The cultural response to Russia’s current political scene is littered with exhibitionists rather than thoughtful critics.

St. Petersburg's artist Pyotr Pavlensky summoned to the Inquiry Administration of the Moscow police for questioning as a suspect in a hooliganism criminal case. Photo: RIA Novosti

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin painted his “Housewarming” in 1937, at a time when Moscow was assailed by the largest wave of purges in Soviet history and when virtually none of his fellow Soviet or Russian artists dared to put the grim reality of apprehensions, exiles and executions onto canvas.

The image presents a housewarming party as a family is settling into a new home. Before even evaluating the quality of the artwork, the viewer is forced to ask “where is the home’s previous owner? Why does the new owner resemble Vladimir Lenin, a Russian communist revolutionary, to such an extent? Why is the image in the right corner of the room, which is not dissimilar to the icons so prevalent in Russian houses before the Revolution, torn out of its frame? And why is there a peasant in the picture, talking to a military commissar?

Although Petrov-Vodkin never got the recognition he incontestably deserves from Soviet authorities and remains largely forgotten by the current cultural trendmakers, this is Russian political art at its best: subtle, inoffensive and leaving ample space for reflection.

A copy of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's painting “Housewarming” in 1937

Petrov-Vodkin’s work  is not unique. Art has always been a part of politics, one way or another. There is a good reason for that: Both are essentially public in their nature and would be devoid of meaning without gaining the recognition of the spectator.

The interaction between political power and artists shapes a country’s cultural heritage. The tsarist censors and their never-ending attempts to bring Russian writers to heel is a good example of this. The phenomenon was amplified by the Soviet state and its unparalleled ability to subjugate art to political needs.

The victory of the Soviets brought radical changes in the way art was used for political purposes. Many remarkable artists riding the wave of revolutionary zeal laid the foundation for many leading cultural movements of the 20th century. Under the guidance of People’s Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky, artists began creating monumental works slated for the celebration of Soviet festivities (Boris Kustodiev), designing futuristic buildings (Kazemir Malevich) and giving the poster a distinctly political quality and new significance as an art form.

However, as the diversified cultural spirit of the 1920s gave way to Stalinist alignment, ardor was replaced by fear, the preceding polyphony by an imposed monologue.

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The Pavlensky phenomenon

The dogmatic pursuit of state-sanctioned art forms led to an opposite reaction – namely, forms that derided the official socialist realism standard. For example, sots-art, a Soviet art-inspired movement initiated by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in the 1970s ridiculed any and all political and sociocultural authority in Soviet society.

In a way, sots-art began as a way to fight art as a propagandist tool of the Soviet regime, depriving it of aesthetic and artistic merits. Sots-art specifically, and Soviet-style conceptualism more generally, introduced a nascent form of performance art to the Russian scene. In the conceptualist wave of the 1970s, the Soviet art world saw the birth of a trend that holds far-reaching consequences today - actionism. Actionists have taken their performances to Moscow’s streets and interacted with the general population directly, often sailing close to the wind in terms of common decency.

The best-known of these actionists is Pyotr Pavlensky. Today his notoriety has even eclipsed that of Pussy Riot, whose incarceration inspired him to sew his lips together in 2012.

A profile in the 1843 magazine describes his recent actions, which included nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square, cutting off his earlobe while sitting on the wall of Moscow’s Serbsky Psychiatric Center and setting ablaze the Lubyanka Square door of the Federal Security Service (FSB), among other notable deeds.

Most of the characteristics of Pavlensky’s art initiatives exhibit are a legacy of the Soviet epoch, or a response thereto. Their intentionally public character and their brusqueness can be seen in the works of Oleg Kulik and Alexander Brener. Even his incorporation of nudity can be traced to the phenomenon of the “away with shame” nudist movement that proliferated across the newly formed Soviet state between 1922 and 1926.

Pavlensky was fined 500,000 rubles for setting the FSB door on fire, creating another whirlwind of accusations vis-à-vis the Russian judicial system. Considering the action committed, he got off quite cheap. Although there are only very few individuals willing to burn down the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington or Thames House in London, committing arson on federal property usually entails a 1-year sentence under the laws of most Western countries.

For example, two Oregon ranchers who burned federal land received 3-year long sentences earlier this year while a young Briton who climbed to the top of Westminster spent 32 weeks in jail for trespassing and criminal damage. The sole fact that Pavlensky could walk around the building at night with a jerry can in his hand speaks volumes about the awareness of the Russian police.

The assertion by Pavlensky supporters that “the burning doors of Lubyanka are society’s slap in the face of a terrorist threat” is plagued by misguided thinking.  Even if one is to believe that the majority of Russians think “the FSB operates by means of continuous terror to maintain control over 146 million people, turning free people into a sticky mass of disparate bodies,”in the words of the artist, it is far from clear that Russian society at large would have asked Pavlensky to resolve the issue.

Masturbating into Moscow’s main swimming pool, crawling naked on the capital’s streets pretending to be a dog or even nailing one’s genitalia to Red Square are not perceived as the deeds of a person seeking truth.

No holy fool

Actionists like Pavlensky are often labelled holy fools, or “yurodivy,” righteous men who feigned madness to, as is stated in the 1843 article, “deliver the higher truth.”

This interpretation, however, disregards almost every reason the philosophical category of “yurodivy” is still held in high esteem in Russia. The “yurodivy” is a highly pious figure, rebuking the hypocrisy, falsehood and crookery in people’s lives and pointing, by the means of their deeds, to the futility of worldly pleasures and the all-encompassing redemption to be found in Christ.

Compare this to the actionist zeal, which never really leaves the sphere of nihilistic relativism.

Rather than a “yurodivy,” Pavlensky more resembles a category that is similarly overrepresented in Russia, that of the self-proclaimed prophet. As opposed to times when the hearts and minds of the spectators could be dazed by exquisite poetry or prose, today it is enough to nail one’s genitalia to Red Square, continuously repeating that the deed is a continuation of the work of Dostoyevsky or Chernyshevsky, to get international acclaim.

A Catch-22 for officials

Russia’s judicial and security services have had considerable trouble dealing with Pavlensky. Now they begin to fear punishing him because that is exactly what he is aiming for -  another demonstration of “autocratic cruelty.”

Paying prostitutes to have them summoned as defense witnesses against him only to create an even greater charade out of judicial proceedings demonstrates that Pavlensky’s ultimate goal is to rob state authorities of their meaning at his own expense.

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This, however, is unacceptable. Russian society at large and the Russian security services in particular should treat Pavlensky and others the same as any common criminal, namely, persecute them for arson if they try to set property aflame, for vandalism if they try to blow up statues and for disorderly conduct if they bite people while acting like animals or shout obscenities at random passersby.

As Russian courts should turn to a more balanced and less pliable approach equally applied to every citizen, Western media likewise should rethink their policy on whom to promote from Russia’s multi-faceted cultural spectrum. If we are to admit that certain Western outlets consciously portray a certain, mostly negative image of Russia, why do they promote an actionist whose “performances” not only break laws, but also that of self-preservation? Wouldn’t it be more rational to present someone with an irreproachable portfolio and no hint of unrestrained madness?

Promoting Pavlensky or members of Pussy Riot is counterproductive not because opposition-minded artists have no role to play in calling out Russia’s political class, but because they are the wrong people to pontificate. As a result of the myopic sensation-seeking approach dominant among today’s popular cultural figures, those who actually have something to say are keeping silent. The Petrov-Vodkins of our epoch might find it too hard to have their voices heard over the preponderance of the Pavlenskys.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.