Issue: №3 2014

Section: Analysis

Contemporary Art in the Midst of False Democracy and Institutional Policies

Contemporary Art in the Midst of False Democracy and Institutional Policies

The material is illustrated with photo-documentation of Ivan Brazhin's project “The Center of Protest Initiatives“, 2012. Photographs: Olga Danilkina

Keti Chukhrov Born in 1970. Philosopher, dramatist. “MAM” editorial board member. Lives in Moscow.

Romantic, post-romantic and modernist pursuits in art imply its negative genealogy,—the tendency that ousted from it aesthetics based on the category of the “beautiful,” in favour of non-aesthetics based on the category of the “sublime.” We call the position of modernism negative, because it chose form against content, refusing to deal with reality in favor of investigating the languages and methodologies of art. It is in such a negativist key that a modernist choice of aesthetics are positioned in the works by T. Adorno, P. Bürger, J-F. Lyotard.

The negative modernist self-referentiality of art was radically reconsidered by the avant-garde, and by the Russian avant-garde specifically. This did not happen by virtue of formal innovations, but as a result of the reemergence of reality as a new resource for artistic practices. The reality that modernism refuted because of its bourgeois-mindedness [burzhuaznost’]—its philistine consumption-oriented environment—the artists of avant-garde treated as a potentiality for creating a new human being, a new socialist society, new types of production and a new sensibility. According to Boris Arvatov and other representatives of productionist art, the reason why the proletarian sensibility was so novel, in part, stemmed from the fact that the proletariat as a historical subject was devoid of philistine or bourgeois consciousness, as well as of the experience of exploiting the “other.”

As it is known, instead of creating individual works of art, many groups of avant-garde artists voluntarily left studio work and the investigation of aesthetic methodologies to participate in the construction of new social relations, new means of production, etc. Artistic innovations, new ideas and inventions were not confined to the work of art, but were embedded into the project of the transfiguration of life and reality. Nevertheless, the utilitarianism of avant-garde practices did not dispense with the artistic impulse in itself—this is because the new social relations became a kind of artistic matter for experimentation with society. Society itself became an innovation, both in terms of form as well as content. And an artist could not have remained neutral to this experimental field. New forms of life and work seemed more creative, avant-garde and radical than the new methodologies of artistic expression. Of course, this situation was directly connected with the radical socialization of art, which implied the cultural engagement of the civil masses and the collective creative collaboration of artists with the non-artists—with the proletarians as new historical subjects—this was the disposition that implied an inevitable democratization of art. Creativity stopped being an elitist activity of a genius-artist, and became open for all members of society, attempting to solve the problem of the division of labour and moving in the direction of universal emancipation. It can be contended that the Russian avant-garde had overcome the negativity of the modernist genealogy via the political and ethical gesture of solidarization with the proletariat. Certainly, this process was not devoid of its contradictions, but we will not dwell on them here. Let us simply remark that one of the main contradictions amongst a few was the following: on the one hand, art had to be sublated in favor of life-construction; but on the other, life itself was seen predominantly through the prism of artistic form, as the matter for performative activity. Consequently, the question was whether life remains life if it mimics the artistic process in every way, and if in this life everyone is supposed to become an artist. The avant-garde politicized aesthetics, but it also simultaneously induced the aesthetization of life.


In the West, avant-garde practices become hegemonic precisely at the moment when the critique of institutions, political critique and art practices, intersect with the social movements of ’68—that is, not simply as a result of formal innovations, but along with the urgency to radically transform society. It is a period of deserting museums and galleries in favour of new non-institutional creative communities that expand the place of artistic practice beyond exhibiting spaces into the urban and social activist milieu. Undoubtedly, judging by the radicality of transformations, it is difficult to compare ‘68 with the October Revolution. But it should be noted that the practices of the socialization of art—its arrival into public space, its transition from objects to behaviors, its involvement with the activist movements and critique of institutions—would have been impossible without the political context and the political program of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

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We can identify three main stages in the critique of institutions: 1. The distanciation from institutions during the ‘60s and ‘70s (M. Broodthaers, H. Haacke, P. Smithson); 2. The declaration of institutional critique on behalf of institutions (‘80s, ‘90s), since the institutions themselves require critique in order to transform their goals according to the demands of contemporaneity (as Andrea Fraser wrote, it is difficult to go beyond the limits of institutions, since they are inside us: inside the critic and the artist); 3. And the third stage of institutional critique, developed in the 2000s in the context of post-Operaist theories of A. Negri, P. Virno and M. Lazzarato, focused around the issue of exodus from the system of neoliberal capitalism. The latter approach overcomes both the framework of opposition to institutions as well as the inevitable involvement in them, attempting to develop strategies of flight from the logic of an existing institutional context through the creation of mobile instituent initiatives. These initiatives appeared as a consequence of anti-globalization movements (Uninomada, Edufactory). Instituent practices do not always need to be permanent, they appear at the intersection of the problem fields.[1]

Such contemporary institutions as BAK (Basis voor Actuele Kunst, Utrecht), the Van Abbe museum (Eindhoven), as well as other smaller initiatives, despite being Kunsthalles and museums, nevertheless react to the emergence of above-mentioned mobile critical initiatives and movements and assert their programs via self-critique.

