Ekaterina Bobrinskaya. Art critic and historian. Specialist in the field of Russian and European art of the first third of the 20th century. Lives in Moscow.
There is a widespread belief that modern art in general and 20th century art in particular are triumphant manifestations of progress, pathos-laden liberations of culture from all of tradition's repressive institutions. This view has exhausted itself. Since the age of post-modernism, which introduced noticeable distortions to this scheme, the nonlinear principles of art's existence have become subject to assiduous attention. The model of progressive development has proven inapplicable to many of the trends, movements, and periods in the culture of the 20th century. It is replaced by an emergent kaleidoscopic image of interactions, reflections, flickers, and permanent returns. The development of art often follows odd elliptic trajectories, forming concatenations and confusions, which resist the logic of history. One of such odd sides of modern art (and especially of the last century) can be discovered in the conservative and anti-modernist trends that lie at the very heart of modernite.
All modern art history has been accompanied by searches for the lost, forgotten "sources" of art's "being", sources that were left behind in the past, as well as careful attempts at their restoration. These do not only consist in the periodic revival of classics, but could be understood in a broader sense, namely as "conservative revolutions" within art. These, in turn, might be considered as shadows or invariable companions of the spirit of the present (modernity) in culture. This correlation seems to be one of the principle problems of modern culture on the whole.
In contemporary culture, the conservative position is allowed to exist somewhere on the periphery, in odd spheres such as pseudo-academic kitsch, paradoxical archeology, or ethnography. But the combination of any conservative position with what is called "contemporary art" obviously seems to be nonsense.
Nobody doubts that the extensive and fundamental body of literature devoted to art before the epoch of modernity has the right to existence, even if it openly supports philosophical traditionalism or theology. In the framework of speculation on the historical avant-garde and on contemporary art, such approaches meet a great deal of resistance, or realize themselves as sharply critical positions that deny contemporary art as such. The point of view that suggests that all modern art is destructive towards some primary, ideal set of artistic coordinates remains prevalent. Strangely enough, most of the supporters of this point of view appeal to realism in its 19th century version. But what proponents of this position usually forget is that the same form of 19th century realism became the first herald of modernism, its first vivid and poisonous revelation. The recognition of reality over art (the corner stone of realist aesthetics) became the reference point of the de-humanization of art that was to follow, bringing about the loss of its sacral and speculative components.
However, there is also another point of view (though it is less wide-spread). It does not allow for but also presents the avant-garde as the only possible territory for the authentic manifestation of art's "sources of being" in modernity. In accordance with this position, it is only the individual "will to exhaustive experience" (Bataille) is able to draw an artist closer into art's traditional depths. The basis for such a position is usually found in the early European avant-garde, within which there are many diverse trends of reactionary avant-gardism. It is enough to remember such paradoxical phenomena of the early avant-garde as Traditionalists-Dadaists and the Russian transrational poets ("zaumniki") (whose brightest representatives are Hugo Ball and Velimir Khlebnikov) or conservatives-futurists, the heralds of a new Empire.
The culture of modernity has been marked by a certain ambiguity from its very outset. Both the autonomy of free Cartesian reason and refined mechanisms for repression, both the anarchic self-will of the subjective and the permanent search for total order are inseparably connected parts of the modernist project. It is probably appropriate to remember that the very birth of art criticism as a scientific discipline was marked by this specific duality. On the one hand it was connected with interpretative violence, while, on the other hand, it also belonged to a certain genre of fantasy.
Winckelmann's "Die Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums" ("History of Ancient Art"), one of the earliest works of art criticism in its more or less modern meaning, created a fictitious image of antiquity, whose main goal was to please the author's aesthetic passions and the dreams of his age. In doing so, it provided future art historians with a field of activity that was to remain dominant for the next two centuries that followed, namely the "scientific" creation of myths. It is important to note that Winckelmann endowed his myth of classical art with all attributes of the rational method; his entire work was based on scrupulous case studies and combined science (and its pathos of absolute rationalism) with the creation of myths. As such, it already provides evidence of the stratification and distortion of cultural space characteristic of the 20th century, a distortion that has at times yielded highly ambiguous fruit.
