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This vintage crown once sat on top of a gas pump at O.K. Carlson, a former Standard Oil agency where I get my car repaired. I sincerely wish I could take you along on one of my visits. It is truly like stepping back in time. Carlson’s started in Brownsburg, Indiana as a Standard Oil agency in 1938, the year before World War II began. Back in the day, they delivered fuel to farmers. Today Carlson’s is a car repair business operated by Keith Carlson, the grandson of the original owner.

Here’s a promotional calendar his grandfather gave customers in 1945, the year World War II ended. Keith retrieved it at an auction and it hangs as a reminder of his grandfather’s legacy. Inside the calendar are handy little pockets and pages for notes where this farmer recorded the dates he took his heifers out to pasture in the spring and the number of eggs he collected each day.


What’s the point of these photos?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I just now comprehend an important history lesson. Artists who lived behind the Iron Curtain suffered. I’ve known that forever and yet I’ve never fully understood it. Why would a government give two hoots about the music and art their citizens create, hear and see? Anne Applebaum explains that fully in her book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe.

Here’s the scoop on oppression of the arts.

Stalin and his henchmen were all about controlling the message. Abstract art was anathema. What did they have against it? Abstract art can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It gives the viewer far too much freedom. The Soviets wanted to control every message–not just the ones by and about government.

All art was state-sponsored art because it was the only way the communists could control all messages. As someone who recoils from all forms of direction and control, I find this pathetic and weak. How can anyone live this way? (You can skip on to the next paragraph because here, I digress. I can only imagine how miserable this would make me, child who considered direction from my parents as a mere suggestion. I altered most parental guidance ever so slightly to make sure everyone was clear that my behavior was, in the end, my choice. It’s a shame they weren’t able to nip that in the bud. Still working on that trait. As of yesterday, it was still a problem.)

The same went for music. Music can stir the emotions, right? It can stir rebellion, imagination, resentment, bravery and a whole range of traits the Soviets found inconvenient among their citizenry. New ideas in music or art are revolutionary in any era, but they are especially so in a time or place where leaders do not want to encourage invention. To allow new musical forms was to endorse freedom––clearly outside the bounds of molding people to fall in line with whatever you want them to think and do.

But why-oh-why not do your own thing?

Okay, I get that. But, if you’re a Soviet citizen, why wouldn’t you listen, write, create, or see the kind of art you prefer rather than the state-sponsored art? Ah, now we come to the other thing the Soviets were good at––fear and intimidation. If I publicly humiliate you, throw you in jail, isolate you or your family, force you into a job of hard-labor, keep you from renting a studio or getting into art school, if no one comes to your concerts or buys your art because everyone is too cotton pic-kin’ afraid to, then you probably won’t make it as an artist, will you? No, if you’re an artist, you’ll learn to pander to the officials or you’ll leave your home just to get a shot at doing what you were born to do.

If I ever knew these lessons, I confess that I had forgotten them. What a shame.

I love music, art and literature and I hope that you and I never take for granted the freedom we have to listen, read, see, say and create whatever we want. This post is my belated tribute to all the veterans, present and past, who labor far from home to gain or protect these freedoms.

Whats your favorite banned book? Every fall the American Library Association sponsors Banned Book Week, celebrating our freedom to read.  Heres a list of the 100 most commonly banned books.

 Life is short. Wear the good stuff.