View from the Hermitage. We are unaccustomed
to Cultural Differences
Recently a scandal developed in the mass media concerning the exhibition in France of items from the State Tretyakov Gallery Socialist Art: Political Art in Russia since 1972. The exhibition was displayed in autumn for the second biannual exhibition of contemporary art in Moscow and was invited to France. Before being sent to Paris several art works were excluded from the exhibition. For example Era of Mercy commonly known as Kissing Cops. The Ministry of Culture has denounced this exhibition from the television set as the ‘shame of Russia'. As the press reported, seventeen from the 200 artworks were censured.
I would firstly like to point out that any exhibition is not going to be exhibited overseas in the same form as here. The list of artworks, insurance must be confirmed by the Federal Agency and even contents of an exhibition must be confirmed and can be discussed. Then permission is granted for the export by Rosokhrankultura (the agency responsible for the preservation of Russian culture) in accordance with the Import and Export Law. There is a specific procedure laid out. There are formally two stages where censorship may occur.
The discussion which has arisen concerning the Socialist Art Exhibition raises an important question: can something which has been shown in one country, be shown in a different country? Experience shows that there are limitations and these limitations can vary.
There are things which in one country will not offend anyone while in another may offend people's feelings. For example, at the Kremlin Paul I's inkstand from the State Hermitage Museum was exhibited. On it is a depiction of Russian victory trophies over Turkey. Now, to transport this item to Turkey when they currently have a tense political situation would be unwise.
At the same time, the exhibition dedicated to Peter the Great and his victory at the Battle of Poltava, we took to Stockholm without any consequences.
But it happens that situations arise that are unpredictable, to which one must pay attention.
Las Vegas is often called Sin-City. It has a persistent stereotype. The State Hermitage Museum held an excellent exhibition on Rubens' work there. One must say that the Museum in Las Vegas is constantly visited by city inhabitants, and many children also come to it. When children came to the Rubens' exhibition on excursions the picture The Union of Earth and Water was concealed by a curtain. This was done because in Las Vegas there are many puritans. And when the State Hermitage Museum was preparing the next exhibitions, we were specially asked not to bring any works au naturale. And this is a city in the centre of America and not, for example, Abu Dhabi, where Muslims live!
I cannot help but remember how several years ago the State Hermitage Museum opened an exhibition in Amsterdam From Russia with Love. There were many exponents on display focusing on the subject of love and in a separate, red pavilion erotic items from the imperial collection were on display. Briefly, we exhibited items which we have never displayed at the State Hermitage Museum and never will. We would be challenged, but in Amsterdam it was calmly accepted. The Queen of the Netherlands came to the exhibition. It happened that she was delayed. We talked quietly with the Queen in that very pavilion.
It is clear that there are cultural differences, some of which we are not yet used to. It is not in vain that they say: everybody perceives everything to the degree of their own degeneracy.
It is an important question which concerns contemporary art. Contemporary art of current interest is meant to shock, it is this element which influences the public. The museum's task is to develop people's taste. Good taste in understanding what contemporary art is, and its history. The museum should display examples of good and acclaimed pieces of contemporary art. This is exactly what we have done, asking the public to come and see, and to get used to it. But when we come to talk about the art reflecting actuality, there are no acclaimed examples. This art has yet to be acclaimed, and possibly in twenty years time, many will not have lasted for that acclaim. We do not intend to exhibit pieces of contemporary artwork in the Winter Palace, but in the Main Staff Building, which has been witness not only to the empire style and Nesselrode, but also the NKVD (the KGB's forerunner), Uritsky, an internal prison… I suspect, what we intend to put on exhibition could shock an unprepared public. For such exhibitions an interactive approach must be taken. We are showing an exhibition to the public and we await the public's reaction.
The Hermitage 20/21 project has been launched with a contemporary American art exhibition taken from the collection of the famous collector Charles' Saatchi. These items represent contemporary America, but in America itself they are the cause of debate, as indeed they were in London. They were specifically chosen for the State Hermitage Museum. It seems to me that one must not evaluate the exhibition as good or bad, but to see how the public reacts. This is the first exhibition of the project, and it is somewhat provocative. We approach the matter from the point of view that everyone who comes to the museum, is our public. We are interested in how it will respond.
One must understand that contemporary art has reached a new level in the way the public relates to it. The scandal which surrounded the exhibition that went to Paris having been censured shows that we are not properly prepared for this. Restrictions always cause protest, but we have moved on from those times when Khrushchev began tongue-lashing staff at an exhibition at the Moscow Manege.
I was talking about cultural differences and the lack of standards and must repeat myself, what may be appropriate in one country may be thoroughly unacceptable in another country. This must be accepted with understanding. It appeared to some that following the visit of Patriarch Alexei II to France, the picture Era of Mercy, depicting kissing policemen, may be misunderstood.
I believe that a discussion about the rights of art is necessary. Works of art have their own rights which may conflict with human rights in that they can offend people's feelings.
The Church states that there are values greater than human rights. We agree. The Church is speaking of religious freedoms and we are talking of cultural freedoms. Preserving a picture by Leonardo da Vinci, in my opinion, is more important than, for example, one person's right to travel abroad. One can discuss to what degree human rights and cultural rights, moral rights and virtue in a religious sense can be combined.
It is clear that they are united to some degree, but at some point diverge.
We are entering a period of discussion. I hope that with the contemporary art exhibitions we will see a change, a return to that time following the Picasso exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum, when each new exhibition attracted droves of people who argued with each other about art.