Great Artists and the People We Sacrifice to Them

By Natalia Antonova
  • Natalia Antonova
    Natalia Antonova was born in Ukraine and grew up in North Carolina. She works as a pundit and playwright. She has written for The Guardian, Newsweek, openDemocracy, Mashable, Foreign Policy, et al. She was the last editor of The Moscow News, Russia's oldest English-language publication, before it was shut down by the government in 2014.

There are ‘good’ rape victims and ‘bad’ rape victims. A good rape victim is a virgin dressed like a character on Little House on the Prairie, waylaid by an assailant as she walks home after being fitted for a chastity belt. A bad rape victim is pretty much anyone else.

When Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky revealed that actress Anastasia Slonina had filed a sexual assault complaint against him and his partner, Oksana Shalygina, many people on the Russian arts scene rushed to point out how Slonina was a “bad victim.” She had been naked on stage! She had taken beautiful photos of herself for the sake of self-promotion!

I am not going to comment on whether or not Pavlensky is guilty or innocent because I am thoroughly biased. I know Slonina well, and she has worked with my husband, who is a theater and film director. Our lives have intertwined in various ways—as it is common on the Moscow theater scene—and I am therefore entirely the wrong person to address the particulars of what allegedly happened.

What I can say is that it is obvious that the criminal case against Pavlensky, who became famous in Russia for his visceral protest art, will be co-opted by agents of the state. That the state will pounce on an opportunity when it sees one. Some people have taken this to mean that Slonina is a liar acting on behalf of the Putin regime in order to ruin Pavlensky—but even if I did not know her I would insist that life tends to be more complicated than that.

But what has struck me about the case is how perfectly it illustrates the bind that Russian women are in. They are required to be beautiful and pliant, exceedingly feminine—everyone from lawmakers to reality TV producers insist on this—but this femininity is then used against them in a variety of ways.

One of the most common complaints I heard about Slonina on both the Moscow and Kyiv arts scenes (Pavlensky and Shalygina had taken their children to Kyiv after Slonina had gone to the police, and sheltered there until moving to France, where they are applying for asylum) was that she just “didn’t look trustworthy” or seemed “a bit too glamorous for an innocent victim.”

“A woman who wears a lot of dramatic makeup and poses seductively raises a lot of questions when she claims to have been assaulted,” a Russian writer friend argued with me in private after I wrote a post on social media explaining my position on the matter.

“But… she’s an actress,” I wrote back. “It’s literally part of her job.”

“Not every actress looks like a whore,” was the reply. “Look, I’m not denying that something bad might have happened to her—but maybe stop and think if she brought it on herself?”

Compulsory femininity is always a double-edged sword, especially so in the world of theater and art. A young woman has almost zero chance of being cast unless she makes an impression. But if something bad is to happen to this young woman, people will argue that she should not have been so impressive to begin with. And if she talks about it, or even if, like in Slonina’s case, she is revealed to be an accuser in an assault case (although Slonina had kept her silence about the case, Pavlensky went public with it after leaving the country), she will get a reputation for being ‘difficult’ at best.

A friend of mine, let’s call her Sasha, who worked as an actress in Moscow for years, confided in me that the situation surrounding Slonina was giving her nightmares. Sasha had once been violently assaulted by a director during rehearsal, and in front of witnesses, no less. “At one point, he decided that he didn’t like what I was doing and slapped me hard across the face, hard enough so that I fell down and cried,” she told me. “I could tell he enjoyed it tremendously, he already had a reputation for being a sadist around young and inexperienced colleagues.”

Not a single one of Sasha’s costars supported her in any way in the aftermath of that incident. Fearing that she would complain, the director went to the administration and explained that Sasha and he had been engaged in a relationship that had gotten out of hand and resulted in a kind of lovers’ quarrel. When Sasha contradicted him, she was told that she was “endangering the production.”

Such stories are a dime a dozen in Moscow and every time I bring them up with people I know in the theater world, they argue that, “actresses bring it on themselves” because “they’re so desperate for roles that they have no self-respect.” Or else I am told that, “great art requires great passion—and passion sometimes means that people get hurt.”

The Pavlensky case is another example of how often people on the Russian arts scene conflate genius and the desire to abuse. A performance artist I know, for example, has argued to me and others that because Pavlensky has turned self-harm into an artistic statement, this means that “Slonina should have known what people of such uncompromising nature are capable of,” and that perhaps what happened was simply part of a “protest performance” gone wrong.

Even some of Pavlensky’s staunchest critics have argued that Slonina “should have known better”—because his art implies a predisposition toward violence.

This weird ‘rule’ about knowing better is only ever applied to women who accuse men of sexual assault. Imagine a man coming over to, say, a thriller writer’s house for some tea and cake, and being whacked over the head with an axe, and everyone saying, “Well, that author wrote a lot of books with the word ‘murder’ in the title, so what would anyone expect?” We simply are not in the habit of using someone’s artistic profession to justify most crimes—unless the alleged crime is sexual assault.

None of this is new, of course. Anywhere in the world, men who are considered great artists are allowed to get away with quite a bit, as long as they stick to harming women, especially younger women. In many ways, such women are seen as raw materials needed to create important works of art. Oh, a famous writer drank and abused his wife? Well, those are the wages of great talent. A famous director raped a teenager? Being a genius is hard and sometimes taking it out on someone is simply necessary!

I was in my twenties when I crossed paths with one such ‘genius’ and was made to suffer for my starstruck admiration of him. While I went to be with him perfectly willingly, I could never have imagined that he would choose to hurt me after he got me alone, or that he would laugh when I begged him to stop. What happened was so shocking and incomprehensible to me, that I rewrote it in my head. Having rewritten it, I acted like nothing was wrong.

I made up excuses for him, and at the forefront of my excuses was the idea that he was an important artist, and they are complicated people who drink and do strange things, and therefore nothing that serious had occurred.

In fact, the whole thing was not complicated at all—he raped me and got off on it. And then he got off again on my complicity, on my desperate need to believe that he somehow did not mean to do it, and that he even “loves” me and that “we’re all adults here” so let’s just move on.

Naturally, I did not actually move on for years. In fact, I nearly destroyed myself before I admitted that maybe, just maybe, I had a slight problem, and that I could trace the problem back to that night when I trusted the wrong man—a successful man, a lauded man, even—and paid very dearly for it, and then could not admit it to myself.

Interestingly enough, it was my later work as an artist’s model—you know, doing stuff that can also easily get a woman labeled as a “whore” who is “asking for it”—that played a big role in making me see the sheer wrongness of what happened to me. I looked at my body through the eyes of someone else—a painter, a photographer—and was suddenly struck by its innocence and vulnerability, the frankness that taking artistic risks can afford. “Someone thought they could hurt that,” I thought. “Someone did hurt it. Maul it, practically. Why? What gave him the right?”

Art, of course, is always bigger than those corners of it where privileged abusers and other horrible people hold sway. Or so I like to think these days. I like to think that there will be a time when we are no longer used to looking at any woman’s body as an invitation to violence, or when we look at the art she creates or helps create and say that it somehow makes her less than human, because of nudity or whatever else. I like to think that we will, as a species, a civilization, get better about that eventually.

My idealism is probably unwarranted—the Pavlensky case certainly does nothing to support it, especially not in the short term—but stranger things have happened in the world. I mean it. If someone as clouded in the mind as I have been these last few years can finally learn to see herself as a human being, then surely not all hope is lost.