On Critique Declared but Not Realized or, Realized but Not Declared (or, On the Love of Power) Viktor Misiano
The history books tell us that the tradition of the Russian democratic movement dates to what is called the Decembrist Revolt (or Decembrist Uprising). In 1825, after the death of Emperor Alexander I, a group of progressive aristocratic officers led their troops into Senate Square (Decembrist Square) in Petersburg. They demanded that Constantine, Alexander’s liberal presumed heir, be crowned, and that a constitutional monarchy be established in Russia. However, the soldiers on Senate Square were convinced that the “constitution” mentioned in the Decembrists’ slogan—“For Constantine and the Constitution”—was the wife of Grand Duke Constantine, pretender to the throne. This historical anecdote is habitually referred to when anyone wishes to confirm an objective fact: that the Russian public remains loyal to the authorities even when it protests. In Russia, modernization has always been initiated and implemented by the authorities. It was this fact that moved the poet Pushkin, a contemporary of the Decembrists, to remark, “The government is the only European in Russia.” Moreover, he had in mind the reactionary Nicholas, the man who assumed the throne instead of his liberal brother Constantine.
If we move forward to events closer to our own day and more relevant to it—to the 1960s—then here we cannot fail to recognize that, at first glance, Russia shared this period’s modernizing impulse and freedom-loving spirit with the West. The experts witness to this: “If we read the ideological declarations of our ‘men of the 1960s,’ then we’ll discover a striking resemblance to the ideas of the New Left.”1 There was a difference, nevertheless, and it boiled down to a circumstance which is not altogether without its paradox: whereas “New Leftists” in the West appealed to leftist ideas in their demands for change, in the USSR it was this leftist ideology that was already in power. Thus, the “men of the 1960s” in the USSR appealed to the authorities, aspiring to “change the Party from within”; therefore, “their political project collapsed the day Soviet tanks, on orders from the Kremlin, entered reformist Czechoslovakia. By the evening of the following day, most advocates for ‘socialism with a human face’ knew for a fact that ‘democratic socialism’ was an absurd utopia.”2
During the following two decades, the majority of these former freethinkers chose the route of conformist integration into the power structures, while a minority set out on the path of dissidence. However, disenchantment with the ideas of the generation of the 1960s led them to a radical ideological shift: their faith in “socialism with a human face” was replaced by an enchantment with Thatcher, Reagan, and, in the end, General Pinochet. Moreover, this mindset was evinced not only by flagrant opponents of the regime, but also by the conformists who had been integrated into its ranks. This was the basis for the neoliberal and visceral anticommunist ideology of the postcommunist reforms during the 1990s.
In art, the ideals of the 1960s generation were embodied in the neorealist painting of the so-called “severe” style. In the canvasses of Gely Korzhev and Viktor Popkov, monumental in form and topical in content, the heroics and drama of everyday social life were recreated: scenes of the forging in solidarity of a new society, the existential struggles of the contemporary personality, the world of contemporary urbanism and the rediscovered realm of primeval nature. However, the severe style’s attachment to figurative easel painting and social engagement made it a fact, if not of official culture, then of legal Soviet culture, and thus removed it from the purview of the alternative—that is, pro-Western, pro-modernist—history of art in the Soviet Union. Revealing the involvement of this art in the modernist tradition—or rather, reassessing the very notion of the modernist tradition by taking Soviet art into account, including the severe style—is a task for the new generation of art historians.
During the next two decades, the legal Soviet art of the so-called generation of the 1970s—Tatyana Nazarenko, Natalia Nesterova, Olga Bulgakova, Vladimir Sitnikov, et al—elaborated a poetics that was congenial to the consciousness of the former freethinkers who had joined the establishment. Although it preserved the normative forms of easel painting, this art avoided the propagandistic thematics required by the authorities. It sublated the problem of state control via an escapist retreat into art-historical referentiality. Thus, having rid itself of the “absurd utopia of democratic socialism,” the thinking class found moral comfort in an exalted cult of culture and academic knowledge.
