Forbidden Art and Censorship

“I am an artist first, a censor second.”

This is how the book The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra begins.  Set up like a cassette tape with a Side A, Intermission and Side B, the book is a collection of short stories that stand alone but are all intricately connected.  The book spans across a century, a continent and a striking group of characters who are bound together by an obscure nineteenth century painting.

I received the Documentary “The Desert of Forbidden Art” from Netflix.


The description of the documentary reads as follows “Trace the incredible story of defiant visionary Igor Savitsky, an artist and museum curator who cunningly acquired more than 40,000 banned Soviet Union paintings and hid the illegal collection from the KGB in Uzbekistan’s Nukus Museum.  In addition to rare archival footage and interviews with the artists’ children, this absorbing documentary also features letters and diary entries read by Ben Kingsley, Sally Field and Edward Asner.”

Upon finishing the book, I then watched the documentary.  The book was fictional stories about censorship, struggles of the people in the Soviet Union and a particular painting.  This painting wove itself in and around the characters lives.  The documentary was the true story about censorship and state sponsored art or propaganda.  It was also about the extraordinary work of Igor Savitsky, who worked tirelessly to save the work of disgraced artists, pay their families and create a museum to show the work.  It was interesting to watch the documentary after reading the fictional story about the censor or correction artist.

Here is where novel and documentary intersect.  The correction artist would erase disgraced individuals from photos, paint Lenin and Stalin into historic moments, and make the party icons look young and vigorous even as they aged.  The Soviet Union tried to erase the identity of its diversified populations by only allowing art that showed the Communist parties idealized vision of the common good.  Cultural traditions and crafts of the people of Uzbekistan were being lost and destroyed.  The creative and artistic identity of an entire nation was being destroyed by the censor, the Gulag and Soviet concentration camps.

What did I learn from the documentary?  That even though the Soviet Union tried to destroy the very soul and essence of the diverse cultures within its borders by destroying their art, music, dances, songs, poetry, craft and cultural traditions and by trying to erase or rewrite history, it was not able to do it.  People fought for their creativity and often paid with their lives.  Others hid art and created safe spaces artwork to be shown.  The human spirit, creativity and the need to express oneself through art, music, dance, songs, poetry, craft and cultural traditions is stronger than the censor.

What did I learn from the book?  Our stories are connected.  Sometimes in surprising ways.

I highly recommend the collection of stories The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra and the documentary “The Desert of Forbidden Art.”  I was surprised and inspired by what I learned from both of them.  

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