State of the Arts – art and revolution, again

Victoria Ward

olympic activism

This post is about the arrest of the collective Pussy Riot for essentially singing a song. My thoughts turned to revolution and Pete Seeger. 

If you don’t know who Pussy Riot is, then you aren’t necessarily missing anything but you might want to know that an art collective with a savvy understanding of social media, imaginative (& questionable) acts of vandalism, and also stunningly photogenic is now possibly the most famous art collective there has ever been. Voina (war in Russian) is a collective of young artsy activists in Moscow who, through a complicated schism created Pussy Riot, the now famed punk girl group who played a song for thirty seconds in a church and were consequently thrown into jail for two years.

Western media and artists fell all over themselves to show a united stance against their imprisonment. While I found it impossible to get the details on their arrest or any of their actions – brilliantly media attuned, they keep themselves swathed in mystery with false claims, outrageous viral stories and manifestos – I was one who felt that two years for a relatively caustic but small protest excessive. The women involved and their cohorts had become a bigger problem for the current Russian regime than this one act however. As Voina they had committed all kinds of vandalism, performance art interventions that were pointedly directed at Vladimir Putin. And we all know he doesn’t like to be dissed. So perhaps two years in jail is a lighter sentence than being poisoned.

Last week two of the women jailed were in the US showing up on TV and human rights events and hanging with celebrities (which is what you do now when you are famous for anything. I shudder to think of Mother Theresa, if alive today making a cameo on SNL but these things seem to be what our culture wants). I’ve long suspected that attention is one of Pussy Riot’s biggest goals. I mean they did call themselves Pussy Riot. The Dead Kennedys were noticed for their name too, a band moniker my mother hated and wouldn’t allow their records in the house. Another wonderful contradiction from my mom, the Marxist, she loved the Kennedys. When I first heard of Voina and their interventions/vandalism I thought, “what a bunch of dbags” but then I read about them and felt, hey they have a point. There is no media in Russia, no allowed dissent so how does one bring attention to the fact that artists, homosexuals,journalists and activists were being routinely rounded up or having lots of ‘accidents’.

Bob Dylan & Pete Seeger,  two complicated curmudgeons who sang about injustice.  As we move further away from their initial impact they seem even more revolutionary.
Bob Dylan & Pete Seeger, two complicated curmudgeons who sang about injustice. As we move further away from their initial impact they seem even more revolutionary.

Performance/intervention art has a place in our art world but it is a sketchy one. Whereas Marcel Duchamp and Stravinsky created art which led to riots, some artists today are trying to create riots and then make that their art. I felt that Voina fit into this category. But they had a right to be there because their art (or interventions –  throwing live cats at people isn’t art to me) would never be shown at any institution in Moscow, deserved or not. The streets were the only venue option they had. A repressive regime does this to art and protest; it pushes it out into the open. Most of us make our work and put it up in a gallery hoping somebody sees it and cares. When pushed out of this tidy and lucky world where would you show? Taking to the streets as protest can be a natural evolution. Going online is another avenue and I can tell you art and activism is alive and well on the internet, which is where I thought Pussy Riot would stay and thrive.

I suspect however that the members in the US, after seeing how wealthy celebrities live, their freedom, sense of indulgence and entitlement, might be tempted to forgo their socialist, low income Russian lifestyle for some of that Manhattan fairy dust which has been sprinkled on the coolest people over the last ten years turning them into soft, centric, don’t-rock-the-boat capitalists. Are these women real revolutionaries? Too early to tell perhaps. I think that Pete Seeger, who spent his entire life taking a stand against violence and injustice, never wavering and living modestly without the trappings of cologne soaked success was one. I think it takes a special kind of bravery to not give up on your beliefs, stay living quietly and not suddenly needing a limo and an entourage when in fact you do hit some kind of career height. Becoming famous for your beliefs and inspiring people is awesome – like Seeger for instance, turning that kind of momentum into self aggrandizement, the flip side of the heroic conquest, is vanity writ large.

And yet maybe the act is all that is needed. Going to prison for singing a song is perhaps the only message that matters. It isn’t just. It is an over reach by a government determined to control its own image and revise truth as it happens. We’ve been here before I’m afraid. So now what? What are we going to do about it?

Pussy Riot distances itself from Nadya and Masha and of course Nadya and Masha respond

Bob and Pete pic from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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