Another type of reaction to the loss of 1960s-era illusions was proposed in the 1970s by Moscow conceptualism. Rejecting the traditional form of easel painting, Collective Actions—I have in mind here both the well-known eponymous group of performance artists and the very well-knit community of conceptualist artists—discovered for itself the poetics of performative behavior. The artists were prompted to make this discovery by the very character of public life during this period. Restricted in their opportunities for direct civic action and ever more disenchanted with the social foundations of late socialism, Soviet men and women found an outlet for protest in the practice of everyday ludic behavior, in the semantic reversal of the social rituals imposed by the powers that be.3 The artists of Collective Actions turned this phenomenon into a theme: in their case, performativity was not only a matter of the actions and performances in which nearly all the members of the underground community participated, but also of their oral and written discussions and interpretations of these actions and of performativity itself as a social phenomenon. It was precisely in this way, via the practice of ludic group rituals, that they fashioned their autonomy within Soviet society and culture.4
This is the source of two characteristic traits of Soviet underground culture during the 1970s and 1980s. First, by shielding their own autonomy, the conceptualists gained the capacity for a detached contemplation of power. For the underground artists—unlike the artists of the 1970s generation, who were recognized by the authorities but ignored their presence—power was the most privileged object of contemplation. This stance became especially programmatic for an entire current of Moscow conceptualism, the so-called Sots Art. As they turned power into an aesthetic the conceptualists stripped it of political or ethical connotations, and so its totality and scale began to fascinate the artists. Secondly, by locking themselves into autonomy, the conceptualists retired into self-contemplation, thus becoming indifferent to the figure of the social Other—that is, in essence they became alien to democratic values. Like the heroes of his other works, Ilya Kabakov’s Ten Characters demonstrate that when figures of the social world did enter their field of vision, then the Moscow conceptualists might have said, following Sartre, “Hell is other people.”
It would seem that the completion of the communist period nullified the situation and thus made it possible for a new paradigm to be implemented. However, any manifestation of the new is a rearrangement of the old. As it came to the surface and gained hegemony, the anticommunist mindset that was still alive in the subconscious of Soviet society sanctioned the restoration of capitalism. Western capitalism was proposed as normative because it was the antinomy of totalitarianism. However, precisely because the Western social structure was adopted on a wave of anticommunism, its democratic component—to which late-Soviet consciousness was deaf because it had long ago grasped the lesson that “democratic socialism is an absurd utopia”—was removed from the equation. Democracy was understood not as the product of self-organized social movements, but as a direct by-product of the liberal market economy.
In the art world, this ideology was incarnated in the dream of a Western-style art system in which it was precisely the commercial market component that was made the absolute. Hence the two characteristic traits of postcommunist art ideology: the social ideal is reduced to an effective market, while the context of art is reduced once again to autonomy, no longer in the sense of an underground community, but rather in the sense of a legal, institutionalized Western-style art system. Moreover, amid the social chaos of the 1990s, this system did not erect a real infrastructure, but to a greater extent based itself on the practice of performative relations, as during the underground years. This is what permits us to compare the Moscow art of those years to so-called relational aesthetics and other trends in European art that employed social performativity. There is, however, one extremely telling distinction that has to be made. In the West, as they imitated in their creative practice various infrastructural forms and rituals—galleries, publications, commercial contracts and exchanges, public discussions, etc.—artists parasitized the art system’s resources and thus distanced themselves from it. On the other hand, as they imitated infrastructural forms and rituals in their practice, Russian artists were essentially creating them. Moreover, given the art system’s marginality and immaturity, performativity was not so much the strictly artistic practice of a group of progressive artists, but rather the collective practice of the entire community which imitated the institutional reproduction of artistic life via a system of group relations.5
A critique of the art system announced itself almost simultaneously with the foundation of this system. The restoration of capitalism and the emergence of market relations in art unexpectedly filled the critique of the Western system that in the recent past had been propagated by Soviet ideologues with a new content drawn from the realities of life. In the early 1990s, the Moscow artist Dmitry Gutov noticed the current relevance of Marxist theorist Mikhail Lifshitz’s debunking of modernism and its institutions, which Lifshitz had launched way back in the 1930s. However, this attempt at the end of the 20th century to restore the aesthetics of socialist realism as a counterpoint to the Western system had two significant aspects. The ideologeme that states that socialist realism is a synthesis of the entire classical legacy of the past has rendered the art of its restorers (principally that of Dmitry Gutov himself) referential vis-à-vis the artistic and cultural heritage. And indeed, the majority of these works—installations, paintings, and videos—contain a complex system of allusions to the artistic, literary, and philosophical inheritance. Herein lay the radicalism of this stance: at a time when the Russian version of relational aesthetics identified art with the tasks of erecting a social system, an appeal to art’s inherent values had enormous critical potential. Nevertheless, Lifshitz and his followers postulated that the social outlook corresponding to a new realistic classicism was practically unrealizable; hence, it was not the creation of an alternative social perspective that could inspire artists to make art, but rather “humanist resignation.” Thus, critique is possible only outside the system, from a certain speculative and unrealizable instantiation, whereas real practice, as it is inevitably implemented within the actually existing system, proves to be utterly free of any ethical or political norms.
