Visual Arts And Cross Into Politics Cultural Studies Essay

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This dissertation seeks to explore the issues surrounding the recent Pussy Riot trials in Russia. In order to undertake this exploration it will examine; the Pussy Riot trials and how they affected Russian politics and human rights; the history of art in Russia and other influential political art collectives and the use of religious iconography. The history of Feminist performance and how it paved the way for young girls to create ways of making their voices heard and points made through the power of being female; touching on the 90's Riot Grrrl movement.

Sources related closely to Pussy Riot will be taken online and from newspaper articles as information on the subject is still fresh in people's minds and not yet in book form.

As today in Syria or North Korea, public places were controlled, propaganda was sweeping and terror was extensive. However even in a society engrossed by fear, young individuals now create new ways to convey their restlessness, as they have in recently in the North Africa, Ukraine and the Arab world. Just like the numerous political prisoners in Russia at present, they have also learned how to use social networking along with popular culture to their advantage with websites such as Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, introduced by Western societies, as instruments of defiance against the communist government and making once silent voices heard.

Mankind has always been eager to be the strongest, largest, most powerful, fundamentally the finest in everything. This statement is clear for the Russia who is deemed the largest country in the world. Russia manages to cover one sixth of the whole globe's land mass and has played a significant role in modern history. Although, in order to comprehend how a country has developed into what it is now, one must reflect at its society. A country's society reflects not only its people but also its expectations of the future and history.

Many things reflect Russia's varied culture but two of the main factors are of art and the church.   Like numerous other countries, religion has definitely played an immense role in the structure of Russian society and its values towards success. Their main place of worship is known as the Russian Orthodox Church, this holy place being around one thousand years old and in the region of half of the country's population belonging to it. This being said, the vast majority of Orthodox believers do not attend church on a regular basis. Russians have also turned to various new beliefs, parties, and religious denominations. However, the Russian Orthodox Church is very much valued amongst advocates and agnostics, who see it as an icon of Russian tradition, heritage and culture.   

Since Pussy Riot formed they have made numerous headlines with a series of illicit guerilla performances that included performing a piece aptly named 'Revolt in Russia' on the symbolic Red Square in January 2012. Eventually they were arrested under Russia' stern illegal protest laws, but on this occasion all eight band mates were released without charge.

The recent Pussy Riot trials in Russia have highlighted the continuing need for women to challenge authority and assert their independence within Western Society. It may appear as if women have achieved much over the last fifty years, but recent statistics have shown that as a result of the economic recession it has been women who have taken the brunt of the cuts.

With un-employment amongst women aged 50 to 64 has a rising of 39% in two years compared with 5% rise for all over-16s in the UK alone1 whether it is a student, breadwinner, daughter or carer, this is the glue that holds society together, if they write off this part of society then we as a whole are lost. Females who are at risk of the cuts are most definitely not an industry or 'interest group' they are 50% of this nation.

In Stalinist Eastern Europe, political parties were banned and criticism of the government was dangerous. Just as today's North Korea or Assad's Syria, public spaces were forced, propaganda was across the board and fear was extensive. Yet even in a civilization engrossed by fear, young individuals created ways to communicate their discontent, as they have recently in the Arab world and North Africa. Much like the young women of Pussy Riot in Russia, they too have also learned how the use of pop culture and the ever growing power of social media sites can be used as a means of resistance against the communist regimes. 

Modern Communism was thought up and developed by a man named Karl Marx who was the brains behind creating Marxism and this is what communism as we know it today was based upon. Karl Marx created this philosophy in the 1840s and the first communist party to come to authority was the Bolshevik Party which gained control of Russia and created the Soviet Union. This happened in the early 20th century and so from this we can establish that communism has been around from 1910s-20s through to present day. This was when the art movement Socialist Realism was created and then, in later years, used by the communist governments to create an alliance of the people within the country. This realistic art was also used to romanticize the truth and to glorify the roles that the working class societies were playing within the country; this was to make the people feel they were personally involved with the sustained existence of the country.

At the beginning of the 20th century in Russia, during the civil war, the innovative government largely used the arts as a means of advertising its ideas and aims.

One of the most significant types of Russian propaganda art of that time was the influential political advertisement/poster. It is through this choice of medium and with the power of mass media in which the government called on the Russian nation to learn to read, write, lend a hand those less fortunate or in need and making it a proud and immensely successful nation, fighting for apparent freedom and justice and having passionate adoration towards their country. Soviet posters began to first appear in Russia during the Proletarian Revolution and so bringing Communist Party's slogans to the masses.

A number of posters would be hand drawn; producing the posters this way would give these artists independence from the press and thus making it possible to react straight away to the most current issues as rapidly as possible. This way of producing has become an important attribute of Russian propaganda art. The posters themselves had individual characteristics: vibrant colours, clear lines with lack of small details and bold shapes, additional strength.

