Dario Martinelli: arts and culture as a weapon of war

Dario Martinelli. Photo KTU

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine requires effort on all fronts: humanitarian aid, financial help, military equipment, and other means of support are as necessary as ever. Yet, while some help can be more direct, other types of involvement are as important.

Dario Martinelli, a professor at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), says that while boycotting culture can be one way to help fight the war, culture and arts themselves can be useful in the fight as well. Just how – in the conversation below.

How do you describe the current situation in Ukraine? What is your position towards the attack?

I describe the situation by using the same word: “attack” – or “invasion”. I reject the notion of war, not because there isn’t a war going on, obviously, but because that word would sneakily suggest a share of responsibilities between the two sides. On the contrary, this is a situation where a big, bullying, non-democratic regime, led by a fascist dictator, has attacked a smaller, democratic state.

It hasn’t been always so easy for me to take a clear position in favour or against a given side when I have witnessed other conflicts in the past. This time, I take small, melancholic consolation in the fact that I have no doubt, whatsoever, where to stand. I stand with Ukraine, all the way.

Being from Italy, perhaps you have an opportunity to follow the institutional and media reactions in your own country as well? If so, what differences have you noticed between the two?

Oh, quite a few differences, I’m afraid. And not the type of differences that would make me proud to be Italian, at the moment. 

I honestly feel that living in Lithuania today means living in a place that is doing everything right at most levels: political, economic, symbolic, and artistic. I have seen repeated statements of unmistakable, uncompromising condemnation of the Russian attack from all the main political sides; I have witnessed Lithuania be the first country to achieve zero dependence on Russian gas; I have seen very cool initiatives like renaming the street of the Russian embassy to “Ukrainian heroes st.”, or Olympic gold medalist Rūta Meilutytė swimming in a red-tinted pond; I have seen art and music made and performed in support of Ukraine

Is Italy very different, in this respect?

Yes, unfortunately. In Italy we are stuck with two attitudes: westsplaining (that patronizing sense of superiority of the big Western European countries that think of themselves as socially and morally more advanced than Eastern European ones) and what I call the “Togliatti disease”. Palmiro Togliatti was one of the most important Italian politicians who led the Communist Party from 1927 to his death in 1964. His politics, among other things, was characterized by uncritical support for Stalin and the Soviet Union, no matter what.

So, the “Togliatti disease” infects all those people in Italy who seem to always find some “reasons why Putin is doing what he is doing”. No matter what: no matter the Bucha massacre, no matter the children used as shields in Novyi Bykiv, no matter Donetsk, Sumy, Kharkiv and so forth. There is always that casual acknowledgement of Russian crimes followed by the inevitable “but”: but Ukraine this, but NATO that…

At the moment, I see no validity in these arguments. Take the most common one, for instance: the “denazification” fairy tale. Some Italians “kind of justify” (their words) Putin’s invasion on the basis that it is true that in Ukraine there are some neonazi groups, militias and sentiments. But which country, Russia included, does not have that problem?

In Italy we have numerous Fascist or pseudo-Fascist political leaders like Meloni or Salvini, who have been also governing; we have militias like the “Folgore” which is of ultra-rightist inspiration; we have openly Fascist and Mussolini-devoted groups like “Casa Pound” who have been also running for elections… I wonder if my compatriots would be happy if Putin came to “denazify” Italy. Would they “kind of justify” that? Oh, but wait: Salvini and Meloni (and of course Berlusconi) are friends of Putin’s, as are several European ultra-rightist groups and politicians. So, how does that work, exactly?  

Anyway, that’s not even the most irritating “but”: I think the defence of Russian art and literature must take the cake.

What do you mean? Do you think culture is untouchable in these cases?

Well, it started a few weeks ago, more or less at the beginning of the invasion. The Bicocca University in Milan had scheduled a small seminar on Dostoevsky with a guest lecturer who had just written a book about him. The rector thought it was insensitive to hold that seminar as the war had just started, so he suggested the cancellation. Of course, the guest-lecturer went straight to the media to cry and play the “cultural martyr”. Since that moment, a crusade started in defence of the untouchable greats of Russian culture, in most Italian media and social media. Bradburian scenarios of burning books were depicted, as if this was the real outrage of this war, and not the fact that the Russian army was meanwhile massacring the Ukrainian people, civilians included.

