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Protest Suicide and the Function of Art

I watched two short films about protest suicides recently.

One is a fictional account based loosely on 77-year-old pensioner Dimitris Christoulas’s suicide. He shot himself in Syntagma Square, Athens, on 4 April 2012, leaving a statement castigating the government’s austerity policies. The film is called Austerity, written, produced and directed by Renos Gavris in 2015.

The other is a documentary account of 37-year-old construction worker Plamen Goranov, who set himself on fire in front of the Varna municipal building on 20 February 2013. Goranov had been active in earlier mass protests, and his suicide was understood as directed against corruption in the city government. The film is called Plamen (which means ‘Flame’ in Bulgarian), produced and directed by the company Dress Code in 2015.   

Momentous questions loom behind the subjects of these films, which I do not attempt to address here. The following is not about protest suicide or about the contexts of these particular acts of protest. Instead, a relatively trivial circumstance calls for pause here: the films present both as artists. In Austerity, the old man – Christoulas – is depicted as a painter, in both senses. He paints his neighbour’s walls to earn some money, and he makes a painting which he gives to the neighbour before committing suicide. The film ends by focusing on the image of this painting: a boat at sea, on canvas, framed. In Plamen, Goranov’s reputation as an artistic photographer and poet is a constant refrain. Some of his photographs, carefully composed, are shown; his friends, artists and art aficionados, are interviewed and attest to Goranov’s consuming interest in art, and speak of many discussions on the subject – at one point a friend, a painter, pauses before a canvas and asks the question which had occupied them all: what is art?

I don’t know whether Christoulas really was an artist; that wasn’t mentioned in news reports. Perhaps the film exercises creative license here. Goranov’s artistic temperament and promise featured prominently in reports following his death, and the film takes no liberties with facts. But the truth or untruth of these depictions is not the issue here. That both films depict their subjects as artists, and signify art in particular ways, is a thought-provoking circumstance – a kind of common denominator. That signification of art and the preconceptions about art which come through interest me here.  These are presented in the films, but I suspect these aren’t to be pinned exclusively on these films: in this regard the films are probably symptomatizing widely held notions of art.

There is an indicative symmetry in the manner in which both films position art, or, rather, artistic pursuits. In both, art is not work, the opposite of making a living and remote from economic considerations. Work is the old man – Christoulas -- painting walls, or Goranov labouring on the surface of high buildings. Art is something they do, presumably, when they are not working – a kind of hobby or calling. (Nevertheless, some part of their hard-earned wages needed to be spent on photography or painting equipment.)

In neither film are the contents of the artwork commented on or analysed, no particular inference is offered about what their artworks suggest -- they are simply shown as expressions of the artistic consciousness which created them. The old man of Austerity seems to recall, in his last painting, and in the other artworks which hang in his home, the Greece of tourist picture postcards – an archaic marine and/or rural image. Nostalgia, it seems, counters the harsh reality of austerity. Goranov’s photographs featured in Plamen are closer to his own circumstances: he uses his friends and colleagues and himself as models in carefully planned tableaus, always an individual amidst the tableau -- a middle-aged man posing somewhat like an image of Silenus, Goranov as a heroic labourer, Goranov before floating apples, feet wearing skates of a person drowning in a pond, and so on. An individual rendered amidst the accoutrements of mythic artifice or symbolic oppression.

And yet, in both films there’s a hint that the performance of protest suicide is somehow coterminous with their artistry, is perhaps itself a sort of artistic expression – especially since neither film examines the political circumstances or context in any detail. The views expressed by the old man and Goranov in these films do not have enough context to give them political definition. They seem to be expressive of vaguely moral sentiment, melancholy apprehensiveness about their dignity and freedom, rage against the policies or actions of official people/organizations up there – but without any explanation of what those outrageous policies or actions were. The acts of suicide, in these films, seem ultimately disinvested of politics/protest and acquire the tints of tragic artistic performances. Art and politics don’t really mix here, any more than art and work/economics do, but art takes over and mutes the political act. That the last shot of Austerity foregrounds the painting suggests that the painting is the legacy of the old man’s suicide, that somehow the suicidal protest and the artwork are part of, so to speak, a picture. In Plamen, one of Goranov’s friends says that he had planned a photograph of a person on fire:  

Interviewer: Was there ever an idea that you found too crazy to realise ?

Friend: Yes, in one of the photos he wanted to set me on fire. I was supposed to put a piece of insulation on my back and have him pour gasoline on me and I was supposed to burn and say 'Shh... Quiet.' I refused to do it.

In this unrealised photograph, it seems, the fire was meant to silence rather than arouse dissent.

The depoliticizing role of art in these films is also implicitly a political move. The art of the old man and Goranov is, as observed, presented as expressive of their artistic consciousness, of the personae of these artists. Their protest suicides matter, it seems suggested, because these persons are artists – not so much because of their political ideas and stands as because of their artistic sensibility, or, possibly, their political ideas and stands are regarded as given an extra weight by their artistic sensibilities. But is that a reasonable suggestion? In Plamen, at the end of the film it is observed that since then “eighteen Bulgarians have committed self-immolation” (incidentally, a couple of days earlier 26-year old Traian Marechkov had set himself on fire before a bank in Veliko Turnovo and died). But do Goranov’s artistic pursuits confer any particular political significance to his protest suicide relative to those of the others? Or would the old man (the Christoulas of Austerity) being thought of as a painter bring some extra political resonance to his suicide over other such suicides (and suicide attempts) reported in Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Italy and elsewhere? 

To my mind, they don’t; but I suspect many would answer in the affirmative, and therein lies the political resonance. The artistic sensibility is thought of as a marker of a particular sort of education and upbringing, of being cultured, being attuned to the “higher pursuits”, more intellectual than material: in short, powerfully associated with a middle or upper class sensibility. Goranov might have been a manual worker, but his artistic sensibility allows a firm line of identification for the middle-class white-collar worker, aspiring to high culture. The old man – Christoulas – may have been in desperate financial straits, but his artistic interests allows for the easy sympathy of the well-heeled. These films evoke art to appeal to that sympathy, or appeal to the middle and affluent classes -- unsurprisingly, since the circuits of such films are predominantly at the behest of those classes. Equally, in making this move the political heart of such protest -- against austerity, deprivation, dispossession – is displaced from where it is most firmly grounded: amidst the unartistic rural and urban poor, the “low culture” unemployed and casualized and vulnerable margins of society where individuals have negligible purchase on the public voice/ear.

Evoking the resonances of art in this manner, with depoliticizing effect, is generally a tacit matter – not explicitly raised but habitually accepted – and possibly the most commonly held preconception of what art signifies. Other and more searching examinations/evocations of art in relation to financial and political crises from 2008 onwards are naturally to be found amongst the cognoscenti, those who make art their business or profession. There have been two predominant directions in this regard in art magazines and culture columns. First, some concern has been expressed about the infrastructure of art production and dealing: downturns in the art market, cuts in public funding for art. The former generally pays inordinate attention to major auction houses and the fortunes of established (star) artists and artworks, so of little interest to the practice of art; the latter is muddied by cuts in public funding in all directions. Second, some artists have variously referred to such crises in their artworks (e.g. there are probably more artworks playing with the iconography of money since 2008 than ever before). Putatively, these serve the useful function of raising political consciousness – only the careful analysis of such specific artworks can reveal what sort of awareness is raised and for whom. Such reference also has the potential to make artworks more marketable. 

Suman Gupta, February 2016