11/12/2013 09:28 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Self-Mutilation As Art, Or: Confusing Balzac With Ball Sac

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 get over the initial shock of seeing the photograph, which has been plastered all over the Internet, there are several ways to respond to the story. An objective observer might say that this young man (Pyotr Pavlensky) clearly has an over-developed social conscience or, perhaps, even an inflated sense of self-importance.

Another observer might simply say he is your garden-variety masochist, a man who rejoices in hurting himself. Still another might say that the act (protesting 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 crude and obvious joke which, unfortunately, is not beneath me.

Actually, my first thought was: Did Pyotr 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'd been 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."

The problem with extreme protests (e.g. purposely harming yourself, destroying public property, taking hostages, etc.) is that they tend to alienate the very constituency you're seeking to attract. Sort of like the story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear and mailing it to a girl he wished to court. Instead of winning her heart, he scared the bejeezus 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. Rightly or wrongly, as far as protests go, we tend to prefer the standard stuff: sit-down strikes, picket lines, orchestrated boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, etc. Don't gross us out by doing something too bizarre.

I have a friend whom I'll call "Fred." He's a great guy, a very generous, compassionate person. Back in the early seventies, 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 perspective of elapsed time, Fred has come to see the group's activities for what they were. Despite having "right" on their side (which they did), and being caught up in a self-righteous moral frenzy, their tactics were fatally flawed. Fred said he now realizes that most people--even those who opposed the Vietnam war--saw his group as "either criminal or insane."

This Pyotr fellow will likely face something similar. Instead of people saying, "Wow, things must really be bad in Russia if this guy is willing to hammer his own scrotum," they're going to say, "What the hell's wrong with this sick puppy?" Burning your draft card is one thing, but 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, 2nd edition").