And it got worse and worse when concerts of Russian music were cancelled, Russian athletes were prevented from competing… it got to the point where more or less 95% of my Italian (or in general western-European) social media contacts were doing one of these three things: complaining about the scandalous attacks on the glorious Russian culture, advocating that we should “understand Putin’s reasons” or, in order not to lose the habit, took it out on America and NATO.

The irony of it all was that, in the meantime, the Russian army was destroying the Mariupol art museum, the Mariupol theatre, the neo-Gothic library of Chernihiv, the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial, etc. – a totality of over fifty historic sites marked by UNESCO. In other words: they were destroying culture for good, and not just temporarily like a suspension of a seminar on Dostoevsky.

So, you do not see validity in this argument either? Does this mean that this form of “cancel culture” does not help win the war or does it?

The thing is, I’m a pacifist, but unlike a certain hippie idea of “pacifism”, I’m not just content with sitting down, waving the peace sign and shouting “No to war”. The pacifism I’m inspired by is a bit more proactive. Gandhi himself taught us that (among other things): we may have an image of him doing passive resistance against the charging colonialist army, but that was just one aspect, along with social, economic, and cultural policies he adopted. Many of these policies had to do exactly with boycotting. Of course, economic sanctions remain the most important way to fight without weapons. But also boycotting forms of “soft power” like culture, brands, personalities, and the likes make sense.

These are sanctions that have important economic repercussions, which grow in a form directly proportional to the importance of the event/personality/activity in question and the level of involvement of Russia in it. E.g.: moving the Champions League final from St. Petersburg to elsewhere – that’s quite a loss, in the context of an event followed by millions of sports fans and attracting plenty of sponsors.

At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, actions like these constitute strong damage to image and morale that increase the indignation, both outside and inside Russia, towards the regime and Putin in particular.

A culturally-popular, sport-victorious Russia, a Russia that is “No.1” like Medvedev or rich and esteemed like Gergiev, or glorious and refined like Dostoevsky is a Russia that gives Putin many more tools for his propaganda, for the perception of his success, for the morale of the people falling for his lies and the soldiers going to fight. That aspect must be struck and struck hard. Exactly because culture is important.

Does your notion of pacifism mean that the Ukrainians cannot defend themselves too?  

No, it does not mean that. I do support that right, of course. But as a pacifist, I hope and strive for Russia to be defeated as soon as possible without any more bloodshed. But of course, until that doesn’t happen, Ukrainians have every right to resist and fight back in any way they can.

Democratic Italy was built from the armed resistance against the Nazis: I will not neglect that heritage. Obviously, I would have preferred it wouldn’t have come to that and have Hitler surrendered before so many soldiers and civilians were killed. But Hitler wasn’t going to stop, was he? And that seems to be the case with Putin, at the moment.  

Back to arts and culture. You say that they are important, and therefore it is useful to boycott them. Are they also important in a positive sense? How can they be helpful? You yourself have recently written a song called “Yellow and Blue”, supporting the associations that send help to Ukraine, so probably the answer is “yes”?

It is. Of course, I’m not under the illusion that a song (or a poem, or a painting…) can “change the world”, or that Putin will listen to the song and will go “Oh, I understand now… I’m really a bad person – I will stop right now”. It applies to this small project with Gabrielė Goštautaitė, but it also applies to, for instance, superstars like Pink Floyd, who recently teamed up with Andriy Khlyvnyuk. 

Having said that, a song, like many forms of art, has an emotional and comforting power that exceeds ordinary forms of communication. That power brings more people together, gives additional inspiration, and reaches out to deeper corners of our souls, making a message of peace, resistance, relief, or whatever is at stake, stronger and ultimately more effective. That is my “yes” to your question.

Gabrielė Goštautaitė

Does that apply also to Ukraine’s victory in Eurovision? It seems people voted more for “Ukraine” than for the song.

