In a candid interview with the Germany’s Deutsche Welle last week, the Russian art historian Ekaterina Degot stated that freedom in Russia’s cultural sector is quickly diminishing. “A month ago, or even one week ago, I wouldn’t have told you what I’ll say to you now,” she said. “Independent-minded people urgently need support. What we’re experiencing at the moment can be compared to the Iranian Revolution — there we saw a catastrophic fundamentalism and clericalization of knowledge as well as culture.”
The dwindling liberties of Russian artists, musicians and writers to criticize their government has entered the international spotlight in recent years. Back in 2010, two Russian performance artists of the art collective Voina were arrested for a performance protesting corruption. In March 2012, members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot were infamously sentenced to prison after criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin. This April, Russia fired Grigory Revzin, the commissioner of the Russian pavilion for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, because it disliked his political views about the Crimean situation.
“We thought the world of contemporary art wouldn’t be targeted by the state ideologues, because it’s too elitist and receives such a small amount of funding,” Degot said of Revzin’s dismissal. “We were sure the days when the KGB was interested in small, underground exhibitions were long gone. I’ve even written that myself, but I was wrong.”
Most recently, Putin signed a law banning all swearing in film, television, theater, and books. He also passed legislation requiring bloggers to register with the government, which will undoubtedly impact internet freedom.
The art world has struggled with how to respond. In August 2013, a petition circulated online asking Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, to boycott Russia and move the event out of St. Petersburg. That call was denounced by Manifesta’s organizers but praised by others, such as the Russian artist collective Chto Delat, who announced its withdrawal from the biennial in March. The fact that more artists haven’t dropped out highlights a prevailing fear of abandoning Russia’s artists and falling into the trap of Cold War-era thinking, a matter further complicated by a letter, signed by more than 500 cultural sector workers, backing up Putin’s policies.
“I am in complete agreement with Vladimir Putin when he says, ‘The West hasn’t accepted Russia as an equal partner,’ or ‘The West doesn’t listen to Russia,’” Degot said. “But Putin is coming up with the wrong answers to the right questions. I was astonished to find that many of my Western friends see Putin as ‘the only one who can take on American imperialism.’ To people here in the West, I’d like to say that what is happening in Russia right now is a fascist, fundamentalist coup on every level.”
Degot was formerly based in Moscow, but in March she took on a two-year post as director of Cologne’s Akademie der Künste der Welt (Academy of the Art of the World) — which may explain her comfort at speaking so frankly. She went on to say that Russia’s cultural institutions have become increasingly politicized, pointing to the abundance of exhibitions revolving around the avant garde painter Kazimir Malevich. “His art is interpreted as patriotic and anti-Western, and in the museums they say, ‘Since we can’t do anything else, let’s exhibit Malevich.’”
When asked about Manifesta, Degot criticized the boycott, saying that Manifesta is actually exactly what Russia needs right now:
A boycott would only make sense if it could make an actual difference. Perhaps a boycott of the Olympics in Sochi could have made a difference, because it was a very important international event and generated broad public interest. But “Manifesta” is a much smaller event and it’s not going to matter to Putin and his supporters whether it takes place or not. They would probably be glad if it didn’t take place. But I’m convinced that artists need to come to “Manifesta” and present their work there, because art is critical by nature.
Russia is currently going downhill; it’s like a submarine that can only send individual signals to the outside world.”Manifesta” is one way to send a signal. Very soon there might not be any more of these kinds of opportunities.