Выпуск: №2 2007

Рубрика: Conceptions

The ethical code of autonomy

The ethical code of autonomy

Anatoli Osmolovsky. Bread. Documenta 12, exposition view. Photo: Katrin Schilling / documenta GmbH, 2006

Anatoly Osmolovsky Born in 1969 in Moscow. One of the leading contemporary Russian artists. Author of various essays and critical texts. Lives in Moscow.

The 1990s: Ad Hoc Theories of Friendship

The 1990s saw a drastic intensification of the problematical relationship between ethics and aesthetics. This comes as no surprise: as the symbolic order of previous decades headed for a total collapse, it dislocated older social and ideological points of reference, jumbling and tangling up new economic relations with behavioral ethics, and aesthetic values with one another.

In this situation, art was no longer understood as a specific projective practice geared toward creating new forms and meanings, but became an ethical effort. As striking new figures emerged on the Moscow art scene of the 1990, they demonstrated how individual behavior could be radicalized, often to its scandalous extreme.

This concentration on the ethical problematic could not help but provoke the spread of intolerance. The artists of the 1990s were not only uncompromising toward one another. They also rejected both what remained of the Soviet art system and those elements of the new post-Soviet system that were only just emerging. Thus, the art community's only means of public communication was to be found in "friendship." "In an institutional,, ideological, and moral vacuum, friendship is culture's last refuge."[1] Friendship was a rudimentary form of institutionalizing art. It allowed its participants to continue communicating without compromising their individual positions. As Viktor Misiano has shown, the confidential project was the most convincing artistic form possible under such conditions.

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Anatoli Osmolovsky. Bread. 2006. Sketch

The dissolution of the symbolic order did not begin in the 1990s, of course. The epoch of post-modernism had already called the grand systems of philosophy and art into doubt. For years, a crisis in the legitimacy of the artistic theories of the avant-garde (including socialist realism) had generated an entire slew of ad hoc theories, arising (and discarded) at an astounding rate. The institutionalization of friendship and the confidential project were probably the last of these.

However, friendship is not a truth procedure. Everyone knows Aristotle's apocryph: "Plato is my friend, but truth my greater friend." As a rudimentary form of institutionalization, friendship gives rises to rudimentary truths that cannot survive any serious collision with social reality. Again and again, friends working together are divided by competing political and economic interests. As soon as a society begins to reestablish some kind of symbolic order, friendship returns to the background, once again relocating to the field of intimate personal interaction.

The newest phase in the development of Russian art began in 2004. It has intensified the ethical problematic and its relation to aesthetics yet again, though in an altogether different way. A rapid succession of recent scandals within the Moscow art community has shown just how inefficient the communication through friendship has become, even if it may still have been effective five years ago. The emergence of art institutions introduces new factors to the art community's public communications: new ethical values and goals now express themselves in new aesthetic theories. Though they have not yet emerged with enough clarity to undergo extensive reflection, it is obvious that these new factors are disrupting the fragile unity that took shape during the 1990s on the basis of friendship. This process has only just begun. It is not only difficult to draw conclusions at this point, but even seems too early to identify any cardinal developmental tendencies. Yet at the outset of this process of aesthetic differentiation, it makes sense to reformulate the relation between two basic social moments, namely ethics and aesthetics.

The Development of Aesthetics through Religious Rituals. The First Division

Historically, ethics and aesthetics have always gone hand in hand. As Walter Benjamin puts it, "originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind."[2]

From the prehistoric world to antiquity, religion played a role in practically all aspects of life, ranging from the political or the economic to the most mundane, from the mass melee to personal health. Christianity, however, gave religion a new ethical imperative that art now also had to answer. Participation in religious rituals forced the artwork to convey ethical meanings that increasingly appeared as imposition from the outside. In his diaries, Giotto already vents his frustration at being forced to depict the heroes of Christian mythology instead of dealing with purely artistic forms. (Giotto may be one of the first artists to say that he would rather make triangles and squares than depicting Christ and his apostles.) There can be little doubt that the image of Christ itself had an ethical significance, and that this ethical dominant – and not its artistic form – was most important to the majority of believers. The ethical imperative was extended to the author of the religious artwork himself, who now did not only need to be a master of his craft, but also a paradigm of moral virtue. For instance, at the end of the medieval epoch, the Hundred Chapter Synod held in Moscow in 1551 declared: "The icon painter must be humble, meek and reverential, neither an idle talker nor a merrymaker, neither quarrelsome nor envious, neither a drunkard nor a murderer..."[3] Many medieval artists were not only craftsmen, but clerics or monks... An ironic and sacrilegious metaphor for this position can be found Dürer's famous self-portrait as Christ.

