The art of being (un)fair – Les presses du réel / éditions Al Dante (2019)

January 10, 2019: The new Paris Courthouse – a proportion-dazzling, light-blinding vessel – was not prepared for the trial of Pyotr Pavlensky and Oksana Shalygina, summoned for setting fire to the Banque de France branch, located on the Place de la Bastille, during an artistic action entitled “Lighting.”

From 1:30 p.m., a crowd of journalists and supporters were lining up at the entrance of room 4.03, at which policemen randomly screened the lucky few who could attend the court hearing. The courtroom – which seated 80 people – was indeed very small compared to the event it was about to host, thus leaving an equivalent number of onlookers waiting outside its doors.

The trial of Pavlensky and Shalygina began at 2:00 p.m. with homage from the artist. Speaking in Russian, he declaimed: “I dedicate this trial to the Marquis de Sade,” since he had revealed “the very nature of power”. He portrayed Sade as “the greatest Frenchman of all time” and went on to highlight that Sade was locked up for most of his life in mental institutions and prisons – notably the Bastille – and that he called the rioting people to destroy the fortress. He concluded by asking: “Judge, where does Justice stand? The sighted are blinded by their very sight. And the Banque de France, located on the Place de la Bastille, is the most evident proof of this reality.”

The relevance of this homage to a censored figure, within the very premises of a state institution, was quickly overshadowed by a dispute between the artist and his interpreter, who had remained silent since the beginning of the hearing, waiting for the Court President’s green light to begin carrying out her translating functions. Pavlensky, frustrated by this deprivation of speech, raised his voice and asked a bilingual friend who was sitting in the audience to translate his words. Judges then called the defendant to abide by certain rules regarding his behavior; all while ironically calling this outcry “another artistic performance”, thus reducing this manifestation to one of the artist’s latest fantasies. They then decided to summon a new interpreter and to postpone the hearing to a later time that day. Before other cases could be brought to the room, the Court President exceptionally left his seat and approached Pavlensky to manifest his resolve to hear out the defense. He, however, advised him to moderate his temper for the debate to come. 

In this case, in which art conflicted with positive law, the judges had to adjudicate on the status and the limits of political art in France, an art which French jurisdictions knew very little about, and of which Pavlensky is undoubtedly the most famous representative. Art is indeed quite a common subject in Law, with the latter being subdivided into several areas that organize intellectual property and artistic exchanges. However, the generality and rigidity of positive Law sit rather uncomfortably with artistic creation. For Pavlensky, this fact is all the more interesting since he defines art as “a work on the meaning and the modes of expression of that meaning” and takes interest in the meaning of State powers, among which the Judiciary represents the sword. Pavlensky’s action may have left Place de la Bastille on October 16, 2017, but it kept revealing the meaning of its object of study – the cogs of the State-based domination system – during his eleven-month-long preventive detention and, of course, during this final hearing. Opening the way for a reflection on the nature and power of Law as a tool of symbolic violence, this trial gave people an accurate depiction of the flaws of justice in France while inviting them to define their scale of values between legal normativity and artistic freedom of expression.

After a three-hour wait, the court resumed the hearing in front of a packed room and with a new interpreter. The floor was given to Pavlensky first. He spoke briefly, reminding the audience of the meaning and symbolic intake of “Lighting” and presenting the judges with a dilemma: they could either drop the charges held against him and, in so doing, recognize that political art was authorized in France, or, conversely, “justify the mockery that power inflicts on society” and condemn him to the ten years of imprisonment he faced on the base of article 322-6 of the Criminal Code, thus officially prohibiting him from exercising his artistic activities on French territory. After this statement, the artist called upon his right to remain silent until the end of the hearing, leaving the floor to the director of the Banque de France branch. The latter did not miss the opportunity to underline the nobility of some of the activities that the institution he represented carries out – services to companies and private individuals facing indebtedness – and claimed compensation for the harm suffered, which was estimated at 18,000 euros, that is to say, the amount spent to clean the building. He also insisted on the dangerous nature of the action, notably the risk of fire propagation: an eventuality that Pavlensky and Shalygina denied – the fire having been, according to them, fully under control.

