Political-technological Forms, or the Mimesis of the Political. Towards the Question of the Rebirth of Moscow Actionism of the ‘90s
Igor Chubarov Born in Kursk in 1965. Philosopher. Lives in Moscow
For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it.
Walter Benjamin. On the Concept of History
It is always more difficult for a theorist than an artist to speak about current tendencies in art. The artist more or less follows the mainstream here as a kind of semi-conscious element—a mix between the demands of the market and taste, some vague ideas and social expectations of art. (S)he does not need to prove anything, it is enough to comment on the current artistic activity by using one’s works as illustrations of one’s own irresponsible statements. In this sense, the theorist, in the conditions of the absence of an expert community in Russia, could be compared to extra-parliamentary opposition in that same country. Whatever the latter might say, the powers that be always have the final (conclusive) word—your theories may work well on paper, but we are doing it in practice. The theorist may critique contemporary art however much (s)he wants, but (s)he may always get a tongue-in-cheek reply: forgive us, but we don’t have any other artists for you.
However, the discussion will not be about artists, but about “current artists,” and not about art, but about so-called “contemporary art,” lodged in several galleries and private apartments in the city of Moscow, where most of these artists currently live. And in some fantastical manner, they managed—without having sufficient art education, and without the elementary drawing or sculpting skills—to migrate from pseudo-Soviet Russia to pseudo-perestroika, and from the perestroika to the pseudo-liberal ‘90s, and from the ‘90s to the present-day “sovereign democracy” of the ‘00s without falling off the horse. Moreover, in the time elapsed, they had learned to ride this horse fairly well. But what is most interesting is that along the way, they turned from leftist street activists, into the right-wing bourgeois of moderate means, consuming only ecological products and favouring expensive cars.
The question is whether these people had really changed, or whether the right and the left switched sides in post-Soviet society. Although, perhaps, both the former and the latter apply. In either case, they really managed to grasp the code of contemporaneity. But it would be good to clarify, the contemporaneity of what is this contemporaneity that allowed these people not only to call themselves artists, and to be considered artists, but also to represent Russia in international artistic contexts as oppositional authors.
At Western conferences, Avdey Ter-Oganian likes to show videos of the graduate exhibition performances of “The School of Contemporary Art” from the early ‘90s, mostly comprised of his son David’s classmates. It is more plausible to examine it as an acting school, since a contemporary artist, as jokes Avdey, does not need to know how to draw, but rather, needs to learn how to climb into a trunk, show his ass in public, scream, swear at the audience, etc. In relation to art, this meant the primacy of artistic behaviour over artistic work, of shocking and outrageous content over artistic form, of the “elevated” over the “beautiful,” etc.
But in reality, the discussion was about something else, since artists carried out things of this nature across all periods. However, if in the pre-current epoch their extravagant antics were the result of some kind of evolution, of an entire artistic biography leading to the rise of an original style, of an inimitable authorial signature and of a unique artistic body through inner forms of which the meaning of these actions were rendered comprehensible, then our actual artists began directly… from the ass.
For Avdey himself, a person with fairly conservative views on art, this enterprise looked more like a subversive critique of a certain stage of his development, as an ironic analysis of bourgeois art in the epoch of late capitalism, presuming the explication of its grammar, methods of emotional impact and models of use in his own artistic practice.
Similarly, for leading actionists of the ‘90s, the attraction of already canonized forms of Western performative art also served (besides being a sample and an example) as a form of artistic mimicry, a peculiar disguise that allowed to make mainly political statements, impossible in our society on any other platform. In principle, they were also impossible on the artistic platform, and that is why sensible artists secured reliable lawyers even before starting another action or performance. But the emergence of this platform became precisely one of the main results of the aforementioned radical experiments, although by that time, it could not protect Avdey from a forced emigration.
Nevertheless, today, many participants of this and analogous projects from the hazy Yeltsin era (the circle of the “Radek” journal, for example) had ceased speaking ironically about themselves and contemporary art. Without false modesty, they crossed from subversion to affirmation, called themselves creators, and decided to draw the most benefit from their media names established in the “heroic” ‘90s.
Nevertheless, during those very ‘90s, the relationship with art for these artists, even in the form of performances and actions, was to a large extent still a game, and a fairly risky one at that. Young Moscow folk were inspired by Russian futurists, French surrealists and situationists, but used examples of artistic behaviour already known to them for political goals. Paradoxically, precisely at that moment, in such an insubstantial form, these attempts had a chance of becoming art.