In other words, it was only in the Renaissance that the process of art's emancipation really began. Its artists primarily privatized their own lives, which now became their own business and choice. This led to the first separation. The artist was now part of worldly society.

The Romantic Model as an Instrument for Dissociation with the Ethics of Christianity

In worldly society, the church's lingering subordination of aesthetics to the ethical imperative gave rise to a slew of false mythologies explaining the motivations for artistic practice, of which the idea that "genius and evil are two things incompatible" is the most widespread and influential. If the Renaissance heralded the beginning of art's emancipation and marked the first attempt to break with the origins of art in the religious cult, the 19th century saw the emergence of a new emancipatory process, in which artists now tried to free themselves of worldly ethical myths. This was already a movement toward the autonomy of art, clearly expressing the demand for detaching the judgment of artworks from ethical imperatives, including those over the author's personal behavior in life. To effect this radical dissociation from the ethical imperative, the artists and poets of romanticism developed a specific model of deviant behavior. The artist is no longer a saint but a demon, becoming the supreme demiurge of his artwork who is ready to go to any lengths to ensure its creation (including murder). When the "damned poets" Rimbaud, Verlaine, or Lautréamont began to apply this model directly in their own lives, the consequences, as we know, were lamentable to the point of personal tragedy. Radical to the extreme, this movement (or even heroism) ultimately reached its primary objective in the early 20th century: people gradually began to try to understand art on its own terms, according to its immanent laws, histories, and traditions.

The last manifestation of the romantic model is probably to be found in surrealism, which transformed the model of deviance into an ideology, founding a quasi-party on its base. In retrospect, it is hard to tell whether this operation was the earliest precedent of a politicization or a secondary aesthetization of the romantic model (on a new level). But the point is that from this moment onward, the intentional disregard for ethics ceased to be prerequisite for artistic production. The autonomy of art had become a reality.

The Emergence of the Avant-garde as a New Aesthetic Law

To recapitulate: Christianity separated both ethics and aesthetics from life, placing them into a separate sacral sphere. The Renaissance, in turn, separated aesthetics and private life from belief, while romanticism detached itself from the ethical problematic through deviance. As a result, aesthetics was increasingly understood as a self-sufficient form of practice. As early as the 19th century, theories of art were already emerging to justify and give meaning to the appearance of new artistic forms. As we know, a more fundamental step was made in the early 20th century. Marcel Duchamp and Kazimir Malevich created a new paradigm of art, the autonomous art of the avant-garde.

In Russian contemporary art, the historical avant-garde is often seen in very primitive terms. For some reason, people think that the avant-garde's main goal consisted in undertaking a total aestheticization of everyday life (or in a total quotidianization of aesthetics.) This means that artists always have to attempt to create "non-art." Art critics, in turn, become representatives of the art system. Their task is to absorb any new "forms" that might arise, finding the proper place for them in society, This misunderstanding of functions means almost any gesture on the territory of art can now be defined as art, a misconception that leads to a kind of athletic contest, a sports match that rapidly led to a dismal state of affairs: artistic life in Russia became a pathetic spectacle, little more than a series of public scandals of varying intensity.

Putting aside all antagonisms, confusions, and grey zones, the theory of the avant-garde is a rather stringent artistic framework with several major lines as well as a number of (experimental) dead ends. Without getting bogged down in details, one could say that the avant-garde's primary objective lay in maximizing the concreteness of the art object. Malevich's Black Square depicts a black square, nothing more and nothing less. The same concrete flatness was later to become central to Clement Greenberg and abstract expressionism in the USA, and to the avant-garde as a whole. The maximal concretization of artistic form is the art work's autonomy. This is precisely why the avant-garde's central artistic gesture aims to emancipate art from any hint of content; it symbolizes nothing and has no formal possibility for any other justifiable readings. (Of course, this hasn't stopped anyone from interpreting the avant-garde's emblematic artworks as metaphors for the crisis of civilization, symbols for nothingness, evidence of ontology's dead end, or giving them other more or less optional meanings to the point of journalistic think-headedness.)

Thus, the avant-garde artwork is a material object in the most straightforward sense. By pointing at itself as a material thing, it rids itself of any and all traces of illusionism.

It would be a mistake to interpret artistic autonomy as the artwork's mystical independence from isocial context, political convictions, and even religious beliefs. All of these (and many more) factors exert considerable pressure on any autonomous artistic statement. However, first of all, the analysis of this pressure is a constituent part of autonomy. Second, when we speak of art's autonomy, we are affirming a vector, process, and effort that takes part in a broader competitive struggle for adequate interpretation. Aside from creating concrete artistic object, the autonomy of art is maintained by the artistic theories that interpret them. Theory and praxis are inextricably linked, and are actually impossible as separate things. Malevich, for example, accompanied his own artworks with verbose theoretical texts whose goal was to buttress his artwork with parallels and links to history.

