Ahead of the Brazilian presidential election in October, a competition between the current president Jair Bolsonaro and the former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, hundreds gathered at the University of São Paulo’s Law School to hear the reading of an open letter urging the government to maintain democratic rule. The protest on 11 August in São Paulo’s frenetic downtown came after several threats by the far-right incumbent president stating that he will remain in power regardless of the outcome of the vote.
The artist Leda Catunda, best-known for her involvement in the Geração 80 movement, was one of hundreds of signatories. “We need to rule out any possibility of a military dictatorship returning,” she tells The Art Newspaper. “I’m 61 years old and my youth was spent under the regime of the 1970s. It was a time of fear. There was fear of arrest. It was an awful time for art, for expression and for social development. There was no justice, no freedom. We must face Bolsonaro’s threats seriously.”
The protest echoes a demonstration held at the same university against the military dictatorship in 1977, when the manifesto A Letter to Brazilians was read. Last month's protest took place on the heels of Bolsonaro’s appointment of the former military defense minister Walter Braga Netto as his running mate.
Bolsonaro has denied plotting a coup and framed the protest as a “movement of a few artists who no longer receive the Rouanet Law”, a reference to the federal funding scheme that has roused controversy since it was introduced in 1991 due to corruption concerns. The law provides a tax incentive for private and corporate donors to fund cultural projects and has been significantly cut during Bolsonaro’s tenure.
Bolsonaro has consistently demonised the arts sector since he took office in 2018, repeatedly rallying against rather than reforming federal cultural support programmes like the Rouanet Law, which remains the main source of arts funding in the country despite several examples of mismanagement by the current and previous administrations.
Earlier this year, the budget for projects under the Rouanet Law was slashed by 50%, with most events capped at a maximum of 50,000 reais ($10,000). The administration has also introduced a new category to finance the acquisition and preservation of “sacred art”, an initiative that gained widespread support from evangelical Bolsonaro supporters.
The arts under attack
Arts funding has been used as a political weapon under Bolsonaro, who dismantled the ministry of culture in his first day of presidency. The administration has since cycled through unqualified culture secretaries such as the actors Regina Duarte and Mário Frias, and previously Roberto Alvim, who was ousted in 2020 for channeling the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in a video promoting a national art prize.
In 2021, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 684,000 Brazilians (second only to the US death toll), the federal government stopped all arts funding to states that had put lockdown measures in place. Money would only be made available to “cultural proposals involving face-to-face interaction with the public”, the administration ruled.
It has been argued that the Bolsonaro administration’s strategy when it comes to arts funding is not chaotic but rather calculated. For example, a video that flanked the entrance of the last edition of the São Paulo Bienal—which is itself a recipient of tax money—depicted Frias, who was still serving as an elected official when the exhibition opened in March last year, paradoxically proclaiming: “Let men be free and they will create a rich culture without public funds.”
“The cultural administration has been paralysed, with public servants replaced by politically-motivated individuals with discriminating ideologies,” says Fernanda Feitosa, the director of the art fairs SP-Arte and Rotas Brasileiras. “The whole sector has suffered due to a lack of capacity to manage public policies. This is a situation of abandonment. Every agent has been left to its own survival.”
Guilherme Boulos, of the Socialism and Liberty Party, part of the coalition of parties supporting Lula’s presidential bid, says Bolsonaro’s rhetoric was incendiary but that the way arts funding is structured in Brazil does need to change. “The Rouanet Law had problems and we—the left—have always criticised the way in which the artists or works that will benefit are decided by the private sector,” he says. “It is a law that involves fiscal management, so you don't have the public control that is needed."
There is reason for optimism within the culture sector, however. With less than a month before the election, Bolsonaro currently trails Lula, the socialist former president who saw his corruption charges annulled last year. Lula’s “comeback” has him 12 points ahead in the polls.
New funding survives a veto
In a sign of his waning popularity among fellow parliamentarians, as well as Bolsonaro’s dip in the public polls, last month the Brazilian congress overturned the president's veto of a new arts funding stream, the Aldir Blanc Law, which is named after the popular Brazilian composer. Under its terms, three billion reais (about $570m) will be made available from federal budgets to states and municipalities, drastically improving the amount of money available to arts projects outside São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro—the cities that traditionally benefited most under the old Rouanet mechanism.
Launching his culture policy at a packed samba school in Rio de Janeiro in July, Lula promised to bring back the ministry of culture and create local committees that would autonomously distribute arts funding. “The role of the state is to ensure that people get to know Brazil to the fullest,” Lula told a crowd dressed almost entirely in red, the colour of his Workers’ Party movement. “A country that does not develop its culture is a country doomed to be spiritually poor.”
The artist and professor Mario Ramiro, who was a member of 3NÓS, an art collective that made a series of urban interventions protesting the torture and repression of the old military regime, argues that the current moment is unprecedented in Brazil’s young democracy. “For my generation, it is inconceivable that the country could go through a setback as big as the one we are experiencing now,” he says. “These so-called conservatives are not committed to preserving institutions and culture but to destroying it, replacing it with barbarism, fear and the absence of law.”
He adds: “We have huge regions in the country—especially in the interior and on the coast, which are very extensive—without relevant cultural institutions and a consistent market. There is a lack of cultural education, even in regions of great economic wealth. There is nothing worse than people with money and political power but no knowledge of culture.”