Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Orthodoxy or Death to Degenerate Art?

For Global Voices Online: "Orthodoxy or death!" are the war cries sounded in recent weeks as forces of religious reaction have entered into fierce battle with liberal arts, in an apparent Russian parallel to the Muhammad cartoon case. The casue of conflict is the trial and conviction of two art curators for a 2007 Moscow exhibition of contemporary art. Following the media spin, one may be led to believe the conviction was a resounding triumph of reactionary religious forces, but as so often is the case, appearances may be deceptive.

On 12 July, the Moscow Tagansky court found art curators Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev guilty of "inciting ethnic and religious strife" by their exhibition "Forbidden art - 2006" -- in a case brought against them by the Russian right-wing organization Narodny Sobor -- and sentenced them to pay fines of 200.000 (6,500 USD) and 150.000 (4,900 USD) roubles respectively. The verdict was a disappointment for both reactionaries -- hoping for a three year jail sentence -- and liberals -- wanting an acquittal. Once again, concerns are raised where the limits on freedom of expression in Russia really are heading. Thus, yet another Russian case is likely to end up in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

So, is that all there is to it? Perhaps, but it may also serve as an example of how not only freedom of speech lies in the balance, but also how that balance itself becomes an art "happening" by treading the thin line between art and society -- as the debate surrounding "Forbidden art - 2006" illustrates.

The saying "A picture says more than a thousand words" is truer to Russia than to most other countries. Take a tormented Jesus with the head of Mickey Mouse or Christ with the face of Lenin, and then wait for reactions. The limits of art are constantly pushed further afield. The dictum of the century-old Russian futurist manifesto "A slap in the face of public taste" maintains as much a prominent role in Russian arts and culture today as it did in the early 1900s. But in our day and age, slaps are not always what they seem.

So, what is then the basic story behind it all? Well, back in March 2007 art curators Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev organized an exhibition of artworks that had been rejected from mainstream Moscow museums and galleries during 2006 -- thus the title "Forbidden art - 2006." The purpose of the artshow was to shed light upon self-imposed censorship quelling the Russian artscene, turning the tide towards more traditional displays of art. The exhibition had a meagre total of 1,020 visitors. Still, it attracted the attention of a small reactionary religious movement, which took Samodurov and Yerofeev to court for offending their religious feelings. Thus, the show was on the road, ending with the very verdict against the art curators, that now has brought so much attention to the case both in Russian and international media. LJ user don_beaver indignantly summarizes [RUS] the case thus:

Not long ago, some artists organized an exhibition in a private gallery. People, who were not even at this gallery, declared that their religious feelings had been hurt by the exhibition and went to court. The judge agreed with them and fined exhibition organizers heavily. The only good [thing] about it was that they were not put in jail.
What was then the drama that turned media's attention towards the case -- beside its freedom of expression aspects? As the verdict was read out last week, a small crowd of bearded men in black uniforms had gathered outside Tagansky court, wearing T-shirts with the text "Orthodoxy or death." Behind these lines lies more than what meets the naked eye. "Orthodoxy or death" (gr. ορθοδοξία ή θάνατος) was originally a motto of the famous monastery of Esphigmenou on Mount Athos, Greece, in its struggle against the Patriarchy of Constantinople, but since the 1990s it has become a token of intolerance and extremism also in Orthodox countries like Serbia and Russia. This photo-op was what caught the eyes of media present outside the court, resulting in vivid pictures of crackpot nationalists setting the Russian civil liberties' agenda in newspaper articles throughout the world. The symbolic effect was so great, that rumours about an upcoming church-initiated proposal to addend the Criminal Code with the crime of "heresy" reached respectable newspapers such as Argumenty i Fakty. However, according to LJ user tristen2e [RUS], this was all a hoax:

Besides, everyone believed the sensational news, even though they sounded words, ascribed to father Vsevolod, about heresy "as any form of opposition to Orthodoxy." Obviously, such an unlearned expression in itself could hardly be uttered by such a skilled church diplomat and rhetoric as archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin [spokesman of the Russian Orthodox church]. However, as is often the case with a summer languishing with heat, journalist colleagues could have mixed it up -- everybody thought -- and thus the news started to travel the web.
For the liberal supporters of Samodurov and Yerofeev, the "Orthodoxy or death" emblem, obviously, was like raising a red rag, reminding them of battles fought during dissident days of a soviet past. This is perhaps also an important aspect that has largely been left out of reporting on the case. In fact, the art curator, Yuri Samodurov, springs from the same soviet dissident movement as Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov during the 1970-80s, and became one of the founding members of Memorial Human Rights' organization.