In attaining this autonomy, art also became aware of its own limitations. This placed many artists into an extremely frustrating situation. Beginning in the second half of the 20th century and leading up to our own time, there is an abundance of more or less convincing examples of how this can be done, none of which have led to conclusive, final result.

The Romantic Model, Autonomous Art, and Mass Culture

Thus, the autonomy of art is not a final state that has already been attained, but a process that demands constant renewal. In the 20th century, precisely this quality brought on a rather complex, ambivalent situation: on the one hand, it seems at first glance that the constant defense of autonomy has led to the constant renewal of the romantic model. On the other hand, it is precisely this model that has begun to devour the autonomy of art. To make matters worse, the 20th century has pushed art for the masses into the arena of history. Incomplete in terms of aesthetics and devoid of any immanent history, mass cultural artifacts use the freedom from ethics attained by genuine art to legitimate their own social position. Today, pop culture produces the romantic model en masse. Rock music demonstrates a slew of demonic personalities of varying aesthetic import; trash objects for everyday uses ranging from pen holders to wall thermometers can go to the outer limits of aesthetic extravagance. Of course, these do not require genuine understanding any more than they need to address clearly formulated aesthetic tasks, so that even the last vestiges of heroism become impossible. Mass culture reflects the choices mass audiences will make, and needs to conform to the main rule of industrial production: they need to be generated quickly, consumed immediately, and forgotten just as rapidly. In describing mass culture, defecation seems an apt metaphor.

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Anatoli Osmolovsky. Bread. 2006. Sketch

It is impossible to adopt a purely negative attitude toward this phenomenon. It only becomes negative in the moment in which contemporary art is seduced by romanticism, attributing mass culture with an imaginary historical dimension and a corresponding ethical justification. In other words, mass culture becomes something positive when it takes on the role of renewing the romantic model again and again, thus emancipating art from this particular political function.

Then again, the romantic model is part of the ethical problematic, albeit in a negative, reflected form. But in fact, its promise of a return to romanticism does not exist. Taking this path will only lead to more mass culture. This is why any attempt to renew romanticism is nothing but a crossing over into mass culture.

The Misconception of the 1990s. The Illusion of Total Freedom 

It is a serious misconception (whose roots naturally lie in romanticism) to think that the autonomy of art creates its ideal conditions through trangression, as if the emancipation from ethical imperatives "unbinds" the author's hands, giving him or her an almost unlimited resource for the creation of forms. Almost all of the more prominent Russian artists of the 1990s (from the Moscow Actionists to Petersburg's New Academy) fell prey to this misconception. They behaved as if the autonomization of art (still totally illusory in those years in Russia) entailed the elimination of ethics. The most striking example of this misconception's impact on reality is to be found in a famous action by Avdej Ter-Oganian. When the artist chopped up consecrated reproductions of icons, he seemed genuinely convinced that he was completely lucid and enlightened, working in a tranquil society without contradictions and transgression, where there is no need for ethics, simply because society already embodies ethics completely. (At the very least, he seems to have assumed that the declared worldliness of the new Russia had created effective institutions to diffuse conflicts of interest in the public sphere.)

Another artist from the Trekhprudny art community, Valery Koshlyakov, expressed this misconception somewhat differently and in a more anecdotic way. At the very outset of the 1990s, he was bewildered at the fact that newspapers and magazines were still printing stories about politics, and not art, now that they were free at last! Yet the autonomy of art is not the artist's total freedom from society and its complexes. Instead, it primarily entails the artist's subordination to aesthetic laws emancipated from any extra-artistic content (ethical, political, etc.). It is not society that needs to guarantee the artist's total "freedom" for self-expression, but the artist himself who needs to avoid being bound by society. "The crudity, brutality, and subjective core of the bad in the apriori is negated through art, one of whose inherent traits is the ideal of the meticulously formulated – not the proclamation of moral theses or the achievement of moral effects, but this [meticulous formulation] is art's contribution to the moral..." (Theodor W. Adorno, "Aesthetic Theory").[4]

