Magazine | May 5, 2014, Issue

Dancing Athwart History

Vladimir Putin’s effortless ingestion of Crimea has produced some novel responses, and while one usually wouldn’t expect English lefty newspapers to get all frowny and harsh, Guardian arts columnist Jonathan Jones has his dander up:

Perhaps you disagree that Vladimir Putin is the most dangerous man in the world right now, but if I am right to be shocked and scared by Russia’s current course, the question that follows is the one Lenin asked: what is to be done?

Matthew Bourne has just offered one answer by refusing to tour his gay Swan Lake to Russia.

Well, that’ll learn ’em. The author calls for a total artist boycott of Russia, which would deploy the West’s most powerful weapon: passive-aggressive symbolic disapproval.

You can imagine Putin’s rage, can’t you? It’s one thing to find yourself described in unflattering terms by editorial writers who couldn’t fire a water pistol without dislocating their shoulder, but to learn that an all-male Swan Lake has turned up its collective nose — well, that must have been poorly received.

Scene: Kremlin hallway. Sounds: glass breaking, books thrown around behind the broad door of the president’s office.

Putin Aide #1: In the name of Saint Isaac, what’s going on in there?

Putin Aide #2: The boss just learned that the homoerotic reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet will not be arriving. He was looking forward to a modern staging that recast our notions of gender and classical Russian art, and took into account the competing narratives of the composer’s own sexuality.

Putin Aide #1: Doesn’t he have that on Blu-Ray?

Putin Aide #2: Nekulturny idiot! Our rich culture must be communally experienced! Just kidding, he was looking forward to having the theater blown up and blaming it on Estonian nationalists.

Putin Aide #1: Really?

Putin Aide #2: Really. You want to see Westerners’ heads spin, watch them criticize Putin for invading a country to avenge a gay ballet troupe.

The merits of the revised Swan Lake aside, Russia could survive an arts boycott. It’s not like Sergei down at the motor pool is going to protest the postponement of a Warhol exhibit. Dammit, I have a life expectancy of 51! I’d like to see a crude lithograph of a soup can before I die, is that too much to ask? The author of the Guardian piece seems to undercut his own point with this observation: “Russia . . . is also a land that loves visual art. There is no greater museum on earth than St Petersburg’s Hermitage, with its masterpieces that reflect the deep love of art by Russian collectors.”

The Hermitage is unparalleled, and it takes weeks to explore its dusty labyrinths. Like most museums, it has paintings in storage — about 3 million, by some estimates. So a cultural boycott is like trying to starve out someone who has a six-story basement filled with canned goods.

We could forbid them Western movies, I suppose. Thieves and hackers being a robust element of eastern economies, though, they probably screened the latest Captain America movie in the Kremlin before it showed up at the White House theater.

A threat to withhold Western art might be more effective if we produced much art that anyone really wanted. The gay Swan Lake is a perfect example of politics over substance; the fact that everyone’s gay is utterly unremarkable. Whether they can dance, now that’s the rub. This sort of rejiggering is so commonplace you expect a theater director to announce they’re staging Othello in a new way to shock modern audiences: The hero will be black, and Desdemona will be a white chick.

Putin will not back down unless the personal costs are too great, and as far as I can tell, the biggest hit he’s taken so far is the diminished number of pro-Putin funny pictures on the Internet. For a while he was cast as a Chuck Norris type, his cartoony macho exploits given a playful — and somewhat admiring — tweak by the vacant males who sit around and put captions on pictures. (Also known as “the dominant form of entertainment on the planet at the moment.”) They had fun with a guy who flew helicopters bare-chested, but compared with all the neutered Euros who plod along passing laws codifying sausage diameters, he had panache.

That seems to have died down since they figured out that invading a sovereign country is “kind of a douche move,” in their parlance.

You could say it’s typical of a supine and deluded culture to suggest that an artists’ boycott “hits Putin where it hurts.” If you’re wearing hobnail boots and he has his bankbook in his underpants, you might be able to hit him where it hurts, but otherwise no: An artists’ boycott sounds like an unpaid blogger who decided to penalize a TV-critic website by not posting recaps of that Dark Shadows DVD.

The correct way to push back at this point is to give full-throated support to the nations that got out from under the Soviet heel, kick Russia out of every international organization, and stop selling it things its moneyed classes want. But the administration seems to think it can shame Putin out of future aggression with some Very Stern Rhetoric.

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry said to CBS News. Well, they did. This may explain President Obama’s tweet the other day about history: History does not always move forwards, but sometimes backwards and sideways.

Deep. And sometimes counter-clockwise and katty-whompus as well.

You want to boycott theatrical exports to Russia? Tell the administration to stop dancing.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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