However, Samodurov regarded opposition to soviet power not as a political but a cultural act. This, arguably, not only set him apart from the mainstream dissident movement, but also enabled him to remain relevant in Russian debate as society at large increasingly deemed dissidentism obsolete. As director of the Sakharov museum, Samodurov, in February 2006, became an active participant in the debate over the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy, by heralding a Moscow exhibition of these pictures. So, Samodurov's artistic career has been straddled with the constant cooptation of society as art and art as society. It would thus seem that Samodurov and his actions have become a work of postmodern art personified, in blurring boundaries between art and society.

What are then the effects of the "Forbidden art" case on societal debate? LJ user and poet Vitaly Kaplan, critically, tries to draw the larger picture [RUS] of how art has come to divulge greater tendencies of societal developments in present Russia:

To begin with, there is the "dry residue" that then moistens a multitude of flavours. Thus, the exhibition "Forbidden art - 2006" is really a mockery with the feelings of believers. Does it need society's condemnation? Yes, it does. Was it necessary to go to court? That is where I have my doubts. What do I think about the verdict? I am happy that they did not put Yerofeev and Samodurov in jail. What do I think about the polemics on the Internet? I would say it is a battle of banners with red dogs.

And now for the details. First concerning the mockery with religious sentiments. The problem is that most disputers, regardless of their positions, do not at all understand what it is all about. So, Yerofeev's and Samodurov's defenders indignantly sigh: Oh, these Orthodox people! Everything offends them! If they were to decide -- then every man would be forced to grow a beard, and the women wear scarves, they would raze the "McDonald's" and burn mosques and synagogues alike. Because everything that does not coincide with their Orthodox ideals hurts their delicate religious feelings. And the opponents of Yerofeev and Samodurov shed tears because the pictures of an exhibition offend the Russian people and contradict national traditions, due to their terrible testimony of lost ideals, as such normative decay prevents the revival of Greater Russia...
Consequently, the effect of the "Forbidden art" case is not only pitting perceptions of postmodern and medieval icons against each other, but also serves as a token of differences between imagery and reality of current Russian society. The original grievance of Orthodox believers was -- in religious terms -- that the "Forbidden art" pictures constituted a desecration of icons as carriers of divine messages, in accordance with an Orthodox tradition arguing that the words of God cannot be reduced to text, but must be represented in symbols. What lies at the heart of the matter is then the exhibition's iconization of images portraying a metamorphosis of the divine with the profane. Icons are turned into idolatry of symbols with a mixed message representing the complexities of current society.

What impact has then the conviction of Samodurov and Yerofeev had on perceptions of Russian society, and can it serve as an indicator of where freedom of expression is heading in the country? As much as easy answers would be welcome, reality probably has more in store for the greater picture. Possibly, by seizing the agenda with a question that transcends the borders of art and society, the core of the issue becomes obscured -- whether one of art or freedom of expression, of both or neither. However, society -- in the image of the state -- chooses to take a stand for or against freedom of expression in terms of artforms which purpose may actually be to exploit the interaction such a stand unavoidably involves.

Still, at the end of the day, the question must be raised about the ramifications of that stand for the development of freedom of speech and expression in Russian society. Here, under the headline "Forbidden art gets more expensive," LJ user timur_nechaev77 offers an assessment [RUS]:

The sentence passed against the organizers of the exhibition "Forbidden art - 2006" shows that during the last few years, the price of criticizing the state ideology - Orthodoxy - has risen nearly twice. In 2005, Yuri Samodurov was fined 100 thousand roubles for the exhibition "Beware of religion" which provoked a pogrome from religious extremists of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now they sentenced Samodurov to pay 200 thousand, and Andrei Yerofeev 150 thousand roubles. Of course, the verdict will be appealed as high as Strasbourg and if the European Court will stand on the side of the pogromists and religious fanatics from the Russian Orthodox Church, then of course, Yerofeev and Samodurov will have to pay the fines.
As is often so poorly realized by contemporary society, art may cut to the core problems and developments of our times. The role of an artist increasingly becomes one of pushing the right button to ignite societal debate on issues that may actually be more profound than art itself. Art then merely becomes the symbol of greater tendencies, and thereby recreates itself sui generis by mechanisms greater than the specific work of art and its originator. In the "forbidden art" case, the verdict may serve as a conveyor -- a sign of premonition of either desirable or undesirable developments -- of what is ceasing the normative middle ground in Russian society. Is it right or wrong? Right or wrong is perhaps both not the issue here and still the issue in itself, as everything becomes part of the spectacle, a happening, or the (in)famous fifteen minutes of fame.

As the Romans used to say: “There is no accounting for taste” and art is well beyond the domain of things society may hold people accountable for. That is a matter of taste, and that taste is for each and all to decide on individually — including the right to support or protest against the views and beliefs that agree or conflict with one's own — without state interference. For who is to deem what is degenerate art?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Godfather of refused offers

For Global Voices Online: Is it a deliberate provocation, a government-engineered attack on a foreign head of state, a gas-giant's attempt to rock Russian foreign policy - or simply an example of good and critical journalism? Questions abound in the Russian-language blogosphere following Russian TV-channel NTV's 4 July screening of "The Godfather" - a documentary about Aleksandr Lukashenko, omnipotent president of neighbouring Belarus.

