The Survival of Culture

by Michael Potemra

On the recommendation of my colleague Rick Brookhiser, I just saw the new documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art — and it’s a truly inspiring movie. It tells the story of an art collector, Igor Savitsky, in the employ of the Soviet Union, who was able to preserve thousands of paintings that were considered “degenerate” art by the Soviet government. He created a museum in Uzbekistan to exhibit them.

The most remarkable thing of all is the mere survival of these works. A totalitarian government, one of the most powerful and oppressive in history, was dedicated to the elimination of any art that was not subservient to the political agenda of the state (and to the persecution, extending to outright murder, of the artists who created it). And yet: That government is now non-existent, and the art works — from being buried deep in closets — are now out in the open for the world to see. It gives one hope: Someday, when Castro, and Kim Jong Il, and the Chinese Communist police state are consigned to the ash heap of history, what great gifts will the people of those countries bring out of hiding, to bestow upon the world? Man can be oppressed, but he will not stop creating. He may be in the shadows, but the day will come when he will emerge into the light once again.

Another interesting aspect of this story is the extent to which the USSR’s central government tried to impose cultural conformity on the state’s constituent republics. (This film focuses on Uzbekistan and on Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan.) We may be grateful that Mr. Savitsky’s work could remain under the radar of the regime — and that he was able to promote cultural forces of which the central government disapproved. He should be hailed as a hero of “multiculturalism,” as that word should properly be understood. (It has always struck me as unfortunate that “multiculturalism” is used as the shorthand term for something conservatives dislike intensely. Used in a non-technical sense, “multiculturalism” should refer to the idea that different cultures have different contributions to make to human flourishing, and that we all can learn from other cultures. But in our current vocabulary, “multiculturalism” refers to something else entirely: a unitary culture of political correctness that, perversely enough, does much to stifle actual cultural exchange.)

To see if The Desert of Forbidden Art is playing near you, please consult the film’s website.

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