Pyotr Pavlensky lit a Parisian bank on fire this week in a stunt that mirrored his previous action in Moscow, when he set fire to the door of the FSB (formerly KGB) headquarters in 2015.
He’s been both vilified and lionized in Russia and throughout the West for his actions. Hailed as a dissident, provocateur, and artist/actionist, Pavlensky is famous for stunts like nailing his scrotum to the Red Square or sewing his mouth shut in defense of Pussy Riot. He’s also been attacked in Russia as a traitor or an agent of the West.
Some have said that his art isn’t really “art”.
I won’t be making such a claim – I’m in no position to start handing out certificates of authenticity for what is or isn’t art.
For me, what is striking is that we still allow Pavlensky to self-identify as an artist, rather than insisting that he receive the proper label: rapist.
Whether it comes to his violent sexual assault of the actress Anastasia Slonina last December or the important history of his violence towards women (either physically) psychologically) and acting as a defender of that violence, Pavlensky’s “art” must be seen in the context of his surrounding life. For example, no one ought to forget when his wife, Oksana Shalygina, cut off her finger in some bizarre act of loyalty.
One thing is clear: misogyny surrounds his life.
Consider Pavlensky’s court “art” in Moscow during the trial in 2016. Pavlensky paid sex workers to take the stand and say that the arson of the FSB headquarters was not an art piece.
His point in all this? Pavlensky was trying to say that the legal system is full of “whores”, so they should have to deal with “whores”.
Notably, it was during this period that Pavlensky publicly attacked feminists, continuing a long tradition of “leftist” men attacking feminists.
Putting this all into perspective, Pavlensky should not be called a “Radical Protest Artist”.
He’s a man who has brought about tons of violence into the lives of women. Pavlensky can no longer be called an “artist” in the same way that we no longer refer to Bill Cosby as a “comedian” or Harvey Weinstein as a “producer”. They have now one identity – that of rapist.
After he was accused of rape, he and his family fled to Paris, where they were granted asylum earlier this year. Why would France take an accused rapist in? This is the same country that has experienced a huge right-wing backlash due to the presence of refugees from the Third World.
But any enemy of Putin is a friend of mine, right!?
(as long as they have white skin!)
Actually, based on the reports this week, I agree pretty strongly with Pavlensky’s comparison between the FSB headquarters in Russia and the Central Bank in France. They both function as brutal institutions of neoliberal capitalism and imperialism, albeit in different ways.
A lot of his former allies have been decrying that the Russian FSB is much worse – which therefore invalidates this new action. I disagree with those segments of the Left in Russia.
I’m more focused on the circumstances surrounding the act.
“Artist” functions as an identifying marker.
We can say, perhaps, that Pavlensky “does art”. However, by allowing him to self-identify as an artist, we are missing the important point. Pavlensky is, first and foremost, a rapist.
While awaiting the death penalty, John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer of adolescent boys in Chicago, took up painting. He also “did art”, but we don’t refer to him as an artist.
There’s another insidious problem here, however. If this is considered a political action, then we need to reanalyze what we accept and embrace as “political”.
Has the Left become so enamored with defeatism and so convinced of failure that the most we can hope for is that some idiot sets a bank alight?
Is this really fighting capitalism?
We’re coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution – one of the greatest events in human history – and our contribution to the anti-capitalist struggle is this?
What we saw this week was not the work of a political artist or dissident.
It was a rapist setting a bank on fire.
Negative: 99% WTF?
Occupy Wall Street was most successful in creating the new language of the left-liberal scene: “We are the 99%“. This was their message to the Wall Street bankers: “You are the 1%” and, therefore, the opposition. Of course, not the enemy, because that’s too strong a term.
The only drawback to this language is that it’s incorrect in two ways.
First of all, 99% of the people involved in Occupy Wall Street were not/are not really part of the 99%, because they’re all comparatively well-off compared to most of the world. Let’s be serious, a white 23 year-old with $10,000 of debt from their Ivy League University is not in the same position as anyone in the Third World.
Second of all, the enemy (I’m not afraid of the term) is a lot more than the 1%. The bourgeoisie, petite-bourgeoisie, and other reactionary classes make up significantly more than the 1% on Wall Street. Those who own the means of production make up a more sizeable group than that and those who benefit from the super-exploitation of the Third World make up the entire First World.
We’re talking about imperialism.
Occupy’s sloppy analysis isn’t helpful.
The big problem here is that analysis and language here have a feedback loop – the language is flawed and the more this language is used, the less the analysis reflects reality.
Positive: Reinvigorated some aspects of protest culture
One nice thing that OWS was that it put protests back into the mainstream in a way. Whereas before 2011, there certainly wasn’t a prevalence of protests coming from the Left in the dominant culture, today there seems to be far more of a willingness to protest. I’d be willing to concede that this probably had to do with the prevalence of OWS in the news/popular culture.
Positive: Set the stage for Black Lives Matter
I hesitate to draw this line, because it gives Occupy too much credit in my opinion, and it makes it seem (once again) that black people need white people for inspiration and support (which is obviously not the case), but a lot of people have connected these two protest movements. Objectively, OWS did take place before BLM (in other words, before a white pig murdered an unarmed black teenager in Missouri), so OWS was in the news before BLM was.
Occupy is not some pan-leftist movement, but rather a washed-up intellectually-vacuous garbage. Case and point: this bullshit.
Positive: Opened up the ideological space
Of course, anything posted on Occupy.com in 2017 isn’t getting very wide readership, so we can rest assured that this “Letter to the American Left” won’t be poisoning much dialogue.
OWS had no specific goals, demands, tactics, strategies, analysis, worldview, standards, or ideas about pretty much anything. This led to the conclusion that putting up tents and using unclear language would be a successful (whatever that means) strategy to realizing their goals (whatever those were).
Actually, the major mistake that OWS made was that they said everything, rather than nothing. Different factions articulated different aims and different paths. By saying everything, they effectively said nothing. And, all the while, in this menagerie of ideas, the Occupiers were so frustrated that their “pure” message was being ignored.
Positive: The Left can learn
This broad populist left-liberal space is a minefield.
Left-liberalism is a dead-end.
Capitalism is a losing game.
The lesson here is clear: analyze and radicalize.
English teachers (usually native speakers from one of the Anglo-West countries: the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand) travel across the world today functioning essentially as non-military tools of Western domination.
Similar to missionaries of previous centuries, English teachers often see themselves as ultimately benign actors: “We’re helping people learn English! We’re giving them opportunities!”
We can put aside the white savior complex and strictly analyze the role that they play. English teachers are able to virtually travel anywhere in the world and receive compensation for doing minimal labor.
Replace “Christianity” with “English”, “Church” with “School”, “The Bible” with “Grammar Textbook”, and “saving souls” with “providing business opportunities in a global economy”.
What does this formula give you?
English teachers are missionaries – just of the English language. Let’s not forget the historical fact that part of missionary work in the past was also the invaluable tool of language education.
You need to read our Bible in our language!
Today, as there is no longer a territorial Christendom to speak of, these missionaries act on behalf of the American Empire.