Strictly speaking, the situation—when the institution absorbs critique of itself—is, to some extent, the consequence of political transformations of the ‘60s. These transformations were conditioned by the critique of autonomous art and demanded political and social engagement from artists. The situation of real political changes annuls the suspicions of the adepts of the autonomy of art, such as Adorno or Greenberg, that socialization of the artistic process might lead to kitsch and the reign of a cultural industry. According to Bürger,[2] art in a bourgeois society could only be radically formal and autonomous. If the avant-garde does not coincide with the social-revolutionary movement, then the pathos of social engagement of art is false. Bürger writes that even those performances that bordered with life and everydayness (for example, the performance practices of Allan Kaprow) were far from dissolving into life. In the end, their counter-aesthetic pathos was aimed at integration into the institute of the history of contemporary art. According to Adorno and Bürger, in bourgeois society, the dissolution of art into life—its sublation in the name of life-construction—is impossible.

However, until today, many scholars continue to object both to Adorno and Bürger, believing that political critique and a movement of resistance, albeit existing in capitalist society, nevertheless allow to make a renunciation of aesthetics for the sake of social transformations. The emergence and development of instituent initiatives and socially engaged art-practices formed particular goals for art’s micropolitical impact on the social context. Such practices attempt to achieve the interaction between artistic works and the surroundings—the influence of actions, performances, interventions, social monitoring and architectural projects on the social infrastructure. Indeed, on the one hand, the presence of micropolitical changes as a result of the artistic projects in the sphere of public art, participatory art, or institutional critique is undeniable: it is enough to remember the work of such artists as Santiago Sierra, Andrea Fraser, Paweł Althamer, Artur Zmijewski. But on the other hand, political movements that have become active around the world, have shown that micro-changes emerging as a result of realization of socially oriented artistic projects are far less significant, if at all noticeable, in comparison to real political problems and protests.

Thus, it turns out that the renunciation of aesthetics in the name of avant-garde life-construction and social change does not accomplish the desired goal. This is also related to the fact that a socially engaged renunciation in the spirit of the avant-garde always occurred on the territory of contemporary art, and not in open social space. And here, the problem is that truly avant-garde artistic practices are inseparable from the avant-gardism of politics and cannot be reduced to the activity of individual institutions or to individual artistic initiatives.

Another cause for the social insolvency of socially oriented artistic projects is that the territory of art itself, on the one hand, declares a quasi-avant-garde social openness, but in its social, economic and ethical model it is part and parcel of post-Fordist neoliberalism. And in this sense, art and its territory correspond rather to the model of a self-referential, negative, anti-realist modernism, referring to its own languages and methodologies. It turns out that the art system believes in its avantgardism and social micro-revolutionary engagement. But since the economy and social space are privatized and have no status of commonwealth, despite declaring social democratic values, contemporary art de facto builds its ethics of dealing with reality on the canons of negative modernism. I.e., it incorporates reality into itself, neutralizing and sterilizing it. Implementing only slight emancipatory interventions in reality, art institutions remain part of neoliberal democracy, which assigns itself the merits of social activism and humanitarian work.

Another significant aspect concerning the work of art institutions related to their intellectual advancement and political engagement is that if a decade ago it was a curator who appropriated the creative subjectivity of an artist, today it is the institution that more often acts as an artistic subject. At present, it is the institution, and not the artist, that creates the relevant macro-context, which the artist joins as a performer. Although until recently, the disposition was different: the emergence of institutions was the result of artistic discoveries in various fields of agencies—feminist, conceptual or participatory.


Thus, we have identified a paradox: contemporary art encourages the political and socially critical projects that dispense with the complexity of the artwork, its eventful intensiveness, since the principal order of intensity is the outward reality and the endeavors to transform it. But is this disposition viable today? Are we witnesses to any kind of anti-capitalistic transformation without which the avant-garde is impossible, and which excuses the artist when (s)he rejects the creative process in favour of the dissolution of artistic activity in social life?

