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Artists Raising Human Rights Concerns

Freedom of expression is supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 19), the European Convention on Human Rights (Art. 10), and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But when do protected acts of artistic self-expression cross over into unsupportable criminal activity?

Voina, radical art group in Russia, has based its works on blurring this boundary between criminal and artistic. According to the New York Times, one of the group’s recent and highly provocative art projects has recently been shortlisted for contemporary art awards by Russia’s Ministry of Culture and the National Center for Contemporary Art. But artistic credibility cannot save the group from trouble with the law.

In November 2010, the Russian authorities detained three members of Voina for hooliganism. Two of the artists have not yet been released. This is despite British artist Banksy’s efforts to raise money for their bail, as reported by the guardian in December. The Los Angeles Times reports that on February 22nd, one member made a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. The artist’s lawyer contests that the authorities have provided insufficient evidence to keep him in pre-trial detention.

“If the artists consider their action a piece of art, if the experts along with the audience agree with it, what it is then? Art or crime? We struggle against the authorities who are criminal indeed,” The Independent quotes Alexei Plutser-Sarno, a member of Voina.

Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, also raises human rights concerns about the authorities of his home country. Unlike Voina, he himself is more political than his works of art. His works are not violent or obscene, and he recently exhibited work at the Tate Modern in London. Nonetheless, the Chinese authorities have restricted both his political protests and his artistic activities. Weiwei was placed under house arrest in November, as reported by Cardozo Art Law Society.

Melissa Chui, director and vice president of the Asia Society in New York, writes for Art Info, “Ai Weiwei has certainly become an international symbol of issues surrounding human rights in China, and how individuals are able to express themselves, whether through art or through the media, blogs, Twitter, and other ways of communicating.”