A Letter from Poland/Eastern Europe: Performing Human Rights – Pussy Riot vs. the Pseudo Religious, Homophobic, Misogynists of Eastern Europe

by Tomasz Kitlinski, a TCDS alum
Originally published in Deliberately Considered on September 17, 2012

The Pussy Riot trial will go down in the history of injustices as the Oscar Wilde trial of the 21st century. Against the evil powers that be, the Moscow artists acknowledged their inspirers, fellow outcasts: Socrates (this connection to the martyr of philosophy has been noticed by David Remnick in The New Yorker), early feminist, transgender George Sand, and banished by Stalin, carnival researcher, Mikhail Bakhtin. Pussy Riot performs human rights. These women artists attack authoritarianism, misogyny, homophobia In their punk prayer, they protested Putin, the system, discrimination against the second sex, and as they sang, “gay pride exiled in chains to Siberia.” And still many hate them — and because of that they hate them. Why? In Eastern Europe the political class is anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-secular, because our countries have transitioned from false Communism to false Christianity: women, minorities, gays, artists to hell!

A formidable oppositionist movement is gaining strength: the supporters of Pussy Riot who don’t want prejudices to rule their life, demonstrations and shows of solidarity in the region and glocally, indignation of PEN Russia, PEN International, rock stars and the media, petitions (spearheaded in Poland’s leading broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza by art critic Dorota Jarecka and signed by filmmakers Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland, curator Anda Rottenberg, Ethical Art professor Krzysztof Wodiczko ). Slovenian and cosmopolitan Slavoj Zizek wrote a letter to Pussy Riot with his characteristic wit: “It may sound crazy, but although I am an atheist, you are in my prayers.”

The brutal sentence on Pussy Riot encapsulates — beyond the headlines — the predicament which women face in Eastern Europe. Women curators in Hungary have been fired, and the world-renowned New School philosopher, Agnes Heller, has also been subject to a witch-hunt. Female artists and cultural operators in Poland have been humiliated. These prejudices are a major stumbling block in the democratic transition — in fact, phobias are destroying our societies. In Russia, women rebels are being killed: countless Chechen women, the human rights activist Galina Starovoytova, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the conceptual artist Anna Alchuk. When Alchuk was on trial for her art exhibit at the Sakharov Center, crowds surrounding the Taganka Court chanted “Go to Israel!”

During their trial, Pussy Riot sat locked in a cage that was originally built for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now incarcerated in a penal colony. Anti-Semitism permeated accusations again him. The prejudices against Pussy Riot bring back to life the anti-Jewish anti-intelligentsia bias from the Soviet times. Conceptual artist “Kabakov had to endure not only the difficulties faced by all Soviet citizens, but the additional burdens of living in a society hostile to Jews,” wrote Susan Tumarkin Goodman of the Jewish Museum. Pussy Riot makes the silent deconstructive style of Ilya Kabakov not only rude, but carnivalesque, Bakhtinian, bad!

Pussy Riot performed against Putin and about “the Lord’s shit” and “Mary the feminist.” I admire their all-women and queered activism, esthetics and ethics in opposition to the Russian system, to consumerism, to the unjust world order. To fight for our freedom from tyranny-misogyny-art-phobia, Pussy Riot forms a civil society badly in need of swear words, shock tactics and punk prayer. Their viscerally performative power is sophisticated and draws on philosophy and literature: from Montaigne to Judith Butler to Zizek. They sing wryly, not forgetting Derrida’s title Spectres de Marx, “Specters of Zizek washed away in the toilets.”

Pussy Riot continues the Bakhtinian tradition of holy folly and combines it with the explosiveness of punk. Esthetics for them is ethics, following in the footsteps of Dostoevsky and Brodsky and Szymborska (who recalled the equation in her Nobel Prize ceremony). Theirs is a Bakhtinian and a Kristevan madcap, topsy-turvy and humanitarian ethics: an ethics of human rights. Pussy Riot combines feminist and queer art as postulated in Seeing Differently by Amelia Jones. Iconographically and ideologically, the collective reminds me of women’s and LGBT visibility campaigns. Theirs is a socially engaged art as activism, which I’ve described as a new dissident civil society against the “moral majority.”

The women of Pussy Riot are the undesirables of our region: they incarnate nonconformity, protest against autocracy, sexual otherness. At the cathedral, they sang of the predicament of women in Russia, of the forbidden gay prides (Moscow courts have just forbidden queer pride parades for a hundred years!).

Maria Alyokhina told the judge during her closing statement: “I am not afraid of you and I am not afraid of the thinly veneered deceit of your verdict at this ‘so-called’ trial.” Nadia Tolokonnikova thinks subversively in the spirit of Socrates and Montaigne. Katya Samutsevich supports LGBT: “She has called particular attention to the plight of LGBT people in Russia, where official discrimination against so-called ‘sexual minorities’ is growing.” In a song released during the trial, Pussy Riot satirize a botoxed Putin and invite him to marry Belarus’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Same sex marriage for the tyrants.

