Can religious fanatics be blamed for art destruction?

The other day, a group of Orthodox Christian activists burst into a sculpture show in the centre of Moscow to protest against supposedly blasphemous representations of Christ among dozens of artworks from three non-conformist Soviet sculptors exhibited there. They harmed a few graphic works but no damage has been done to the sculptures.

The protest outraged a number of Russian intellectuals who as one spoke against this mediaeval ISIS-style vandalism, expressing hopes the law would not dismiss the protesters unpunished.

Come on.

It is not the first time that it happens, and it will be happening more and more often in Russia. Don’t look so surprised and indignant. The rise of art vandalism in Russia is as obvious and predictable as Putin’s next presidential term.

Whenever a big idea takes hold of a collective mind, art that contradicts this idea gets destroyed. It happened when Christianity became the official state religion in the Roman Empire; it happened in the wake of the French Revolution; it happens today in the Muslim Caliphate of the ISIS; and it takes place in Russia, dizzy from its illusions of grandeur amid bulldozed geese and incinerated peaches.

As any religion is, ultimately, just a therapeutic practice to fight the fear of death, destruction of art is its unavoidable consequence. It’s like a lease of premises which is the fixed cost of running a shop. The more people believe in your version of god, the safer you feel about your own choice of religion, the more purpose and sense you find in life and the less you fear death. Anything that contradicts your version represents doubt, and doubt equals a renewed fear of death, and people most afraid their beliefs are in danger start crushing statues and burning books. This also explains why fresh converts are often more violent than established believers, and why religious fanatics are most dangerous immediately after they’ve won a war or went legal.

It practical terms, it means that artworks should be better guarded, removed to safe heavens, and not exhibited in places with a high concentration of religious activists (not religious people!), because you never know what their god may whisper into their activist ear tomorrow.

There are and can be no religions of peace, because a peaceful religion has a zero chance to survive.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that all Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists are intolerant of artworks created by people with a different worldview. It just means there will always be a varying share of people within these (or any other) religions who believe destroying art and killing unbelievers is their duty and a path to salvation and life eternal.

It is the reality, and artists need to adapt to it, just like European couples visiting Dubai learn not to kiss in public, albeit sometimes in the hard way. Leaving a country with a lot of religious activists for a country with a few of them is also an option.

In the very distant future, when the human life expectancy climbs up to 250 years, there would be less fear and more tolerance. What’s important is that we find practical ways to protect controversial art until then.

I welcome alternative opinions, unless they are accompanied by death threats, of course.

In the meantime, here are Vadim Sidur’s sculptures that made the Christian vandals go bananas:

Does any one of them seem blasphemous to you?

Once, I seriously contemplated buying a sculpture by one of the three artists (Nikolai Silis), but didn’t go for it because of value concerns (the price seemed too high given that uncountable copies of the original version had been made by the sculptor).

This is Don Quixote. The daisy in his hand can be replaced by a live flower. In fact, you can change flowers in his hand as often as you want. It is an interactive artwork that can be an icon of curiosity and interest in life in all its forms.




  1. Art vandalism by zealots only further acknowledges that they see what they do not believe and if a person has pure faith, he wouldn’t see it. The violent attempt to wipe out an art although should not be encouraged, it is after all still more tasteful than put a skirt around the said blasphemous sculpture below the waist line.

    1. You see, the problem with faith is that as faith is ia belief in something which existence can not be proven, there can be no degrees of purity. In fact, the zealots you mention are sure their faith is the purest, which is, in a way, faith squared. In any religion there is always a certain proportion of zealots who would always be defending their beliefs with violence. Sad, but it is the reality.

  2. you’re absolutely right. My credo is “religion poisons everything”. And – at least this is true for bible-based religions such as every form of Christianity or Judaism – the ten commandments state: Thou shall not make graven Images….” This is the root of many a blasphemy debate or worse , even destruction of art.

    1. Well, I am not that radical, you know. Religion helps a lot of people to cope with their lives. Without religion we wouldn’t preserve our civilization in the Dark Middle Ages, because the Church accumulated the smartest people around ) In my view, there is no black and white answer to the question if religion is good or not. What is sad right now, is that the Orthodox Church, as an institution, believes fanatics are good for it.

      1. I think, in the long run more bad stuff (wars, inquisition, keeping knowledge to a priviledged few rather than educate the public in order to gain and keep power and so on) came from religion, than good things (giving folks something to believe in, enhancing morals that I think are inherent to any human being anyways). And everything taken to the extreme is no good, anyway. Goes for eating too many cherries as well as fanatism 😉

  3. I personally, don’t see anything offensive about the sculptures. Freedom of speech is very important to art and our world view.

