Rene — Art vs. Religion: Whose Rights Will Come First?

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Art vs. Religion: Whose Rights Will Come First?
New York Times
Sept 2 2003
MOSCOW, Sept. 1 – It was provocative, as modern art often is. But few
of those involved could have foreseen just how provocative it would
become when the Sakharov Museum here opened an exhibition of paintings
and sculptures in January under the title “Caution! Religion.”
Four days after the Jan. 14 opening, six men from a Russian Orthodox
church came to the museum’s exhibition hall and sacked it, defacing
many of the 45 works with spray paint and destroying others.
“Sacrilege,” one of them scrawled on the wall.
The police came and quickly arrested the men, but their actions –
described either as heroism or hooliganism – began a highly charged
debate not only over the state of freedom of expression in Russia
today but also over the ever-growing influence of the Orthodox Church.
Priests denounced the museum – named after the Soviet-era physicist
and dissident Andrei D. Sakharov. Church members began a letter-writing
campaign defending the attackers.
Somewhere along the way, the tables turned on the museum, its director
and the exhibition’s artists. The lower house of Parliament passed
a resolution condemning the museum and the exhibition’s organizers.
The criminal charges against four of the six men were dropped early on
for lack of evidence – even though they had been detained inside the
building. Then on Aug. 11, with several hundred Orthodox believers
holding a vigil outside, a court here threw out the charges against
the others, Mikhail Lyukshin and Anatoly Zyakin, saying they had been
unlawfully prosecuted.
The court made it clear that an investigation should continue – not
against those who attacked the exhibit, but against the museum itself.
“The museum is now the enemy of the people,” said its director,
Yuri V. Samodurov.
The furor over the exhibition has thrust into opposition two groups
that had suffered together during seven decades of state ideology
and atheism. In the 12 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, both
artists and religious believers have flourished in a new Russia. In
this case, though, each side accuses the other of exploiting Russia’s
new freedom to infringe on its rights.
“This freedom opened the gates so that thick streams of dirt are
flooding all around,” the Rev. Aleksandr Shargunov, one of the church’s
most outspoken conservatives, said of the post-Soviet society. “The
church is a very narrow stream of clean water.”
The men who attacked the exhibit are members of his church in Moscow,
St. Nikolai in Pyzhi. Some of them work there, and Father Aleksandr
organized the campaign for their defense and against the museum. He
compared the exhibition to a rape or a terrorist act.
“For a believer,” he said, “this sacrilege is equivalent to the
destruction of a church, which is what happened in the near past
in Russia.”
The museum, dedicated to Mr. Sakharov’s legacy, regularly presents
exhibitions intended to cause debate, including subjects like the
Soviet legacy, human rights and the war in Chechnya. Never before
has one provoked such an outcry.
The exhibition’s works all addressed religion, but Mr. Samodurov
said the theme was not antireligious as much as anticlerical. Some
of the artists themselves are Orthodox believers, he said, and the
exhibition was not meant to offend.
One sculpture, by Alina Gurevich, that offended nonetheless depicted a
church made of vodka bottles, a pointed reference to the tax exemption
the church received in the 1990’s to sell alcohol.
A poster by Aleksandr Kosolapov, a Russian-born American whose
previous work has satirized symbols of the Soviet and Russian state,
depicted Jesus on a Coca-Cola advertisement. “This is my blood,”
it said in English.
Another work was a large icon covering by Alisa Zrazhevskaya, which
took its title from the Second Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Carve
Idols Unto Thee,” and left a hole for a viewer’s head, hand and Bible
like a carnival placard. “Gady,” or “vipers,” was painted on it.
The works are now in the local prosecutor’s office, and most of the
artists have been called in for questioning. The exhibition’s curator,
Arutyun Zulumyan, an Armenian, has gone into hiding.
The museum’s lawyers received notice the week before last that a
commission of experts had been formed to decide whether the exhibit
incited interethnic or interreligious hatred, which is a crime in
the Russian criminal code. Mr. Samodurov said he feared that the
outcome was predetermined because none of those appointed, he said,
were experts in modern art.
If charged and convicted, the exhibition’s organizers could face
$7,500 to $11,600 in fines, three years of probation or two to four
years in prison.
Another artist, Anna Alchuk, said in an interview that her work –
an arrangement of four medallions she found while moving to a new
apartment – was intended to explore the religious belief in personal
salvation. She recalled that in Soviet times such a theme would have
been strictly forbidden; she wonders whether it still is.
“There are many things written in the Constitution – freedom of speech,
freedom of religion – but we’ve seen how they exist in reality,”
she said.
Aleksandr B. Chuyev, a member of Parliament and, like Mr. Sakharov,
a dissident during the Soviet period, disagreed.
Closely allied with the Orthodox Church, he sponsored the resolution
calling on prosecutors to investigate the museum. He defended the
men who destroyed the exhibition, saying they had acted within their
rights to prevent a crime. Democracy, he said, necessitates respect
for the beliefs of others.
“There are acceptable boundaries within which it is possible to express
an opinion,” he said, “as long as it doesn’t affect the rights of
Orthodox believers.