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This week Sarah breaks down why The Art Assignment sign-off cannot be "Please Don't Break the Law," and discusses artists Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot who have broken the law for good reasons. What should our sign off be?

Please Break The Law: Reading List
(please suggest other readings in the comments)

- Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life" (1863)
- Serge Guilbaut, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and David Solkin (eds), Modernism and Modernity (1983)
- Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris (eds), Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts (1992)
- Meyer Shapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Century, Selected Papers, vol. 2 (1978)

The Avant-Garde
- Henri de Saint-Simon, "L'artiste, le savant et l'industriel" ("The artist, the scientist and the industrialist") (1825)
- Clement Greenberg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939)
- Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944)
- Peter Bürger's "Theory of the Avant-Garde" (1974)
- Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985)
- Hal Foster, "Who's Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?" in The Return of the Real (1996)
- Matthew Witkovsky, ed., Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life: Early Twentieth-Century European Modernism (2011)

Pussy Riot
- Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (2014)
- Pussy Riot's Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer For Freedom (2012)
- @Eng_Pussy_Riot

Ai Weiwei
- Ai Weiwei and Lee Ambrozy's Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 (2011)
- Kerry Brougher, Mami Kataoka, and Charles Merewether's Ai Weiwei: According to What? (2012)
- Alison Klayman's film AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (2012)
- @aiww | @aiww_en

Art + civil disobedience
- Hannah Arendt's "Civil Disobedience" (1970)
- Randy Martin's Performance as Political Act: The Embodied Self (1990)
- Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others (2004)
- Slavoj Zizek's Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (2008)
- Nato Thompson, Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (2012)
Here at The Art Assignment, we're big fans of not breaking the law, as we pointed out several times when signing off.

Sarah: Please don't break the law.
Sarah: Please don't break the law.
Sarah: And please don't break the law.
John: Don't break the law.

After the Meet in the Middle and Stakeout episodes, many of you expressed concern about trespassing or violating privacy. So, we asked you to try to execute the assignments without breaking the law, because, you know, we don't want anyone to get hurt or arrested and most of all, we don't want anyone to sue us. But, in fact, art history has seen many occasion where good art involved breaking the law. As commenter ljmasternoob asked, "What about civil disobedience?". Breaking the law can be socially and artistically constructive. So, today I'm going to share with you stories of artist who did break the law.


Okay, let's begin with Modernism, by which I don't mean up-to-date, or clean-lined furniture, but the historical period from about 1850, Industrialism, et cetera, to about 1960. During that time art changed a great deal along with the world. Everything from war to mass production to Freudian psychology shaped art making. And we saw more abstract artwork and the use of new technologies, like photography.

Modern artists were those whose ideas reflected the realities of a changing world. And sometimes it went beyond reflecting that world, and can be seen as actively pushing society in a new direction. And sometimes that means breaking the law.

Okay, so before avant-garde was used to describe, like, experimental music, and fancy coffee, it was a military term describing the first soldier out in battle, who valiantly put themselves out there and risked death. When it started being used to describe artists, it was in the early 1820's and it referred to someone whose work served the needs of everyday people rather than the rich and powerful. And then avant-garde started to be used to describe people who weren't breaking the law but were breaking the "rules of art". You know, using abstraction, putting a urinal in an exhibition, and so forth.

Well, capital-M Modernism did end, and what is helpfully called Post-Modernism began. Artist continued to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and they still do.

You can think of artists like Chris Burden, whose most famous work, "Shoot," was a performance in which he stood in a gallery and had his friend shoot him in the arm with a 22" rifle. This was, needless to say, not legal, but the ethics of it are complicated and worth thinking about. Burden did this in 1971, during the height of the Vietnam war, the first so-called "living room war," when extreme violence was broadcast in homes across the US. The performance can be thought of as a commentary on accountability. When is violence entertainment? And when is the audience obligated to intervene? I'm going to go ahead and go on record discouraging you from having someone shoot you, or actually just any kind of shooting of anyone.

And this brings us to something important: law-breaking art isn't necessarily good art. In, fact, I'd say it's usually quite bad. Provocative, maybe, but not very interesting. But when it is good, and it brings attention to questionable ideas and systems of government, then it's extremely important. It's not something you should immediately embrace and celebrate, but it's something that can open up conversations about injustice.

In 1975, Burden defined art as "a free spot in society, where you can do anything. But that does depend on which society you live in.

Let's take two contemporary examples, starting with Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk band, and art collective that stages guerrilla-style protest performances. Three of their members were arrested and imprisoned for a 2012 performance in which they danced on a church altar in Moscow, and later turned it into a music video entitled, "Punk Prayer, Mother of God chase Putin away". There's a lot going on here. Pussy Riot was challenging what they see as an unjust law protecting religious spaces in a supposedly secular society. It's also a criticism of the patriarchal Russian Orthodox Church and some of its leaders, who interfere in Russian politics by doing things like supporting a third term for president Vladimir Putin.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova described it well in her closing statement at trial, "Pussy Riot's performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties." Now released from prison, Pussy Riot continues their work of protesting anti-protest laws themselves, exposing the stifling of speech in contemporary Russia. As they said in their first English language Tweet, "Russia is not China or Iran YET, so we can still use Twitter."

But speaking of China and Twitter, my second example is Ai Weiwei, who has completely blurred the lines between artist and activist. His life was politicized from a very young age, as his father was the well-known poet, Ai Qing, who was labeled an enemy of the people during the Cultural Revolution, and was exiled with his family to a labor camp, where Ai Weiwei spent most of his childhood.

As an adult, Ai has involved himself in a wide varied program of challenging the practices of Chinese government, and advocating for democracy and free speech. He is an accomplished artist who has built a stunning body of conceptual artwork using sculpture, installation, photography, and video.

But one of his greatest artworks can be seen as his blog, which he started in 2006 and used as a platform to voice a stream of social commentary and political critique. Through the blog, he started a citizen's investigation to collect the names of the more than five thousand schoolchildren who were killed in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Not just an act of memorial, this was also a way of openly questioning the government, who refused to admit any responsibility for the shoddily built schools that caused a disproportionate number of young people to die. Shortly after he published the list of names on his blog, it was shut down by authorities.

In 2011 Ai Weiwei was stopped at the Beijing airport and placed into detention for eighty-one days for vaguely defined economic crimes. Since his release, he has remained on constant surveillance and still hasn't been given his passport back. But he continues to make work and is an extremely vocal activist on social media and in the international press.

A year after his release, Ai Weiwei said, "I'm just a citizen: my life is equal in value to any other. But I'm thankful that when I lost my freedom so many people shared feeling and put such touching effort into helping me. It gives me hope: stupidity can win for a moment, but it can never really succeed because the nature of humans is to seek freedom. They can delay that freedom but they can't stop it."

So, these are all very complicated and nuanced issues, and there's a lot of great reading to do on these subjects. You'll find some suggestions in the video info. But for now, I'll leave you with this thought: When making art, and also in not making art, it's important to consider which laws to break, and how to break them. In fact, the whole question of breaking the law is a pretty interesting lens into that old question of what art even is. Is it art when a bunch of criminals pull off a stunningly beautiful and complex bank robbery? I'd argue, no. But a Russian art collective that forms a punk band and performs on an altar for clearly stated reasons, and with the intention of it being a form of protest art, to me, that's art. It's avant-garde in the true sense of the term, and it's art I would never want to discourage. Let's continue this conversation in the comments. Thanks for watching, and... could you guys please suggest a sign-off for us?


And, please don't break the law. Unless you must. And you have a very good reason. And you don't sue us.