    1. Of course there’s nothing offensive. Great sculptures. But the happiness of religious fanatism comes at a price of total dumbness, so the “activists” just don’t see that it’s great religious art.

  4. hello. first of all, i’d like to say how much i loved these sculptures. especially the one named “crucifixion” reminds me a bit of the aztec art. “don quixote” is as beautiful as it is very clever. i love the audience involvement/participation in art pieces, and honestly, this is the first time i’ve seen an artist manage that with a sculpture.

    about your text, though…. you said “artists need to adapt to it” and 100% frankly, it made my face red with fury. what you’re basically defending here is that people have to limit themselves and not speak their minds because a group of medieval-brain-ed people may get offended. the art vandalism by large groups of people returned to spotlight with isis wrecking the palmyra ruins. (but yes, it has never been absent -the art vandalism) so anyways, back to what i wanted to say: what you’re defending is to change the possible course of art history so that nobody offends these horrible, horrible people. what if somebody were there to stop, say, picasso from drawing guernica, because it would offend the very precious mr dictator? because there’s not much of a difference between this one example and your much general sentence. to sum up simply: nobody should refrain from expressing their views in any way they wish -whether it be creating art or kissing on the street- just so some old-headed vandals won’t have their very important very precious feelings offended.

    1. You see, you are being idealistic. Imagine the world without friction. Imagine no resistance in elecrical circuits. Wow. What we could achieve without that standing in our way! Do I deny it? No. I am being practical (and a good deal provocative, to tell the truth), Picasso, by the way, painted Guernica in the safety of Paris, being far away from the tragic events and Mr Dictator. Now the next question is, is it worthwile to trade one’s physical freedom or life for the freedom of expression? For a kiss in the street?

      1. i know very well under which conditions picasso created his art, but you can’t overlook the fact that even one piece of art were to be missing from the history, art wouldn’t be what it is today. if one artist in our days refrains from creating one piece of art, so that they wouldn’t offend certain groups, art may never arrive to the point it would have with the influence of that piece. i’m not being idealistic at all. i’m defending a right. freedom of speech is a natural right, and no human being at all, no matter how strong their “beliefs” are, has any right to prevent another someone’s freedom of speech. the establishment of such “values” means the establishment of a fear empire. and the *actual* question is: is it even natural to mention the stripping of physical freedom as a punishment for freedom of speech? what needs to change is not artists refraining themselves from creating “provoking” works. what really has to change is this intolerance towards different opinions. i come from a country where an ethnic group has suffered from all kinds of such “consequences”, simply because they refused to be assimilated. artists should never ever need to silence their creation because some vile barbarians basically cannot tolerate difference and unique-ness.

        1. OK, I am a bit lost. I am not arguing against freedom of expression. I am arguing that in those societies where it does not exist, artists should design practical strategies to create their art and introduce it to the public.

          Please note I am taking your arguments as starting points.

          “you can’t overlook the fact that even one piece of art were to be missing from the history, art wouldn’t be what it is today”

          Whoever established it as a fact? Facts need evidence. And historic evidence speaks to the contrary. Art history is what it is today with almost all Greek and Roman art and literature destroyed. France and Germany survived the destruction of a lot of religious art during the Reformation and Revolution. A lot of art was destroyed in the WWII. I mean however nice your statement sounds, it is not a fact.

          Artists have been refraining from doing what they want for most of human and art history. Cosmically speaking, the idea of free expression is very newborn, and I am sure a half of Earth’s population would disagree it is a natural right even today. That the market is dictated by a choice group of curators shaping tastes of the mega rich is, in my view, a much bigger problem than an artist restraining himself in the presence of fanatics out of fear for his or her life. What I am saying is let the artist change countries, and create his art out of reach of the crazy crowd. This is practical. This insures the artist survives, and his art is not destroyed.

          What you suggest is that the artist should stand up to the crowd, not restraining him/herself in any way and defend the freedom of speech/expression. And you are saying this is not idealism.

          Of course it is not. It is suicidal idealism. Should I, from the safery of my computer, encourage artists to stand up and fight? I don’t feel I have the moral right to interfere with their life expectancy, sorry.