For art does not have its own content, and its meaning motivating creative activity is found outside of it. It is rather found predominantly in an alien topos for it—the political. Art is always political, even if it intentionally distances itself from politics. In turn, politics also willingly exploits the aesthetic arsenal for its goals. But that does not mean that we can do solely with autonomous politics, reducing any kind of art to its ideological means. And inversely, the historical struggle of workers for a holistic image of a human being cannot be substituted by an aesthetic and linguistic game.
In that sense, the autonomy of art should be understood not as detachment from the world, but inversely, as a condition of its influence on the social-political reality (T. Adorno). Because art has its own political dimension, as well as immanent criteria of “artistry,” which are neither purely aesthetic, nor strictly political. They do not occur because of political discourse, and not because of discourse at all, but follow from the political goals of art itself as a bodily experience of violence, work and estrangement, which the artist possesses or comes in contact with. On the other hand, the thesis of the autonomy of art makes sense only in terms of its independence from the political, as a social practice supposedly similarly uniform and closed in on itself, which special people—politicians—do. In historical reality, these spheres are interdependent, anamorphic. The understanding of politics as an exclusive party activity leads only to the dehumanization of its goals. But the results of class struggle must, in the end, correspond with the goals of genuine art.
It is important not to separate subjects of this struggle and art—the discussion in both cases is not about some abstract masses-crowds and select artists-heroes, but real people who are not willing to come to peace with the existing state of affairs in society, and the smart alecks who speak about the existence of some obscure advantage over others, allowing them to live at the expense of those others’ labour. Here, it is appropriate to apply the Marxist teachings on classes, somewhat adapted to the contemporary economic and social-political situation.
For such an uncompromising left theorist of art of the 1920s as Nikolai Chuzhak, an analogous distinction is found between the manor-aristocratic literature and raznochinstvo [lit. “people of different ranks”] literature. And although later, it became a repressive instrument of Soviet literary criticism, making possible to distinguish “enemies” from “friends” of the Soviet state, in its initial publication, in the context of ideas of “production art” and the “literature of the fact,” it carried a fundamentally different meaning. Chuzhak was devoid of naive sociological reductionism—this distinction was made by him not because of personal caste-and-class writer affiliations, but by the “trait of literary attraction,” from the point of view of “methods of processing the human-social material and its holistic purpose.” He attempted to feel out the roots of this difference, pointing to examples of identification of the first type of literature—the landowner, the lord, and his secure, seemingly natural world that nevertheless adhered to caste prejudices—the idea of some norm that the manorly worldview espouses, the fullness of lordly life and its corresponding pleasures. In that connection, he characterized Turgenev’s realism as passive-contemplative, practicing external mimesis, a certain “admiration of reality under the banner of beauty and grace.” Inversely, he defined Dostoevsky’s realism as one that was unsatisfied with verisimilitude, rejected external identifications, doubted the eternal foundations of Russian life, and attempted to reach “the most awful truth.”
But Chuzhak could not explain the reasons why Russian writers of the nineteenth century belonging to identical castes, nevertheless accomplished fundamentally different mimetic strategies. His sociological explanation—which then migrated into Soviet textbooks of the history of literature—was related to the promotion of raznochinstvo as a social stratum against the background of the development of cities, industrial capital and new relations of productions, but it does not also address why the majority of proletarian writers of the ‘20s returned to the aesthetics and poetics of “noble” realism, failing to accept the position of communist futurism. This problem is directly related to analogous processes in Russian art with the transition from the ‘90s to the ‘00s.
Returning to the immanent politicality of art, it should be said that of course, the political motivation is not sufficient for art—it is only necessary. And inversely, formal innovation is sufficient for art, but without applying it to the social material accompanied by resistance and change, art loses its characteristic of necessity, becoming an archival, museum or strictly individual undertaking.
We must reject the traditional—in the understanding of political art—strategy of imitation of “truth” accessible in other social practices (political, religious, philosophical), which boils down to its propaganda by so-called “artistic means.” In contrast to it, Walter Benjamin wrote, for example, about an unconscious mimesis as the basis for artistic creativity, which has, however, a clearly expressed political foundation and direction. Benjamin’s thesis of the politicization of art needs to be understood precisely in this way—as unconscious resistance (through the images generated by the artist) to alienating conditions, into which the capitalist system and bourgeois society casts him or her.
One of the leading current Russian artists of the previous two decades once confided to me at the end of ‘90s that were he a real artist, he would draw some sort of “bullshit” [“huynu”], in the sense of some sort of “abstraction.” By the way, it is only now that our “stars” are using quasi-academic definitions in relation to their “art” (to the likeness of “reflexive modernism”), but in the epoch of the “Non-Governmental Control Commission,” they got by with only two “aesthetic” categories—“fan-fucking-tastic,” [“ohuyitel’no”] and “so-fucking-awful” [“huevo”]. Now then, at the decline of the “liberal” and “postmodern” epoch, this comrade invented something better than to turn into a real, i.e., “fucking-awful” artist. He decided to become a “fan-fucking-tastic abstractionist.”
