Friday, March 01, 2013

Pussy Riot: Hooliganism or Heroism

Has any popular artist or band in the new millennium mattered any more than Pussy Riot?

From the beginning, the members of Pussy Riot risked subverting their political message with same flashmob tactics and theatricalized sexuality that they employed to gain attention in the first place.

That group members freely combine Realpolitik and Porn within and beyond the conceptual limits of the Pussy Riot project  also suggests the band is not simply an act, but a lifestyle bent on disrupting culture by lobbing incendiary cognitive dissonance devices directly into the public consciousness.

For one, their balaclavas resemble as much bondage hoods as ski masks; for another, one group member has been reported as being an orgy participant; and yet another alleged member of the collective, participating in a non-Pussy performance piece, if we can call it that, stuffed a frozen chicken into her vagina.

The imaginary mental picture I hold of that performance resembles Caesar van Everdingen's 'Woman Playing a Cittern' made over by Andy Warhol and presented by the Symbionese Liberation Army Puppet Theater Company: at turns funny, repulsive, beautiful, titillating, shocking and despicable.

Of course, some decent folk will resist the notion that a woman with a frozen chicken in her vagina is capable of serious intellectual energy, even if at the same time they ably accept a government whose members are also full of something, and yet also still capable of determining serious matters. After all, somebody is buying dildos in Washington, D.C. and Westminster.

One might reasonably argue that porn is never an appropriate tool for the feminists' arsenal, however, the chicken action is not without precedent. For many, 'How to Snatch a Chicken' is fairly reminisce of a another classic and similarly foodcentric act of defiance: 'The Return of the Chocolate-smeared Woman', by American performance artist, Karen Finely.

In this 1994 piece, that artist smeared her naked body with chocolate with the intention that the act be considered a rebuttal against the U.S. Government's legal threat to impose restrictions on grants for 'indecent art', and specifically her own work (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley).  And as with Pussy Riot's defense against the Russian government, Ms. Finely also lost her case.

She was, however, was awarded a Ms. magazine Woman of the Year award; and today, Finely  teaches at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

So, it may be that long after their jail sentences fade from the press and public memory, that academic appointments and mainstream professional acceptance await the members of Pussy Riot. And if and when that time comes, it may be your children that they arm with their ideas and ideals, the ideas and ideals necessary to question authority where and when others dare not.

But don't be alarmed, it is, actually, a pro-democracy message that both Finley and Pussy Riot deliver.

Suffice to say that that there are many who though otherwise sympathetic to Pussy Riot's message,  they simply find the group's tactics too offensive or annoying to give their political motivations any thought or credence.

Even among Pussy Riot's activist fans, many misinterpret the group's message. Some project their own politics into the Pussy Riot agenda; others have simply leveraged the Pussy Riot situation and look for their own personal cause. But no wonder why! Pussy Riot's performance at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and the group member's subsequent persecution presents a successful paradigm to arts activists.

As Nadezhda Tolokonnikova noted at the end of her trial:

"Every day, more people understand that if the system is attacking three young women who performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for thirty seconds with such vehemence, it only means that this system fears the truth, sincerity, and straightforwardness we represent."

She also explained that the lyric, 'Holy shit', was not meant as a blasphemous attack on the church or the religion, but merely represented 'our evaluation of the situation in the country'.

In the band's defense, Amnesty International's Michelle Ringuette framed Pussy Riot's performance as 'a peaceful protest song in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral that lasted less than a minute' .  Even one band member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, described the Cathedral take down as a display of 'innocent creativity'.

Certainly, these statements were presented only at the service of their defense, however, because they greatly undervalue the impact of the group's punk prayer. If 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out' were merely a peaceful song, the women would have failed in their mission. But they did not fail. By the standards by which dissident art is measured, they succeeded and succeeded wildly.

Not to mention that even when presented as pure entertainment, theater is never innocent. And certainly, no one hijacks a church alter and says or sings "Holy shit, shit, Lord's shit!" who isn’t trying to shock and provoke a strong reaction.

Either way, that Pussy Riot's musical actions in the Cathedral  might be a justified measure against a tyrannical state will certainly be a subject of never ending debate, which means that Pussy Riot's punk prayer will to continue to resonate in the public consciousness for many years to come.