One unconventional example of Russian propaganda art had brought around a unique phenomenon in Russian art of the early 20th century; agitation porcelain which proclaimed the ideas and ideals of the revolution and was an important propaganda weapon for the new rulers.

Agitation porcelain was produced by artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Nikolai Suetin in dreary conditions, from time to time in starvation, under the management of Sergey Chekhonin. In 1923-24, they designed their globally- famous Suprematist works, which included classics of design history; Malevich's white teapot and the half-cup. Agitation porcelain immediately became enthusiastically wanted and sought after by international art collectors. However it didn't become used by the masses or art for the people.

Instead of ordinary floral and idyllic subjects these porcelain objects embellished with symbols of the Soviet Republic. With designs such as the hammer and sickle, and slogans like "Кто не работает, тот не ест"-"Those who don't work don't eat".

In the present day Soviet agitation porcelain, demonstrating Russian propaganda art; are now admired items in collections of museums not only in Russia but also overseas as well as private collections.

Communism has long been connected with Russia. Even as this country rose to a democracy, suggestion of Russia's socialist past still linger over this supposed 'forward thinking' country. Pussy Riot had made global headlines with their taped performances in controversial locations. Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, were found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" due to the staged performance in February 2012 rallying against president Putin ahead of the country's elections in March. Pussy Riot are a feminist performance group formed of friends that embraced similar principles at anti-Putin rallies in Moscow, forming a revolution based around "punk ethics and political activism". The identities of the collective's members are hidden from the public; wear eye catching bright, colourful attire and balaclavas to their protests and events, inviting other members of the public who share the same ideals to join, disguised as well.

When asked about the chosen name of the group one member named Garadzha stated; "A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place. Sexists have certain ideas on how a woman should behave and Putin, by the way, also has got a couple thoughts on how Russians should live. Fighting against all that - that's Pussy Riot." (Vice magazine 2012)

On February 21st, the group crossed the threshold of the altar and began singing and dancing in front of tourists and clergy at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They delivered approximately forty seconds of the "Punk Prayer"; "Mother of God, put Putin away" asking the Virgin Mary to drive out Russian president Vladimir Putin from the church, before being removed by security guards. Pussy Riot assured their performance in Moscow's main cathedral was not to be an anti-church demonstration, and was entirely based on criticizing President Vladimir Putin. Some see the song itself as 'Punk poetry' whilst others describe it as blasphemous. But the fact of the matter is Pussy Riot live, vote, pay their taxes in a country in which the Russian Orthodox Church and its deep links in structures of power have had a colossal control over their lives, politically and culturally.

During the 20th century, the bodies of artists, and the public alike, were beginning to be commonly used more and more as both the entity and the subject matter, the piece itself. Bound, beaten, unclothed or highlighted features etc: 'the body is presented in all possible guises, as the artist quite literally lives his or her art either publicly, in performances or privately, in video and photography'.

This long standing tradition of self portraiture had began to take a distinct left turn, and the influential performance artists were at the forefront of this defiant movement to take art outside of the galleries and into the unconventional media, and in some cases controversial spaces -- much like Pussy Riot today, it's clear to see that performance art would have played a distinct role in their political piece. The ties between art and life itself would then be worn away, as were the ties between somewhat sensual and visual experiences amongst viewers.

By establishing narratives of real life situations, their own experiences within the perspective of performance, the artists point out the extent in to which history, gender, and identity are all socially constructed performances and are the main focus to the manipulations of power.

Before Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were members of a collective named Voina (meaning War).Voina is a made up of a controversial group of Russian actionist artists that engage in radical street protest actions; Political protest art. The collective have protested against the somewhat total elimination of freedom of speech, against the violation of human rights, and against the complete liquidation of democracy that has taken place in Russia in current years.

The popularity of politically engaged art tends to surge and decline, depending, of course on the current socio-political and economic climates. Commodity artists and activist artists coexist.

"We had sex in public and this doesn't frighten us anymore, we invaded a police station and this doesn't frighten us anymore. What more is there that can scare us? We will deal with death in the future. Soon we will be completely fearless." (2012)

To this day, over 200 activists have participated in Voina's artistic protest actions and at least 20 criminal investigations into the group's activities have been initiated (

On Voina, curator Artur Żmijewski had said (to, "The art group participates directly in politics, something no other group in Europe does. They are absolutely unique. Their actions test the durability of democracy. Their fame is linked to the fact that their actions reflect the Russian political process, the process itself is split in two: partly European yet wildly different." And has also written "The Voina group are the last of the righteous, who speak to us of how things should be, so that they may once again come true."

