Freedom of (Responsible) Creativity: Self-Policing in Russian Art

In a meeting with representatives of Russia’s art community, President Vladimir Putin affirmed the importance of freedom of the arts.

Or did he?

While heralding the value of creativity, he also emphasized the artist’s responsibility not to create art that could offend or provoke. Sounds a lot like self-censorship, put that way.

Putin emphasized that creativity has two sides, and it’s the artist’s job to find the fine line: “I consider the freedom of creativity an inviolable principle. However, all freedoms have their alternate side: responsibility….It is the creative community that should determine the line between a cynical, insulting provocation and an act of creativity.”

This logic might seem to imply that artists have agency in the creative sphere — even when that means creating works that might be viewed as cynical or insulting. However, recent events suggest otherwise, with various artists finding themselves in tight spots and artsy events canceled or banned, often for unclear or unofficial reasons.

A few examples (from relatively mainstream cultural events; opposition art is a different story altogether):

  • Jock Sturges’ photo show with pictures of naked youth was labeled “child pornography” by a senator and protested by conservative picketers, one of whom threw urine at some of the images. The exhibit was quickly closed.
  • A production of the opera Tannhäuser that contained a film showing a young Jesus Christ in racy scenes led to protests by Orthodox activists, and to the theater’s managing director getting fired by Russia’s Culture Minister himself.
  • Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, who opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was convicted on terrorism charges. He is serving a 20-year sentence in Siberia.

The protests that beleaguered the first two events are emblematic of a wave of ultra-conservative activism and heightened adherence to Orthodox doctrine on the part of leaders in the government as well as the church. This “morality politics” has fueled sentiments of anti-liberalism and anti-Westernism on a broad scale.

Another example of this is the cancellation of Jesus Christ Superstar in Omsk in October, after a Russian Orthodox demonstration called for the show to be banned on the grounds of blasphemy. On Friday’s meeting with Putin, famous actor Yevgeny Mironov asked about the ban, and shared the art community’s general worries about the state of creative freedom.

In response, Putin asked that Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky look into the banning of Jesus Christ Superstar immediately (the official reason has since been unveiled: low ticket sales). Regarding creative freedom, the president reminded Mironov of the “fine line between dangerous scandal and creative freedom,” citing the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo as an example of creative people going too far (though the argument could be made that suggesting a parallel between fundamentalist terrorists and Orthodox picketers is also a step too far).

If art that could be deemed risqué, irreligious, or immoral — or push buttons in any way — is off the drawing board, what’s left for creativity? The implication from Putin’s remarks is that little contemporary art — if any — succeeds in adhering to the standards of Putin’s “fine line.”

Which doesn’t mean all art is out. Putin affirmed the necessity of preserving Russia’s rich culture and passing it on to future generations; he named authors such as Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and — as a “contemporary” example — Shukshin (who wrote about simple but heroic common people in the Soviet 1960s — not exactly current or groundbreaking). Putin also cited classical music as an art form worth preserving.

If all art worth preserving is from the last century (or the one before that), does appreciating art mean living in the past? Are “self-control and responsibility” guidelines any artist should follow, or are words like this code for self-policing?

It seems logical to call for caution around artistic works that promote violence or hatred, but when it comes to works that rub some feathers the wrong way, protesting them isn’t just challenging the creator’s freedom of expression: it threatens freedom of expression overall.

Regardless of which way Russia’s moral compass currently points, the trend of targeting artistic events and punishing artists, whether by citizen demonstration or government decree, hinders the ability to learn, to think critically, and to have meaningful dialogues. It might be uncomfy to have those dialogues, but we shouldn’t shut down the platform for debate that provocative art can provide.