Should political change be art’s goal, and is it possible to turn art censorship into something ground breaking?

Hilde Susan Jaegtnes
Hilde Susan Jaegtnes is a writer and actress.

These are reflections I am left with after watching a video recording from 16 December 2015 [watch the video at nytid.no], when New York’s Art Net White Box gallery organised a panel discussion around art and censorship in collaboration with Dukley Art Centre in Montenegro. One of the panellists was punk singer and activist Masha Alyokhina from Pussy Riot, and the occasion for the debate was the opening of New Balkan Women’s Museum in Montenegro, an international museum about, for and of women.

Aristoteles believed that the human was a zoon politikon, a political animal. The question many has asked is whether all art necessarily is political, whether art always should have political change as its goal – or bear potential political consequences in mind.

To many the answer is an obvious yes, especially if the artist comes from a country characterised by censorship and persecution of vulnerable social groups. Activist artists may prompt societal changes by switching on the international spotlight and pressurising the governing powers who are violating human rights, or by inspiring other performers to take the baton.

In cartoons, censorship is often illustrated by a character gagged with a handkerchief (although anyone who has tried this, knows that it is fully possible to utter a variety of sounds whilst gagged). What would the individual say, if given the chance, and why did someone take the trouble of gagging them? The gagging itself often results in a greater deal of interest in the artist’s message, an unwanted side effect from the gagger’s point of view. Precisely Pussy Riot’s fight against Putin’s regime is an example of censorship’s unintentional dissemination value – to inspire and follow for other lesser known artists and activists.

Power and censorship. In addition to Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina, Russian gallerist and art facilitator Marat Guelman was also part of the panel. Both are among the museum’s initiators. Multimedia artist Carolee Schneemann, art critic Eleanor Heartney, performance artist Martha Wilson and artist Dread Scott also participated and were asked to share their experiences of being subjected to censorship.

caroleeMarat Guelman stumbled into his profession as the Soviet Union’s first ever art dealer in the 1990s, and founded provincial Russia’s first modern art gallery, the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art (PERMM) in Perm, the Urals. Following disputes which culminated with the Russian government breaking the contract, in 2014 he relocated to Montenegro. According to Guelman, Russian artists are less conformist than their male counterparts. He supports the work of Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova in his book How to Start a Revolution (expected release date is 2017). «We are proud to be able to help these smart, kind and brave girls, » he says at the end as he pats Masha’s shoulder. New York’s art audience laughs: Guelman does not seem to perceive how patronising the gesture is and at odds with the intentions of the female museum he promotes.

Dread Sciott believes it is far more interesting to discuss the type of art subjected to censorship. As a student at an overlooked Chicago art college in 1988, his photographic exhibition What Is the Proper Way to Display an American Flag? elicited strong reactions. The images showed South Korean students burning the flag, and the exhibition was condemned by the then President George Bush Sr. Dread Scott feels that the President’s reaction endorses the power of art and vulnerability of the superpowers: even an unknown art student is able to get an entire people to question their loyalty to the American flag. In his opinion, censorship attempts show that authorities are unable to answer to their own crimes and power abuses, for instance the slavery practices and genocide which founded the USA.

In Masha’s eyes, religion is a surrogate for nationalism, Xenophobia and tyranny

Punk prayer. Feminist icon Carolee Schneemann has missed out on several teaching positions due to the erotic content of her art. Despite this, she has no regrets: She feels that the world needed erotic portrayals of the female body to counterbalance hostility to women and the alienated relationship with the female body which characterised the 1950s USA. Performance artist Martha Wilson also used the female body as a vehicle for social change in the 1970s, when she exhibited photos of breasts and played various female roles: GoddessHousewifeLesbian and Professional. In the wake of her installation Carnival Knowledge, which explored the question of whether feminist photography is possible, the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew their financial support, following pressure from the Morality Action Committee.

The censorship problems of the US panel delegates unsurprisingly pale into insignificance alongside the young Pussy Riot-rebel Masha, who achieved international fame after she and other band members were imprisoned for two years following their 2012 concert in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The show was stopped, and later made into a music video unequivocally titled Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away! The punk girls were convicted of «vandalism motivated by religious hatred», but the aim of their concert was to criticise the Orthodox Church leaders for their homophobia and for supporting Putin during his election campaign.

The draw of the panel debate smiles shyly at the audience and apologises for her poor English whilst expressing admiration for the American ability to stage 50,000-strong international solidary mass demonstrations. «Russians do not feel that anything that happens in the USA is their problem, » she sighs. She would like artistic and political collaborations across national borders, and feels that Montenegro’s new female museum would help this.

Trailblazers. In the eyes of Masha, religion is a surrogate for nationalism, xenophobia and tyranny. She feels that the Russian-Orthodox church is an extension of Putin’s government, a power authority that suppresses free speech. Marat Guelman adds that the Russian administration has a list of censored individuals. «Artists fighting censorship is the only real political activity in Russia, » he concludes.

Towards the end of the debate, a woman in the audience, evidently herself also an artist, comments that everyone in the panel are trailblazers and role models, and asks how she best can follow in their footsteps. Masha quickly says: «We are all pioneers, it is not a role that should be attributed to a select few. The moment we give away our power, we turn into irresponsible children. We have to create our own thigs, and if we are censored, we have to find new ways of communicating. I am aware that this probably sounds naïve, but…» A woman in the audience shouts «No! », and applause erupts.


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