Economic sanctions hurt artists just as they hurt all sorts of people. Let’s hope they work soon.

More on Russian artist boycotts:

The West is turning to xenophobia against individual Russians to respond to Putin’s invasion

The war in Ukraine evokes a history of tension in the Russian ballet world

Putin Pictures: If the world boycotts Russian cinema, we’re left with Hollywood fever dreams

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