After a year of disillusionment and stagnation, many liberals in Russia are wondering whether the cultural elite is able to maintain and propagate the freedom of creativity? The recent firing of museum director Marat Guelman in Perm over a controversial exhibition was symbolic – it became clear that art will not escape the tight grip of the authorities.
Marat Guelman, the Muscovite art curator who founded provincial Russia’s first – and only – modern art gallery PERMM in an abandoned Stalinist ferry station in the Ural city of Perm, has been fired over an exhibition satirizing the sensitive topic of the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
An era of grayness has arrived, in politics and in culture. Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in December last year, social and political tensions are intensifying. Intolerance and twisted historical narratives prevail, as does the praise of traditional values. The ultra-conservative, homophobic and xenophobic values supported by the Russian state have created an ever-deepening rift between art and society.
After a year of disillusionment and stagnation, many liberals in Russia are wondering whether the cultural elite is able to maintain and propagate the freedom of creativity?
So far, this year has proven to be difficult for artists. In Rostov-on-the-Don, the Orthodox community demanded to ban the opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” as it offended believers, Cossacks in Saint Petersburg won their battle to shut down a theatre production of Nabokov’s “peadophilic” classic Lolita. In Krasnodar, dozens protested the opening of Mr. Guelman’s exhibition “ICONS”, waving crosses. Such events not only disillusioned artists, but also prompted them to go increasingly underground.
As the space for a free public debate is being reduced, art is playing an increasingly important role as an arena for new ideas and independent debate. Russian contemporary art exists between politics and society, commercialism and authoritarianism, traditionalism and new ideas. It is no surprise, that it is becoming increasingly politicized.
“Politics came to art. In December 2011, when the protests against election fraud started, the artistic community realized that they have ceased to be the avant-garde of society. Whilst they were busy with museum projects and doing exhibitions abroad – society overtook art and became more radical. This was a wake-up call”, Marat Guelman tells me.
Russian state TV is trying to prove that there is another artistic intelligentsia, one that is not so “obsessed with liberalism” and not so “russophobic”. But although the mastery over human minds is almost obsessive inside the Kremlin, finding the means and the appropriate people to do so is becoming increasingly difficult – this is epitomized by last month’s sudden departure of Vladislav Surkov, the very creator of Putin’s initial propaganda machine.
Last year, the Moscow Design Museum celebrated the 50th anniversary of its famous avant-garde exhibition. At the time of its opening, Khrushchev screamed at artists and asked them: “what the hell are you – blokes or faggots?”. Fifty years later, many in Russia still share this opinion on modern art.
“We are the only ones who can push Russia towards Europe. Because even the opposition, whatever its views, is forced to look at voters. The artist can step aside and say that, in fact, nobody is right.” Mr. Guelman retains.