Wanted to start this off on an appropriately scary note from the home town. The whole thing started a few weeks ago. Then built up. And now, despite protests, the gallery is going to be closing. Obviously absurd, but not wholly unexpected given the affective power of images throughout history.
Remember the Israeli ambassador's shameful assault on an Israeli artist exhibiting in Sweden? Here's a video (.wmv file) of the incident, in case you missed it. I've searched forever to find the original intelligent article - in NYT, I think - that actually _discussed the work itself_ to no avail. Please contact me if you have it. As would be expected, there are 30,000 bilious, anti-intellectual rants and petitions on the web, mostly lauding the ambassador's "brave" action against a work which - though never seriously considered - is immediately denounced as "obscene," "debased," and, of course, "anti-semitic." For those looking for some interesting reading on these matters, try Bard College professor Ian Buruma's fairly balanced piece on anti-semitism for the NYT Magazine a little while back.
This also reminded me of the Russian Exhibition that was attacked earlier this year for _iconoclasm_ of all things! I gave this to my Critical Theory class at the SF Art Institute last semester, and we had a great discussion. Here's a NYT article on the event:
Art vs. Religion: Whose Rights will Come First?
By Steven Lee Myers, Sept 2003
It was provocative, as modern art often is. But few of those involved could have foreseen just how provocative it would become when the Sakharov Museum here opened an exhibition of paintings and sculptures in January under the title "Caution! Religion."
Four days after the Jan. 14 opening, six men from a Russian Orthodox church came to the museum's exhibition hall and sacked it, defacing many of the 45 works with spray paint and destroying others. "Sacrilege," one of them scrawled on the wall.
The police came and quickly arrested the men, but their actions — described either as heroism or hooliganism — began a highly charged debate not only over the state of freedom of expression in Russia today but also over the ever-growing influence of the Orthodox Church.
Priests denounced the museum — named after the Soviet-era physicist and dissident Andrei D. Sakharov. Church members began a letter-writing campaign defending the attackers.
Somewhere along the way, the tables turned on the museum, its director and the exhibition's artists. The lower house of Parliament passed a resolution condemning the museum and the exhibition's organizers.
The criminal charges against four of the six men were dropped early on for lack of evidence — even though they had been detained inside the building. Then on Aug. 11, with several hundred Orthodox believers holding a vigil outside, a court here threw out the charges against the others, Mikhail Lyukshin and Anatoly Zyakin, saying they had been unlawfully prosecuted.
The court made it clear that an investigation should continue — not against those who attacked the exhibit, but against the museum itself.
"The museum is now the enemy of the people," said its director, Yuri V. Samodurov.
The furor over the exhibition has thrust into opposition two groups that had suffered together during seven decades of state ideology and atheism. In the 12 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, both artists and religious believers have flourished in a new Russia. In this case, though, each side accuses the other of exploiting Russia's new freedom to infringe on its rights.
"This freedom opened the gates so that thick streams of dirt are flooding all around," the Rev. Aleksandr Shargunov, one of the church's most outspoken conservatives, said of the post-Soviet society. "The church is a very narrow stream of clean water."
The men who attacked the exhibit are members of his church in Moscow, St. Nikolai in Pyzhi. Some of them work there, and Father Aleksandr organized the campaign for their defense and against the museum. He compared the exhibition to a rape or a terrorist act.
"For a believer," he said, "this sacrilege is equivalent to the destruction of a church, which is what happened in the near past in Russia."
The museum, dedicated to Mr. Sakharov's legacy, regularly presents exhibitions intended to cause debate, including subjects like the Soviet legacy, human rights and the war in Chechnya. Never before has one provoked such an outcry.
The exhibition's works all addressed religion, but Mr. Samodurov said the theme was not antireligious as much as anticlerical. Some of the artists themselves are Orthodox believers, he said, and the exhibition was not meant to offend.
One sculpture, by Alina Gurevich, that offended nonetheless depicted a church made of vodka bottles, a pointed reference to the tax exemption the church received in the 1990's to sell alcohol.
A poster by Aleksandr Kosolapov, a Russian-born American whose previous work has satirized symbols of the Soviet and Russian state, depicted Jesus on a Coca-Cola advertisement. "This is my blood," it said in English.
Another work was a large icon covering by Alisa Zrazhevskaya, which took its title from the Second Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Carve Idols Unto Thee," and left a hole for a viewer's head, hand and Bible like a carnival placard. "Gady," or "vipers," was painted on it.
The works are now in the local prosecutor's office, and most of the artists have been called in for questioning. The exhibition's curator, Arutyun Zulumyan, an Armenian, has gone into hiding.
The museum's lawyers received notice the week before last that a commission of experts had been formed to decide whether the exhibit incited interethnic or interreligious hatred, which is a crime in the Russian criminal code. Mr. Samodurov said he feared that the outcome was predetermined because none of those appointed, he said, were experts in modern art.
If charged and convicted, the exhibition's organizers could face $7,500 to $11,600 in fines, three years of probation or two to four years in prison.
Another artist, Anna Alchuk, said in an interview that her work — an arrangement of four medallions she found while moving to a new apartment — was intended to explore the religious belief in personal salvation. She recalled that in Soviet times such a theme would have been strictly forbidden; she wonders whether it still is.
"There are many things written in the Constitution — freedom of speech, freedom of religion — but we've seen how they exist in reality," she said.
Aleksandr B. Chuyev, a member of Parliament and, like Mr. Sakharov, a dissident during the Soviet period, disagreed.
Closely allied with the Orthodox Church, he sponsored the resolution calling on prosecutors to investigate the museum. He defended the men who destroyed the exhibition, saying they had acted within their rights to prevent a crime. Democracy, he said, necessitates respect for the beliefs of others.
"There are acceptable boundaries within which it is possible to express an opinion," he said, "as long as it doesn't affect the rights of Orthodox believers."