March 30, 2007
On the exhibition "Forbidden Art-2006" and why it should be defended
While respecting views and judgment of many of those who believe that the exhibition "Forbidden Art-2006" does not belong at the Sakharov Museum and Public Center, I am convinced that their position is absolutely wrong. In my opinion, it is wrong considering both interests of the Russian society and the state and the Museum's mission.
Therefore I want to explain why, in my view, the Museum should not close the exhibition "Forbidden Art-2006" and why we should fight the Russian Orthodox Church for the right to hold this exhibition, in courts, if it comes to that.
I will begin by quoting from my letter from March 14 to Elena Bonner and to other members of the Sakharov Fund and the Museum's Council.
On the exhibition "Forbidden Art-2006"
"Dear Svetlana Gannushkina and Elena Bonner, and other members of the Sakharov Fund:
Please, besides what you have read in the "Novye Izvestia" newspaper, see the material on the exhibition at the Museum Internet site http://www.sakharov-center.ru/museum/exhibitionhall/current/ . It is a pity that everything concerning the Museum you learn from mass media. The exhibition "Forbidden Art-2006" has, as it is stated in the press-release, A CLEAR GOAL COMPLETELY WITHIN THE HUMAN RIGHTS AGENDA: MONITORING AND DISCUSSING CENSORSHIP AS APPLIED TO VISUAL ARTS IN RUSSIA.
As with any other human rights actions, showing works forbidden for demonstration at other museums and galleries does not mean that either the Museum or its Director propagandize them or NECESSARILY APPROVE OF EVERY ITEM PRESENTED AT THE MUSEUM'S EXPOSITION. By showing these works, our Museum performs its mission of informing on censorship restrictions on freedom in creative arts, without pronouncing a judgment as to the extent these restrictions are justified or not. (Both the exhibition curator, E. Erofeev, and I spoke about it at the opening of the exhibition.)
If you are personally not interested in the situation with censorship and self-censorship in Russia, in the area of contemporary art, then you should take the word of art experts for it: for artists' and museums' communities this problem is no less pressing than limitations on freedom of the press. The goal of the exposition: to monitor and to stimulate discussion of problems of censorship, and not to propagandize the works exhibited there. (I, myself, like a few of the works of the 23 presented at the exhibition.)
P.S. As to the exhibit items, nor I neither the exhibition curator intended to cause their photographing and reproduction in mass media. The publication in the "Novye Izvestia" that shocked many happened because of my lack of vigilance, for which I take full responsibility. The Museum's Internet site intentionally does not display a single photograph of the exhibit items. "
To this letter I want to add the following:
1. The situation that has developed in the country, in the last 6-7 years, is such that the basic values and the political foundation of secular state and society: separation between church and state, secular character of the state, ideological pluralism and pluralism of spiritual life, are violated all the time and everywhere both by the state and by the Russian Orthodox Church. Hardly anybody needs to be convinced of that.
Violations of secular character of our state are far from innocuous and their scale rises noticeably and constantly. See for example the candid statement by Vitaliy Ginzburg (http://www.lenta.ru/news/2007/03/01/ginzburg/) and the article by Andrey Kolesnikov .
Unfortunately, nobody in our country is monitoring the situation the way the "Chronicle of Current Events" monitored human rights violation in the USSR, nobody keeps record of violations by the church and by the state of laws on secular character of the Russian state and on separation of church and state. I think that the Sakharov Center might, and should, try and organize this monitoring.
2. I am convinced that one of important tasks of our Museum and of other cultural institutes is, in the present circumstances, to support, by means in their disposal and in ways that are natural for them, cultural pluralism in the society, that is spiritual and intellectual freedom, which, even as we speak, is shrinking under the pressure from the religious ideology that enjoys both formal and informal support of the state. Many Orthodox believers also feel that the government's toying with Orthodoxy in the attempt to use it as a "state forming" element is destructive, first and foremost, for the Russian Orthodox Church itself.
3. Ideological pluralism and pluralism of spiritual and political life exists to the extent and as long as there exist "marked spaces" defined politically, by law, culturally, and administratively as free from censorship. This "marked spaces" are museums, galleries, schools, theaters, cinemas, publishing houses, and mass media outlets, which political parties, parliament, executive agencies, and perhaps courts as well have no right to censor.
Secular state, as represented by its political leadership, lawmaking and judicial bodies, and administration of its cultural institutes (whether state owned too or only privet is a debatable subject) is obliged to secure the right and opportunity to exhibit in museums and galleries what has been chosen for exposition by arts experts of these institutes. This should be so even if (sic!) some believers would sincerely perceive some exhibits or exhibit items as blasphemy and as a violation of public morals that operate outside the specially marked spaces and situations. (Please, don't get mad at me and consider me crazy.)
All I want to say is that to preserve and to assure existence of a pluralistic secular state it is necessary, among many other things, to secure, whether we want it or not, for artists and museum curators the right to exhibit, within specifically marked by law, or in accordance with cultural, political, and social conventions, spaces (i.e. in galleries and museums), blasphemous from a religious viewpoint works of art. (Of course, this is not to imply that it is necessary to create and exhibit these works just to prove that we live in a secular state.)
