Art Judgements: Art on Trial in Russia after Perestroika

by Sandra Frimmel (University of Zurich)

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Ever since the turn of the century an unusually high number of court cases against art, artists and curators has been executed in Russia. Using the example of the two biggest trials against the organizers of the exhibitions "Watch Out, Religion!" and "Forbidden Art 2006", the author deals with the negotiation of the meaning of art (works) and its socio-political effect within the context of the court. The focus lies on the questions; by what means do these trials attempt to not only argumentatively negotiate a normative concept of art, but further attempt to permanently determine and legally bind a juridical understanding of art? In what way is being discussed what kind of art should be allowed in Russia today? How does art take effects? And where are the limits of the freedom of art?
Research with regard to post soviet art trials has remained journal driven to the most part up until today. It is only the fairly recent trials aimed against Pussy Riot activists as well as Petr Pavlensky, which have provoked lengthy publications such as "Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom", Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 2013; Marc Bennetts: "I'm Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin's War on Russia's Opposition", Oneworld Publications 2014. These publications, however, mostly concern themselves with explicitly political and activist art rather than its particular discourse when on trial. This book, then, offers a scientific approach towards (Russian) art on trial. The text presents itself as an analysis of national-historical effects as well as a comparative approach to international perspectives by means of which socio-political goals and impact are synthesized, with a particular focus on the way in which these trials influence the intensification of juridical power over artistic freedom (of speech) in the production of art.


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, is an art historicist. She studied art history and comparative literature in Berlin and Saint Petersburg. She worked as 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. From 2008–2010 she was occupied as a curatorial assistant at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz. Currently she is the academic coordinator of the Centre of Arts and Cultural Theory (ZKK) at the University of Zurich as well as academic associate of the ERC Project “Performance Art in Eastern Europe (1950–1990): History and Theory” at the Department for Slavic Studies of the University of Zurich. Between 2011 and 2016 she has worked for two major projects; as an academic researcher of the Swiss National Science Foundation-project “Literature and Art on Trial” (2011–2014) as well as “Literature and Art on Trial: Eastern Europe” (2014–2016) at the Department for Slavic Studies of the University of Zurich. She obtained her doctoral degree with her work on "Judging Art. Juridical Trials Against Art, Artists and Curators in Russia After the Perestroika" at Humboldt University in Berlin. Research interests include Russian art of the 19th, 20th and 21st century 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

Vernon Series on the History of Art
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Bibliographic Information

Book Title
Art Judgements: Art on Trial in Russia after Perestroika
Physical size
Publication date
March 2022