Art Under Dictatorship: An Interview with Bob Long

Bob Long is a modern Spanish historian and an accomplished jazz pianist. He was interviewed for TBI’s Freedom of Expression blog as part of his guest editor series, which included last week’s post on Picasso’s Guernica. In this interview, accompanied by this translation of an interview with Antoni Tàpies. Long reflects on the importance of art in difficult times, and how it can represent a challenge to repressive regimes and an alternative to violence.

Can you describe how artists confronted the Franco regime? What challenges did they face? Did visual artists face different circumstances than writers or musicians?

I think if I answer the second part of your question first, it will help answer the other two as well. There was a great deal of difference in the way the regime acted toward an artist depending on the discipline of art. Without a doubt literature received the most scrutiny from the regime’s elaborate and at times arcane censorship apparatus. By the early 1950s beginning really in the consolidated middle years of the regime, censorship was handled by the Ministerio de Información y Turismo. They were in particular on the lookout for publications of any kind, foreign or domestic, that in anyway demonstrated a challenge to regime rule, whether it was matter of overt political anti-regime references or more subtle works, like a novel or poetry that exhibited leftist or socialist sympathies. And, those anti-regime references could also include veiled anti-clerical references or ideas that could be interpreted as impugning the reputation of the Church (the Spanish Catholic Church at least until the mid-1960s, was a staunch ally of the regime).

The regime definitely saw the written word as its biggest artistic threat, and all newspapers and literature were carefully watched. All publishing houses had to petition the department for approval of a works publication and by the middle 1950s and into the 1960s the Department of Censorship was pretty adept at sniffing out censorable material, even with the large amount of written matter that came through their doors. The penalty for writers or publishing houses that were found in violation varied, but could be a matter of banning individual works to fines for the publishing houses themselves. Individual writers could be blacklisted making it hard for them to work, and many left the country because it became increasingly hard to find work.

Expression in the plastic arts like that of Picasso or Tàpies did not receive this kind of treatment, normally, but that also depended on the behavior of the individuals. Picasso, because of his staunch anti-regime stance, remained in Paris. Joan Miró almost the equal of Picasso in fame and reputation and also staunchly anti-regime, maintained a lower profile and could, again because of his international reputation, return to Spain without being harassed. Nevertheless, both he and Picasso were a major inspiration for younger artists such as Tàpies.

Musicians, like painters, were not considered, by their discipline alone, dangerous to the regime, but again that depended on their own personal stands. Manuel de Falla, probably the most famous 20th century Spanish composer was anti-Francoist and exiled himself from Spain to Argentina where he died in 1946. Joaquín Rodrigo, the composer of the Concierto de Aranjuez, who was not known to be political, remained in Paris during the Spanish Civil War, but did return to Spain and became the chair of the music department of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. But not all composers were exempt from regime censorship. The young composer, Antonio José Martínez Palacios, a rising star in Spain’s classical musical world of the 1930s, was a supporter of the Second Republic and was arrested and executed along with other republican prisoners by the right-wing military within a couple of months after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

In the interview, Tàpies seems to describe a subversive quality to his art. Did others see it that way? What allows art that is broadly understood to be subversive to survive?

Again, for abstract or avant-garde artists, because their work could not be interpreted “literally,” they might be able to hide underneath their abstractions. Tàpies did, I believe, see his art as being subversive, but only in that he saw all intellectually activity, including art, as being subversive to a rigid regime such as Franco’s.

The fact that his art required people, such as Del Arco, to actually contemplate it, meant to Tàpies that he was affecting their consciousness. In one interview looking back at the regime´s attitude on artistic expression, he stated that the regime, and Franco himself personally, were completely ignorant of the power of art.

“The facts show that art, that all of culture, while not instantly triggering the spectacular “revolutions” that some imagine, does, instead, the quiet work that prepares the conscience in a way generally more substantial than acts of violence.”