Perhaps many do not know that the currently operating "Federal Law on the Freedom of Conscience" justly protects the right of artists and curators to exhibit publicly any blasphemous works of art. The Law states that events that offend religious sensibilities of citizens cannot be staged near places or objects of religious worship. Therefore, according to jurists, the Law does not prohibit staging them at other places.
The same tendency exists in Europe. European Parliament took the decision, and perhaps again not many heard of it, permitting (sic!), for the purpose of supporting in Europe ideological, spiritual, and political freedom and pluralism, publication in European mass media of visual materials even if they offend religious sensibilities of believers. In particular, the decision referred to the cartoons portraying Allah, Christ, and Buddha. (In my view, this should not be allowed in today's Russia.)
4. The Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center is a unique institution, in Russia and perhaps in Europe as well, combining in its activities functions of a museum, a research center, a public, a human rights, and, to an extent, a political organization. The Museum's official status is that of an autonomous non-profit cultural institute, and most importantly it bears the name of Andrei Sakharov, which symbolizes, both for the society and for the government, struggle for freedom and helping people. The Museum possesses the unique experience of defending, in a Russian court, rights of the artists, curators, and administration of the Museum who had been accused of charges pertaining to the exhibition "Beware, Religion!" organized by the Museum and judged blasphemous by the Russian Orthodox Church and by many believers. Considering this unique status, function, and experience of the Museum, it is clear why A.V. Erofeev, one of the leading curators of contemporary art in Russia, offered the Andrei Sakharov Museum to display the exhibition "Forbidden Art - 2006", and to make it in the future a long term project.
The offer was accepted for obvious reasons, both professional and socio- political. My professional motives stemmed from my interest in collaborating with one of the leading Russian museum curators, from the hope to obtain for the Museum an interesting and an attention getting exhibit, from desire to do something important, together with Erofeev, in opposing religious censorship in Russia, and to do it in the way that is natural for the Museum's function and mandate.
As to motives of A.V. Erofeev, unlike mine, they were professional motives of a curator and a contemporary arts expert. What is important for Erofeev and his colleagues from other museums are increasingly frequent confrontations with the censorship exercised on religious and moral grounds and the self-censorship practiced by the administration of museums and galleries that display contemporary art. This is a very real problem for a part of the museum community. I became acquainted with it after the exhibition "Beware, Religion!", when some artist began telling me that they were now afraid to treat critically the subject of religion and activities of the Russian Orthodox Church.
5. But is the problem of religious censorship of contemporary Russian art important for the civil society? And even if one agrees, in principle, that exercise of religious censorship at secular cultural institutions is not appropriate, what does it have to do with the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center? Sakharov himself professed little interest in visual arts. Judging by the reaction of the majority of human rights activists, they do not see the connection between preserving secular character of the state and the necessity to defend artist's "right to blasphemy". (I heard about the necessity to defend the "right to blasphemy" several years ago from Father Yakov Krotov, but then thought this view too extreme. Now I see that he was right and summon him to my defense). I don't blame the human rights activists for not seeing this connection. Few of them value contemporary arts and almost no one of them has ever encountered professionally the issue of politically or religiously motivated self - censorship in selection of exhibit items. Since everybody knows that the majority of Russian people support the Russian Orthodox Church, and since leaders of the Church are not the most liberal people on the Earth and closely cooperate with not too liberal leaders of the Russian state, which is not liberal at all, it appears that many members of the board of the Sakharov Fund and many human rights activists feel that it is better "not to stir the religious hornet's nest".
I personally think, being true to themselves and to their public position, the human rights activists will not be able to refrain from "stirring the religious - church - state hornet's nest" for long. They and their relatives have children and great children. And not every one of the human rights activists would want their children and great children being blessed by an Orthodox priest when they are drafted to the army as well as reared by one while they serve there. To avoid this something will have to be done. In other words, the Russian citizens are for a struggle with the attempts of the Russian Orthodox Church to put under its control everything it can: to make the Sakharov Center close the exhibition "Forbidden Art - 2006", to press the school system into putting into required curriculum basics of Orthodox faith as the only "correct", as well as "natural" and indispensable for the Russian people. Or many other attempts, such as declaring the UN Declaration of Human Rights long outdated.
All these situations in which the state and the Russian Orthodox Church merge and complement each other are becoming too much to bear with, and the time has come for putting up serious resistance to the Russian Orthodox Church's claims to spiritual hegemony.
I consider the Museum's participation in organizing the exhibition "Forbidden Art - 2006" as an opportunity to cooperate with a well known and professional curator and as a legitimate, professional, and civic minded exhibition project that falls naturally within the Museum's mission. Content of this project has an anti-clerical aspect that is of interest to Museum. The Museum has an exhibition hall, has a political and cultural status, has the right and the duty to conduct exhibits, and has a defined socio-political position, and this is why the somewhat anti-clerical (not in intention, but due the nature of some of the presented artworks) exhibition "Forbidden Art - 2006" is beneficial for the Sakharov Center and for the Russian society at large, however the latter might feel about it (on this question I am a Bolshevik).
P.S. Perhaps this is the fate of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center: the Museum does not always choose its way, but is guided by the obligation to be true to the name it bears and by external circumstances.
Materials in English:
Выставка «Запретное искусство - 2006»