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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.

Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 6:59 AM PT: Global Rally for Pussy Riot on Friday, August 17:
http://apnews.myway.com/...

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for writing this (5+ / 0-)

    I've been watching coverage of it on RT.  Good to see Madonna being worth something in this day and age.

  •  America has learned the lesson a long time ago... (3+ / 0-)

    You don't arrest famous artists.

    You pay them obscene amounts of money, and call their work entertainment.

    If they go off script, you don't arrest them.  You let their distributors punish them.

    Poor artists?  You can safely ignore.

    I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

    by detroitmechworks on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 03:59:27 PM PDT

    •  And give them all the drugs and diversions (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      detroitmechworks

      they desire.

    •  Except Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and many (2+ / 0-)

      others. It isn't wise, but we did it.

      That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

      by enhydra lutris on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 04:53:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yup... a long time ago... (4+ / 0-)

        Now we don't do that anymore.  

        You don't hear about any artists who break the rules politically.  And when they DO, they quietly disappear from the public eye.

        I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

        by detroitmechworks on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 05:04:01 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Sadly, very true: (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          mookins, Free Jazz at High Noon
          You don't hear about any artists who break the rules politically.
          That is part of the problem today. We need another Phil Ochs, Country Joe and The Fish, a Young Bob Dylan, etc. Lenny & Mort Sahl would have a field day.

          That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

          by enhydra lutris on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 05:57:10 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  We have those artists (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            enhydra lutris

            The media just doesn't talk about them.  They most certainly exist, and honestly are rather wise spread.  Of course, if you aren't tuned in to the right music sources you miss them.

            The artists that break the rules start by breaking the rule that you have to be on a big label to matter.

            There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

            by AoT on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 07:57:06 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  It's the same as in the rest of the media realm (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      marina

      you just don't get rich and famous if you have truly radical opinions.  With rare exception.  Mostly artists who have radical opinions get ignored.  M.I.A. is a good example of that.  Muse is another example.

      Most of all, a lot of people don't seem to realize that the big distributors are dying.  The radical music that's out there is coming from the underground as it has for a long time, the business model for most of the industry is just catching up with the DIY crowd.

      There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

      by AoT on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 07:54:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Putin is very wise to be afraid of Pussy Riot. (7+ / 0-)

    Rock and roll is a very dangerous art for for oppressors. This story reminds me so much of Plastic People of the Universe and the other Czech bands that sang against Dubcek in the Sixties, whose music was repressed behind the Iron Curtain yet became an enduring symbol of resistance.

    Putin knows this, and thinks he can stop opposition by jailing Pussy Riot. What he does not understand is that cages cannot hold songs.

    Samizdat will out.

    •  good memory (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      enhydra lutris, Crashing Vor

      IIRC the "Jazz Section" of the musician's union was a major home of dissent.

      "Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war" - John Adams

      by esquimaux on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 04:18:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  He has nothing to fear from them, unfortunately. (2+ / 0-)

      Public opinion in Russia is heavily against Pussy Riot - they've been more a cause célèbre in the West, which is another thing Putin likes to point to (much like LGBT rights: it's not what 'real Russians' want).  He played it as politically well as one could imagine: he condemned their actions but suggested their sentences not too be too harsh.  So he can look like the benevolent dictator.  

      Unlike a group like Plastic People, who were so popular people that hordes of people would sneak out to the middle of nowhere for 'weddings' where PPOTU were playing as the 'wedding band', the only way they could secure legal permission to play (and even then, they weren't always successful.)  Pussy Riot just doesn't have many fans, and even the anti-Putin demonstrators aren't terribly supportive of them.  

      Still, I'm glad they're doing what they're doing.  Provacateurs are a necessary part of society, and their music is a great call-back to classic punk.  

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 06:35:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm kind of torn on this one (4+ / 0-)

        From what I've read they don't have a lot of support from the average Russian, but they aren't trying to justify themselves to the average Russian.  They do have some influence in the intelligentsia and really their actions are aimed more there than at the general public.

        I'm torn because I really want this to be the beginning of a punk rock revolution, but on a practical level I know that's not going to happen.  However, they do have an influence, specifically because they are a group that has a strong rhetoric behind them.  If you look at their closing statement from the trial you can see that.

        There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

        by AoT on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 08:04:23 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yeah, I know. (4+ / 0-)

          The closing statements were important because, as I noted below in the thread with doc2, it helps reestablish their connection with the intellectual tradition they want to be associated with, where the musical provocations themselves were a little less likely to be received that way.

          Ultimately it's less their music than their trial that they expect to be their legacy, and I think they're fully aware of this.  

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 08:35:12 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  It's punk, not rock and roll. n/t (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Crashing Vor

      There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

      by AoT on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 07:58:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  One troubling aspect of it is complete collusion (6+ / 0-)

    between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. Which is of course why their performance was directed at the Church.

    •  that's a tradition (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      enhydra lutris

      as old as the Orthodox Church itself.

      "Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war" - John Adams

      by esquimaux on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 04:16:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, sort of. The head of Byzantian Orthodox (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mookins, subtropolis, pico

        Church was an Emperor but other Orthodox churches were more independent. Russian Orthodox Church was relatively independent until Peter the Great made it essentially a part of the government. In early 20th century the Church tried to  resist the state but failed. And when it was legalized again during WWII the price was total subservience to the government that continues to this day. The funny thing is that in other Orthodox countries (Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Greece etc.) the Church is not nearly as subservient to the government as it is in Russia.