          1. you completely misunderstood my choice of words. you misunderstood the *concept* in which i used those words. greek art happened, it was created, it survived long enough for people to notice and criticise it, and even when destroyed, it had already influenced some people for them to keep it in memory and then pass it on. what i mean with “missing” is “non-existent”. if the greeks hadn’t created their art, if somebody had showed up and said “aye mate, look, this crowd ain’t appreciating your business, so perhaps take it elsewhere?” there would never be a renaissance, because (here comes a concrete fact you can’t ignore) its whole “philosophy” is based on “waking up” the ancient art disciplines. without renaissance, we’d still be stuck up in the middle ages, not solely art-wise, because without the renaissance, there’d never be the illumination movement, nobody would ever dare to stand up against the catholic church and its dictates. anyways, moving up to your “no proof” argument, i’m sorry, i’m not an art historian, but i’m raised by two scientists and have been receiving possibly the best history education in the whole country, so i *know* that all history, like all life itself, is but a chain reaction. take out an art movement, take out its most important piece, and it all falls apart. it stops somewhere too premature.

            and then you need to stop, because you got a bit too personally attacking (despite however very mildly) there, since you probably just made the assumption that *all* i speak up for is the freedom of expression. i stand up against the inhumane cruelties of a capitalist society. but you can’t suddenly bring capitalism into a debate about art, because the subject here isn’t the art *market* but the art *creator* himself.

            i’d like to conclude with a more general point, on social activism. yes, an artist has to stand up. an artist has to stand up against the rules of his “master”s, he has to stand up to the crowd too, because he has to fight for what he defends. an artist is a fighter.

            lastly, about the safety of electronic devices… i feel i have the moral right to say artists should fight, because i, myself, have participated in the almost revolutionary movements in my country. i fight for my rights, and i fight for everybody else’s rights as well. and i strongly defend that an artist should fight for his right to art.

            p.s: i used the pronoun “he” not because i believe artists are necessarily male, but because the unknown human pronoun in english is “he” and “it” isn’t generally used for humans.

            1. I am sorry, but 80% or 90% or more of the Greek art that “happened” had had no influence on the Renaissance because it didn’t survive, neither physically, nor in someone’s memory. It had been destroyed and forgotten for generations, and only a handful of books survived thanks to Charlemagne. I wrote about the lost and forgotten art only because you said, originally, “even one piece of art” but in your next comment you moved on to “…its most important piece”, while in fact, as I understand now, you talk not about pieces of art (when linking Greek & Roman art to the Renaissance) but civilizations and cultures.

              It’s a bit difficult to discuss a point if the point’s definition is changing, but there’s nothing personal in it. I am not saying “you completely misunderstand me” anywhere, and I just explain why I may be in disagreement with your point of view.

              I mentioned the current art market only as a problem that I consider a bigger threat for artists than relatively mild constraints on the freedom of expression. I didn’t intend to discuss it and I was not proving a point, I was just telling you what I think about problem ranking. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it until you pointed it out )

              As for social activism, I am happy to hear you believe artists should be fighters. I can’t argue with it, because it is your belief, which is as strong as the belief of a religious or atheist fanatic that artists should serve Man according to a prescribed set of rules. Again, speaking of art history: most of art available to us today in galleries and museums has been created by artists who never fought, but served their masters unwaveringly.

              I don’t want to encourage artists to be fighters because I know that fanatics are often willing to kill their opponents; you think you have the moral right to do it because you did it yourself. I am totally fine with it. You can take responsibility for someone’s life, and I hesitate.

              Now, let’s just breathe out. I got your point, and I am very grateful you took the time to not just express, but to argument and defend it. Thank you!

              1. Artists have fought at a point, necessarily. Otherwise we’d have just one movement, but is that the case?

                Vandalism is no *”mild” constraint* to art. It is a *serious crime*.

                The remaining “10%” of the Greek art was sufficient to finally reach out to the young artists who didn’t follow the rules of the artists before.

                All artists are fighters. A fighter isn’t necessarily someone who rebels. Every artist defends a style. It’s their fight.

                Atheist fanatic? This is a horrible oxymoron. But anyways, thank you for your time.

                1. Atheist fanatic was not an oxymoron to Russians after the Revolution of 1917. It was not an oxymoron throughout the art history of the USSR. I admit it can be seen as such elsewhere.

                  I thought we were talking about artists fighting their masters, as you said, or fighting for the freedom of expression against religious/atheist fanatics. Not defending their stylistic choices, though, certainly, sometimes it was a fight all right, like in Germany in the 1930s. My bad, I know.

