RUSSIAN ART CURATORS BANNED ART LAW
After a two-year trial, two Russian curators, Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, were declared guilty of “inciting religious hatred,” despite massive protest. Although they escaped the three-year prison sentence demanded by the prosecution, the judge declared them guilty and each had to pay a hefty fine. Critics fear the results of this trial are proof of cultural oppression in Russia.
Strong public interest in the case
Most media leans in favor of the Russian curators and sees the verdict as a sign of cultural oppression and censorship in Russia. However protesters from both sides were present outside the courthouse on the day of the ruling. Those offended by the paintings and who initiated the prosecution were mostly fundamentalist Russian Orthodox Christians while those against the prosecution consisted generally of artists and human rights activists. Multiple blogs and news agencies have covered the trial, ranging from arts websites to Russian interest magazines and blogs about human rights.
Extreme factions from both sides have voiced their protests. The New York Times reports that radical art performance group, Voina, released cockroaches into the courtroom, an act criticized by Samodurov. According to the Associated Press, extremist members of the prosecution threatened the curators in court, reminding them of the fate of Anna Alchuk, curator of “Caution: Religion!” who was found dead in Berlin in 2008.
Artists “incited religious hatred”
The works in question include an icon made of caviar, a depiction of Christ with a Mickey Mouse head, and an image of Christ with the McDonald’s sign and the words “This is my body”. There were also some non-Christian symbols included in the list of offensive images such as Chechen Marilyn and the Chinese invading the Kremlin. The exhibition spurred a lot of anger amongst religious groups.
Orthodox believers, as citizens of their country…have the right to protect their sacred symbols. It was not the church that initiated this prosecution, but the people who were offended. The investigation proved that the art at the exhibit was offensive towards believers, and incited religious hatred.
The New York Times also mentioned, however, that Russian Orthodox Church officials believed that while displaying the paintings was criminal and the curators should be punished, they shouldn’t be imprisoned. Furthermore, the Russian Minister of Culture was critical of the prosecution.
A fight against censorship
The defendants’ view is that this exhibition was a critique of the materialism of Russian society and a fight against censorship of the arts, and had nothing to do with religion. Ironically, critics fear that results of the trial have shown that censorship is quite powerful in Russia.
Samodurov faced similar charges for a 2003 exhibition called “Caution: Religion!” He says the Church has reacted more strongly in the “Forbidden Art” trial.
Human rights and arts activists fully disapprove of the judge’s ruling, and are alarmed not only at the guilty verdict but at the fact that this trial even took place. The BBC News reported that thirteen renowned Russian artists signed an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev protesting the trial. Russia Today reports that,
…much more concerning [than escaping the jail sentence] for people in their circumstances is what they’ve seen as a curb from their freedom of expression.
In addition support from other artists and curators has been prevalent. The Associated Press reports that Marat Gelman, a Moscow gallery owner, declared his support for the pair by saying he would launch his own “Forbidden Art” exhibition should the ruling be in favor of the church. One sympathizer stated for the Associated Press before the verdict was declared,
‘I am very afraid for them,’ she said. ‘The church is now younger, more energetic.’
Some fear a return to a cultural oppression similar to that of Czarist Russia. Some suspect the Kremlin may have had a role in lightening the punishment of the curators to prevent tarnishing their international image. Critics have predicted that people will be wary of displaying and producing potentially offensive art in Russia, and this will make Russian art less competitive globally.
- Gao Minglu’s maximalist exhibition blurs boundaries between traditional and contemporary Chinese art – June 2010 – highlights a curator’s role in organising an exhibition
- Cause and Effect: London Solo for Macau-Russian artist Konstantin Bessmertny – May 2010 – describes the involvement of the Russian curator in this exhibition
- More art, better art, riskier art at ART HK 09 – May 2009 – popular art sells well, but mixed reviews of less mainstream art
- Kandinsky prize winner Russian artist Alexey Beliavev-Guintovt prices boosted by continuing controversy – January 2009 – a Russian artist accused of being fascist; resulting controversy helps sell his art
- Dasha Zhukova experiments with exhibition of 12 leading video artists on giant outdoor screen – Moscow Times, Reuters – December 2008 – an example of an unusual Russian art exhibition in Moscow