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Self-Mutilation As Art


NEWS REPORT (from The Guardian, November 11, 2013): Red Square has seen a lot over the centuries, from public executions to giant military parades, but a performance artist broke new ground on Sunday when he nailed his scrotum to cobblestones in a painful act of protest.

Once we got over the initial shock of seeing the photograph, which was plastered all over the Internet, there were several ways to respond to this. An objective observer might say the young man (Pyotr Pavlensky) had an over-developed social conscience. Another observer might accuse him of having an inflated sense of self-importance.

Another might suggest that he was no more than your garden-variety masochist, a man who rejoiced in hurting himself publicly. And still another might say that this startling act (to protest Russia’s perceived descent into tyranny) was pure genius because it resulted in getting precisely the international attention he was seeking.

Personally, I would say the man was “nuts,” but that would be going for the obvious joke—appealing to a crude play on words—which, unfortunately, is not beneath me.

In truth, my first thought was: Did Pyotr Pavlensky tell anyone in advance—his family or friends—what his intentions were? Did he run the idea by, say, his friend Vladimir? “Hey, Vlad, remember when I told you I was thinking of doing something dramatic to protest Russia becoming a police state? Well, I’ve decided to head over to Red Square and nail my ball sac to the road.”

That’s the problem with extreme protests (e.g. purposely harming yourself, destroying public property, taking hostages, etc.). They tend to alienate the very constituency you’re seeking to attract. Sort of like that story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear and mailing it to a woman he wished to court. Instead of winning her heart, he scared the hell out of her.

Maybe the fault lies with us. Maybe the average citizen is simply too squeamish or ignorant or apathetic to buy into such radical gestures, no matter how “valid” they are. In any event, when it comes to protests, we’re more comfortable with the standard stuff: sit-down strikes, marching with placards, picket lines, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, etc. Blood-letting or macabre street theater is only going to gross us out.

I know a man whom I’ll call “Fred.” He’s a great guy, a very generous, compassionate individual. Back in the day, Fred was a member of the notorious Weather Underground, the radical, anti-war group that went around bombing unoccupied buildings to protest American imperialism. He and his fellow cadre members were hunted down by the FBI.

Given the dual perspective of middle-age and elapsed time, Fred has come to view those activities for what they were. Despite having “right” on their side (which they absolutely did), and being caught up in a self-righteous moral frenzy, their tactics were unsound. Fred said he now realizes that the majority of the country—even those who opposed the Vietnam war—saw them as either “criminals or insane people.”

This Pyotr fellow may face something similar. Instead of people saying, “Wow, things must really be bad in Russia if this guy is willing to puncture his own scrotum,” they’re going to say, “That dude is one sick puppy.” Burning your draft card is one thing. Self-mutilation is a whole other deal.

David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”).  He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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