On June 28, artist Pyotr Pavlensky will face trial for having realised his eighth event of Subject-Object Art, Pornopolitics (2020), “the world’s first porn website to involve politicians or elected and appointed government officials”.
Being tried was expected — and certainly desired — from Pavlensky, whose art practice has long revolved around the perennial “collision between art and power”. All his events have been interrupted by police interventions (during which police officers “develop the plot of a visual narrative unknown to them”, but known only to the artist). He has also faced administrative and judicial charges for six of his events, resulting in two prison sentences (seven months for Threat (2015) and 11 months for Lighting (2017)), three convictions (Freedom (2014), Threat and Lighting), as well as many artworks which he calls “precedents” and defines as “aesthetically and conceptual valuable images and texts produced by officials during administrative and judicial proceedings” that are selected by the artist/Pavlensky, exhibited in art spaces, published as books, or adapted into plays or films.
With Pornopolitics, Pavlensky didn’t patiently wait for the judicial hearing to defend his artwork. Running simultaneously with the proceedings, he has exhibited precedents from Pornopolitics at a/political and at the Vojvodina Museum of Contemporary Art, and has been vocal about his initiative in theorising his art practice, which he calls “Subject-Object Art.
According to Pavlensky, Subject-Object Art implies to “redefine the disposition of art in relation to power”. In this context, the artist/Pavlensky “creates circumstances that force subjects of power to commence exercising their powers of authority… And through this, subjects of power embody his artistic intention… The point is simply to force the authorities to work for art. By doing so, the subject .”
Even though Pornopolitics was Pavlensky’s first realisation in the digital space, a cursory analysis of the event makes it clear that it’s completely in line with his art theory, since there is a subject of power involved (a former member of the French government, politician, and mayoral candidate) and there is an obvious transformation of this subject of power into an object of art — a sex object of art, I would even say.
The context that inspired Pavlensky to realise Pornopolitics, and for which he is now being prosecuted, makes it interesting to study one of the most famous artworks in recent history depicting another sex object of art — The Origin of the World (1866), painted by French artist Gustave Courbet, and exhibited at the Orsay Museum in Paris.
On a background of white sheets enhanced with bluish tones, a carcass in light flesh colours, with no face or identity, frontally offers to its spectators a close-up of rosy genitalia — the linear fold of an opened vulva, or that of the frenulum of an erect penis — which breaks through a bush of profuse, dark, curly hair. The strong formal similarities to Pornopolitics and The Origin of the World, as well as Pavlensky’s care in representing the realism of a trivial moment (he didn’t edit or blur the image of masturbation), may attest to his intent to refer to Courbet’s legacy through art, for the first time in his career (let’s note here that Pavlensky has previously expressed his respect for Courbet on many occasions through various media outlets and public speeches).
As a feminist who knows the 85% rule, I have always suspected that Pavlensky’s Pornopolitics torments arose from the fact that it depicts a male nude. A crude, realistic male nude. This suspicion was strengthened by an updated lecture of the story behind the creation of The Origin of World.
Let’s recall that Pornopolitics was conceived in 2019 and revealed in 2020, shortly after the publication in 2018 of Claude Schopp’s L’origine du monde: Vie du modèle, a book that lifts the veil from Courbet’s model identity — for a long time, one of the most debated mysteries in art history. Schopp identified the model of Courbet’s painting as a Paris ballet dancer, who happened to be involved in an intimate relationship with Ottoman diplomat Khalil-Bey, the commissioner of The Origin of the World. We don’t know much about the commissioner’s intentions (Caprice of a wealthy man who wanted to stand out from polite society? Objectification of a woman’s body to demonstrate a man’s power over her?), nor the model’s feelings (Did she feel comfortable, or scared? Did it improve her self-esteem, or did she feel used by her lover?). That is why we should stick to the facts: a woman voluntarily showed her genitalia so that a man she maintained sexual relationships with could capture them as an image painted by Gustave Courbet.
Some 154 years later, with regard to Pornopolitics, facts turned out to be extremely similar: a Paris mayoral candidate voluntarily showed his genitalia so that a woman with whom he had had sexual intercourse could look at them as an image. Both the model of Pornopolitics and that of The Origin of the World voluntarily showed their genitalia and both had a common purpose to create images. Representations of their genitalia, in other words.
