On January 14th, 2003 , the exhibition “Careful, Religion!” was opened in the exhibition hall of the A.D. Sakharov Center in Moscow . Curated by Arutyun Zulumyan, the exhibition showed the works of 39 artists and two artist groups; the show did not only include artists from Moscow , but from Armenia , the USA , Japan , Bulgaria , Czech Republic etc.
After four days, the exhibition was wrecked by six men claiming to be Russian Orthodox believers, who said they felt that the majority of the works shown at the exhibition were a mockery of their faith. Some of the art works were sprayed with paint from a spray-gun, others were torn from the walls and thrown onto the floor, and others yet were smashed to pieces. The museum guard was able to call the militia in time, so that the perpetrators of the pogrom were arrested, charged with vandalism, and released on bail.
In August 2003, the people who had wrecked the exhibition were vindicated in court. However, at the demand of the Duma, the state-attorney opened a criminal investigation of the exhibition’s organizers on the charges of “fomenting national and religious discord”. In the context of this investigation, the attorney ordered an expert-opinion of the art works shown.
Almost all of the artist’s works were declared to be “blasphemous” and “sacrilegious” by the experts, while the exhibition itself was determined to be a propagandistic action, consciously aimed at destroying the thousand-year-old tradition of Russian orthodox spirituality. After doing so, the experts introduced “scholarly” themes in order to prove the “philosophical” inevitability of the exhibition’s destruction; according to the experts, the people who destroyed the exhibition were reacting to the outrageous “blasphemy” that was taking place before their eyes in an absolutely normal way, namely by destroying its exhibits. One of the experts even went so far as to accuse the artists of “de-Christianization”, as if the citizens of contemporary Russia atheists, Buddhists, and Muslims were required by law to aid the spread of Russian Orthodoxy. In the best case, these expert-opinions are an example of Russian Orthodox fundamentalist lyricism; their authors have proven utterly incapable of understanding the legal system of the state that they live in. The art works were subjected to an aggressive clerical re-interpretation, which first claimed to be the one and only truth concerning these works of art, and was then turned into an accusation of “a crime of significance” against the Russian Orthodox faith by the interpretation’s authors. The astounding religious cohesion of the experts prompted them to ascribe similar epitaphs to the artists themselves: thanks to their efforts, the experts were able to portray scattered group of artists, which had gathered here for the very first time as something very much like a totalitarian, anti-Orthodox sect. It is astounding that this image then became the basis for a criminal indictment. If convicted, the organizers and participants of the exhibition face a prison sentence of 5 years. In fact, the accused will have to answer to a court of law for an exceptionally strong emotional transfer, whose object they first became from the side of the pogrom’s perpetrators, and then for the side of the expert, who supplied their actions with a theoretical base.
The events surrounding the exhibition are developing according to the psychotic scenario that is normal in contemporary Russia . The specific character of psychosis lies in the fact that, within its framework, imaginary constructions (orthodoxy, originally an unstained, merciful cult of icons and saints) are fleshed out by full-blooded reality, becoming more real than the reality of law. From the perspective of psychotic logic, it is completely irrelevant that the church and the state are two separate entities, that it is just as criminal to raid exhibitions as it would be to defile churches, pagodas or mosques. This, in fact, is what makes the psychotic person so dangerous, namely that he lives in accordance with his own, imaginary legislation, that he places an infinitely higher value on righteousness than on the law.
The “fomenting of national-religious discord” implied by this specific law cannot, by definition, be the product of the interpretation of pogrom-makers and experts; in fact, the law refers to exhortations that would be obvious to anyone and would therefore not require any interpretation at all. Of course, the exhibition did not display slogans such as “Destroy Russian Orthodoxy!”, although an interpretation can prove anything, if it is radical enough. Since so many actions that fall under the direct definition of “fomenting national or religious discord” are undertaken in contemporary Russia all the time, going unpunished nonetheless, it takes a pseudo-scholarly explanation to supply the pogrom with its base. The experts display complete neglect of their own scholarly status in assessing the works of art in question: they expound them in a fundamentalist mode, depriving art of one of its fundamental category, which is ambiguity. They only come running to the authority of scholarship when it is necessary to justify the actions of the people who destroyed the exhibition, ascribing this act as what is nearly a physiological inevitability.