                  PS In English, the phrase “anyways, thank you” often means the outcome of the preceding transaction was unsatisfactory for the speaker. I am sorry we couldn’t come to an agreement. Except, perhaps, there’s one thing we must agree on: vandalism and art destruction are bad, and freedom of expression is good. Cheers! )

                  1. Wait… Just asking because I want to know: by “atheist fanatic in Russia” are you not talking about a certain someone with a Socialist tendency? Wouldn’t that be defining perhaps a political fanaticism by a “religion”? Should we really mainly classify Stalin as an atheist fanatic, and Rasputin as a Christian fanatic, rather than a Socialist fanatic and a Tsar fanatic?

                    (This is going to sound stupid, but I don’t know, so: I’m asking, because I *think* you’re Russian and in so many cases -in 99% of all cases *not* regarding the US- a stranger doesn’t know the historical “details” of a country better than a native. So I’m sorry I just suddenly jumped to a whole other topic, but even if there actually is one, I haven’t found something like Tumblr’s “fan mail” in here so because of my sheer curiosity, I’m having to ask on the comments.)

                    P.S: I’m not a native speaker, just an anglophone. I use “anyways” to wrap a conversation up, not depending on its satisfactory “level”, but on its *complexity* with which I mean: if I go on about a few things at the same place, no matter their common grounds, they usually end up almost impossible to conclude commonly, since they all need their *individual* conclusions and doing that would be going on more rather than wrapping up, so I throw in some conversational English and use “anyways”. But yes, I guess we agree to differ on so many points along this conversation.

                    1. Rasputin was a mystic, a self-styled wizard whose history is half-real and half-counterfeit. If he was a fanatic, no one knows exactly what his fanaticism was about.

                      Atheism was a big part of state propaganda that began immediately after the revolution. In a matter of years, a generation of young “materialists” who hated religion and everything related to the Church, was raised. They wanted to cleanse Russia of the religious “opium”, and would destroy and burn churches, hack icons, and ridicule believers with caricatures trying to actively impose atheism on everyone else.

                    2. rasputin defended the tsar, because as far as i remember, they were friends. on the church burning… i don’t believe it’s religious fanaticism. it was a part of the soviet ideal that got corrupt with stalin. i think most of the people (then and now) believed/s stalin was the “wrong choice” and thought his choices and behaviours actually prepared the fall of the soviet union. i remember richard dawkins shared a very well written article on the atheism of stalin (alongside two other political figures associated with the deaths of many). soviet russia got extreme alright, but i don’t think it was *religious* fanaticism. it was a *political* fanaticism that got out of control and came to a dictatorial point. i don’t defend that either. everybody has the right to live their choice of religion, as long as they do not harm or disturb others. (i.e. mosques disturb people by going voice full on 5 times a day, one being at stupid hour in the morning -4 or 5- so a muslim is free to pray 5 times a day but he doesn’t have the right to wake me up from sleep for it.) about ridiculing believers with caricatures… i don’t think such a thing exists. that would be freedom of expression. just like an atheist can mock a christian, a christian can mock an atheist as well, but that can never come to a point of *physical* harm, either towards the person or the person’s belongings and creations. another thing i want to point out is: my youngest uncle’s wife is russian, and as far as i observe -her and her soviet (not just russian) entourage- soviets (not just russians) strongly dislike socialism (and in a way, thus, communism) because it harmed them -especially psychologically- very seriously. my uncle’s wife tells me stories of how when she was a student, a group of soldiers would come to their door and take her and her mother -who’s a teacher- by force to work in a field. this is why i believe the fanaticism that plagued the soviet union wasn’t a religious one, but a political one. but of course i wasn’t even alive when the soviet union broke apart, so i have absolutely no first hand experience, but the stories of first hand experience of others, so i may be wrong at certain points.

    2. We went down the line of comments to the point where I can’t post an answer ) So, I am doing it here.

      There was no Soviet ideal that Stalin transformed into a dictatorship. It was a dictatorship from the very beginning, except instead of one dictrator it was a group of Communist Party leaders. Militant atheism began long before Stalin became the sole dictator: (it is a good collection of links relevant to the topic).

      1. Fascinating post on a eternal subject! One point from me: I doubt that extending human life expectancy would influence the extent of our fear from death. It has been my observation that people stop fearing death when they come very close to it. As death is a completely natural thing, we have the inbuilt preparedness for it when the time comes. Just like love or the pains of childbirth, etc.
        On another topic: my lifestyle has changed somewhat so I will be on and offline, but will never miss a post of yours in the long term 🙂 We decided to get rid of everything and live on the road for a few years, hopping from one location to another every few months. Still new at it so it will take sometime adjusting and fitting all the bits and pieces in.

        1. I began worrying what has happened, and I am happy to read about the Big Change! I hope you’ll be covering the experience, artistically, and in your blog! )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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