I was very much taken this week by the story out of Moscow about the all-girl punk band Pussy Riot going on trial for hooliganism. The pretense of the prosecution is that in storming the altar of Moscow's biggest church and offering up a punk prayer to The Virgin Mary to rid Russia of its serial dictator Vladimir Putin, the women were motivated by religious hatred. There are two of aspects of the story that really appeal to me.
First, I always love the jujitsu use of religious figures to advance liberal points of view. If one side can dare to call upon The Virgin Mary to protect it from the ministering angels of Planned Parenthood, then the other side should at least be allowed to call upon her to protect it from brutish power. If one side is going to call upon Jesus to help advance homophobia, greed and war—causes which he never championed--the other side should at least be able to call upon him to advance causes he did advocate--loving your brother, caring for the poor, and turning swords into ploughshares.
I also love it when artists manage to rise above mere commercial considerations and have an impact that jolts a society out of its complacency. La Marseillaise, The Jungle, Guernica are all vivid examples of artistic works that provoked protest. If Back in the USSR alone did not bring down the Berlin Wall, it's reasonable to suggest that the cumulative effect of rock 'n roll on the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites contributed to shredding of the Iron Curtain at least as much as Ronald Reagan's much too vaunted rhetorical flourish of "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev." (Oh? And "Ich bin ein Berliner" wasn't butch enough for you? The Russkies didn't start quaking in their hobnail boots until Ronnie called them out by name?) I truly suspect that it will be some frothy American concoction like Mama Mia or Glee that will eventually liberate the uber-patriarchal Middle East from control by fundamentalist religious fanatics and oily, polygamous despots.
The historical record notwithstanding, it's rare for artists to create works that lead to actual social or political change. Recently Bruce Springsteen--the quintessential socially conscious artist—came under attack for producing art that does more to reassure his audience that it's doing good simply by virtue of listening to him rather than going out and actually doing good. Leon Wieseltier writes:
But rock n roll has played also another role in American life, which is to prove that Herbert Marcuse was right. There will be no revolution in America. This society will contain its contradictions without resolving them; it will absorb opposition and reward it; it will transform dissent into culture and commerce.To this point, there is a line in Bruce’s recent Jack of All Trades, one of his typical odes to the working man, that goes, “If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” The bastards in this case are the those who have made the working man’s life such a hard scramble—the bankers, the Wall Street brokers, the One Per Centers, and their bought politicians who make laws that enshrine wealth and punish labor. And here’s Bruce calling for violence to be visited upon them, yet there’s no court appearance awaiting him for hooliganism. (On the other hand, if Bruce’s songs were aimed against the poor, the religious and ethnic minorities, and the providers of women’s healthcare, there would definitely be a well-armed audience--oops, I mean militia--out there literally ready to kill for a song.)
Probably no figure in our culture more epitomizes the American phenomenon for co-opting rebellion and turning it into an income stream than Madonna. Did anyone ever try harder to stick it to convention than her only to be rewarded with more and more wealth? It was one of those ironies that reinforce my own view on existence that she was making concert appearances in Moscow during the Pussy Riot trial. She showed her support by wearing the band's trademark balaclava and stripping down to a black bra to show the band's name on her back. (Madonna stripping down to her underwear in protest always brings Shakespeare to mind: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks.") I suspect it killed her to be a mere supporting player in this real-life drama featuring three 20-somethings who aren't just vamping at being bad girls, but actually using their art to speak truth to power.
I don’t mean to turn this into an exercise of Madonna bashing. She was clearly a product of her times—the Gordon Gekko, Ronald Reagan greed-is-good 80s, when Paul Ryan’s girl Ayn Rand released her winged monkeys to spread the word that “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue." And Madonna’s path to money was her outré attacks on religion and sexual mores, which never amounted to more than lucrative performance.
Yet, there is evidence that given the right time and place, an American artist can still be genuinely provocative. A mere passing comment by Dixie Chick Natalie Maines during a concert in 2003 aroused more passion and protest...and real danger to the artist herself-- than any of Madonna's masturbatory fandangos with a crucifix ever did. Natalie stumbled into her firestorm. She didn’t set out to make a career path out of outrage. She never anticipated the cancelled concert appearances, the bonfires fueled by her CDs, the death threats. It was all an echo of the reaction to John Lennon's notorious observation in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. With Maines and Lennon, of course, their spoken utterances more than their music per se were responsible for the outrage against them.
Pussy Riot, on the other hand, seems to have earned their notoriety through their music as well as their actions and avowed beliefs. In their court appearance they cite the works of dissenters who went before them against the Soviet State. That sets them apart from many artists who really don't go looking for trouble, but simply follow their muse...even if she leads them down a dark alley, over a cliff and into a briar patch. Like the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, arrested numerous times for his political protests in China, Pussy Riot is willfully trying to force a traditionally totalitarian society into a more tolerant place for art. The irony in that, of course, is when artistic protest becomes commonplace and accepted, the greatest threat it faces is in being ignored...or dismissed as stale. Although such a liberal environment is much safer for artists on a personal level, for true artists it can be as frightening as the environment where your art can get you jailed.