07/11/2012 05:50 GMT | Updated 06/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Why We Need to Call Sh*t, 'Sh*t'

At his recent gig at the Brixton Academy, Richard Hawley described the latest cabinet reshuffle as like "shitting on a shit to pretend it isn't shit". The crowd's reaction was instantaneous laughter and cheering.

PJ Harvey, in her masterpiece Let England Shake, in a more considered fashion directly challenges the establishment, "How is our glorious country ploughed? Not by iron ploughs. Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet. Feet marching. Oh America, oh England."

These are artists with a powerful platform, politicized but not political, uncorrupted by being too close to those they seek to shine a mirror to, their art being hungrily heard by thousands. They illustrate how we are lucky that in this country, in this era, we can say what we want without fear of authoritarian retribution - although, as Salman Rushdie found, free speech in this country does not necessarily equal acceptance of that art anywhere else.

By contrast, and in an uncomfortable echo of the communist era, two members of Pussy Riot now find themselves serving time in Russia for saying the wrong thing about the wrong guy in the wrong place. Their actions may have been offensive to some (or many), but they weren't criminal in any meaningful way, and their subsequent prosecution only serves to highlight the shadowy regime they were protesting against in the first place.


Pussy Riot are just the latest in a long line of Russian artists to have got themselves into bother through their art. When Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was panned by Pravda at the instigation of Stalin, coinciding with the beginning of the Great Terror in which many Soviet artists were murdered, the composer was in great danger. His response was to stop any performance of his already written 4th symphony, and to write his 5th, which he titled "An artist's creative response to just criticism". Bookended by two movements filled with militaristic bombast, it met with enthusiastic approval by the Stalinist regime. Shostakovich's genius, however, was to insert between them a slow movement of staggering sadness and beauty, an elegy for true artistic expression sandwiched between music written for the pleasure of his censors, rendering the whole piece a brilliant metaphor for his struggle.

The battle for free speech is of course an age-old struggle. Since 8 AD, when the poet Ovid was exiled from Rome to the shores of the black sea ostensibly for publishing what was considered to be the immoral Ars Amatoria or Art of Love, and possibly also because he wrote it after stumbling upon the Emperor Augustus pants down with an inappropriate bedfellow, the artist has discovered that in certain situations, there are indeed boundaries to free speech.

We can see this in the major political scandals in Britain over the last few years that have highlighted just how important the independent voice of the artist is, not least because to some extent those scandals have also implicated parts of the media.

In Leveson, we learnt of the extent to which political parties and leaders went to woo the editors and owner of News International, at times negotiating policy to win their backing. We also learnt that many of those politicians were being tapped and monitored, in a dupe back on themselves. Policy and gossip are routinely leaked from Westminster to Fleet Street to serve the purposes of both. The two worlds are closely and inextricably tied, and in part increasingly dependent.

The artist has a great and unusual ability to help people form opinion, their messages conveyed with a direct and often emotional power. They seek and expose truths from a position of uncompromised independence and can be the balancing force that keeps our society civilised. If I can paraphrase Hawley, it is critical that we keep calling the shit "shit", and not let anyone pretend it is anything other than, well, shit.