The second possible critical approach to the art system established in the 1990s rested on the premise that the critique should be conducted inside the system, not outside it. Situated inside it, the critic should position himself as a kind of surplus element superfluous to the system. This—as a “superfluous object”—was how another representative of the Moscow 1990s, Anatoly Osmolovsky, defined himself. Brandishing the entire arsenal of performance art—street actions, publishing and curatorial projects, distribution of letters and other textual materials, etc.—Osmolovsky tried to fashion a critical instantiation within the art system. Discursively, this practice of the “superfluous object” was realized in two practical directions: first, via a direct critique of various actors within the art system; second, by an appeal to the very tradition of critique itself (that is, by referring to the tradition of Western leftist theory). Thus, this second critical approach, with which the artistic situation of the 1990s was fraught, was trapped between personal criticism of colleagues in the art world and a display of book learning, and so it also did not offer art an alternative social perspective and confined artistic action to an intra-systemic existence.
Moreover, both these critical positions were the ultimate form of legitimizing the art system that was emerging in the 1990s. The first of these positions, as proposed by Dmitry Gutov, introduced to the system (which was reduced to a species of group-based social behavior) a self-referential aesthetic component that was its antinomy as well as a metaphysical instantiation. As a result, the system, which might have dissolved fully in social practice, was guaranteed involvement in the professional aesthetic field. The second position, as proposed by Anatoly Osmolovsky, introduced to the system a component integral to the Western art system—a critical stance. To the degree that the entire life of the art system had been reduced to a feigning of the art system, Osmolovsky’s critical activity, which was wholly rooted in the life of the system, might be understood as an imitation of critique. To the degree that Osmolovsky became conscious of the limits of his own critical activity, of its nature as something staged, we can also detect in his work a critique of the imitative nature of his own critical work. To put it another way, both the leading critical approaches in the Russian art of the 1990s remained indifferent to the figure of the social Other. In this sense continuing the traditions of Moscow conceptualism, they were thus essentially alien to democratic values.
The new, second post-Soviet decade has given the art system the chance to move from imitation to stasis. Once again, as earlier in Russian history, the initiative has belonged to the powers that be. The Putin regime’s strategy—“strengthening vertical power”—has affected art as well: resources have been invested in its infrastructure, primarily in its marketing and representational infrastructure. These changes have impacted the strategy of critical art. Since the art system has ceased being performative and become stationary, the strategy of feigned critique is no longer appropriate. Artists—for example, Osmolovsky—were too critical of their own performative critique not to reject it when the system itself ceased being performative. Just as the earlier performative system was matched by a performative critique, so now the real system has to be matched by a real product. The system as now constructed has art’s real autonomy underwritten; once again, as in the Soviet era, this autonomy can serve as the starting point for a detached contemplation of nonartistic reality, where once again the privileged object is power.
For, by creating a Western-style art system—that is, a commercial system—the powers that be have generated the premises for realizing a genuine (not feigned) critical position. Notwithstanding this fact, a critique of power as such (or of the art system as its offshoot) proves logically impossible; for criticizing the powers that be or the art system they have generated is tantamount to criticizing the very premises that make this critique itself possible. This discursive paralysis of the critical stance in art recognizes its counterpart in the broader public context—in the Putin regime’s social status quo. Just as it would be a simplification to interpret the art milieu’s conformism vis-à-vis the advent of the market in Russian art, it would be too schematic to explain the societal consensus in Russia as having been purchased with the country’s oil-and-gas-fueled prosperity. The flowering of civil society in the West was interpreted far too long as having been derived from the social psychology of its well-off middle class for us to now accuse the regime of corrupting society. Precisely in the same way, we have to select our arguments carefully when we develop our critique of art’s commercialization, insofar as the art market was seen as the exclusive guarantee of creative freedom for far too long. This is why the government, as in Pushkin’s times, is seen in Russia as the “only European,” the vehicle of modernization and integration into the international cultural and financial economy. And this is why a genuinely critical artist must situate himself today at the epicenter of the new art system and achieve hegemony within it by becoming a market leader and a favorite of the economic-bureaucratic oligarchy.