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Firstly, in contrast to the situation of the avant-garde, today we are not witnessing the seizure of power by forces that speak out for equality and radical democracy; the description of social problems does not presuppose the inclusion of social masses into the processes of socialization, characteristic of the fusion of the avant-garde and the revolution. Secondly, despite the fact that contemporary art attempts to work with reality, and despite discussions on the criticism of modernism and the return to realist practices in art (6th Berlin biennale), the problem is that the contemporary artist is unable (unable in terms of sensuous inability) to speak the language of critical realism and of sensuous experience of event and reality. On the other hand, it is also impossible to imagine an avant-garde process of the full-fledged intervention and dissolution of art into reality with the goal of its anti-capitalist transformation. What happens in the end? Together with critical institutions, artists claim to reform reality with the aid of various methods of social engineering. However, in practice there is little change. Reality becomes an artistic exhibit, and the report on a piece done a work of art does not leave the bounds of the artistic context.

It is because of such crises that attempts to occupy the artistic territory with social practices emerge. Artur Zmijewski[3] serves as the most relevant example. Instead of artists participating at the Berlin biennale, he organized the occupation of the institution (KW as the host of the biennial) by social activists who were involved in real actions in the social field. The question Zmijewski put forward was: where are those social changes contemporary art promised for the last four decades? If they are absent, since the assertion of an artist to construct the avant-garde would precisely be in its capacity for social change, then, says Zmijewski, let us find those who really enact change and allow them to occupy the artistic territory and its institutions.

However, what we see in this logic is that it fails to succeed in transgressing the limits of contemporary art’s self-referentiality. The curator entered the arena of social protests, but internalized them into the territory of the biennial, hoping that the “transformed” institution would thus acquire real political power and influence on society. Probably, unconsciously, this gesture by Zmijewski comes forth as a modernist gesture of iconoclasm, an attempt to say: “Art is dead, but here is an anti-art that I bring into art, which has lost its aesthetic intensiveness, but which has still not acquired political relevance.” In other words, this is a gesture of modernist reductionism, enacted for the sake of preserving the sovereign power of the artist, wanting to excel over reality. Such a standpoint is full of regret motivated by the fact that as far as avant-garde life-construction goes, today’s art is powerless, and hence the artist or the curator takes vengeance on it for its failure by enacting an outrageous Dadaist gesture. That is why the Dadaist forms of resistance in the style of the “Voina” group are so close to Zmijewski. Although from the point of view of social effectiveness (specifically social, and not media-based) “Voina’s” actions are no more, and perhaps even less, effective than any commissioned participatory initiatives. Zmijewski’s case serves as good evidence that what is interesting for him is not so much the transformation of reality, but the sovereign power of an artist, winning over reality. This is not because Zmijewski would not have liked to transform reality, but rather, he had no resources and social context for its large-scale transformation at his disposal. Hence what remains is radical reduction.


Thus, we see that the main vector in the search for the social connection with life that art possessed during the avant-garde epoch, is the demand for an evermore radical rejection of aesthetics and art, a demand for its simplification in the direction of everydayness. However, we do not realize that what is at stake in this logic is not so much the rejection of art, but rather, a rejection of what art transformed into, in the process of becoming contemporary art.

Undoubtedly, contemporary art has got stuck in such a deadlock (unconsciously modernist or falsely democratic when it tries to be avant-garde) because it claimed its avant-gardism while lacking the political context of social transformation.

This is the reason why, by making a sovereign gesture of an artist-modernist and disregarding contemporary art’s pretensions for social influence, Artur Zmijewski is more honest than any other artist who blindly believes in participatory projects and their avant-garde legacy or social efficiency. His standpoint implies that the micro-political artistic practices change nothing—they only assert their reputation in the institutional network. Through his nihilism, he demonstrates that contemporary art futilely flatters itself with the hopes of avant-garde life-construction. Thus, despite his own intentions, Zmijewski asserts Adorno’s thesis on the autonomy of the territory of art, regardless of its preoccupation with the languages of democracy and social expansion. However, although such a standpoint unravels the deadlock of the situation, it does not enable an exodus from the self-referential territory of art, or to evade the influence of its logic.


Among other counter-institutional tendencies in contemporary art that turn a rejection from collaboration with institutions into alter-institutions, or even into an artistic work, we could mention Konsthall C, an artistic space situated at the laundry facilities of one of the suburbs in Stockholm. This initiative is headed and curated by Per Hasselberg. The goal of such an institution is paradoxical and ambivalent. It asserts the necessity of art to fully dissolve into society, that is, to exist primarily as a form of public art. However, this results in a paradox: how could such initiatives edify and instruct the public in art, if the entire pathos of the given activity is that the work with the public is not art? Into what, then, is the non-artistic public edified?

