'Offensive' art abuses religious symbols
Fishman said in an interview for this report that he considers religious issues to be “the most sensitive” and is cautious not to offend religious feelings in his publication, although he doesn’t condemn people who do it.
But most prominent cases had to do not with the media, but with the field of contemporary art.
In January 2003, Yury Samodurov, director of Andrei Sakharov Museum, which is devoted to the promotion of human rights, organized an art exhibit “Beware, Religion!”, which, according to the curator, aimed to highlight the increasingly prominent role of religion in dictating the public taste and dominating the field of ideas.
The exhibit contained objects by contemporary artists, including Ter-Oganyan, which deliberately played with religious symbols. One object, for example, showed Jesus Christ with a bottle of Coca Cola saying “This is my blood.”
Several young men from the parish of Archpriest Alexander Shargunov came to the exhibit “by accident” and were so offended by its content, that they vandalized it with paint. In this conflict, the state sided with the offended Orthodox radicals rather than with the artists or curator. The vandals were cleared of hooliganism charges. Yet with the urging of Shagunov’s Committee for the Moral Revival of the Fatherland – and accompanied by rallies and processions – prosecutors charged Samodurov with “igniting religious enmity,” for which he eventually received a suspended sentence and lost his job as the director of the Sakharov Museum.
But soon after that, together with the former head of the State Tretyakov Gallery’s modern art department Andrei Yerofeev (who lost his position as a result of a conflict with then Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov in connection with a high-profile exhibit project which was considered offending public taste), Samodurov co-organized another exhibit, called “Forbidden Art-2006.”
It took place in the Sakharov Museum in March 2007. This time around, religiously offensive art pieces (such as placement of black caviar in place of the faces of Mary and Child in an icon case, Christ on a McDonalds’ ad saying “This is my body,” etc.) were placed behind a false wall with peep holes, to underscore that the art pieces could only be seen by those who deliberately wanted to see them. Nonetheless, this exhibit also generated a scandal, which resulted in another criminal case.
Prosecutors asked for prison terms for the both curators, and a major debate in the media surrounded the court case, especially in its later phase. The court hearing ended up to be a highly theatrical enterprise, when, on the one hand, Orthodox believers sang hymns in the court lobby, according to the media reports, and an avant-garde art group set loose large cockroaches in the court building.
There was hardly a public figure in Russia who did not speak out either in defense or in condemnation of the curators in the wide debate about values in the society. Interestingly, the defenders of the freedom of expression also spoke in religious terms.
“It is simply a sacrilege to try someone for an art exhibit,” prominent cartoonist Andrei Bilzho said in a radio interview. Finally, on July 12th, the court reached a verdict, which was rumored to be consulted in high Kremlin offices.