Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pussy Riot yet another example of how art is pitted against politics

For The enormous attention that the indictment against Pussy Riot has created in both Russia and internationally is an example of an increasingly widespread global trend, where politics and art are pitted against each other and the reactions of society become a part of both art and politics.

Yesterday, a two year's prison sentence was passed in Moscow against three members of the Russian "punk band" Pussy Riot. The trio was found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Reactions and condemnations against the sentence are manifold in both Russia and internationally, as it is evident that the penalty is not proportional to the alleged crime.

On 21 February this year - merely weeks before the Russian presidential elections - Pussy Riot made a mimic performance in front of the altar of Christ our Saviour Cathedral in Moscow wearing balaklavas and brightly coloured dresses. Within minutes they were seized on by security guards and thrown out of the church. Shortly thereafter, a video clip of the performance was published on YouTube, where music with a provocative song-text had been added. This so called "Punk prayer" was in the form of an invocation to the Holy Mother to drive out Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I, was portrayed as putting faith in Putin before that in God.

Undoubtedly, it was this video clip rather than the performance itself that made the Russian state and church react, as it spread like wildfire on the Internet. In March, three of Pussy Riot's members were arrested, while a fourth is still hiding from authorities. The lawsuit that has dragged out for almost half a year has now been accordingly finalised, where the treatment of the prosecuted has cast new light on Russia's legal decay. A mere 2.7 % of people prosecuted by Russian courts in 2011 were acquitted. 

The entire affaire has undeniably gained dynamics of its own, so one may assume that yesterday's verdict departs from the need of power to set an example. The increased confindence in the Russian legal system in recent years has thereby been turned into a setback in the politically directed jurisprudence, which since the process against former oligarch Khodorkovsky goes by the name of Basmanny justice. The trial against Pussy Riot has however taken the debate a step further, and several Russian liberal writers have compared the case with the show trials of the soviet era. The playback performance Pussy Riot made in Christ our Saviour Cathedral has thus also given rise to a historical playback.

It is also Russia's lack of due process that has caused reactions both in Russia and internationally. Already in April, Amnesty International characterized the members of Pussy Riot as prisoners of conscience. International organizations and artists are now joined by western public opinion, where the verdict against Pussy Riot become a symbol for all that is wrong with Russia. In this context, both strong and equally diverse  Russian reactions shuold be brought to the fore. A number of opinion polls during the process have shown both strong support for dismissing the case and for a guilty verdict. Russian public opinion is divided and varied in relation to a complex issue that has come to address religion, ethics, and politics more than actual law. 

That many believers in Russia have rightly felt offended by Pussy Riot's performance is beyond doubt, but this has been depreciated by the fact that a tasteless provocation has been overshadowed by an even more tasteless legal process. When the Russian Orthodox Church, in its condemnations of a feminist "punk band", has compared feminism with satanism, the Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill II, appears as the foremost representative of a patriarchic society. 

Then, what is Pussy Riot and what is it all about? Let us first put a myth to rest. Pussy Riot is not a punk band. It is a feminist art commune, dedicated to performance art in a wide sense, where provocation is a means to gain attention. 

Pussy Riot originates from the Russian street-art group Voina, which has produced a number of provicative and politically charged art projects. For the presidential installation of Medvedev in 2008, Voina made the performance "Fuck for the heir, Pussy Bear!", where five couples from the group - including a heavily pregnant woman - engaged in public group sex in the Moscow Museum of Biology, which was videotaped and published on the Internet. In 2010, the - then divided - group painted a giant phallos on a bascule bridge opposite the security service headquarters in St. Petersburg, where the result of raising the bridge should be obvious. Several members of Voina have previously been arrested for art projects. One of the now convicted women of Pussy Riot used to be a prominent member of Voina

The enormous attention that the indictment against Pussy Riot has created in both Russia and internationally is an example of an increasingly widespread global trend, where politics and art are pitted against each other and the reactions of society become a part of both art and politics. A parallel may e.g. be drawn to China's repression of the artist Ai Weiwei. In Sweden, the performance art project "Okänd kvinna, 2009-439701" of art student Anna Odell met with strong negative reactions the other year, not least from politicians. One should remember that Odell was sentenced to pay 50 day-fines for "dishonest conduct".It is far from a rule that artistic freedom of expression - as in the case of Lars Vilks' Mohammed roundabout dogs - gains strong public support. 