An explanation is in order here. One might think that the problematic of the artistic form that had preoccupied artists at that time (in 2003) was marking some sort of immanent stage in their creative evolution, or in contemporary Russian art in general. But that would be a mistake. A fissure ran through here, which we already briefly discussed, connected to their supposed departure from “politics” into “aesthetics.”
Today, they like to recount how the Security Service Feds [“efesbeshniki”] around the period of the subject of terrorism, started to tighten the screws, and that artists supposedly were confronted with a choice—either to remain in art, or to cross over to pure politics. Because any action was immediately read and interpreted as a threat to society, and against the background of change in internal politics towards authoritarianism, there was nothing else left for activism but to mask itself as abstractionism.
But these are, of course, false excuses. Eduard Limonov and Alexander Brener’s examples demonstrate that it is indeed more difficult for an artist to jump out of a vicious circle of the autonomy of art and one’s own media avatar, especially if your artistic project carries an exclusively individual character. In fact, what was at stake was a turn to form as a political technology, which was accompanied by a change in political orientation.
It should be said that the seminars with philosophers at the Institute of Philosophy in the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the collective journal (“N”) dedicated to the problematics of form were needed by our artists not for the purpose of discovering something about the history of philosophical aesthetics. They simply needed additional academic support of an already drawn-up plan.
Although, inventing this method was no easier than for Chichikov to find a way to capitalize on “dead souls” [Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov was a character in Nikolai Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls”]. Akin to Pavel Ivanovich, our heroes learned it from their service to the “sovereign,” applying their meagre artistic skills in the electoral campaigns of the 1990s. This was a unique case when, with their own hands, artists and curators helped the government to intercept subversive art technologies for its own use. Let us remember, for example, the history of the project “Against All Parties” [“Protiv vseh partiy”], sold and resold in its time by the gallerist Marat Gelman to the Foundation for Effective Politics.
And thus, instead of inventing new, yet-uncorrupted by the discourse of power forms of resistance, our artists decided to apply tried and tested political strategies to the territory of art itself. From the political use of art, they shifted to the artistic use of politics, and what is more, they did it not at the level of some formal innovations (form, as always, was borrowed from the West), but at the level of banal political content, obsessed with popular national stereotypes and quasi-religious clichés.
Amongst them, the creative evolution seemingly moved in the opposite direction of global art—from the demonstration of “tits and pricks” [“sisek i pisek”], to situationism, abstractionism, and then, to commercial figurative and design art. And the mass media provided the bond between performative and figurative forms, similar to Immanuel Kant’s schematism of time.
Moreover, I would not accuse the media itself, which by its very nature distorts and disavows anything and everything. The fact is that for the phenomenon under discussion, reliance on mass media resources was internally necessary. However, whereas in the ‘90s, despite the function of the transmission of political expressions—albeit distorted—the mass media acted to ensure the protection of actionists from raging cops and specialists, then in the ‘00s, they were adapted exclusively for the purpose of advertising new artistic goods.
This publicity eventually took the form of the artistic work itself, and the corresponding work a kind of advertisement for itself as a lifestyle and way of thought (or rather, as images of consumption and ideology).
The mass media form molded with the artistic form, and even replaced it with itself in the media name of the artist. What became important was not what an artist has done or said, but that it was him or her that said or did it. Eventually, this empty form (and in it, as we already mentioned, the internal mimetic image and the author’s style were absent from the onset) became filled with various ideological kitsch—from conversations about national roots of art, to a search for faith outside the church. And all this together successfully superimposed on the rhetoric of contemporary Russian authorities, with their search for an all-Russian ideology and legitimation of “national projects,” and the overall logic of the development of capitalism in Russia.
What was at stake was already an outright strategy of “being there for the sovereign.” This aggressive formula, in substance, signified a conscious rejection of the political and critical functions of art, or more accurately, their replacement by “resistance” to mass taste (pop mainstream and entertainment) from the position of the new elitism.
Our new “aristocrats of the soul” proceeded from a preconceived idea that an artist is seemingly only capable of communicating with the masses solely through pop or propaganda, i.e. being unfaithful to oneself and to art. The fine expressions of artistic taste are seemingly inaccessible to the masses. As if they were accessible to the nouveaux riches and their wives—glamorous chicks and city hall bureaucrats—for whom the artists have now started working!
