“These people are sick…”

15 11 2017

The border war in eastern Ukraine is, it turns out, also about art. Or so this video (below) suggests.

It was made in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, after its military occupation by the separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” a few years ago. The first interviewee is Leonid Baranov, head of a special committee that lodged itself on the premises of Donetsk’s Izolyatsia Art Center after its takeover by pro-Russian separatist fighters. The building housing the non-profit art center had previously been an insulating materials factory.

Baranov decries the art of the center and vigorously defends the DPR’s occupation of it:

“They say it’s been almost a world art center which we have seized. Considering what kind of art they have shown here, this Center had to be occupied… This is not art and it cannot be art. These people are sick… We could only oust these sick and foul people from the factory’s territory… This has nothing to do with anything lofty or sublime, with anything Slavic. These people hate everything Slavic, everything Russian.”

The images he shows are from a catalogue of Boris Mikhailov’s photography. (More on Mikhailov below.) When probed a little further to show more of the art he finds objectionable, Baranov wizens up and says, “No, you must cut this off now. I don’t know what kind of montage you will do with what kind of commentary, and I will be seen on screen holding this crap in my hands.”

He then questions the “Russian Forbes” magazine, which his interviewer and photographer have told him they work for. “Forbes cannot be Russian,” he argues. “This is a similar grant-eating organization as the one that used to be here. So as we’ve banished one organization, another one has arrived (odnikh vygnialy, drugi priyekhali). I am sure you will montage everything in a very interesting way.”

Back to the art, he says, “I won’t be able to clean my hands from this for a hundred years.” “These people,” he continues, “messed with our young people’s heads. Our young people should grow, get married, have children, and generally multiply exponentially the population of our republic. It’s logical that we’ve taken measured to throw this so-called art to the garbage bin.”

He then repeats this accusation that the artists have “brainwashed our youth”: “Our youth instead of growing, marrying, having children, and getting jobs at normal places of employment, have been degraded. And our population instead of growing is dying out. After we’ve seized power, our people’s power, I hope this process will stop.”

Like every ethnic ultra-nationalist, Baranov aims to cleanse the world of its impurities — its corrupt, cosmopolitan, liberal elites with their “degrading” values, ethnic mixing, homosexuality, pornography, and all the rest.

As for the art itself, Boris Mikhailov is one of the most celebrated photographers from Ukraine (and in fact from the former Soviet Union). His works document the poverty, harshness, and hopelessness of everyday life for homeless citizens in Ukrainian (and other) cities. Given Mikhailov’s international recognition, DPR representative Baranov here is attacking the contemporary art world itself.

For the art world, Mikhailov’s art is about the humanization of the homeless through documenting them in their full, perverse abjection (see the Saatchi Gallery’s Case Histories, for instance). Or it is a cry of rage against the Soviet and post-Soviet condition. Or something like that. It is always also an art commodity — a token by which art connoisseurs solidify their identity as knowers of art and (something like) cultural masters of the world, with enough intelligence and heart to appreciate the world’s problems. 

But Baranov, no less than the artists he rails against, recognizes the power of the image — whether it’s the image of him holding this “pornography” in his hands, or the images of the artists exhibited by Izolyatsia. Baranov states that “you don’t have to be an expert to know” that a “pervert” or a “girl pissing into a bucket” “is not art.”

This debate is, of course, the same debate that pits Trumpists and Christian fundamentalists against coastal U.S. liberals, Putinists and Russia’s Orthodox Church against “homosexual Europe” with its Soros-funded NGO tentacles, Turkey’s Islamists against their secular (ex-)establishment, and the Talibans and Islamic States against the liberal world order.

And Baranov’s views are undoubtedly shared by many of the Poles demonstrating in Warsaw last weekend, and so many other neo- and ultra-nationalists around the world (not to mention some on the pro-Ukrainian side of Ukrainian politics).

His is a fight against global liberalism, which is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be cynically and brutally victimizing the righteous “real” people of the world.

There’s a communication problem in there somewhere.


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