Tàpies went on to add: “Franco always undervalued culture, intellectuals, artists…without realizing, to his own discredit and that of all of Francoism, the greater part of the inhabitants of the state was fed precisely by intellectuals and artists…”

This “quiet work” was what he believed gave his work and that of many of his cohorts in modern art, power. Also it is very consistent with what he said to Del Arco in 1955 that “the progressive artist, together with all progressive intellectuals like him, contributes to shaping a new consciousness.”

I should also note that in the 1960s as his artistic name recognition had grown and, at the same time as he took part in protests against the regime in Barcelona, he became a thorn in the side of the regime. He voiced his opposition to regime policies of censorship, especially in academia and was briefly arrested. In the end, his reputation, like that of Miró and Picasso gave him leverage against the regime. It also allowed him to sell works internationally that served to pay the fines others who had been jailed as a result of protests. There is no doubt that being “famous” always added pressure to any artist’s power, as the regime was, especially in its later years, tremendously self-conscious about how Spain was perceived outside its borders.

Tàpies suggests that the role of art is to convey emotion, and that “art has to perturb” those who do not agree with the artist’s ideology. Can you talk a bit about that tension between creation and interpretation? How does that dynamic change when the context of artistic production changes, such as under the Franco regime?

I think that there are two parts to how artistic expression works in society. The first is the artist’s own sense of his or her artistic voice. By “artistic voice,” I mean the distinct quality that artists sense in their own work that incongruously comes from years of development, but finally becomes second nature. But the other aspect has to do with how an artist’s voice appears historically and that has to involve its public reception. Tàpies contended that in the act of creating, the world, or its pressure on him, fades away. There is a place in the interview with Del Arco that touches on this, I think. He says that “at the moment I put myself to work, like a scientist in a laboratory, I don’t care whether one affirms or denies me.” By that, I take him to mean that an artist will create no matter what, even under the oppression of a dictatorial regime. It might be harder or there might be hoops to jump through, but nothing will stop that impulse to create. At the same time, I don´t think anything he says would deny the role of interpretation by others.

What about the context in which art is consumed—something you wrote about regarding Picasso’s Guernica. How does that process change the meaning of potentially subversive art?

There is no doubt that the context of the regime’s repression between 1939 and 1975 changes and that this also changed how art was consumed. In the earliest and most repressive years, avenues for expression were minimized not only because of the clamp-down of the regimes physical abuse of the citizenry, but because venues of consumption, publishing houses, theaters and galleries were hard-pressed to do any business in the dire economy that existed. But as that changed in the late 40s and early 50s-in almost a Tillian scenario- and as things began to open up, to “normalize,” the avenues began to show signs of dissent against the regime, again with literature kept still pretty much under wraps. But often, as was the case of the regime, there was, as Tàpies pointed out, a misperception of the power of artistic expression, not only domestically, but internationally. And in terms of abstract art, in effect, the regime´s own “misinterpretation” of this art blocked the regime from understanding this art´s importance as a vehicle of dissent.

Are there conditions under which artistic resistance is somehow more sustainable or effective than other responses to repressive regimes?

Yes, and I think a perfect example is the consolidated middle years of the Franco regime, where the need to engage outside of its failed attempt at autarky, forced doors open and artists were some of the first to go through them. I also think this process was very similar to that which occurred in Chile. The Pinochet regime, which prided itself on modeling Francoism´s methods and longevity, was beset by the work of artists (alive and dead) who were both internal voices of dissent, but also international in their scope.

Does the story of art under Franco point us toward any broader understandings of art both as a response to cruelty, violence, and suffering and a tool for change?

I can’t help but go back to Tàpies’s idea of the “quiet work” of art that helps to set the stage for change. Both in its reception and its often non-literal expression (although even literature is often non-literal in the undercurrent of its meanings and interpretation), artistic expression gives those who receive it the chance to stand back from the most repressive conditions and contemplate its, and their own, humanity.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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