Of course, we are actually speaking of applied pogromology in its purest form. If an atheist were to repeat the same kind of action in a Russian-Orthodox church or a Buddhist were to do something similar in a mosque, justifying his actions through the new “physiological” law invented by the experts, he would probably be accused of “fomenting religious discord”, of destroying property and vandalism.
The experts view the artists as a sect, united by the same kind of hatred for Russian Orthodoxy that the scholarly ladies themselves cultivate for contemporary culture at large; in essence, the artists have to answer for these experts’ cultivated hostility, their obsessive accusations, their theory of a conspiracy against the one and only true faith. What is new and unprecedented in this case is that the psychotic transferal is taking place in the framework of a criminal trial, and furthermore, that this trial has been initiated by a state that is not clerical but secular. Much like the people who destroyed the exhibition, the experts claim a monopoly over the right to hate; obviously in a position of power, they pretend that they are the victim of unusually powerful aggression, turning the victims into henchmen. I wouldn’t want to make any judgment on how far this kind of behavior corresponds to the Christian faith, but it seems obvious that they are actually in grave contradiction to the laws that protect the freedom of conscience. It seems superfluous to point at the juridical chasm that will open up if the organizers and participants of “Careful, Religion!” are convicted and sentenced, even if this sentence is suspended on remand. Yet at the same time, the countless calls for violence will continue to go unpunished.
The majority of cultural figures saw the destruction of the exhibition “Careful, Religion!” as an absurd exception, which did not influence the general development of the cultural situation on the whole. But after two years of a continuing criminal investigation, this seems to be far from true. The most important signal for the change in the situation can be found in the proclamation issued by “professionals of art, science and culture”. This open letter accused the exhibition which none of the signatories had actually seen of inflicting a far graver blow to Russian culture than all of the persecutions that the church was subjected to throughout the years of Soviet rule.
One month after the exhibition’s destruction, the Duma passed a circular to the attorney general’s office, which contained what was practically the sentence for the organizers and artists of the exhibition: “The aforementioned exhibition is aimed at fomenting religious enmity. It debases the feelings of believers and inflicts a grave insult to the Russian Orthodox Church.” Then, the experts undertook a final step, accusing the victims of this hate-campaign of actually starting the entire campaign themselves by “drawing hundreds of thousands of people to this exhibition”. In declaring their interpretation as “canonical”, the experts address contemporary art in a language that is essentially foreign. In a secular society, this language is usually limited to other, religious spaces. The museum is not a sacral space. The fact that the perpetrators of the pogrom and the experts understood the artists as representative of a rivaling religious confusing characterizes their own level of religious development in terms that could not be any clearer. The number of prohibitions introduced by the experts significantly outnumbers the number of such prohibition in the pre-revolutionary Russian empire, which was officially a Russian Orthodox state. While they graciously allow the artist to indulge in “blasphemy” in the confines of his apartment or studio, they categorically prohibit such “blasphemy” from entering the public sphere. One of the experts even goes so far as to define contemporary art on the whole as “sign-making activities of a nihilistic orientation”. Having made nihilism a part of the definition of contemporary art in general, they effortlessly go on to identify its examples in various works of art: a cross that reflected the statistical average made by one of the artists is declared to be the Life-giving Cross of the Lord, while a chiton becomes the Holy Shroud; the fish, of course, is a symbol of Christ, while Dolly the cloned sheep is Christ himself. As a result, the artists appear as sophisticated experts on the Russian Orthodox ritual, whose works were created with one singular goal, namely to insult the feelings of the church-going public of Russian Orthodoxy. Yet as it turns out, it is not only inadmissible to depict religious symbols (or symbols that could be interpreted as such); it is also prohibited to depict people of “Slavonic appearance” in everyday situations, just as it is wrong to combine the high with the low (which, if one is to believe Mikhail Bakhtin, is actually the basis upon which the entire folk-culture of laughter was constructed); all artists are to aid the “Christianization” of Russia without any exceptions etc.
