Art Judgements: Art on Trial in Russia after Perestroika

by Sandra Frimmel (University of Zurich)

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Sandra Frimmel’s book is the English translation (by Michael Turnbull) of her German dissertation published in 2015. It deals with the difficult question of Russian law using contemporary art and living artists as scapegoats and as models of transgressive behavior from 2000. The author has chosen to document and analyze two trials against curators and artists whose works were presented in two exhibitions in Moscow: “Caution, Religion!” (2003) and “Forbidden Art” (2006); the book belongs to the genus of cases studies. […]
The book, clearly written and well translated, is composed of an Introduction and two parts. The first (“Speaking about Art in Court”) is dedicated to the analysis of prosecution and defense, then to artistic strategies. The second (“Staging in Court”) deals with what the author names “staging strategies,” once again both of prosecution and defense. […]
The two parts of the book are very well illustrated. […]

[Extract from review on the journal 'Slavic Review', Vol.82 (2), p.569-570. Reviewer: Olga Medvedkova (Centre Jean Pépin CNRS-ENS). ]

An unusually large number of court cases against art, artists, and curators have taken place in Russia since the turn of the century. In reference to two of the most prominent, against the organizers of the exhibitions 'Caution, Religion!' and 'Forbidden Art 2006', the author examines the ways in which the meaning of art and its socio-political effects are argued in court: How do these trials attempt to establish a normative concept of art, and furthermore a binding juridical understanding of art? How is the discussion of what is permissible in art being framed in Russia today?

Research into the post-Soviet art trials has been mainly journal-driven until today. Only the fairly recent trials of the Pussy Riot activists and Pyotr Pavlensky provoked lengthy publications, but these are mostly concerned with explicitly political and activist art rather than its particular discourse when on trial. This book, however, takes a scholarly approach towards (Russian) art on trial. It puts the cases in a national-historical context, which is compared from international perspectives, and particularly focuses on the way in which these proceedings have intensified juridical power over artistic freedom (of speech) in the production of art in Russia.
This book will appeal to academics and students in the areas of art history, cultural science, sociology, and Slavic studies, as well as jurists, curators and museum specialists, researchers and employees in cultural institutions.


Introduction: Art, Society, and the Law
The Book’s Structure
Case Studies
Art in the Law
Material and Personnel in Court

Part I: Speaking about Art in Court

Chapter 1 Prosecution and Defense Strategies
Prosecution: Destruction of World View
Defense: Positive Provocation
Cult Image vs. Work of Art
Public vs. Private: (Self-)Marginalization
International Comparison

Chapter 2 Artistic Concepts
Prosecution: Contemporary Art is Non-art
Defense: Contemporary Art Continues Traditions
No Taboos Whatsoever: The Art Concept of the Defense
Cultivation of Spiritual Values: The Art Concept of the Prosecution
Judging Art

Part II: Stagings in Court

Chapter 3 Staging Strategies
Prosecution Stagings: Theater in Court
Defense Stagings: Artistic Reappropriation of the Court
The Staging Intent

Chapter 4 Prosecution Witnesses
Humiliated and Insulted Witnesses
Justice: Witnesses in Court, Victims, Guarantors
Morals: World View and Art Concept
Law: From Trial to Example

Chapter 5 Trial Traditions
Soviet Legal Practice
Media Stagings and Conventions of Speech
Lines of Continuity

Closing Remarks: Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, and National Security
Pussy Riot
Pyotr Pavlensky
Art and National Security


Unpublished Sources
Court Documents



Sandra Frimmel (*1977), PhD, studied art history and comparative literature in Berlin and Saint Petersburg. She obtained her doctorate with “Judging Art. Juridical Trials Against Art, Artists, and Curators in Russia After Perestroika” at the Humboldt University in Berlin. She has worked as a freelance curator and art critic, co-run a non-profit exhibition space in Berlin, and collaborated with the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Nizhny Novgorod. She was a curatorial assistant at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz, from 2008–2010. Between 2011 and 2019 she worked as an academic researcher on two major projects: the Swiss National Science Foundation survey of “Literature and Art on Trial” (2011–2016) and “Performance Art in Eastern Europe (1950–1990): History and Theory” (2016–2019) at the Department of Slavic Studies of the University of Zurich. She is currently the academic coordinator of the Centre of Arts and Cultural Theory (ZKK) at the University of Zurich. Her research interests include Russian art of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, as well as concepts of art, law and justice, power, and society.

impact witness, art as trauma, icon, aesthetic debates in court, show trials, moral trials, pornography, mock trials

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Bibliographic Information

Book Title

Art Judgements: Art on Trial in Russia after Perestroika





Number of pages


Physical size



70 B&W

Publication date

March 2022