Pussy Riot: Is Offensive Art Bad?

Pussy_Riot_at_Lobnoye_Mesto_on_Red_Square_in_Moscow_-_Denis_BochkarevWhen I posted Sutherland’s painting of a naked PM, I hesitated: Would I offend my few and precious readers? And that post had mentioned “Bad Art.” Would people think that of her painting?

That got me thinking. I am already formulating two posts about Pussy Riot, so why not roll the first of those posts in with a discussion about offensive art? Here we go.

Now, there is one big difference. Sutherland’s painting is in your face, right now:

IMG_0553

Emperor Haute Couture by Margaret Sutherland, 2012

and you know, there’s that thing thing going on there, and it’s the PM’s thing, while Pussy Riot are “loud and noisy,” in Russian, and their pictures look electric with all the bright colours that the “girls” wear. At this distance it is hard to take offence from their work, but let me tell you, their offensiveness became an offence.

Pussy Riot could be described as a cooperative of all-female performance artists, building on the earlier work of the anti-government art group Voina. A few years back, they hit upon a formula of staging hit-and-run mini rock concert/protests in inappropriate locations using inappropriate words describing inappropriate ideas … then disappear before the police arrived. The photo above is from their most successful exploit, in Moscow’s Red Square.

They are, however, most infamous for their “prayer” in the replica of one of the most treasured of Moscow’s churches, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The original was dynamited under Stalin’s orders in 1931.

Destruction of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, 1931

Destruction of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, 1931

God may not of been listening that day when they prayed for the electoral defeat of Uncle Vladimir, but clearly the Putin machine was. A sampling of the lyrics:

“Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out. / All the parishioners are crawling to bow / The phantom of liberty is up in heaven / Gay pride sent to Siberia in a chain gang / Head of the KGB, their chief saint, / Leads protesters to jail under guard / So as not to offend the diety, / women must give birth and love / Shit, shit, holy shit! / Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist / The church sings the praises of rotten dictators …”

Heavy stuff for Cathedral worshipers.

But it’s hard to understand what the Pussy Rioter’s actual offence was. Somewhere in this Court-read charge is the actual offence. The three “girls” had conspired :

“for the purpose of rudely disrupting the social order in a manner that would express a clear lack of regard for societal norms, motivated by hatred and enmity … for a particular social group, in the form of carrying out offensive actions inside a religious institution …”

According to the charges and the whole trial, there was no antagonism towards Uncle Vlad. The authorities had wiped the record clean.

And no citation of specific breach of a criminal code; it appears that the Russian authorities were making up the law as they went. In Words will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, Masha Gessen notes:

The Russian court system, never a sterling example of justice, fairness, or competition, had regressed in the Putin years … With an acquittal rate of less than 1% and judges drawn largely from the court secretarial pool …

Judges have instructions, not independence. Two of the three performers received sentences of two years in Siberian gulags. The state really only needed to string up one Rioter to send its message.

For several years I have been using Pussy Riot as a cautionary tale about freedom of speech in Canada: That when we see the RCMP grounding a protesting PSAC plane on spurious security issues, or when the Harper government threatens hate crime prosecution against Church groups who are in favor of the pro-Palestinian boycott of Israel, we need to stand up and be herd*.

For me, we all need to support a wide interpretation of freedom of speech, not for those with whom we agree, but for those with whom we are more likely to disagree.

Within my self-imposed limit of 1000 words per blog, I now have about 300 words to bring this back to where I started, with “bad art.” And I just wasted 23 of my words with that statement. And now nine more wasted. Damn.

I will do this with a sting of quotes from, and about artists.

“Art begins when a man**, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling …, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs … [F]eelings … very bad and very good, if only they infect the reader … constitute the subject of art”. – Leo Tolstoy, 1897, in What is Art?

How does a miracle happen? “A great work of art – something that makes people pay attention, return to the work again and again, and re-examine their assumptions, something that infuriates, hurts, and confronts – a great work of art is always a miracle.” – Masha Gessen in Words Will Break Cement

“For me, beyond questions of how skillful the technique or craft, art is bad when it is insincere or facile. Offensiveness doesn’t really enter into it, in fact, if a strong emotion is expressed in art, somebody is going to find it offensive or ugly. There is a historic tradition of protest in all forms of art – Napoleon was howling for the heads (literally) of British caricaturists. Artists in all media work on the edges of culture giving another spin on it, does it do any good? Perhaps, we add a little something, much like those butterfly wingbeats in chaos theory.

“I painted the Emperor … simply [as] my way of expressing protest while working in a medium I love, …” – Margaret Sutherland in an email to me.

One final quote, this time from Peter Tchaikovsky, commenting on his celebration of the defeat of Napoleonic troops, in the rousing 1812 Overture, whose premiere, some 130 years earlier, was meant for the same Cathedral as Pussy Riot’s prayer. The Overture was:

“…very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love.”

1812 made Tchaikovsky a wealthy man.

And Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot went to prison.

Progressive societies honor the bravery – and creativity – of their artists.

81 words too long. Sigh.


Footnotes

* An intended misspelling. We need to be heard and not hide as a herd.

** Or woman

Photo and work credits: Photo of Pussy Riot by Denis Bochkarev and used under a general-use licence through Wikimedia. Emperor Haute Couture and excerpts of an email are used with permission of Maggie Sutherland. Many thanks for her thoughtful email on art.

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One response to “Pussy Riot: Is Offensive Art Bad?

  1. Pingback: Orange is no longer that Black. | in the vernacular·

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