A VOINA political activist in a police uniform clothes in an Orthodox priest's cassock with a enormous crucifix stole from a high class supermarket in Moscow. Accompanied by the group, Mentopop walked out carrying and without paying; 5 large bags with delicatessen and elite alcohol. The crime was committed with the impunity enjoyed by priests and cops in today's Russia.

Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group have gained much interest due to their scrupulous attitude of self-proclaimed sextremism which has turned into becoming infamous for organising naked protests. Some of the prominent examples of their work are the topless protests at the 2012 Olympics in London, in hostility towards "bloody Islamist regimes" or the cutting down of a crucifix in Kiev, in support for fellow feminists, Pussy Riot  just as a Moscow court was due to deliver its verdict in the case.

 This goal of feminism expressed by Femen and their strategies are indicative of the idea that "Western ways" of thinking are in some way essentially legitimate and greater. Their feminism however, is not a cultural paradigm that can be applied to all.

Fuck the police! FEMEN against Putin in Brussels, December 21, 2012 - with Anna Hutsol.

The third wave of feminism began, roughly in the early 1990's, well known by its assertion on various definitions of feminism and its capability of embracing the vast variations females. It began predominantly with groups of young women who would be too young to partake in second wave feminist activism in the 70's and 80's. This in turn was the generation that spread the belief that any girl could create and embrace her own take on feminism. It was necessary for the feminist movement to be aware of the diversity of women with the intention of gaining further equality. Because of the cutting edge mass media in the 90's, third wave contributors were also more alarmed with the cultural depiction of women and its effects at this time.

The term "third-wave" can be traced back to the mid 1980's when a group of feminist activists and academics got together to produce an, at present, unpublished collection they titled The Third Wave: Feminist Perspectives on Racism.

Riot Grrrl has always been a force to be reckoned with; it was an underground feminist movement which was very much united with punk music, feminism, radical politics, and a DIY aesthetic. Riot Grrrl activism concerned meetings, the creation of zines, artwork alike and a national network of support for females performance, whether it be musically, poetically or indeed artistically. Although many say the movement lasted until the mid nineties, others argue that it never ended. With the recognition of Sara Marcus's book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, it appears that there may be various truths to that assertion.

Riot Grrrl followers also glorified flesh. Using their own bodies as artwork, they become an art form themselves. Performing with captions such "RAPE VICTIM" and "INCEST" on their stomachs, hands, and arms; and through these signifying practices of shock and political art, they refused to be silent. Clearly accustomed to the "male gaze," Riot Grrrl members adorned their bodies with labels such as "BITCH" and "WHORE"; in marking the body this way, they are mirroring, and hoping to alter, the perception men already have of women. 

And there are many zines, which tell the tale of the origins of the movement (Jigsaw-1988, Girl Germs-1989, Bikini Kill-1990, SNARLA; to name a few). In 1993, according to a Canadian newspaper (as mentioned in Girls to the Front), 40,000 zines were published in North America alone. (2010)

But as the next quote states, the power of Riot Grrrl managed to travel its way overseas and influence a whole new group of European followers wanting to reach out, create and thus inspire women and know that they were not alone.

"Why is there something odd and unnatural about women who want to try to do something with their lives? Why are women such fucking appendages in everything? Feminism isn't over, it didn't fail, but something new must happen- Riot Grrrl… Next time a guy feels your ass, patronises you, slags off your body- generally treats you like shit- forget the moral high ground, forget he's been instilled with patriarchy and is a victim too; forget rationale and debate. Just deck the bastard."

- 1993 issue of Leeds and Bradford Riot Grrrls zine.

"We live in a generation of apathy and ignorance. We live in towns that no-one has any respect for anymore. We live lives and abide by the rules set for us, day in and day out. Media subliminally feeds us ideas of how we should be, look like, what we should think and what our tastes should be; it's bullshit and it needs to change. The Barbie dolls we see on the front of red-top newspapers and on TV are not our sisters. They aren't our friends and they are not a force to change the sexism in this world. Male-domination has well and truly taken over the media/music/films etc. We are not second class citizens and we have as much right to be here as men do. This is not acceptable."

But when does art become music? Pussy Riot have been described as a feminist punk rock group, a punk rock collective. Released member of the group.

Since the jailing of Pussy Riot the Moscow City court has established, for the second occasion, its verdict banning all LGBT pride events in the Russian capital for the next century.

"In the nearest future we will contest the authorities' actions over the 100-year ban on gay pride events in the European Court of Human Rights. Through this we will eventually achieve that the bans are recognized as unlawful, not only for the past, but for the future gay parades in the Russian capital," the Interfax news agency quoted Alekseyev as saying.

Pussy Riot's performance of the 'Punk Prayer' included a reference to the country's victimized LGBT community with the line 'Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains'.