Upon request of Pavlensky, Gilles Lebreton – a blind man whom he had met in the street – was called to the bar to testify. The atmosphere became tense, with people recalling the debacle of Pavlensky’s previous trial, during which, as defense witnesses, prostitutes vigorously testified against him, denying any artistic character to his action. In contrast, Lebreton took the opposite stand for “Lighting.” With his mind’s eye lit, he enlightened the judges on the meaning of Pavlensky’s work. He interpreted it, relying on the poetic dimension of the chiaroscuro dichotomy that is held dear by the artist, and went on to invite the Court to put aside its blindfold – a symbol of its impartiality but also, at times, of its own blindness.

This poignant moment ended with a much more trivial request: to establish the penalty sought by the prosecutor against the artist and his partner. The prosecutor adjudicated for a four-year prison sentence, a five-year weapons prohibition order, and the deprivation of civic, civil, and family rights for the two political refugees. She justified her position by citing the risk of recurrence of an arson incident, alluding to “Threat” – an action visually similar to “Lighting” – which saw the artist set fire to the entrance of the FSB (the Federal Security Services of the Federation of Russia), located in the historical building of Lubyanka.

The prosecution ended the debate, leaving the audience waiting for an uncertain sentence against the artist, who, after having once been welcomed with open arms by the “homeland of human rights,” was now blamed for the fact that he “did not restrain himself; defying laws, social conventions and the gods,” according to the precepts of Sade. 

At 7:00 p.m., the verdict was finally delivered. The Court President first reminded the audience of the “exceptional” character of the hearing, during which the “Russian dissidents” confronted French Law. Pavlensky resolutely interrupted him, stating, “I am not a dissident,” and corrected, “I am an artist!” The President then quoted from the writings of an emblematic figure of the arts – Jean Cocteau – to express through literature the complexity of weighing Law and poetry – or assuming his task to judge Pavlensky. His discourse, however, resumed to a more rational tone later on. He assumed that he could not judge the value of artistic ideas and preferred to focus on criminally reprehensible actions; that is to say “damage to third-party property using explosive substances, arson or any other means creating a high risk of injury to individuals.”

On these premises, he condemned Pavlensky to three years of imprisonment, including two years of suspended sentence. For her part, Shalygina was condemned to two years of imprisonment, including sixteen months of suspended sentence. He also ruled in favor of a five-year weapons prohibition order and an obligation to jointly pay a fine of around 23,000 euros, a sentence which the artist defied – as a matter of principle – unequivocally. 

This conviction can only fuel the process of definition of political art that was initiated by Pavlensky in 2012 with his action “Seam,” providing him with an unprecedented comparative perspective. Having already thoroughly tested Russian authorities, it was the first time the artist ever confronted a foreign state system. “Lighting” is all the more interesting since it can be weighed against his action “Threat,” from an aesthetic as well as from a significance standpoint. As such, it is regrettable that French jurisdictions have condemned Pavlensky more severely than Russian courts (which had only sentenced him to pay a fine of around 6,700 euros) and that the media frenzy that surrounded each of his actions has, now he acts on French soil, much decreased.

Paradoxically, this sentence also provides the artist with the necessary substance to enrich his art, widen his scope of action, and finetune its outlines. Although it proved to be insensitive to the meaning of the “Lighting” action, French Justice has, however, had to face the sincerity of Pavlensky’s artistic approach. The chaotic dialogue that took place within the Courthouse has confirmed the artist’s independence from the organs of power and the primacy of his principles over the comfort that collaboration with his foster state authorities could bring him. His temerity has, of course, a price – misunderstanding, accusations, judgments. Though, to quote Cocteau more adequately: “the yearning to reach out to the masses fools the artist on their countless, diverse and secret curiosities.” On the contrary, “Freedom always finds its reward.”


Published in French as “L’art d’être juste”.