New Traditions in Apolitical Art

Culture & Science
2 August 2013, 10:07

The Great and Grand show, which opened on July 26 at Mystetsky Arsenal (Art Arsenal), was originally planned as a celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the Christianisation of Kyiv Rus. Now, it is better known for the wall painting entitled Koliyivshchyna. The Last Judgment by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, which was ruined by the Art Arsenal Director, Natalia Zabolotna. She claimed that the painting contained inappropriate elements that did not reflect the concept of the exhibition. A monumental painting created specifically for the show, the piece depicted the sufferings of corrupt officials, clergy and filthy rich people in hell. Ms. Zabolotna herself covered it with black paint. The reason for this strange and emotional move surfaced shortly thereafter: on July 27, Art Arsenal was expecting a delegation of “lovers of beauty” from the Church and the government, headed by the President.

The reaction to Ms. Zabolotna’s performance was quick. The show’s curator, Oleksandr Solovyov, and Chief Editor of ART UKRAINE, Kateryna Stukalova, filed their resignations. The group of artists protesting against censorship and clericalisation, waving relevant placards before the official opening of the show, was quickly hustled onto a police bus to prevent them from ruining the ceremonial atmosphere. The artists who were not caught by the police continued their protest inside the Arsenal in front of the ruined piece. In fact, the official opening of the show was not listed in the programme. It appears that the organizers had decided to avoid inconvenient questions and discussions.

A huge banner for the show is now located in the place where Kuznetsov’s piece was supposed to be. Artists lined up in front of it, covering their faces with black cardboard. “I came here for a number of reasons. The key one is the merging of the state and religion; another is a protest against censorship,” says performer Larysa Venedyktova. “This is caused by fear of the expression of freedom – artistic and human.” “One artist was banned today, another will follow tomorrow, and it will be my turn the day after tomorrow: I too have pieces that could be censored,” explains artist Oleh Kharchenko.  

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Artists have split into two groups in the assessment of Ms. Zabolotna’s “act of vandalism”. Some described this as “self-censorship”, while others claimed that this was done on orders from the top. “I think this is first and foremost the problem of people who shut down such exhibitions, because there was nothing that was excessively politically incorrect in the painting. The fact that this is not the first case signals a trend: some people cannot accept the aesthetics of contemporary art and Ms. Zabolotna was overcome by it,” comments art critic Viktoria Burlaka. “I assume that it was self-censorship. Overall, she excluded three pieces from the show; one by Tistol, another by Tsahalov, and this one by Kuznetsov was the last straw.”

The official version that the painting was not in line with the concept of the show seems to be a lame excuse, after walking around the Arsenal and seeing the works displayed. For instance, the graphic piece by Anatol Petrytsky, The Sketch of Costumes for Glière’s Red Poppy Ballet, is interesting and original from an artistic perspective but it hardly fits the themes of baptism or Christian virtues. The same applies to Mykhailo Sapozhnykov’s grand and impressive Tsar of Darkness.

“I saw The Last Judgment before it was destroyed and I think that it was the most powerful piece in the show,” says Kateryna Stukalova, Chief Editor (so far) of ART UKRAINE. “I don’t get it, how could it not fit in with the concept of the project that was supposed to reflect the impact of Christian iconography on art and present the history of Ukrainian art as a continuum of sorts. Kuznetsov painted a fairly classical composition of The Last Judgment with no elements of scandal, violence or transgression. It was just an expression of typical popular hope that all those pro-government crooks who now torment the common people with impunity, can expect to pay a higher penalty in the future. This was a very humane painting, totally in line with the general optimistic context of Ukrainian art as represented in the project. However, it did not fit in with the image of the world painted by those who visited the show on Friday morning – top officials, the clergy, etc.”  

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The act of censorship at the Great and Grand show was not the only attack on Ukrainian modern art. Similar incidents have taken place before, such as the notorious closure of the Ukrainian Body exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre (CCA) by the administration of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Are they political motivated or just the result of the poor education and understanding of contemporary culture? Or are they remnants of the Soviet era? It’s probably a combination of all these factors. “Back in the 1990s, officials removed pieces by Diurych and Podolchak from an exhibition at the Ukrainian House, banned the exhibition of Borys Mykhailov at a Kharkiv museum, and so on,” Kateryna Stukalova recollects. “What has happened here is nothing new. I think it was a remnant of the Soviet mindset, when officials thought that they were more important than experts in deciding what art they should let people see. Plus, poor liberal education in the country and the blossoming of neo-feudal relations is unlikely to prevent further scandals like this.”  

One assumption is that the government underestimates media functions, which it has been taking over lately, as it invests in art as the safest and the most neutral segment. Meanwhile, art is taking over the role of the mass media, focusing more and more often on urgent social issues. “Those in power have fallen into a trap,” Larysa Venedyktova concludes. “Their major problem is that they can’t think.” 

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