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Art Inquisition: Whose Art Is It, Anyway?

Kiev is celebrating the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus, the medieval kingdom that laid the Orthodox foundation for modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. One of its museums, the Mystetskyi Arsenal, had collected the works of 1,000  artists from 35 different museums in a pan-Ukrainian Arts Project called Great and Grand. The general director of the museum, Natalia Zabolotna, had commissioned artist Volodymyr Kuznetsov to paint a mural as a part of this exhibition.

“Koliivschina: Judgment Day” displayed a nuclear reactor with priests, judges and a car that appeared to be carrying officials being dumped into a huge red tub. Among a watching crowd of people was one figure that appeared to be Iryna Krashkova, a woman who accused two police officers and a civilian of beating and raping her last month, prompting a series of protests.

The day before the exhibit was to open, Zabolotna doused the mural in black paint and would not allow the artist into the museum.

She has since apologized for the act, but maintains that Kuznetsov deviated from the agreed-upon concept. “You cannot criticize the homeland, just as you cannot criticize your mother. I feel that anything said against the homeland is immoral.” Another work was supposedly removed from the exhibit before it opened as well.

The defacement of the mural sparked a protest against censorship and the mixing of church and state. Eight people were arrested outside the museum on the day of the opening, and the deputy director of the museum has resigned. The Kiev-based Art Workers’ Self-Defense Initiative is calling for a boycott of the Mystetskyi Arsenal and affiliated organizations.

What might be called a similar situation occurred (sans arrests) in 2010 when Italian muralist Blu painted a commissioned mural on the outside of the Geffen Contemporary building for L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary art as a part of a street art exhibition. MOCA’s then-director, Jeffrey Dietch, ordered the mural whitewashed, declaring it “insensitive” to the surrounding neighborhood. The act was deemed censorship by the artist and others, and compared to the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” video from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What do you think? Who owns commissioned art? And who owns the art in museums? Are there expectations about how you’re “supposed” to handle art? What are the expectations between an artist and an art-buyer? What should be done when there is disagreement over the message of a piece of art, and how (or why) is that any different than disagreeing with a spoken or written message?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. It used to appear on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET… maybe we’ll just try for Wednesdays this go ’round. Make with the comments!

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Beth Voigt

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around.

1 Comment

  1. August 9, 2013 at 4:59 am

    Who owns commissioned art? The buyer. Anything else would be absurd and impossible to handle, even if someone destroying something they own has weird emotional connotations when it comes to art. Imagine I commission an artist known to paint decorative non-offensive murals to make my mansion look cool and he or she out of the blue decides to become edgy and paints Obama eating Palestinian babies while wearing a Nazi uniform with Star of David “swastikas”. Should I really not be allowed to say: “I don’t like it, I’m going to paint over it.”?

    The examples mentioned differ though, in that these are museum pieces and the destruction or “censorship” is being done by the museums’ directors. Their exercise of ownership is a job, and destroying art they don’t like shouldn’t be in the job description.

    Disagreement over pieces of art and disagreement over spoken or written messages differ in that the latter is considered unchanged by copying and transmitting, partly because it can be copied and transmitted without changes in content. If I write a diatribe against my government and nail it to the parliament door (because I’m confused about the division of power), the message remains while someone has the words written down somewhere, even if parliament security destroys the original document, with fire. If I convey my anger in a mural in a museum, the message is diminished if all that remains are photographs of the mural, even if they are very good photographs.

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