Yes, they did, but for once I am not bothered by that. Votes of a “political” nature have always been typical in Eurovision. Like voting (or not voting) for your neighbouring country and things like that. You know, to be entirely honest with you, I didn’t particularly like the song (though I liked the lyrics) – I actually liked our Lithuanian entry much better – but, really, who cares about the song now. What is really nice to think about is that, probably, for many Ukrainians, this was the first joyful night in months, and that thought alone is heartwarming. Then, there is also the question of image, soft power, and emotional boost, plus the fact that being the organizers next year, Ukraine will have a chance for some financial and touristic revenue. Hopefully, by then, this whole nightmare will be over, and the event will be a symbol of this, showing that the country is safe and inspiring more people to visit. I, for one, have never been to Ukraine, and I would like to go.

Were those the same positive aspects – a message of peace among them – that you aimed at with your song “Yellow and Blue”?

Yes. We intended for “Yellow and Blue” to be exactly a message of hope and reconstruction, an attempt to offer comfort to the Ukrainian people. In that sense, it doesn’t belong to the tradition of “angry” protest songs: it’s rather in the footsteps of songs like “We shall overcome” and “Blackbird”, which are gentler melodies focused on hope and self-empowerment. The tones are positive with a melancholic background, and they were also inspired by the way in which President Zelensky is addressing his compatriots in these dramatic days.

We, of course, played with the dualism “yellow” (a sunny, positive colour) and “blue” (a word which in English also means “sad”), the song, as well as the video, tries to make the dramatic aspect coexist with the optimistic one, the beautiful Ukraine of the past with the suffering Ukraine of today, the “broken pieces” (from the lyrics) with the rebuilding, the defeat of the “monster” (also in the lyrics) with a better future. That duality exists also at the musical level, with the alternation of piano and electric guitar for the solos, and in the video, where we find these beautiful images alternating with dramatic ones, often with the “split-screen”.

Finally, that pop-jazz style is in line with a whole album we are doing with Gabrielė and with the musicians who took part in producing this song (plus others). It was great that we could count on excellent musicians: Edvinas Valaitis, who plays bass here, but he is first and foremost the sound engineer of the project, Justas Pilibaitis at the piano, Tadas Petkevičius-Grajauskas at the electric guitar, and all the others.

What associations are you supporting with this song?

There are four of them, and I’m really happy you asked because that is really the whole point of this song: to raise attention on their work and invite people to donate. There is “Aukok.lt” (https://www.aukok.lt); “StrongTogether” (https://stipruskartu.lt/); Pour les meres d’Ukraine (pourlesmeres@gmail.com) and “Animals of Ukraine” (https://ggi.lt/ukrainos-gyvunai/). We tried to cover as wide a spectrum as possible, in terms of the type of help, so we have groups providing first aid in Ukraine, to both people and animals, but also assisting refugees, particularly women and mothers.

Finally, in terms of culture, and the way people feel about it and about the events today, what is it that you wish you saw more of?

Maybe crises like this can be an opportunity to expand our horizons and maybe challenge the redundancy of the “cultural canons” we are accustomed to. What do I mean by this? I was mentioning the cancellation of that seminar on Dostoevsky. Now. Dostoevsky is one of the greats of world literature: there is absolutely no question about this. But then again, courses, conferences and studies on him are counted by the thousand, all over the planet. Honestly: how many more times do we have to hear about redemption through suffering in Crime and Punishment? Maybe we got the point by now? Or at least: maybe we don’t need to repeat it so many times in so many places? I feel there is a general problem in reiterating the same “dominant” culture over and over, tending to ignore more “marginal” countries, women, contemporary works and anything else outside the Canon. For instance, I think that the cancellation of events related to Russian culture could not just be a “sanction” against Russia, but could also become an excellent opportunity to expose more to Ukrainian culture. We have already the “narrative” of the great, glorious, passionate Russian culture. What do we know about Ukraine? Do we have adjectives to describe its culture? Isn’t it worth getting to know it better, or do we really need another run on how talented and tormented Dostoevsky was?

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