Commentary: Art and Democracy Sent to Prison

For the first time since 1989 a Czech artist has been imprisoned because of his work

The artist Roman Týc will soon be imprisoned. A few years ago, as part of his work, he decided to change the illuminated figures on some traffic lights. The aim was to observe people's responses. As punishment for this act, the court gave him the option of paying a 60,000-crown fine or serving a prison term. Týc has refused to pay the fine because he thinks it is wrong to accept this kind of artistic repression, and the court duly ruled that he has to serve time in jail.

Zbyněk Petráček, an opinion piece-writer at the daily newspaper Lidové noviny, is adamant that the artist's stance is only a pretense and that if he doesn't pay the fine, he deserves to be jailed. In Petráček's view, any crook could declare himself an artist and then commit a crime.

If the Czech justice system doesn't know how to distinguish between an artist and a criminal, it is a sorry state of affairs. Justice isn't only a matter of articles of law; it also relies a good deal on interpretation. So here we have yet another case in which the justice system exhibits only a formal understanding of the law.

Týc is a famous provocateur and some of his deeds (and those of Ztohoven, the guerilla art group to which he belongs) may seem a little over the top. But art is allowed to break conventions because it has potential to awaken us or make us think. If Týc paid the fine, he would partly deny that which defines him. His stance is a courageous one and deserves respect. Therefore no one should like the idea that he will end up in prison.

It would be a different matter if the artist had caused major damage or endangered somebody's life. Then he would have to bear all the responsibility. But this didn't happen. If we had to measure the cost of repairing the traffic lights against the incalculable benefit to society, we clearly gained more than we lost. If nothing else, Týc pointed out how we automatically accept the things around us without giving them proper thought. And on top of that, people found it rather entertaining.

When Týc begins his jail sentence, a small piece of Czech democracy will go to prison with him. It will be the first time since 1989 that an artist has ended up in prison because of his work.

Video on YouTube

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