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Analysis & Opinion
21.07.10 Foul Amusement
By Masha Charnay

Last week the legal case of free speech versus the Russian Orthodox Church came to an end when Moscow’s Tagansky District Court convicted two prominent museum curators of “inciting hatred and denigrating human dignity” by staging a controversial art exhibit. In what appears to be a gesture of clemency, the court allowed Yury Samodurov and Andrey Yerofeev to avoid the jail term that the prosecution insisted on, instead ordering them to pay a total of 350,000 rubles ($11,500) in fines. The outcome spurred vehement reaction at both ends of the ideological spectrum and has raised concerns about the forces shaping the Russian Zeitgeist.

Issued last Monday in a densely crowded courtroom, the verdict stated that the artwork presented at the exhibition subjected the Christian faithful to “psychological trauma,” “moral suffering,” and “denigrated their human dignity.” To conclude the 14-month-long trial, Judge Svetlana Aleksandrova slammed the curators for their “cynical, reckless attitude toward the religious feelings of Orthodox believers,” adducing that the defendants knowingly selected artwork previously banned from public display.

The exhibition, entitled “Forbidden Art,” was organized by Yerofeev in 2007 at the Sakharov Museum, named after the Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov. It highlighted the issue of censorship in modern day Russia and featured works that had been turned down by Russian museums during the preceding year. Days after the exhibit opened, the provocative selection of works unleashed a barrage of criticism. At the center of the controversy were two collage paintings that portrayed Jesus as Mickey Mouse and Vladimir Lenin, a gold-plated silhouette of the Virgin Mary filled with black caviar, and, particularly, a stylized McDonald’s advertisement displaying Jesus and the words “this is my body.”

“The artwork shown at the exhibition had nothing to do with art or culture,” said Archmandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the executive secretary of the Patriarch’s Council on the Arts, echoing a popular sentiment among the show’s critics. “The pieces were created to cause outrage and the most possible humiliation. It is obvious.”

But Leonid Bazhanov, the art director at Russia’s State Center for Contemporary Art, argued against passing any artistic judgment on the exhibition. “There can be no discussion about the aesthetic value or quality of those works. The show represented very prominent artists whose works hang at the Russian Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery and well-known museums abroad,” he said, referring to artists such as Aleksandr Kosolapov, Vyacheslav Mizin and Ilya Kabakov, among others. “But, this is not the point. The exhibit had a very specific mission, which was to expound on the phenomenon of censorship and self-censorship that exists in Russia today,” Bazhanov added.

Shortly before the end of the trial, Yerofeev appealed in a letter to Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, saying that he had no intention of affronting the feelings of the faithful and was “using religious imagery as an element of the secular language, in order to express criticism toward the Soviet ideology of deifying leaders and toward the consumer cult of today’s society.”

A former curator of the contemporary art department at the Tretyakov Gallery and an art historian with a hefty list of exhibitions under his belt, Yerofeev said the inherent aversion to contemporary art and culture that exists in present-day Russia is to blame for the trial. “We are at the very beginning of the journey toward fully comprehending the foundation of contemporary culture and its values,” Yerofeev wrote in his final statement before the end of the trial.
Samodurov, who was head of the Sakharov Museum at the time, also sought to dissuade the public from misconstruing the exhibit’s purpose. But he defended the museum’s right to ideological autonomy. “The museum and the exhibition hall constitute a legally, socially and culturally demarcated space, which is governed by its own laws,” he told RIA Novosti shortly after an ultra-nationalist group, Narodny Sobor, instigated a complaint against “Forbidden Art.”

This was not the first time, however, that Samodurov was involved in an exhibit that enraged the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2005 he was convicted and fined under the same law for another controversial show, titled “Caution: Religion.” At that time, a posse of altar boys had raided the museum, vandalizing a number of works and writing the words “You are the devil!” and “You hate Christianity, so you will be damned!” on the walls. “This is one of the ‘side-effects’ of art,” Bazhanov said. “It stirs controversy and produces backlashes. And it can happen anywhere.”
Indeed, provocation is what contemporary art in particular often hinges on – much to the discomfort of the world’s politically charged climate. Thus a 2004 exhibit in Sweden sparked similar outrage over an installation that paid tribute to a Palestinian suicide bomber. And earlier this month, Playboy decided to sever ties with its Portuguese franchise over a July cover featuring Jesus with a topless model. Even an artistic Mecca like New York saw a similar case when its mayor took the Brooklyn Museum to court for exhibiting pieces that incorporated animal dung into religious imagery. Notably, he lost the case.

The writer and sworn opponent of censorship and political correctness Aleksandr Nikonov argues that despite the fact that these incidents can happen anywhere, in the West they are rarely taken beyond the sphere of public discourse. “What we are seeing in Russia at the moment is a sheer nightmare,” he said, referring to the trial as “judicial inquisition.”

Inquisition is what the defendants and their supporters have likened the trial to, attributing it to the clericalization of society, which has grown ever more palpable with the post-Soviet resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church and its strengthening ties with the government. “Both the artists and the curators knew that they were going against these forces, but still they chose to anger the church,” said Roman Lunkin, the director of the Institute for Religion and Law. “So, unfortunately, the resulting conflict is also their doing and fault.”

As for the government’s involvement in religious affairs, Lev Ponomarev, the head of the “For Human Rights” group, believes that within the context of the Kremlin’s professed plans for modernization, it is a serious step back. “By choosing to side with the radical religious group that initiated this case – something the government should never have done – it established itself as a non-secular state,” Ponomarev said. “In that sense, we have moved closer to states like Iran.”

Meanwhile, Oleg Kassin, the head of Narodny Sobor – a group whose posters feature statements like “tolerance and multiculturalism are death to the people” and “nationalism is hope,” hailed the verdict. A former member of the ultra-nationalist Russia National Unity movement, which has been banned in Russia, Kassin said the verdict shows that Russia’s “immune system” was functioning well, and that the society was finally beginning to “cleanse itself.” “These [artists] say that their right to experiment and freely express themselves is being violated,” Kassin added. “But notice how none of them are experimenting with the issue of the Holocaust, because they know that repercussions are inevitable.”

Most church officials agreed with the verdict last week, saying that it teaches a lesson without turning the defendants into martyrs. However, Archmandrite Tikhon Shevkunov said that he would have liked to have seen a tougher punishment, one that would have been more than “purely symbolic.” “What they are involved in is disgusting [and trivial],” Archmandrite told the Interfax news agency. “To them, a guilty verdict is in some way a gift, just another phase of this foul amusement.”
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