For long, Russia and Belarus have stood out as brothers in arms in the dysfunctional family of post-soviet states. Strings of harmony have even sounded a 1999 ouverture to formal unification of the two states. But as with any family, outward accord often hides domestic discord, and disturbances have been both frequent and harsh. However, up until now Moscow and Minsk have made efforts to keep up appearances. It is against this background that Sunday's screening of NTV's Lukashenko-critical documentary - beside overall sentiments of indignation - has sparked speculations that "The Godfather" of Belarus may have refused too many offers from the Russian Dons.

Then, what about the documentary in itself? As LJ user zmagarka notes [RUS], the Lukashenko documentary has little new to offer about government involvement in political repression, murders, and disappearances in Belarus over the last 16 years:

Thank you NTV for this documentary about the biggest Belarusian psychopath. For us, this was absolutely nothing new, not least because the greater part of the video was clippings from old films [---]. The theme of the "vanished" (disappeared political opponents) should never be forgotten and there is no forgiving the murderers, not even hoping so in their sweetest dreams. Still, over the last 10 years, matters have grown so much worse. About this there is hardly a word.
Returning to the major theme of discussion, it is no secret that relations between Moscow and Minsk have been tense in recent years, and it is likewise well-known that Russia's former President and now Premier, Vladimir Putin, has had to make little effort to restrain his enthusiasm, on both a political and personal level, in dealing with Aleksandr Lukashenko, President of Belarus. Consequently, many see the documentary as a political commission to NTV, although opinions differ on whether Russian state gas company, Gazprom, is behind it all or if sanction has come from the very top of Russian politics. That NTV is controlled by Gazprom, which until recently was engaged in a prolonged gas war with Belarus, may not be sufficient reason to simply point the finger at this company. As LJ user sergeland points out, also state owned Russia Today sounds critique towards Lukashenko:

At the same time, the multilingual international channel Russia Today ran a similar story about the last dictator of Europe. Formally, NTV is an independent TV-network, although it belongs to Gazprom, and Gazprom belongs to the state. However, Russia Today is a wholly state-owned company. Therefore, it is wrong to think that this action is merely a limited revenge against Lukashenko for the loss of the recent gas war. Without sanction from the very top, nothing would have happened.
Some Russian bloggers also believe that this is not simply a temporary squabble, but that the documentary marks a change in Russian dealings with Lukashenko, and even call for a straightout annexation of Belarus, arguing that Moscow anyway constantly has to pay Minsk's bill. Thus, LJ user elf_ociten, in a piece called "NTV tears the mask off the godfather" [RUS], writes:

At long last, the elite of the Russian Federation has made it clear that it is not heading down the same road as the bloody and thieving last dictator of Europe. It is time to disassociate ourselves from an independent Belarus and stop the farce of a union state, and thank God, Moscow has also put the question squarely to the Belarusian élite: Either Belarus becomes a North-Western territory (as an option) - without Lukashenko - as part of the Russian Federation, and with possible separation of ethnically Polish territories, or let's dump it together with Lukashenko and his free lunches to all four sides. As the saying goes, the cards have been called, and it's time to pay up.
However, such ideas are dismissed with ridicule in Minsk, and Belarusian bloggers are not late to underscore that also Russia is dependent on Belarus. As LJ user pan_andriy [RUS] is quick to point out:

On Belarusian forums, you can come across blunt suggestions to cut off transit of food to Russia. After all, Moscow sits with 90% imports of chow, of which a lot is rolled through Belarus. Within two days there would be full chaos in Moscow (remember the madhouse with salt because of rumours of a "war with Ukraine").
There are also voices in Belarus expecting its political leadership to pay back in kind, and according to LJ user Nagnibeda [RUS], there are even rumours that a documentary about Putin is in the making:

As a very initiated television source is saying, recruitment of staff has started for a film about Putin, in which the subject will be tougher than in the one reeled on NTV about Lukashenko. Putin will not merely be a murderer, but an outright serial killer of his own people.
Finally, as the saying goes: Why do you see the speck that is in your brothers eye, but do not notice the beam that is in your own eye? Consequently, LJ user varfolomeev_v draws some parallels [RUS] between politics in Belarus and Russia:

I wonder whether the executors of this political contract noticed that, telling about the horrors of political life in Belarus, they made a film about contemporary Russia? Only the names are different, but everything else - crackdowns, arrests, murders, and so on - wholly characterises also our own regime.
At the end of the day, and despite a recent customs union, it is becoming increasingly evident that Russia and Belarus do not head in bed again, and still they seem destined to more horsing about, not least if hiring media gunmen. Perhaps, both Slavic brothers should thus heed the advice of another godfather: "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."