As this art system has emerged, the character of the art community has changed as well. Back in those days, the tightly knit community of conceptual artists demarcated its autonomy vis-à-vis a system of behavioral rituals and was thus reminiscent of a secret Masonic lodge. Engaged in a distanced contemplation of power, it essentially interiorized the narrow professional autonomy and hierarchical structure that characterized official culture.6 In turn, the performative community of the 1990s, which formed amid the post-Soviet social chaos, was open-ended and unstable in nature. Structured like a network, it recognized itself not so much in the notion of a professional guild, as in something contemporary theorists call “the multitude.” Nowadays, during the period of stabilization initiated by the Putin regime, the art community has acquired the character of a corporation. Like any corporation, it has consolidated around the goal of attaining public influence and economic success. Functioning in market conditions, it naturally strives to impose itself and its product as an object of desire. However, by virtue of the fact that it functions in a context where economic circulation is effected via power (that is, it is not money that is fraught with power; rather, power takes as much money for itself as it deems necessary), the strategic goal of the artistic corporation is to sell itself to the powers that be—that is, to become part of Putinist corporate capitalism. And that is why the art community, as it aspires to become the artistic equivalent of Gazprom, has to present itself as an impeccably well-managed corporation devoid of internecine conflict. Consequently, in this type of art community, on its substantial level, no form of critique—be it external critique (that is, of the social context) or internal critique (that is, of the community itself)—has any place.
As a result, the life of the two principal critical approaches of the 1990s has taken on new forms in the new decade. Thus, Anatoly Osmolovsky has produced a series of programmatic works. Of these, the most capacious statement of his position is the series of objects entitled Bread. These objects—wooden boards that look as if they have been eaten through by termites—are reminiscent both of the porous surface of Russian black bread and of Orthodox icons stripped of their paint layer. This comparison is apt insofar as these objects are installed on a wall in several rows, like an iconostasis. This work thus contains connotations that harmonize with the Putinist rhetoric of Russian sovereignty—appeals to the national myth and to popular roots. At the same time, the deliberately nonartisan, mass-production method employed to manufacture these objects reveals an appeal to a technological contemporaneity, as well as to international formal traditions. And in fact Osmolovsky’s preparatory work for Bread included not only a study of icon painting, but also an analysis of the Formalist tradition of American minimalism in art.
This attempt to create a product both nationally and internationally convertible once again corresponds to the demands of the political class, “the only European in Russia.” As Vladimir Putin declared, “Our only ideology is making the national product competitive.” Finally, the third, fundamentally important semantic layer of this work is rooted in the holes that have, as it were, eaten through the wooden surface of the icon boards/slices of bread. These voids are an allusion to the cult of emptiness in Moscow Conceptualism: in its doctrine, emptiness was the embodiment of the hermetic autonomy that enabled artists of the Soviet past to maintain a critical distance. Thus, just as a critical stance was declared in the previous decade via its staging (that is, performatively) insofar as the entire artistic system was performative, so nowadays, as the commercial-representative system establishes itself, the possibility of a critical stance is declared via its installation within a spectacular commercial product. In other words, in both cases critique is declared but not realized.
As for the second critical approach that appeared during the 1990s, although from the very beginning the approach taken by Dmitry Gutov, did not declare its criticality, it did try to realize it. As we have said above, Gutov’s radicalism consisted in the fact that he appealed to art’s internal values in a situation where art, having accepted the forms of performative behavior, identified itself with the tasks of constructing a social system. In the new conjuncture, however, where it turns out that the art system has been constructed, the sense of this stance has been greatly altered. Filled with art-historical allusions and references to the autonomy of the artistic gesture and the work’s transcendence, the artistic product of this stance has proven to be consonant with the goals of the art system, which is interested in a product whose commodity-like form refers us to the sacred, for “the sacred is the soul of the commodity.”7 That is, this time around the critical stance is neither declared nor realized.