When it comes to the representation of sexual body parts, the question of the dissemination of an image is crucial, especially when it involves an artist. An artist works on an image and shares his proposition to the world, through the halls of a museum, a gallery, a studio, or even, nowadays, a website. Pavlensky has always created images that provoke an emotional effect on viewers and, therefore, bear a strong viral potential. He has always relied on the internet to make out of his art events, controversial moments of culture — no matter if those images depicted his own balls nailed to the pavement of the Red Square (Fixation (2013)), a policeman who almost chokes on a sadistic-like pleasure while arresting him (Segregation (2014)), the burning doors of the Russian FSB (Threat (2015)), or the glans penis of a mayoral candidate (Pornopolitics (2020)).
As shown by a survey from IFOP, 8% of the French population (4+ million people) declared having seen Pavlensky’s images from Pornopolitics in just three days, until the website was censored. The success in showing his artwork to a large audience is certain — similar to Orsay Museum’s visitors in a whole year, but not seen by the prosecution in the Pornopolitics case in a good way. Quite the opposite, in fact; they assume that the candidate photographed and videotaped his genitalia because he thought that only a limited number of people would be able to see the images, and not 8% of the French population. It’s an argument that is nonetheless never discussed when it comes to the model of The Origin of the World. Yet, as far as we know, the image of the model’s genitalia was initially reserved for the personal use of her lover, Khalil-Bey, who even used to hide the painting behind a curtain in his private home. We might ask, did this woman ballet dancer give her consent to have the representation of her genitalia exhibited in public view in the halls of the Orsay Museum?
Then, once again, stories behind the creation of The Origin of the World and Pornopolitics prove to be analogous: a mayoral candidate showed his genitalia to a woman, with whom he had had a sexual relationship, via an image he shot himself. This image, once incorporated into an art project, was seen and discussed by millions of people; and a dancer showed her genitalia for the realisation of an image that was intended to be seen by only one person. Now, this image hangs on the wall of the Orsay Museum and has been seen not only by four or five million people, but hundreds of times more since its acquisition in 1995.
By understanding the visual and creative ties that connect these two artworks, one can legitimately feel perplexed that Courbet’s Origin of the World is being proudly exhibited in one of the world’s most visited French public museums, while Pavlensky’s Pornopolitics is suffering an extremely denigrative mediatic smear campaign and is about to take place in the dock of a courtroom. Why such a difference in treatment of two formally and essentially similar artworks?
That’s where the French society fails to understand innovative trends in contemporary art (Has society ever understood new trends in contemporary art? I doubt it, but that’s a question for another day). That is also what makes visible the poor status that society has assigned to art.
While being precisely in keeping with its time (or perhaps slightly ahead of it — let’s think of the Freedom (2014) event) as part of the eclectic, diffused wave that combines both art and politics, Pavlensky’s art practice holds an experimental factor: it involves non-art people — either policemen, judges, prosecutors, psychiatrists, or journalists — in his art-making process, and the success of his art events precisely depends on the reaction of these non-art people. As Nicolas Bourriaud noted, contemporary art is rarely talked about in media outlets, especially on TV, but Pornopolitics was discussed during prime time, for almost two weeks, which is totally out of the ordinary in the French context. This focus on a contemporary art piece wouldn’t have been possible without the voluntarily, yet ignorant, participation of non-art people in Pavlensky’s event: had they decided to ignore Pavlensky’s Pornopolitics, it would have been a mere action enveloped in an artistic form that less, rather than more, people would have heard about.
The involvement of non-art people in the making of a Subject-Object Art piece is decisive in order to make it an event, yet their non-art view of the world can also be damaging to the artwork, and contemporary art in general. Policemen don’t care about art theory, and they will never label a Pavlensky event as an “artwork” — to them, it’s just a “misconduct”, and they have a duty to make it stop. To a prosecutor, it’s a “criminal offence”. To non-art journalists, it’s whatever their professional bias will make them think it is. For a political journalist, it could be “political act”. However, for a religion journalist, it could be some kind of a solemn “ritual”. This tendency to relegate art to a secondary item, while imposing non-art narratives as worldviews on the people, is precisely what Pavlensky has been fighting against since the beginning of his career.
To Pavlensky, Pornopolitics is not an “invasion of privacy”, as a French prosecutor is implying, nor a “political act” or a solemn “ritual” as biased journalists may imply. Pornopolitics is an artwork, Pavlensky’s eighth event of Subject-Object Art — and the place this artwork will have in the development of his artistic journey, as well as in the history of contemporary art, is all he cares about. Just like from Pavlensky’s viewpoint, The Origin of the World is an artwork by Courbet, a master of the French realism, and it will never be a mere “exploitation of a woman’s body” or a “widespread dissemination of a woman’s privacy without her consent”. When it comes to art, Pavlensky is a stranger to ethical and judicial narratives. Pavlensky believes in art’s supremacy.