In this case, the democratization of art is in the weakening, simplification and, seemingly, in the annulment of the languages of art—the annulment not only of the formal intensity of art, but above all, its ethical and humanistic components. Do we not encounter an absurd situation here? “We” reject art, but we call “our” exit into public space the edification of art to the public. We rejected art in order to work on society, but we propose our work on society to that same society as a form of art education, since we are, after all, artists. And society must accept this “democratic” art as artistic creativity.

Perhaps, the problem is that the contemporary artist has been vainly manifested by the withered canons of the avant-garde, which formalize the resistance, as well as the critique, the protest and the life-construction? At some point, this very artist, much like Zmijewski, gets angry that all the social practices are formalized and avenges institutions with an anarchic gesture of disobedience, saying “I desert art for the sake of real social work”. But in turn, institutions say: “Let us then exhibit the results of your social work.” And everything returns to its place.

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Thus, the logic of institutional demands stemming from contemporary art generally resides in impoverishment and flattening of art in the name of commitment to social engagement—this standpoint voluntarily deprives art of its appeal to an event, a metanoia. The goal is to externalize all artistic themes, turning them into a bureaucratic distribution that slots art into protocols: one, dealing with the theme of war; another with the theme of migration; yet another with fusion of science, technology and art, etc. Art claims it is open and democratic. The main thing is to correctly formulate a political and social problem. Rarely does anyone demand a sensuous, bodily, ontological and ethical involvement from an artist. Thus, the result is that the more democratized art production becomes, the less effort an artist contributes to the contemplation of that same humanity for the sake of which (s)he tends to constantly renounce art.

But a very important factor is forgotten here: art is not simply the creation of artistic work. That is, the choice is not simply between formalism and the autonomy of art, on the one hand, and social-political activity on the other. As Alain Badiou puts it, art is a truth procedure that is needed by human society. But this procedure apart from informing, documenting, and activism, requires sensuous involvement into what happened.

If the works of the Russian avant-garde reflected no understanding of the tragic dimension of life, its paradox, and would have been limited to a simple technocratic-engineering project, then the works of Mayakovsky, Malevich, Khlebnikov, Vvedensky and Platonov would not have been so significant for us. Actually, we appreciate them for the expression of the universal value of democracy. However, their democracy is not confined to democratization of art, since it could be made by everyone as something quick, trivial, and one-dimensional, which does not require much contemplation. The dimension of democracy of such art is in the incredible effort it makes in the name of this very demos. That is, democracy should not at all imply that art should be accessible in its conception, production and digestion. It implies a complex ethical effort and penetration into life. In the case where democracy is understood as the accessibility of production and consumption of art, we obtain nothing but political design. But what is completely missing in that kind of democratism is the truth procedure as the horizon of artistic potentiality. Social activity and art are not identical categories, and each one of them has its own ethical and political value. That is why art, in contrast to a political decision, is not required to change anything directly. It changes things obliquely.

On the other hand, it is clear why such artists as Zmijewski demand direct changes from art. This demand is conditioned by the revolutionary rhetoric as a trait of an artistic institution ever since the ‘60s. The problem is that such rhetoric often does not exceed the territory of art, or remain in the framework of the social design.

However, when we turn to the historical avant-garde of the beginning of the 20th century, we see that the avant-garde required an overall social mobilization based on the broad political engagement into the project of universal equality—the project of deprivatization of the means of production, liquidation of the division of labour, abolition of social- and class segregation. In other words, the direct and sometimes utilitarian action of the artist preserves both a political and an artistic impact only in the conditions of radical social transformation. To demand direct changes from the artist in any other circumstances is to open a path to the reign of political strategies and social design. Besides that, when we refer to the legacy of the avant-garde, the division between the publicness of contemporary participatory projects and the avant-garde life-construction should be kept in mind: when Sergei Tretyakov travels to the kolhoz to document the emergence of new production, then the people he describes are not just a public that he is educating, but a new peasant-proletarian subject of history, creating a new life of a new society. And Tretyakov acts as a witness of this event. But could the same thing be said about the groups invited to collaborate in Althamer’s and Zmijewski’s projects? Probably, not. And if so, if the artists are compelled to work not with the subjects of history, or their experience of emancipation, but conversely, with the negative zones of oppression and an insufficient emancipatoriness, then the means of work with these settings cannot copy avant-garde life-constructing poetics. The means of working with such zones should be different, they should presuppose an ethical involvement into them and complex processes of becoming these zones via artistic means. 


  1. ^ This problem is discussed in the collective monograph: Ray G., Raunig G. (eds.) Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique. London: Mayflybooks, 2009. 
  2. ^ Burger P. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  3. ^ See Artur Zmijewski’s article about his curatorial strategies: Zmijewski A. Forget Fear //

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