The power of arts: How arts contributed to the velvet revolution

Art shows the true nature of people. Against the repressive political rule of the socialist Soviet superpower, the Czechoslovak people continued to resist by expressing themselves through art. From the Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution, this article traces the history of artists who were key to transforming society.

The story begins on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1967, Václav Havel, a playwright from Prague, visited New York because his play was to be performed there. He came across a record: ‘White light/White heat’ by rock band the Velvet Underground. Their leader, Lou Reed, was outspokenly gay and sang openly about socially taboo subjects such as homosexuality and drugs. Songs such as ‘I’m waiting for the man’ were characterised by an unwrapping of human nature and a defiance of the old order. Havel liked the record and took it back home.

A year later, in 1968, the ‘spring’ had come to Prague. The reformist Alexander Dubček was appointed First Secretary, and ‘socialism with a human face’ was being sought after. He promised an end to censorship and called for freedom of speech. Czech culture quickly became more colourful. Copies of the record Havel brought back were made in large numbers. After listening to the raw, pure, and straightforward music, a group of young people formed a popular rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), which covered songs by the Velvet Underground. The reformist writer Ludvík Vaculík published a document in favour of democracy, The Two Thousand Words (Dva tisíce slov). More than 100,000 citizens, including intellectuals and artists, signed the petition in support of this document. Marta Kubišová sang a song ‘A Prayer of Marta’ (‘Modlitba pro Martu’), which symbolised the ‘Prague Spring’. She sang as follows:

“Let peace still remain with this country. Let hatred, envy, grudge, fear, and strife cease.” (Translated)

However, the Soviets, wary of liberalisation, led the Warsaw Pact Organisation forces in a military intervention. The Prague Spring came to an end. The pressurised parliament allowed the army to remain in the city. In the midst of this, Havel gave a speech over the radio to inspire the citizens:

“This may be one of the first instances when machine guns and tanks have been powerless against ideas and ethical human strength.”

Gustáv Husák, a conservative and loyal to the Soviets, took over as First Secretary and tightened censorship. Purges were carried out against dissidents, which were called the ‘normalisation process’. Havel was banned from performing his pieces and worked in a beer factory. PPU was presented by state television as an amoral musical group that assassinated culture (atentat na kuluturu), and the members of the band were arrested in 1976.

Havel protested against the arrest of PPU. He was concerned about the erosion of freedom of expression and, by extension, the grim mood of denial of freedom of the human spirit itself, and formed a dissident community of intellectuals and artists. They then published the document Charter 77, which called for freedom of expression and respect for human rights. Havel then spent four years in prison, but returned to Charter 77 activities after his release. It became the bible of the dissident community.

Charter 77 Calls for citizens’ courage, 1987. Photo by Pamet Naroda.

The Communist rule finally came to an end in November 1989 shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Havel became the president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. The signer Marta Kubišová, as previously mentioned, appeared at the gathering to celebrate the revolution. She sang ‘Prayer of Marta’ (‘Modlitba pro Martu’) again, touching the hearts of the citizens who, after 20 years, had won real freedom. The boulevards were filled with applause for her impactful music.

Named the Velvet Revolution because it was as smooth and bloodless as silk, the Czech revolution actually began with a rock band called the Velvet Underground. Their songs about naked desire gave the repressed mind a chance to politically reclaim its humanity again. Havel’s 1978 book The Power of The Powerless argued that socialism suppresses humanity and everything is dedicated to the regime, and that dissidents are characterised by a reclaiming of humanity. Art expresses fundamental human desire. It awakens people’s souls, as shown in Czech history.