Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has drawn parallels between an artist boycott of the Sydney Festival and Stalinist Russia, and accused the “useful idiots” involved of suppressing artistic excellence in Australia.
Dozens of artists scheduled to take part in this month’s Sydney Festival amid the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global initiative led by Palestinians promoting the placing of sanctions on the state of Israel and associations linked to it.
Last year, Human Rights Watch labelled Israel's treatment of Palestinians , something the state has strenuously rejected.
The Sydney Festival boycott began over its acceptance of $20,000 from the Australian Israeli embassy to support the production of Decadence, a stage show by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.
“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,” Mr Fletcher wrote in an opinion piece published in The Australian on Friday.
“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.”
Mr Fletcher said arts festivals “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,” he wrote.
Mr Fletcher said the “principal cheerleader” for the BDS movement was Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic political party that has a militant wing of the same name and which is designated as a terrorist organisation by some countries.
“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,” Mr Fletcher wrote.
“But an equally troubling historical lesson, I believe, is the way political censorship stultifies and suppresses artistic and creative excellence.”
The Morrison government has been accused by Labor, the Greens, unions and artists of not doing enough to protect Australia’s arts sector in recent years, which has been hit harder than most by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under changes announced by the Morrison government in 2019, . The previous department of communications and the arts was rolled into the new Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.
Palestinian poet and writer Sara Saleh said on Twitter on Friday that Mr Fletcher’s opinion piece was “the most I've ever seen him get excited about the arts, in between his govt cutting funds and consistent lack of covid support for us artists across the sector”.
The Sydney Festival board has announced it will commission an independent review of the festival’s funding and existing practices.
Chairperson David Kirk acknowledged last week the festival’s “unprecedented challenges this year" had put “significantly increased pressure on all members of the board, the staff, and most importantly, artists”.