To a certain degree, the destinies of both these critical approaches from the 1990s might be understood as a new edition of the poetics of Soviet official art. In both cases, however, this new edition is implemented with an extremely paradoxical twist. Thus, the first of these critical approaches has invested its resource of radicalism in a literal republication of official art—with its allusions to power, glory, and the sublime. However, despite this fact, the new official art contains tokens of self-distancing and internal critique. Meanwhile, the second approach has ended up republishing the art of the 1970s generation, with its escapist retreat into a art-historical referentiality, in which the consciousness of the co-opted freethinkers of the 1960s recognized its own reflection. However, whereas during the Soviet period appeals to the autonomy of the artistic gesture and the artwork’s transcendence were understood as a programmatic departure from the propagandistic thematics required by the authorities, nowadays this program satisfies the interests of the system.
Nevertheless (and this is one more paradox of the current conjuncture), the hypothesis that the Western-style art system created by the powers that be generates the premises for the realization of a genuine, not feigned, critical stance turns out to be justified. Formed in the past decade, the interdisciplinary Chto Delat (Russian: “What Is to Be Done”) workgroup has proposed a genuinely new type of critical approach. The group’s activity is based on the presumption that dialogue with the current art system is possible only in the mode of “exodus” or “disobedience.” The group argues that a parallel system of art production and distribution must be created, that artistic and political practice should be identical.8 In its quest for historical sources, the artists of Chto Delat have likewise turned to the art of the Soviet era by appealing to the social engagement of the artists of the 1960s generation—that is, to the painting of the severe style, monumental in form and topical in content. However, just as in this decade’s other attempts to revamp the Soviet legacy, this project is realized with an extremely paradoxical twist. Whereas Soviet “men of the 1960s” looked with hope to the ideologically left-wing authorities as they made their appeals to democratic values, the current authorities give the activists of the Chto Delat platform no such cause for hope. And in this sense the political activists and artists of today’s Russia resemble both the Western New Left of the 1960s as well as their own colleagues and comrades in the current globalized world.
The nonlocal, globalized character of new Russian political art’s tactics and strategies has also not escaped the attention of the Russian artistic corporation. And, like all other such manifestations of art during the new decade, the polemic it has launched against art activism is marked by extreme paradox. The very aim of a direct, genuine critique of Russian society and the artistic status quo is regarded as a violation of the corporation’s agreement to form a conflict-free image of contemporary art and the art community. By virtue of the fact that this agreement underwrites the corporation’s public influence and economic success, then it is imagined to be obvious that this sort of practice cannot be a product of the local context, but must definitely have its source outside it. And it seems just as obvious that the demand for a negative image of Russia could only have issued from the West, for it is precisely there that the work of Chto Delat has received recognition. Consequently, like the official art of the Soviet era, current political art is the product of ideological demand. In this way it differs from genuinely democratic art, which is produced for the market. Hence, fidelity to the West’s democratic market values prescribes that these faultfinding artists be ousted from the art scene and sent back to where they belong—that is, to the West.
1 / Boris Kagarlitsky, “Myths of the 1960s and Political Engagement,” Moscow-Berlin, Art, exh. cat. (in Russian), Trilistnik, Moscow 2004, p. 117.
2 / Ibid.
3 / On this subject, see Alexei Yurchak’s fundamental study of late socialism: Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, Princeton UP, Princeton 2005.
4 / I have written more extensively about this in Viktor Misiano, “Vom existenziellen Individualisten zum Solidaritat?” Kollektive Kreativität, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel 2005, p. 176–184.
5 / See Viktor Misiano, “Confidential Community vs. the Relational Aesthetics,” East Art Map: Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe, ed. IRWIN, Afterall, London 2006, p. 459; and Viktor Misiano, “Cultural Contradictions of Tusovka,” Frakcia 14 (1999), p. 82–97. See also Umelec 7 (1999), p. 34–35; and Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal 25 (1999), p. 39–43.
6 / Misiano, “Vom existenziellen Individualisten zum Solidaritat?”
7 / This is precisely the main argument made by those who have deconstructed this position. See Oxana Timofeeva, “Who Said ‘Sacred’?” Moscow Art Magazine 71–72 (2009), p. 43–50; and Keti Chukhrov, “Sotto Voce,” op. cit., p. 55–60 (in Russian).
8 / For more information, see the group’s website: http://www.chtodelat.org/.