The reflections of early modern scholarship on art were initially marked by a certain paradoxical character. Winckelmann, who is considered the founder of scholarly art criticism, was the first to oppose contemporary art to the flow of time by declaring that the essence of real art lies in its illogical ability to move forward while turning back: "The only way for us to become great and, if possible, inimitable, is the imitation of the ancient".
In this sense, the first "scientific" art history and the first "scientific" methodology for the interpretation of art contained both reactionary and highly progressive elements; while Winckelmann's entire way of thinking about art is obviously conservative, it is also defined by the attempt toward scientific objectivity in combination with political views that were rather progressive for the time. The vector that art critical scholarship received in the moment of its inception still retains its actuality today. Art criticism is still realized as a more or less deliberate form of shamanism, a "magical" technique (a kind of mass hypnosis) aimed at awakening "spirits", "demons", or powerful forces hidden in art. In other words, it is geared toward creating myths that are capable of subordinating the consciousness of both artists and the masses.
Having generated this specific type of activity, modernity has naturally tried to inscribe art criticism into the order of more or less strict scientific disciplines, although its very subject matter was constantly undermining these efforts. It is no coincidence that art criticism has always searching for support among sciences more solid, objective, or empirical than itself, sciences with reliable historical traditions, including philosophy, all varieties of psychology, semiotics, philology, sociology, etc. However, this activity has still remained ambiguous. Strictly speaking, the function of art criticism is to justify the existence of different varieties of art in modernity. Once art lacks its traditional ontological status and metaphysical measure, "art critics" are left with little else to do that to engage in annalistic narrations or theological proofs that confirm the existence of the beautiful.
It is common knowledge that modernism has destroyed art's natural, initial conservatism, giving it a painful injection of time, and submerging the artwork into the flow of time, which dissolves, erases, and atomizes everything. In other words, modernism turns the eternal and immutable into the historical and the transitory. Racing after escaping time, the ecstatic dynamization of life has created new scales and points of reference in the field of art, such as novelty, invention, aesthetic autonomy, or the cult of subjectivity. All of these arose as analogies to total mobility, the fluidity of historical being, the mythology of progress and the inexhaustible creative abilities of science.
The infrastructure of the modern "art world" that emerged as a result of these transformations appears to be a rigorous and despotic system, uninvolved in the traditional forms of art's existence. For the first time in its history, art was totally submerged into the slippery, unstable system of the market, and subjected to consumer demand, exchange rates, ratings, the requirements of political correctness, and the whims of fashion. It began to adjust to the laws of the economy, subordinating itself to the "optical illusion of progress" (E. Jünger) and finding itself immersed in a repressive system that isolated it from the natural flow of life. Its laws are now prescribed by the fantasies of art critics, the ambitions of gallery owners, and by various fairs and "biennales". Isolationism and specific sectarianism may be considered one of the characteristic features of contemporary art, which is locked into an autonomous environment called the "art world".
The modern "art world" is a huge machine that has been optimized and calibrated to ensure smooth operation. Nevertheless, art itself contains a sort of virus capable of causing errors in this machine's functioning; art itself resists the machine's rational calculations and constantly erodes the "art world's" logic. It is no coincidence that the entire history of contemporary art is full of harsh attacks against the dictates of the exceptionally modernist system of art's functioning, attacks that were led by the most radical artists. For an instance, 20th century artists have led many a polemic attack against the museum, one of modernity's central artistic institutions. These have included declarations and performances by Futurism, Fluxus, Conceptualism, and more recently, by Alexander Brener and his brutal gestures. All of this is common knowledge.
Nevertheless, the absolute dependence of contemporary art on its specific auxiliary mechanisms becomes especially obvious in its relationship with the museum. Much like the theories of art criticism, the museum is a product of age of modernity, creating imaginary, illusory, and – in a sense – mythical spaces and times, which dictate particular rules of perception and modes of thinking to consciousness, imposing a certain model of humanity's relationship to the world, a certain model of exploring and colonizing reality and consciousness. "The museum crystallized and transformed a variety of older practices of knowledge-production, formatting, storage, and display into a new synthesis, that was commensurate with the eighteenth-century development of other modern forms of observation and discipline in hospitals, prisons, and schools".
