In the heated political atmosphere ahead of Brazil’s presidential election, the country’s cultural scene has declared war on Jair Bolsonaro’s brand of right-wing populism. Protests, demonstrations, rallies and performance events are being organized through social media. Many artists and culture professionals fear that the freedom of artistic expression and democracy itself are in danger. The liberties for which they fought during the years of the military dictatorship, and for which many also sacrificed their lives, suddenly seem at stake again. As the writer Luiz Ruffato put it in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, “In Brazil, a man like Bolsonaro is even more dangerous than someone like Trump in the United States. Because here we don’t have real democracy yet.”
The steady decline in cultural funding started in 2013, when Brazilians took to the streets in droves to protest a rise in bus fares. This was followed by Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings, which produced a president whose signature achievement has been to save his skin in various corruption scandals. Tellingly, Michel Temer’s new cabinet consisted entirely of older white men.
The marginalized are the new protagonists
However, the same period also saw the advent of new social and political discourses. Previously, racism as a social phenomenon had always been dismissed with the claim that everyone in Brazil was of mixed ancestry anyway. But now, Afro-Brazilian artists and activists have stepped forward, challenging the “white” elites to come to terms with the reality of discrimination. Similarly, LGBT groups have also become more self-confident in calling for equal rights. And members of other marginalized groups, including prostitutes, migrants and homeless people, are taking center stage in artistic performances, which has turned artists into socio-political actors.
One group stands out in this regard: women, who have usually played a more traditional role in Brazil, even among intellectuals. In the face of the misogynistic attitudes of Temer and Bolsonaro, the feminist movement – especially Afro-Brazilian and indigenous feminism – is on the rise. Female performers such as Michelle Mattuizzi, Anita Ekman, Christina Takuá or Jota Mombaza are emblematic of a new generation of activist artists who dare to stand up to Brazilian machismo.
At the same time, the decline in public cultural funding has given rise to a re-evaluation of the role of art and culture in society. Representatives of various religious groups now seek to dictate what is “good” art, and what should be exhibited. Art is thus being increasingly politicized and instrumentalized, especially by evangelicals and representatives of other religious movements. “Right-wing populists seek to question art in all its forms and institutions, and to disparage it as a parasite on the public purse,” says Jochen Volz, director of the Pinacoteca in São Paulo.
The result has been a witch-hunt against anything that supposedly contravenes Brazilian ideals of esthetics, morals and customs. Over the past two years, for example, the Goethe-Institut in Brazil has been sued several times for alleged instances of “bodily harm”, “blasphemy” or “paedophilia” in its exhibitions, performances and graffiti projects. Although the Brazilian constitution is one of the most modern, democratic and liberal in the world, it has not inoculated the courts and judges against the influence of reactionary and religious tendencies.
Wagner Schwartz, a well-known Brazilian choreographer, temporarily had to leave the country in the wake of the controversy generated by performances of his piece “La Bête” at the Goethe-Institut in Salvador and the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo. He received death threats after a child touched the naked performer, which sparked public outcries, demonstrations and even physical assaults. By now, there is hardly a theater or museum left in Brazil that is willing to stage his performances. In São Paulo, his new play will therefore be shown at the Goethe-Institut.
The development of the São Paulo Art Biennial over the past six years has also been interesting: in 2014 and 2016, the curators mounted a strong response to the electorate’s growing political engagement. This year’s Biennale, however, which opened its doors two months ago, bears a completely different imprint. Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro has chosen to make the individual artist the focus of his exhibition, in the name of emphasizing l’art pour l’art. The result is a strikingly apolitical exhibition in a city where everything is now politicized, cultural production included.
But it would be an exaggeration to claim that all cultural institutions have succumbed to the public spirit of censorship. Notable exceptions include the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), the Instituto Tomie Ohtake, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB), Itaú Cultural and even the state-owned Pinacoteca, which continue to address issues such as sexuality, slavery or women. Nevertheless, they have also started to take security precautions or to set minimum age requirements. The so-called “S institutions” (Serviço Social do Comércio and Serviço Social da Indústria), corporate non-profit organizations in the cultural sector that are financed through payroll taxes, have also been trying to resist these developments, but their commitment is waning. In fact, Bolsonaro has stated that he would immediately close these institutions in order to use the tax revenue for more important things than culture. This would kill off one of the most important pillars of Brazil’s cultural sector in one fell swoop.
Conditions resembling a dictatorship
Indeed, self-censorship is already a reality – for fear of the consequences of tackling “immoral” issues. Resisting this atmosphere of terror requires courage and perseverance. In the words of Antonio Araujo, the director of Brazil’s most important international theater festival MITsp in São Paulo: “Everyone in the cultural sector is afraid that all ‘cutting edge’ art will be banned.”
This collapse of public culture has given rise to greater activism among artists and civil society, which in turn has prompted right-wing forces with racist, anti-feminist, as well as homo- and transphobic views into action. According to Wagner Schwartz, the result is a conflict between two polarizing groups that could even culminate in civil war should Bolsonaro actually win.
A Bolsonaro victory could therefore set off a cultural and political implosion, a reversion to the dictatorial past that Brazilians remember all too well. Should this come to pass, those countries that still subscribe to the fundamental values of democracy and artistic freedom will finally have to intervene and take a stand for Brazil’s steadfast and courageous artists.
Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte is the Goethe-Institute’s Regional Director for South America and Director of the São Paulo office.
Translated from German by Christoph Gottstein.
This article was originally published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.