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The Art of Dissent brings heart-felt touch to the “Havel and Our Crisis” Conference

Last Thursday, Sep. 29, the second day of the “Havel and our Crisis” Conference took place. The event convened leaders and scholars on the topic of Václav Havel’s unique political approach: one of an artistic dissident in the times of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Thursday night saw the screening of The Art of Dissent, followed by a Q&A session by the film’s director, James Dean Le Sueur. 

The film, made during the pandemic and about facing the struggles that virtual work entails, naturally focuses on Havel but also on the relevance of art within the non-violent revolution for Czechoslovakian independence from the Soviet Union. 

As someone who had, unfortunately, never heard about Havel or the revolution in Czechoslovakia, this screening — that focused on the power of artistic expression when mixed with politics — was extremely illustrative. Presented as a documentary, this film incorporated multiple parts of original footage from the time periods, some shown for the first time since their original broadcast. In this way, Sueur brings a heartfelt touch to a somber affair. 

Though I was originally concerned that the film would be a style of propaganda to dissuade violence, it was not exactly that. The film emphasizes how impressive it was that non-violent protesting succeeded in winning a revolution, but it does not — to my taste — over-glorify it. Non-violent, artistic protest is viewed as a positive and beautiful thing but not necessarily as a role model. It does, however, emphasize the hardships of the people of the time and how art provided the outlet for what they call a “parallel polis” — an alternate, underground society, largely unorganized and with differing opinions but all sharing the same wish for their country and its people’s freedom. 

The film is chronological. From the first forms of artistic and non-violent protesting in Prague to the period of “normalization,” which were the Soviets’ attempts to persuade the population to accept the Soviet “norms”, to accepting the invasion of their country, the film follows the sequence of history. Largely, the film explains that this occurs through a form of a “social contract,” where a state would defeat another through invasion and then offer a slow but steady increase in quality of life, so that people will welcome the new norms. 

Interestingly, Czechoslovakia’s own form of segregational ableism — in other words, its practice of separating mental health institutions with physically and mentally disabled people — differed from the Soviet Union’s practice of using those institutions for political reasons. This difference provided an avenue for the intelligentsia to be able to discuss forbidden topics. This is where our artistic dissidents — defined as a small group of people who are fundamentally in disagreement with the current government and are willing to change it through “extra-systemic” means – were largely operating, unfortunate though its cause. 

Counterculture, therefore, was particularly important to this period: simple things, like musicians having longer hair and not wearing suits, could get them arrested, and in fact it did. Members of the band Plastic Peoples of the Universe faced such threats and eventual imprisonment. However, their persistence in their art led to a public awareness that resistance was both possible and necessary. 

This was how Havel himself showed resistance in this climate. Imprisoned for several years, he was originally a playwright, but he was allowed to write one letter per week, even under the close watch of the Soviet soldiers. Eventually, these were collected and served the nation and his future career as the president of Czechoslovakia. A little before the Berlin Wall fell, the youth took to the streets for the first time since 1969, and Havel was later also responsible for making the eventual revolution non-violent during meetings with the “parallel polis” once they had determined they would organize meetings. 

Havel was seen as a symbol of hope by many during this transition of the rule of the Soviet Union, but so were other artists, who provided song, literature, and sculptures. When democracy was installed, the castle guard — refusing to wear the Soviet-like uniforms at hand — were designed completely new costumes with the few resources available. They became another form of artistic expression, highlighting them as non-threatening members of the same community as the people outside the gates. 

Other artists across the world also recognised Havel and the dissidents’ efforts. In fact, it was the Rolling Stones who provided the means to have the national castle lit at night since the new government lacked the financial resources. 

So, how is Havel relevant today? Why is it “Havel and Our Crisis?” Well, surely the forms of “normalization” — of accepting something as normal — have been in mind since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and people speaking of “not accepting the ‘new normal.’” In contrast, the climate crisis for people of Generation Z has already become that. There are also deep systemic problems, both domestically and globally, that have made many think about protesting the government. How and why we do it is up for debate, but there is an important message here: art can, and commonly is, political — both in the way we consume it and the way we choose to express it. When people unite under it, they can change history. 

~ Nico Flota Sánchez `25



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