A court in Moscow has selected four videos made by Pussy Riot (or sources closely related) as extremist, the group themselves are now being described as extremists. The Zamoskvorechye District Court in the Russian capital ruled that access to all websites hosting the videos must be restricted. In relation to the court's decision, websites that do not remove the Pussy Riot videos will face severe penalties, which include fines of up to 100,000 Rubles (around £2000).

On June 8, 2012, Putin signed into law a measure imposing weighty fines on citizens who organize or take part in unauthorized demonstrations, giving the Russian authorities authoritative power to clamp down on the ever growing antigovernment public protests ignited by his unlawful decision that he intended to return to the presidency and re-energized by his inauguration in May.

Four days afterwards, around 10,000 protesters gathered in central Moscow in defiance of the Kremlin ban.

Tracy + the Plastics is the given name of the electro pop solo project of Wynne Greenwood, a lesbian feminist video artist based in Olympia, Washington she started this project with, what she describes as "myself - and myself - and myself". She played all the roles of the band -- Nikki (keyboards), Cola (drums) and Tracy (singer). Live, Nikki and Cola would be included as imagery in a projected landscape that backs her up and fills her in. Pre-recorded music would begin to play through speakers. She would then begin to sing live and talk to her band mates in between songs. Nikki goes on to ask Cola why she puts socks down her pants -- to look like a dick or a third dimension? Cola would then turn to Tracy and asks for her advice. "I don't put socks down my pants" declares Tracy - Cola says that she does it to look more real.

"There's a history, a reality created by the interaction between the self and the image of the self. - When an individual in a marginalized group talks to a recorded image of themselves it empowers the individual to open the door to the understanding and celebration that she/he/it can be deliberate. It is an interaction with a fragmented self". By fragmented, Greenwood means a consistent individuality that's constructed from different, often contradictory, elements of culture, society, and existence that we identify with because popular culture has no complete identity to offer its audience except one that resembles the ruling class. "We can come out. And then come out again. We can rearrange our world how we want it." - Wynne Greenwood (2001)

"Defining Miranda July is like trying to define a colour" (Chang, 2000) - when faced with the sheer range of her work - single channel video, experimental audio, multimedia performance, fanzines, riot grrrl film and videotape distribution.  July is a Portland, Oregon-based artist spellbound by codes, systems, and the erroneous belief of the ordinary affected by things such as education and IQ tests, also a somewhat fascination with human interactions and relationships. She's at her finest when she manages to show systems breaking down, altering, or cleared of the substance that gives them meaning.

July began to catch local attention whilst still in high school in Berkeley, MI, when she created a play (The Lifers) derived from a pen pal relationship with a convict in the California prison who was jailed for murdering a man who had frequently stole from his petrol station. She found him through an advert for a prisoner - pen-pal type program in the back of a magazine. July went on to move to Portland, OR, and became emerged into the Riot Grrrl scene since this appeared the place to be for DIY music and art specifically targeting women with a voice, who needed an outlet. It wasn't merely the depths of the politically activated music scene, but the ideals and aesthetics of the Riot Grrrl movement, with its emphasis on female empowerment, community, sexuality and activity, which resonated with July's work. In 1996, out of this eager hotbed of creative female community arose the Big Miss Moviola project (but legal threats from the owners of the word 'Movieola' strained July to modify the name of her project to Joanie4Jackie) a creative and incessant video chain letter. Female filmmakers and performance artists alike would produce a short film. The recorded piece would then be added to a compilation tape containing ten other female artists. The tape would then be sent back to the contributor.

"You always suspected it and now you know it's true: Girls and women are making movies everyday" - Joanie4Jackie

All women were invited and encouraged to participate, despite technical skills, using any medium that was available to them, By August 2000 there were upwards of 100 films still in distribution. The initiative for Moviola emerged from July's observation that the earth is full of inspirational films and people that cannot be seen or heard. And she takes this farther by stating she is also stimulated by films that yet to be made. July claims all of her writing is taken from the subconscious.  The curators for this project included Miranda July, Rita Gonzalez, and Astria Suparak. The Joanie4Jackie series was also screened at various film and DIY film festivals and events. Up to now, thirteen versions have been released, the latest being in 2002. Prominent DIY filmmakers who have contributed to this project include Mary Billyou, Tammy Rae Carland, Lisa Hammer, K8 Hardy, Sarah Jacobson, G.B. Jones, Tara Mateik and Miranda July herself.

Nowadays, her films illuminate the ordinary, lampoons of relationships, the fundamental weirdness of sex, and remind us of what it feels to be human. July plays on the tension of relationships, the uncomfortable bits and the joys. She makes you snigger, and feel good without making you feel like a simpleton in the process. She allures you not with trickery, but with what is desired as truth, or at least something within reach. For the male spectator, her films also offer the unusual delight of inhabiting a characteristically woman sensibility.