Art in Russia: Revolutionary or Criminal?

Russian authorities recently ordered the destruction of an art collective digitally depicting President Vladimir Putin’s headshot disintegrating over a seed box through nine time-lapsed photos. While it is no secret that Russia strives to stifle protests and publicly conflicting points of views that detest Putin’s presidency, this recent event was the first public act of Russian authorities ordering the removal of digital art. The court presiding over the issue did not rule in favor of the artists. They were charged a fine and the case ruled that it was permissible due to the fact that it was digital. The involved artists assumed this would be the outcome, so instead they took the opportunity to use the publicity as media coverage for a larger issue in the country: censorship.

While the art market has increasingly grown and expanded in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, censorship of implied revolutionary addendums have continually been censored. Varya Mikhailova, the main artist of the degrading photo, soon after her court case participated in a march, holding the physical image of her art in peaceful protest. However, she was detained as a result, officials stating that her art was not “approved.” Her portrait was then confiscated and never returned to her. As a result of the publicity surrounding her story, activists began printing her photo on merchandise and selling it to cover the fines placed on the group of artists in the aftermath of their court hearings.

As Christopher Marcisz wrote in a recent Hyperallergic article, “The subversive nature of the work, and the universe of irony it stumbled into as a result of the subsequent case, is a reflection of how young artists and activists are responding to the current political climate” . Art has the ability to depict the true nature of a reality, or at least a perception of it, that can be universally understood or recognized. The response activists took up in response to the artists’ struggles demonstrates that the art, while considered criminal in the eyes of the government, was also revolutionary.

Critics around the world interpret the degrading photographs to represent a lost hope for change and the deterioration of Russia’s political climate. When you look at it what is your first interpretation? Does the art and the acts around it depict a lost hope or abandonment of revolution in Russia?

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Aubrey Schafer

One thought on “Art in Russia: Revolutionary or Criminal?

  1. Hello Aubrey!

    To answer your two questions, I first looked at the art and saw a slow degradation of Putin. I see him slowly deteriorating, but his presence is never absent. I think this could allude to Putin’s aging as he is getting older and his health status is questionable. For many Russians, they’re wondering who’s next, when there is no known successor Putin has groomed to replace him and his ideas. I think this is because he does not want to see Russia not in his control. Despite the several cosmetic procedures including he has endured to hide 70 years of life, his prime is behind him. Back to the art, I think it depicts a lost hope of revolution, as Putin’s rule has set a precedent for power hungry autocrats in Russia who care more about control than the well being of citizens. With a zero-tolerance policy for dissent, oftentimes disagreement means jail time or death. This will be a hard policy to dissolve, even after Putin eventually dies.

    Putin’s Russia has established an autocracy where opposition has zero tolerance. This is a scary reality for Russians, and a threat to those outside of the former Soviet Union. When freedom of speech and expression are taken away, no society can be truly free. Art is a very subtle way that Russians are able to express opposing opinions to their country’s rule as the government acknowledges that art is up to interpretation. This is common in Russian music where artists are able to convey subtle messages with little pushback by the government. Self expression is discouraged in Russia, but many of the most successful “opposition” movements in the country have their roots in art.

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