Before the secret police expelled Milan Kohout from his native Czechoslovakia 22 years ago, Kohout was among the courageous band of artists, writers, and academics that fought to bring human rights and democracy to that nation. Those were the years before the Iron Curtain unraveled, when Eastern Europe — though brimming with dissent and dissatisfaction — was still under the thumb of the now-defunct Soviet Union.
An electrical engineer by training, Kohout’s weapon of protest is performance art. After being forced out of Czechoslovakia, Kohout was granted political asylum in the United States, studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, became a US citizen, and — now able to make his avocation his vocation — joined Mobius, the internationally acclaimed local artists group.
Kohout, who has taught at Tufts and at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and participated in art programs in China, Taiwan, Croatia, Poland, and Cuba, is now facing criminal charges here in Boston as a result of a one-man performance he staged this past November in front of a Bank of America office in the Financial District.
Kohout’s performance piece was simple and physically unobtrusive, but it was intellectually provocative. Called “Nooses on Sale,” it consisted of Kohout, a wispy-haired and bearded middle-aged man, standing behind a simple, hand-lettered sign carrying those words. At his feet were a scattering of ropes fashioned into hangman’s nooses.
Kohout’s intention was to draw attention to — and register his outrage at — the so-called subprime mortgage crisis. That crisis, which should rightly be termed a scandal, is expected to cost more than two million Americans their homes and their life savings. It has triggered an economic downturn in the US that many experts fear is a recession. And it has spawned an international financial crisis of such magnitude that Klaus Schwab, one of the organizers of the Davos, Switzerland, World Economic Forum, calls it nothing short of “apocalyptic.”
It is hard to imagine a bank or financial institution of any significant size that has escaped the impact of the subprime crisis. Not coincidently, it is difficult to imagine how the financial sector as a whole can escape its institutional complicity in the scandal. It is part of the uncomfortable brilliance of Kohout’s “Nooses on Sale” performance that he chose an office of the proudly named Bank of America as the site for his work. That the Bank of America office Kohout chose sits within shouting distance of the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Boston residents in 1776, added to the power of his statement.
Kohout now faces the bogus charge of operating without a proper peddler’s license. That the Bank of America called the police on Kohout should not come as a surprise. That the police arrested Kohout, however, is an outrage. Even more outrageous is the decision by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office to move forward with the Kohout’s prosecution. And more outrageous still is the fact that a judge is letting the charges stand.