When the experts admit that there is such a thing as creative freedom, this sounds like hypocrisy. “One must note”, one of them writes, “that all participants of the action-performance discussed above had an absolute right to the individual expression of their creative ‘selves’ with no sort of religious prohibition whatsoever. In other words, as long as the given group of artists did not have any intention of organizing a collective, anti-Russian-Orthodox action, all of their isolated, atomized ‘artistic profanity’ developed as the realization of the autonomic act of the creative personality’s self-expression, beyond the power of any social judgments” (Findings of the Experts on the Criminal Case N4616, p. 38) In fact, this very definition of creative freedom amounts to a ban on the artistic profession, since, first of all, creativity is redefined in terms of religious fundamentalism as “artistic profanation”, and second of all, the artists in question are denied the right to displays the products of their creativity to the public. The organization of an exhibition simply brings a hidden crime (“profanation”) to light (i.e. making it into a punishable crime). Creative freedom defined as blasphemy sounds like a travesty of this notion, especially if it comes from people who are trying to prove the necessity of destroying its fruits in the case of its public demonstration. It is not enough for the pogrom’s apologists to present the pogrom itself as a “godly deed” (there are a great many examples of such “godly deeds” throughout the history of religion); they legitimate it with a “scholarly” basis, referring to the deep trauma that motivated its perpetrators. “In causing feelings of individual frustration”, sounds the verdict of the last of the experts, “these objects excite the central nervous system, provoking chaotic activity and aggressive ‘defensive’ behavior. In male behavior, such case typically provoke active countermeasures (as could be observed on January 18th, 2003 in the exhibition hall of the Sakharov Center ), while females are more prone to passive, depressive, and victimized reactions…” (Findings of the Experts on the Criminal Case N4616, p. 66). If this new science of pogromology triumphs in a state that calls itself secular, if it becomes a instrument of convicting people, the introduction of censorship will seem like a rather progressive act. In society such as this (and please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not arguing for the introduction of censorship to a democratic society), it will seem as though censorship is a preventative measure against the hooliganism that is triumphing de facto.
The fact that this case was able to go so far in Moscow is not connected to the presence of a certain number of religious extremists (these are present anywhere). Instead, its reason is that the state continues to favor the Russian-Orthodox church, in spite of its own laws and their basis, the constitution. And while much has been written on Russian-Orthodox fundamentalism, both in Russia and abroad, this is something the experts continue to deny. Against this backdrop, the artists’ criticism of clericalism hardly seem very radical; in fact, the experts were not in fact able to find any real attack upon the Russian-Orthodox faith as such for an obvious reason: they simply do not exist. Respect for faith is, in fact, compatible with the criticism of religious fundamentalism.
Allow me to draw a few conclusions. In transgressing the law, any psychotic does not only want to evade punishment but also self-punishment; he seeks out indubitable justification and even a kind of “sanctity”. He lives in an imaginary world, which he presents as the only reality. The world of the militant opponents of contemporary art and their experts is a world in which Russian-Orthodoxy has terminally flowed together with the state (which is why they call the symbols of this religion “state-religious symbols”).
The danger and the paradox of the current moment in Russia consists in the fact that the institutions of the state side with this view, even if this view is out to subject the state’s institutions to a radical change. Instead of restraining the extremists and defending the law, a considerable part of the state-apparatus and the mass-media defend the extremists and retrain the law itself by reading it through an arbitrary interpretation.
The publication of the experts’ texts on the internet have brought on a wave of further publications on the matter. Many have already understood which consequence it would have, if the organizers of the pogrom against the artists and human-rights-activists prevail; they also recognize that this victory would create a huge legal loophole and would inspire any number of further pogromologies. The site www.globalrus.ru has published an extensive critique of the expertise from the perspective of jural society and worldly culture. The site also opened up a forum where anyone can express their point of view, which led to a true Bacchanalia of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racist. The participants of the exhibition and their defenders were called by names such as “liberasts” (i.e. liberals and pederasts) and “representatives of one faith” (meaning Judaism). “I see”, wrote one contributor to the forum, “that all of these Jew-liberals can’t stand Russian Orthodoxy and its defenders”. All of the artists were declared to be the “representative of one nation-religion”; the ethnic makeup of individual participants (most of them Jews) and their sexual orientation (homosexual) were subjected to extensive examination. But where, in all of this, are the expected references to the abasement of Christ, or the sanctimonious pontification of the experts on how simple people love icons, crosses, lambs and fish as symbols of Russian Orthodoxy? What exactly is left of all the sympathy for those delicate pogrom-maker’s natures, which tremble with anxiety at the sight of such blasphemy! As soon as these people began to speak their own language, there was nothing left but animal hatred for any manifestation of the Other, negating its very right to existence. Of course, such impulses are neither compatible with human rights, nor with contemporary culture on the whole. Everything becomes clear when the “defenders of the faith” begin to speak their own language at last.