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Russia: ‘Orthodoxy or Death’ to Degenerate Art?

Photo by Sakharov Museum

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 this 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 art show was to shed light upon self-imposed censorship quelling the Russian arts scene, 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 the 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 the 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 the Orthodox countries like Serbia and Russia. This photo-op was what caught the eyes of the 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 the 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 co-optation 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 art forms whose 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 the 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 pogrom 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?

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