In Eastern Europe, we’re not only anti-women, anti-minority and anti-secular: we are also anti-art. The women of Pussy Riot are performance artists. And as we know, artists always make trouble. That’s why they have been condemned for disrupting the public order. Homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia are countered by art. The women of Pussy Riot join many other women artists. Together they are dissidents and engaged performative actors in the public sphere, fighting a very tough and significant battle. Pawel Leszkowicz has called this art Women’s Revolt, “new art in the new state.” He tells a story of censored works created after 1989.

In Poland: the art of Alicja Zebrowska, Katarzyna Kozyra, Dorota Nieznalska and Zofia Kulik shows the religious and political pressure imposed on the body in the post-communist Poland of illegal abortion, vulnerability of women to unemployment and generally economic exclusions, sex business and phallocentrism. The artists expose and subvert the visual politics of patriarchy and the structure of gender norms. For her installation Passionwhich consists of a hanging metal cross with photographs of male genitalia and a video of the suffering face of an exercising body builder, a powerful study of masochistic masculinity, Dorota Nieznalska was sued and sentenced.

Nieznalska’s feminist intervention through the radical gesture highlighting the sex of Christ is at the same time a reference to Leo Steinberg’s study Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and its Modern Oblivion. Drawing on traditional religious representations, Steinberg brings to light the exposing of the penis of Jesus. Steinberg argues that the motif of ostentatio genitalium and the sexuality of Jesus is akin to displaying the wounds after the Passion, as it foregrounds the human aspect of Christ, his incarnation.

The League of Polish Families members attacked Nieznalska verbally and physically at the Gdansk gallery where her installation was being exhibited. In July 2003, a Gdansk court found Nieznalska guilty of “offending religious feelings.” It sentenced her to half a year of “restriction of freedom” (she was specifically banned from leaving the country) and ordered her to do work for a Catholic charity and pay all trial expenses. For a long time national venues refused to show her work, but Agata Jakubowska curated her one-woman show Submission and Pawel Leszkowicz featured her sadomasochist works in the exhibitions Love and Democracy and GK Collection. Currently Nieznalska supports the convicted women of Pussy Riot in the Gazeta Wyborcza’s appeal for them.

Because of the censorship imposed on art and on women and minority rights, a second revolution must happen in Poland. The first one in the 1980s, under the banner of Solidarity, was conducted in the name of the free nation and the collapse of communism. The group identity of Poles stands behind it. A second revolution, equally peaceful, should happen in the name of the freedom of women and minorities rights, opposing the danger of fundamentalism.

Abortion is illegal in Poland and calls to restrict the reproductive rights of women resonate throughout the region. A number of cultural and economic constraints are also still in place against women. This anti-art, anti-women domination underscores how post-Communist ultra nationalism blended with religion turned into an instrument of power.

Feudal serfdom survived in Russia and Poland until the 1860s: seniority, humiliations, civic sadomasochism are still intact. The revolt of 1989 was more of a restoration of the status quo ante,  of pre-Communist inequality. The transition taking place in post-Communist countries has now turned ultra-nationalist, as the majority discourse dehumanizes “Others.” The body politic privileges sexual sameness and a one-and-only model of the human: heterosexist, jingoist, fundamentalist. There are “so many devious ways of refusing the claims of humanity,” argues Martha C. Nussbaum. In her bookFrom Disgust to Humanity Sexual Orientation & Constitutional LawNussbaum is also one of the rare western observers to note the homophobia here. She comments perceptively: “Poland, by contrast [to the rest of the EU] still has a great deal of intense antigay feeling, as does Russia.”

The women artists intervene provocatively and shamelessly in the public sphere. Their brouhahas have a serious political message, are ludic, but not ludicrous, dignified, albeit breaking decorum, impertinent and pertinent alike. Pussy Riot neglects neither transgression nor sublimation – for they cure society, heal the ills of us all. The divine represents alterity itself, the most other otherness, and has nothing to do with national identity. Whereas in Poland or Russia the altar joins the throne in an officially holy but, in fact, unholy alliance, it is Pussy Riot who reclaim Mary-Miriam, Maryam (as she is called in the Koran).

Our anti-woman, anti-queer, anti-art prejudices have condemned and punished Pussy Riot. We’ve all sentenced Pussy Riot to the gulag. But Pussy Riot is triumphing now over tyranny, over hatred. Pussy Riot’s Socratic Apology in court is a new beginning. Eastern Europe needs this renewal – desperately.

Ms. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, legendary dissident in charge of the human rights NGO the Moscow Helsinki group told Reuters on the Pussy Riot trial: “As in most politically motivated cases, this court is not in line with the law, common sense or mercy.” Professor Piotr Piotrowski who has postmodernized art history in Eastern Europe wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza: “We must protest this repressive politics; we must defend human rights and freedom of expression everywhere where these values are threatened. Solidarity with the prosecute women artists is our moral obligation.”

It is our duty to demand immediate freedom for Pussy Riot and for all other prisoners of conscience throughout the world. It is our duty to intensify solidarity with all persecuted artists.

 

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