Pyotr Pavlensky lit a Parisian bank on fire this week in an action 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, or acting as a defender of that violence. 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!?
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.