The museum has also proved to be the most effective instrument in allotting art its status. Indeed, one might ask why exactly the objects displayed in modern galleries or museums are considered artworks? The reason is little more that the presence of particular institutions in culture, or more accurately, the presence of special rituals for the creation of significance, peculiar rites of passage, "consecrations" or "initiations" into art. Thus, despite its animosity toward museums contemporary art has always been a kind of super-museum.
Contemporary art was initially only thinkable in the context of some mythological art history and some special exhibition space (museum, gallery). Since the very beginning, it has required special rituals to provide it with its status, which art critics and museums have been summoned to carry out. The intrinsic dictatorship of these rituals provides the "art world" with its ambiguous traits. Within the machine of the "art world", one can discern an archaism that the "art world" itself is incapable of understanding, though this archaism is sometimes inverted: it consists of thinking through categories that are not subordinated to the logic of autonomous or free rationalism.
Throughout the 20th century, another myth has existed alongside this "art world", like a vague memory or a legendary alternative to the existing order of things. This myth might be termed the "imperial" myth. This myth is also invented and artificial and, in the final analysis, it is also a product of the deformations in the culture of modernity.
The "imperial" mode of art's existence is a myth of a global hierarchy, in which artistic creativity happens to be intrinsic to every level of life, ranging from the sacral and the sphere of power to military and industrial. In contrast to the isolationism of the "art world", here art is directly interwoven with the fabric of life, but at the same time, it is free from the total mobility or fluidity of historical thinking and being. It does not correspond to the economic or scientific models of the world. Instead, it is subordinated to extra-historical and extra-temporal logic. In the context of modern culture, such constructions are interpreted exclusively as mythology. However, the boundaries of modernity, this mode of art's existence was altogether natural and remained unchanging for many centuries.
In the 20th century, there were several global attempts – we won't discuss their genuine traditionalist basis here – to restore or reanimate the hierarchical, anti-modern logic of art's existence. All of them (including those of the Fascists, the National-Socialists, and the Soviets) have collapsed.
Yet today, the "imperial" myth has gained a certain degree of renewed relevance. Moreover, it has become suspiciously fashionable. Version of this myth include Toni Negri's network "empire", which has recently become the topic of lively debate, the obvious "imperial" inflections in some of modern American mass culture's newest trends, or the revival of interest (by the way, on a much more fundamental level) in the "imperial" experiments undertaken by the cultures of totalitarian regimes. Developing in the framework of the modern "art world", all of these themes (and there are many more) bear witness to certain mutations in its structure.
In the milieu of contemporary art, this "imperial" mythology is no longer a political utopia, but has now become a memory or a fantasy of organic modes of existence that tore contemporary art from its isolation, a memory of art's lost ontological basis, of its unbreakable and natural ties with the sacred and the powerful. Today, this mythology appears as one of the most dangerous and efficient instruments, capable of gradually redirecting the vector that modern culture received during the earliest stages of modernity.
"The questionable nature of art" has always caused anxiety. Eluding rationalism and aesthetic conventions, the element of art contains something universal or totalitarian. This quality is ineradicable. It provides art with its inherent, often unconsciously "reactionary" character, and explains its inability to blend with the modern world naturally and completely, without any excessive effort. There can be doubt that art preserves some archaic layer, which modern humanity tries to forget, erase, or at least, tame. Contemporary artists (or most of them, at any rate) work on the surface, on the thin layer of cooled lava, "on the cooled surface of the gigantic ocean of fire, whose weak warmth only reaches us from afar". They study the landscape of the surface, odd and captivating in its topography, examining its curves, folds and gradations, but often forget about the scary movement of the fiery mass, hidden under the thin pellicle that is commonly known as "culture".
Modern man, as Evola wrote in one of his articles, "does not know what to do with this internal fire. If this internal fire that restlessly lies underfoot were suddenly in his command, it would sweep away all his warm and cold towns from the face of earth, destroy all of his absurd ideals, conveniences, and lascivious modes of non-being. It would also destroy him".