In this context, the perspective is not a comparison between preconditions of art in authoritarian and democratic states, but instead of how the margins of freedom of expression are tested as an effect of art regardless of the character of society. Thereby, the mechanisms of power and authority are illustrated - hopefully with different results in various political systems. That many of both Voina's and Pussy Riot's actions would be subject to public prosecution in most countries is evident. However, what differs is the legal process and the harsh sentence of the three members of Pussy Riot.

The lawsut against Pussy Riot can only be characterized as a travesty of justice. The law against hooliganism that motivated the verdict has such a broad definition that it may more or less cover all "crimes" perpetrated in public space. Hooliganism has however so far not been applied to "crimes" related to religion. If one would have wanted to prosecute the group on religious grounds, the law against extremism would have been applied instead, which e.g. covers acts to incite ethnic or religious hatred among groups in Russian society. However, the Russian constitution is secular, why application of the law against extremism in such a high-profile case, could have resulted in questioning of its compatibility with the constitution. Already in the choice of law, it is obvious that the process has been politically directed and motivated. Where Pussy Riot has claimed politics, the court has claimed religion as motive for the action. By interpreting the law in such a way that defamation of religion may constitute hooliganism, the court avoids applying the more politically chared law against extremism. Thus, paradoxically, the intent of the court appears clearer than that of the convicted, as an avoidance at any price to represent the process as what it actually is - a political trial. 

The question is also to what extent Pussy Riot has had to answer to the previous "crimes" of their art movement. Is it a case of collective punishment? Is it art itself rather than its practitioners that stands trial? From the freedom of expression perspective, these questions are both central and complex, but when art is political, they end up in the background. Instead, focus has been at the intersection of politics and religion in Russia.

The issue of relations between church and state is very sensitive in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has developed into providing both legitimacy and identity for political power. The church has subordinated itself to the state, in a way resembling the soviet era, at the same time as it supports reactionary forces within the regime - with a background within the security structures - which at times challenge both Putin and Medvedev. It is thus evident that the regime's internal political considerations have dictated the application of the law. For what Pussy Riot has done is to pinpoint Russia's politico-religious symbiosis.

During the soviet era, the Orthodox Church was strictly directed by the KGB. The Russian journalist Yevgeniya Albats e.g. claims that some half of the clergy in reality were agents of the KGB. Inter alia, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church until 2008, Aleksy II, served the KGB for many years and made decisive steps in his career by denouncing opposition elements within the clergy. As Pussy Riot now sings about how the state and the church row the same boat, it is a political provocation that challenges mighty interests within Russian society, where relations between church and security interests are a taboo. The reactions of the church has therefore been powerful, but religiously motivated condemnations have carried a clear political undertone. The irritation is further exacerbated as Pussy Riot has compared themselves to Godly maniacs - a tradition of dissenters within Orthodoxy, which e.g. has manifested itself by crazy, but often tolerated, truthsayers. The truth said by Pussy Riot is however too stark for the church, and the parallel to Godly maniacs has thus been portrayed as further evidence of the group's disrespect for religion.

A danger in the process against the Pussy Riot trio lies equally in simplyfying and complicating the case. The simple approach, to consider the trio's destiny merely as political persecution, obscures more complex issues on how far society may allow art to go in its various expressions. To the contrary, the danger of complicating the case, lies in ascribing the group greater artistic qualities than it actually possesses. A rather simplistic art performance has here been regenerated and magnified by the mechanisms of politics and media.

How generously or narrowly the margins of artistic freedom of expression should be drawn is a question that concerns us all and lacks simple answers. However, Russia has for long stepped over the limits of what a purportedly democratic state can allow itself in curtailing civil liberties and human rights. In this context, Pussy Riot has had to pay a disproportionate and exceedingly high price for art as political provocation. In essence, the verdict against Pussy Riot can be summarized by the famous thesis of German author, Kurt Tucholsky: "A country is not just what it does, but also what it tolerates." In Russia, this thesis has been put to the test, and the result stands out as a strongly negative indicator of the country's continuous authoritarian decay.