Thus, they attempted to disavow the irrevocable possibility of art—about which Benjamin wrote in our epigraph—of the resistance to the ruling class in any historical situation, however futile it may seem.
Come to think of it, our artists did not even have malicious intent, or something specific in their relation to art. Such tendencies have long been noticeable in music, literature and philosophy. The role of the producer of cultural goods in the conditions of capitalistic means of production cannot be anything else, since it is substantiated by all the logic of its development and functioning. It boils down to a certain function of capitalist society, which anyone could fulfill individually. That is why, by the way, per contra, the bourgeois artist loses his or her proper name, receiving a nickname (for example: “human-dog” [“chelovek-sobaka”]).
Of course, this does not absolve him or her of personal responsibility for the choices made, but it does allow us to examine the situation objectively—as a logical stage of development of productive forces in the sphere of our emergent bourgeois culture.
Before our eyes, the artist transforms into a mini-capitalist, possessing his or her name as a means of production. And truly, to begin, (s)he attracts credits and investments under his or her trademark. Next—hired labour of professional artists designing models of future works, and workers who produce ready artifacts based on these models at a factory. The function of the artist is in the general control of the process, conferring his or her media name and publicity to the product produced through such methods, which is supplied as a good to an art market that managed to appear during that time. I forgot to mention that properly “artistic ideas” are borrowed by habit from the avant-garde archive or from contemporary Western art, also proving to be part of political strategy.
By the way, artists also used “postmodern” French philosophy and Western neo-Marxism as voiceless prostitutes, fulfilling their self-willed “philosophical” fantasies in press releases of the exhibits and in journal manifestos. But eventually, this “discourse” became an apparent obstacle and was declared obsolete. In practice, this was, of course, not disappointment, but despair about trying to understand this complex thought, remaining inaccessible to them. But through some animal instinct, they felt the foreignness of this tradition—leftist critical thought truly could not find articulation with the idea of serving lords and with the search for a national identity. That is why ideological preferences were handed over to dogmatic Marxist-Leninist aesthetics (a là Mikhail Livshitz) and retold hearsay ideas of German liberals or conservatives (like K. Schmitt, J. Habermas and N. Luman). Instead of open communication with young philosophers and the publication of independent newspapers and journals, our friends chose to communicate with journalists and art critics, corrupted by that same market, and serving as an extension of their own PR-body.
Ultimately, the artists relevant in the ‘90s became designers and supervisors of bourgeois life and lifestyles for the new oligarchs, or rather, for their bored, vain wives, who opened “contemporary art” galleries in the centre of Moscow. Their role boiled down to providing cultural legitimation (if not “laundering”) of capital, accumulated in the process of criminalization and privatization in the ‘90s, and to answering ideological requests made by authorities.
But there was no need to dissolve into forms of contemporaneity described hereby, and imposed by capitalism. Even more so since history presented a moment (a point of bifurcation) to our heroes, when their political actions could still have acquired an original and immanent artistic form. But this presumed something different than the kind of understanding of history, contemporaneity and relevance that prevailed in their environment. Contemporaneity as a revolutionary chance in the “struggle for an oppressed past” granted in any epoch. A chance that does not present a past packaged as “history,” and not a future promised by ideology, but the “time now” (Walter Benjamin’s “Jetztzeit”) as a lasting event of an artistic-political action, which is avant-garde precisely because it reacts to the current political situation, and not to the state of affairs of an art market and classifications and periodizations of art criticism.
At the level of form, such art could preserve authenticity even in the conditions of an emerging capitalism in our country—in the above-mentioned sense of an unconscious mimesis of images of oppression and violence, and their symbolic eradication in artistic works. For this to happen, it is not at all necessary for an artist to suck up to power, to engage in the design of some sort of an oppositional party, to betray politics for the “repose promised by the ‘service of goods,’” or “to regress back to academicism” “under cover of a propaganda that denounces the avant-garde as passé”. It is enough to be in accord with one’s (raznochinniy [“of different ranks”]) anthropological experience and to remain true to the event of revolution as its own possibility; only this way could this experience find an adequate form (A. Badiou).
However, it is worth talking about the possibilities of critical and political art in contemporary Russia at another time. For here, too, there are many counterfeits…
- ^ Chuzhak N. Literature of Life-building [“Literatura Zhiznestroyeniya”] // Literatura fakta [“Literature of Fact”]. Moscow, 1929. P. 13.
- ^ Benjamin W. Lehre vom Aehnlichen; Ueber das mimetische Vermoegen // Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt am Mein: Suhrkamp, 1972. Bd. II. S. 204–213.
- ^ Badiou A. Ethics. London: Verso, 2001. P. 56.