Putting sacral art aside, this internal fire comes closest to the surface of culture in classicist artworks. As strange as it may seem, formal rigidity, canonical thinking, and hierarchical structure provided culture with a means of gaining access to the imperious, magical forces of art.
The classical art of antiquity (and in many respects, the art of the Middle Ages, which was based on Neo-Platonic philosophy) operated with the numeral magic of proportions and the magic of colors, lost to us forever, combining the human image, embodied in any kind of material, with space, with superhuman rhythms, and the might of the universe. Renaissance art transformed many paintings, secular from a modern art critic's point of view, into magical objects, into "talisman images", which were meant to influence the consciousness and mentality of the audience, opening the passage to inner contemplation and imaginative space.
Classical art (and of course, I don't mean its later "theatrical" imitations) is not accepted in modern world, not only because its images transcend the yardstick of the philistine, all-too-human dimension, but also because they threaten to remind contemporary art of its initial nature, which was later forgotten, or, more precisely, wasted and "sold"; it threatens by pointing at the Biblical image of Esau, by foretelling the rather pessimistic destiny of its future.
Modern culture has tried to rid itself of the kind of imperious art that was able to work with the ocean of fire that Evola describes. Nevertheless, art still retains this element of sacral potency. Its religious nature – even under modern conditions, after all of modernism's anatomical vivisections – shines through occasionally, in disfigured and dark, "demonic" forms. Such deformed versions can be found in the techniques of mass-medial hypnosis or in virtual reality, which may resemble internal space at first sight, but differs from it in principal. This quality of art will never disappear completely. Even the practices of computer art are capable of "stumbling" in the journey over their ideal surface, accidentally encountering the deep roots of creativity.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of automatism, the apology of insanity, the cult of the unconscious, the Dionysian principle, shapeless, have indicated that a new cultural landscape was in the process of forming. Sometimes, creative practices that used these methods were connected to attempts at stepping beyond the limits set by the trivial and shallow world of modernism, in search of art's new sacral nature. These attempts were often based directly on occultism, theosophy and various archaic cults. The images of 20th century culture are full of a kind of modernist shamanism with a touch of "scientific character", a psychologizing "magic" who primary goal was to uncover the dark chaos beyond the limits of human consciousness. (Example of modernist shamanism can found right up to the rationalist versions of constructivism during the 1920s or in the conceptualism of the 60s-70s). It is this version of capturing the imperious forces of art that has proven the most popular, perhaps because it corresponded to the "spirit of modernity" most of all.
The "spirit of modernity" created a new mechanics of culture, releasing art from its anthropomorphism, depriving it of the ability to function as a psychopomp into imaginative space, and depleting its capacity for reviving the human being's imagination.
Beyond the illusion of the liberation of creative forces, introduced by the 20th century's new creative technologies, one could find a repressive mechanism, or more precisely, an instrument both subtle and crude, which isolated the human being from everything that is beyond consciousness. As such, the human being is left with nothing more than that which is below the threshold of consciousness or that which smoothly fits into the bounds of autonomous human reason.
The creative will that produces and retains a form capable of transforming the world of hylē through its power, has practically disappeared from contemporary art. Form (morphē) – as something indivisible by analytical dismemberment, as an absolute, organic integrity – indubitably resisted the logic of historicism, the domination of economics and the illusions of progress that that rule the "art world".
Lacking volitional impulses, this sprawling shapeless world is based on spontaneous gestures or mechanical calculation. It is easily transformed but at the same time, its structure is rigid. While it cultivates subjective freedom, it is also always attempting to appeal to its public. As such, it has been continuously trying to free itself of all anthropomorphic forms, since the human structure suggests a strict hierarchy and subordinates everything to its Logos.
Just as a word is made of indivisible parts – morphemes – without which it falls apart into a mass of sounds, cultural space is subject to severe mutations, once it loses its shape. This is why classical art remains an invaluable foothold or point of reference (though it too has mythologized in many respects), which allows culture to retain images of a different existential logic in its memory.