“They didn’t attack my performance, they attacked my body. They attacked the body that Christians believe does not resemble that of Jesus,” says Wagner Schwartz, the Brazilian choreographer, dancer, and writer who faced a torrent of abuse for his performance of La Bête in October 2017. In Wagner’s case, as well as for other artists and cultural professionals in Brazil, it has become clear that the moral crusades against their artwork are not isolated incidents. They must be understood within a wider cultural and political movement.
The exhibition, part of the 35th Panorama of Brazilian Art, involved Wagner laying naked in an open area of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM) and inviting members of the audience to engage and interact with his body, such as by moving one of his limbs or rolling him over. In the video that subsequently spread across the internet in Brazil and then internationally, a four year old girl—accompanied by her mother—approaches Wagner. She pulls one of the artist’s fingers, curious perhaps as to whether he is asleep, and then crawls toward Wagner’s foot while her mother touches his shin. It is, as media outlets at the time denoted, a fairly unremarkable video. Nonetheless, the moral panic that ensued was immediate.
Though this performance piece—which incorporates the sculpture of Brazilian Constructivist Lygia Clark—had already been staged many times in Brazil and abroad, the 2017 video of the performance generated accusations of pedophilia and pornography against Wagner and others who were affiliated with the exhibition. MAM’s press officer, Roberta Montanari, and other employees of the museum were physically attacked when some 20 members of the far-right and Evangelical-aligned Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL) demonstrated outside the museum. At the same time, an online petition denouncing La Bête and Wagner gained over 100,000 signatures, while over 86,000 signatures called for the museum itself to shut down. Just a month earlier, MBL forced the Queermuseu (Queer Museum) exhibition in the city of Porto Alegre to shut down after fomenting protests with the claim that it “[promoted] bestiality, paedophilia and offences to the Christian faith.”
As the online abuse and mischaracterization of Wagner’s piece grew increasingly extreme, social media users called for him to be killed: one widely shared meme depicts the artist juxtaposed with images of bullets. The caption reads: “Pedophilia has a cure.”
Making use of the connections that he had in France and at the urging of his friends and colleagues, Wagner left for Paris. Writing from exile, he seems weary of this polemic forming a primary association with his work. In cases like La Bête, the purpose of the artwork and the facts surrounding the piece appear lost to controversy; in the manufactured rage which ensues, the art work itself becomes irrelevant.
With numerous, original works of choreography which he has brought to the stage in Brazil and across Europe since the early 2000s—and multiple film and literary works that unite physical and linguistic mediums—Wagner draws on a diverse and intertextual artistic grounding. After the firestorm of La Bête, it seems that his creative output only accelerated, with the publication of a novel, Nunca juntos mas ao mesmo tempo (Never Together But At The Same Time), in June 2018. One of Wagner’s more recent choreographic performances Tumba (2020)—a meditation on death and the sonic qualities of stillness—took inspiration in part from the title of a painting within the book. This ability to find the seeds of new expression buried within the old feels integral to Wagner’s work, and offers the viewer or reader rich possibilities for analysis. Recently, as a participant in the 2022 documentary Quem tem medo? (Who is Afraid?)— screened at the 2023 Brazilian Cinema Festival in Paris—Wagner joined forces with other Brazilian artists to illuminate the severity of the censorship and abuse that they faced in the Bolsonaro era.
Symptoms of a Broader Paradigm Shift
Coming of age at the dawn of Brazil’s democracy—he was 13 when the decades-long military dictatorship came to an end in 1985—Wagner describes his first encounters with art as a negotiation between disparate currents in Brazil’s cultural life. Raised in a pious, working-class Protestant family in Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro state, he was caught between the conservative values of his community and the liberated artistic expression that he saw blossoming around him. He recalls first hearing music that was not connected to the Church, and how this moment was one among many catalysts for his future as an artist. Listing the many forms of cultural expression that he explored and that abounded in those years—bossa nova, samba, rock and roll, auteur cinema, poetry, pornochanchadas (a type of comedic sexploitation film that became popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s)—Wagner entered a period of spiritual crisis: “In an attempt to negotiate Christ with free will, I got sick. I went into a depression.”
This personal tension has arguably also played out politically over decades on Brazil’s national stage. The mounting attacks and censorship faced by the country’s artists in late 2017 coincided with the election of Jair Bolsonaro—a fringe right-wing congressman, former army captain, and open apologist for the military dictatorship—just a year later, with increasing overtures to far-right and Christian nationalist interests.
In a May 2023 interview conducted with ARC, Wagner reflects on Bolsonaro’s tenure—whose right-wing populist movement was already coalescing when the controversy at MAM took place—and its broad implications for the arts. He noted that, “Moral panic and the instinct to suppress controversial works [was] institutionalized. Bolsonaro’s government has been important in instilling fear within institutions that have adapted to his whims.” Many of the former president’s legislative maneuvers echoed this, including the decision made on his first day in office to dismantle the formerly independent Ministry of Culture and subsume it into a new umbrella ministry. Beyond the erosion of government institutions for the arts, Bolsonaro’s leadership represented a fundamental threat to the livelihoods of the country’s LGBTQIA+, Afro-descendant, and Indigenous communities—and to the artists among them—with Queer artists and performers in particular being singled out as political targets.
Hope for the Future
A look at Brazil today offers signs that respect for the arts may be returning, after Lula’s reelection and the end of the Bolsonaro government. Indeed, one of Lula’s first acts after his inauguration was the reinstatement of the Minister of Culture as an independent agency, an important step in his pledge to undo the damage caused by his predecessor. When asked about what has changed since Bolsonaro’s departure, Wagner is clear as to the general sense of relief felt by Brazilian artists: “There is a civic relief. The relief of no longer being under the command of an authoritarian, violent, moralistic, half-assed Christian government.”
“Despite the ways that his work and the work of his peers has been demonized, he knows that it is never art, but rather the lack of it, that is dangerous.”
Nonetheless, Wagner makes clear that faith-based censorship in Brazil’s cultural sphere is not confined only to the Bolsonaro years, stressing the universal influence of religion across parties and ideologies: “The Brazilian territory today is in the hands of the evangelicals. Before claiming to be a politician, one must claim to be a Christian man. Lula, to be reelected, had to affirm several times that he was a believer in Jesus—on or off the cross.” While he recognizes that artistic censorship in Lula’s government will not amount to what artists experienced under Bolsonaro, or his predecessor Michel Temer, he expects it to tacitly continue, in part through the influence exerted by “Christian investors” who persist in imposing their vision on the country’s art spaces.
Speaking to the religion of his upbringing, but also to the military dictatorship that he was born in and the last four years in Brazil’s political history, Wagner frames art as opposition: “If authoritarian knowledge wants to compact us into universal creeds, to transform us into easily accessible beings, art singularizes us.” Despite the ways that his work and the work of his peers has been demonized, he knows that it is never art, but rather the lack of it, that is dangerous.
By Elias Ephron, May 30, 2023. Elias is a senior at Bard College, studying Political Science and Spanish and Latin American studies.