  •  One thing I don't understand about this... (0+ / 0-)

    How did Pussy Riot "storm" the alter?  It seems it was very choreographed, the video I saw implies at least a half dozen people with props and a sound system behind them doing a very good lip-synch.  And it was video'd...with decent production.

    Had to coordinated.

    And supposedly this part of the cathedral was "off limits" to women?  How did they even get the logistics in place?

    Seems like a set up.  They were told "go ahead" and then must have crossed a line with those who gave the initial go ahead sign.  Of course that's typical for repressive regimes.

    •  Off limits, but no barbed wire, nothing to (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mookins, subtropolis

      stop them, really.  Get twentyfive determined people with a plan and just directly walk up to the alter and do your thing in any church, it would be a while before security popped you, even here where they have in house security.

      That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

      by enhydra lutris on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 04:57:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  oh come on (0+ / 0-)

      The same thing could be done in any church just about anywhere.

      All things in the sky are pure to those who have no telescopes. – Charles Fort

      by subtropolis on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 06:19:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  What I hope happens is that (0+ / 0-)

    this young women STFU and make some kind of deal with the state to let them go. They've done good, but at this point they are putting themselves and their families at risk. I hate seeing that. So I hope they just stop, and go home, and go back to making music.

    •  Nah. They know what they're doing. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AoT

      They've got a point to make, and they pretty much have to follow through with it if they want to be credible representatives of that viewpoint.  They know what's at stake.  Very worth reading their closing statements, which include references to Soviet-era artists like Vvedensky, whose life ended in jail after his arrest for allegedly anti-Soviet art.    

      Because public opinion is so widely against them, the best they can hope for is to build up supporters who see how far over the line their treatment is.  Not going to happen if they shut up now.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 06:38:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sorry, but I care. (0+ / 0-)

        They are very young, and are being stupid. If they keep popping off like this, eventually they will be shot. They are already heroes, I would prefer that they don't become martyrs. I think people who appreciate what they've already accomplished should be telling them to stand down.

        •  They have a much better sense (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ciganka

          of what's at stake than you do.   The best thing they've done so far is their closing statements at the trial - it's the one place they were actually allowed to explain the purpose of their protest and put it into a cultural context that even their detractors can understand, and in terms that resonate better with a Russian audience.   Russians aren't terribly impressed by punk anarchism, and you don't hear much support for their music per se.  In fact, the music/performance itself probably polarized more people against them.   In the last week, they've played this a bit more smartly, they'll do their time, and no one's going to shoot them.

          Russian artists are prepared to bring down the wrath of the state, because they respect art differently than we do.  You should see the kinds of things they do that don't make the nightly news.  

          Seriously, read their closing statements and see if the word "stupid" is what comes to mind.  

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 07:11:10 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  The point of encouraging someone (0+ / 0-)

            to do something is that they don't see the wisdom in it on their own. To ignore the opportunity, if presented, to encourage them to choose life over a firing squad, would be immoral, IMO. You know what will happen to them if they don't stop. And when the story of the day is that the band was summarily executed, what would you say then? That they died for a good cause?

            •  Don't confuse concern (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              AoT

              with condescension.  Again, read the statements they released - they're very, very good - and try to understand where they're coming from.   This isn't about you.

              If that's not enough, I don't know what else to tell you.

              Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

              by pico on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 07:26:04 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  statement of Yekaterina Samutsevich (6+ / 0-)
    During the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent or express regret for her deeds, or to enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to express my views about the causes of what has happened with us.

    The fact that Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers that be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power [in Russia].

    Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetics? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, national corporations, or his menacing police system, or his own obedient judiciary system. It may be that the tough, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more convincing, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the helm. It was here that the need arose to make use of the aesthetics of the Orthodox religion, historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.

    Go read the rest: Yekaterina Samutsevich, defendant in the criminal case against the feminist punk group Pussy Riot

    You go grrl!

    All things in the sky are pure to those who have no telescopes. – Charles Fort

    by subtropolis on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 06:02:02 PM PDT

  •  Hooliganism (0+ / 0-)

    If the church believed what the girls did in the church was hooliganism, that seems like a misdemeanor at best.  It should have been treated like a parking ticket. Pay a fine.  Do community service or something on that level.  Keeping them in jail for months and putting on a show trial like from the Soviet days only shows the return to the Soviet days and the power of the Orthodox Church in Russian government.  What's happened to these women is wrong.  

    I wish I could say nothing like that would ever happen in this country, but I'd be wrong.  Miscarriages of justice happen all the time in the USA.  As for Madonna, I thought she was a class act in her protest.  I didn't hear the government of Russia saying horrible things about Sting when he objected to the treatment of these women.  The men in power in Russia have shown themselves to be misogynists.

    Shine like the humblest star.

    by ljm on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 06:54:46 PM PDT

  •  I think we need more Pussy Riots. /nt (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Free Jazz at High Noon, ciganka
  •  It takes some digging: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marina

    Here's an instance of artistic resistance to the Nazis. (Pretty subtle; the "resister" in question, Fritz Novotny, is a fairly well-known art historian.)

    WOID: a journal of visual language http://theorangepress.com/woid

    by WOIDgang on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 09:09:09 PM PDT

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