Photo: TICbeat

In Venezuela, the State’s cultural institutions have a fundamentally political focus. We only need to visit the Culture Ministry’s website and take a look at their activities’ schedule, promoting itself as “the anti-imperialist capital of visual arts,” meaning: Anything outside the official narrative won’t be part of the exhibition. 

Artists must follow the script or resort to private venues, a tall order because of the constant threat against dissidents.

One of the strongest pieces criticizing the chavista cultural movement comes from María Elena Ramos, author of analyses based on both study and experience. Her work, La Cultura Bajo Acoso (“Culture Under Harassment”), gives us a social and historical view of the problem.

In Venezuela, the State’s cultural institutions have a fundamentally political focus.

First, there’s self-censorship and constant persecution against intellectuals; few dare to speak because those who do get harassed. There’s no newsprint for “dissident” newspapers and radio stations are closed, but the censorship also affect writers, painters, curators and musicians who better come to an agreement with the State if they’re to keep a certain independence.

And it’s not just about private harassment; public institutions also suffer with the focus on ideology —for instance, the quality of exhibitions in museums has decreased, as they’re bound to the political script.

María Elena talks about the accomplices too, those who support State policies within their bubble of comfort, those who take advantage of their freedom in their respective countries and use their academic degrees and activism to prop up a revolution from abroad, justifying its actions, legitimizing it.

Venezuela isn’t the first country to experience this. Cultural straitjackets are one of the oldest tricks in the book (particularly for communist regimes), making it vital to raise our voices.

Consider, for example, Gerardo Alarcón, a Visual Arts graduate and dance and art of movement professor at Los Andes University.

Cultural straitjackets are one of the oldest tricks in the book (particularly for communist regimes.)

When he first started college, he could buy good quality paint, brushes and canvases to get the results he wanted, but supplies vanished from the market and he had to find new ways to work. However, he’s optimistic and passionate about his profession:

“I have the responsibility to [teach]. I feel university dropout rates in the country are too high and I understand why that happens, but it’s also a thing of ‘Who’s going to stay and defend education, values, art, culture?’ Nobody wants to because nobody wants to earn less than minimum wage for teaching. The university’s budget hasn’t been adjusted in years. Education’s the most precious gift you can give to the country, if citizens have the ability to question their world and do something about it, then we stand before free, capable people.”

But it’s not just classical arts suffering from the ruling clique. Elías Martínez, illustrator and creator of webpage Carnaval Tercermundista, an emergent artist specialised in web comics and political satire, hasn’t stopped since one of his illustrations went viral on Facebook. Born in Caracas and currently living in Santiago, Chile, he aims for a good laugh with his work, even if he’s always getting insults and complaints.

Because Elías’ criticism is raw and direct: To him, art in Venezuela is an unburied corpse.

Because Elías’ criticism is raw and direct: To him, art in Venezuela is an unburied corpse.

“I’ve known many talented artists whose dreams are frustrated because the country’s situation doesn’t allow them to work on their art as much as they’d like to. Right now, ‘Venezuelan art’ only benefits those aligned with the government and, in my experience, artists who are loyal to the government are also the most mediocre.”

He gives us, however, a message about discipline and effort: “First, leave Venezuela. Art will never flourish in an environment as hostile as the country’s current situation. Second, if you have an idea, work on it, even if it doesn’t seem good at the start. If you work on it, you’ll polish it.”

“Be fearless,” Gerardo agrees, “take a leap of faith for art, you’ll find satisfaction beyond compare. Embrace your dream and don’t give up until you’ve achieved it. You’ll soon realize that this is a lifestyle, not a goal.”

Different visions for the same situation that put reality in perspective. The context we’re living in is tough and frustrating, yes, but art and culture are vital for human and social development, and that’s probably why dictatorships fear them.

Art is resistance.

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