TV review: Simon Schama on the power of the arts to challenge autocracy

Source: The Irish News / / By Billy Foley /

Simon Schama: History of Now, BBC 2 and iPlayer
Simon Schama’s cri de coeur on the power of the arts to challenge autocracy feels significant.

It’s clear that the celebrated historian fears there is a danger that the Russian invasion of Ukraine could take us backwards to a time of less freedom in Europe.

Simon Schama at St. Jude’s Church in Alabama, USA. Picture by Oxford Films

It has the same feeling as the appeal from another figure of the television age, David Attenborough, on the perils of climate change.

Attenborough pleads for us to wake up to the catastrophe of global warming before it’s too late, while Schama appeals to us to see the political/military dangers around us and not to wallow in narcissism and disinterest.

It’s a highly personal look at the world’s problems which opens with the rather unclear phrase: “I came into the world to the soundtrack of history.”

He was born the same day as the horrific destruction of Dresden in early 1945 as the Allies prepared to finish off the Nazis.

It’s understandable then that Schama roots his view of the world through the lens of the Second World War when the free world united against the totalitarianism of Germany and Japan.

Dresden also poses the obvious moral question of whether all means are appropriate to defeat evil. Were the deaths of around 25,000 civilians justified to help close the gas chambers and free Europe from fascism?

Equally, although Schama doesn’t mention it, was it better to drop two atomic bombs on Japan or to tell America’s parents they had to pay with the blood of tens of thousands of their sons if the US had invaded the Japanese mainland?

In this three-part series, Schama takes us on a tour of what he sees as the great works of art which challenged those who sought to take away our freedoms, human rights, equality and even lives.

This includes a broad sweep of history in the last century, including Picasso’s Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell’s novel 1984 written after his experiences during the same conflict, Boris Pasternak’s sweeping novel of the lies at the heart of the Soviet Union in Dr Zhivago, Pussy Riot’s performance art against Putin, Vaclav Havel’s writing and eventual triumph after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, James Baldwin’s speech at Cambridge on the racism of the US, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam on lynching and Ai WeiWie’s art on the corruption of China, among others.

Schama places himself at the scene of many of these events and connects to others through his friends.

He may be accused of self-indulgence for this, but I think it’s reasonable. It’s his personal story of the troubles of his lifetime and therefore focuses on the events he has some direct experience of.

For this reason, it is not an objective history of art holding a mirror to power and consequently many significant events are omitted.

One of the most recent he covers is also one of the most interesting. Performance artist and Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova was sentenced to two years in jail after a protest at a Moscow cathedral in 2012.

During her time in the “penal colony” she was forced to make uniforms for police officers for 16 hours a day, with one day off every six weeks.

Ms Tolokonnikova says she lost her sense of purpose and fell into a depression. She was released from this and reinvigorated in her fight for freedom of expression in Russia when a sympathetic guard smuggled in a copy of Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

Havel, a leader of the struggle against Soviet control in Czechoslovakia, would prove the thesis of his own book when he became the country’s president following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Episode two is on television on Monday, but all episodes are available now on the BBC iPlayer.