At the same time, Avdej's action can be considered from another perspective, namely from a political point of view. The artist forcibly wrests sacral symbols from society and transforms them into pure forms. This operation can only succeed if the artist has support from strong artistic institutions, and is essentially political. Or to be more precise: the degree to which this gesture fails as art determines the degree to which the gesture is political. Again, it is important to emphasize that such (and perhaps even more) offensive gestures are nearly the norm in mass culture. Think of the pornographic Satanist "black Sabbaths" of the early 1990s hard rock band "Korrozia Metalla." They were not offensive in the least precisely because the system that generated them had real political power. If the artist was incapable of "transforming" the sacral symbol into the profane (and vice versa), this was a creative failure. When one evaluates this failure, one comes upon a familiar ambivalence. On the one hand, the artist treats a sacred symbol as if it were a profane form, which, on the other hand, it is not in fact. The incapacity for transforming this symbol is written off to unfavorable political conditions. But if the artist resorts to such risky practices, isn't it part of his professional duty to gauge the parameters of the current political climate and to use them successfully in his interest? One remembers how already Lenin warned professional revolutionaries that political adventures never rest on anything but utopian dreams. Since they are completely disconnected from their social conjuncture, they never lead to anything good.

Division and Crystallization: The Forming of Aesthetic Law

It may sound like a paradox, but as soon as art attains autonomy, ethics become the guiding principle for art's functioning. In the art system (and especially in the West), we can observe a rather sensitive relationship to authorship rights, principles of documentation, storage, and exhibition of art works and the like. Aesthetic autonomy concentrates the art world's attention on all aforementioned functional moments, forcing it to operate in a more precise and responsible way. The crystallization of aesthetics leads to the crystallization of ethics. (This is an idea that Andrei Monastyrski articulated in a conversation we had on the questions central to the present text.) It is as if aesthetics were pulling aesthetic mediations out of their everyday circulation, simultaneously formulating its own laws and clarifying society's ethical conventions. An artistic tradition – a dynamic system of artistic values and goals – thus becomes the highest possible form of aesthetico-ethical crystallization. It is not so long ago that Western culture considered all depictions of the human body as tasteless profanity. (In Soviet culture, quite the opposite is true: any abstract image was more or less understood as an anti-Soviet diversion.)

In other words, the degree to which an art system is ethical depends directly upon the aesthetic soundness of its artworks. The perfect, complete artwork really is autonomous; its position is stable and does not depend on exterior factors, be they political, economic, or social. A contradiction and even more paradoxical claim is also true enough: poorly formed (or just plain bad) art forces its authors to commit the most serious crimes in attempting to install the artwork in society. This postulate may seem too categorical to some. And indeed, it can mislead people to draw dangerous and far reaching conclusions that vault art all the way back to the Middle Ages. One must emphasize with the greatest possible clarity that this postulate contains no moral arguments whatsoever. Not virtuous behavior will lead too the creation of convincing artistic artifacts (as was thought in the Middle Ages), but on the contrary, immersion in the aesthetic problematic draws the artist's attention away from society's functioning, which is naturally fraught with transgression and crime. By following aesthetic laws, the author gains a familiar certainty in his own rightness that simultaneously blocks any attempt to find some kind of cozy spot at which to come to rest. This is where one can find the secret of a stoic position like that of the artist Andrei Monastyrski, and not in his moral virtues, however one defines them.

The Contemporary Crisis of Art: Key Parameters

The idea that art has reached a state of crisis, by now, is completely trivial. But it is true. It is important to note that this crisis is not the same each time around. The contemporary condition of art is characterized by the loss of any former autonomy it may have had, a complete deconstruction of any stable art theory, and total functional discord. This, in fact, is why the art of the 1990s flirted so extensively with mass culture, show business, and politics. The romantic model was in demand once again. However, under contemporary conditions, it hardly seems very progressive to tap into the romantic model; instead, it seems to be little more than survival under extremely hostile conditions. For rejecting aesthetic laws (and refusing their coercion), art has paid a high price: it is forced to compete with mass cultural tempos of production and consumption. "Desublimation, as the immediate, instantaneous satisfaction that people expect to gain from art, inhabits a pre-artistic level. Considered in purely aesthetic terms, it is beneath art. In reality, it cannot fulfill the expectations that it evokes." (T. Adorno. "Aesthetic Theory").

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Anatoli Osmolovsky. Hardware. Documenta 12, exposition view. Photo RomanMКrz / documenta GmbH, 2006

This kind of art compensates for its lack of any aesthetic law of its own through a variety of managerial technologies inextricably linked to forgery and fraud. Its existence is conditioned by uninterrupted, regular performativity and social functioning. If it ever stops for even just a moment, it inevitably collapses. In this sense, Pushkin's famous aphorism that "service to the Muses stands no haste" has a significant critical meaning.

It is impossible to compete with mass culture if one simultaneously retains one's historical memory. "Since aesthetic vulgarity is an undialectical imitation of invariable social debasement, it has no history..." (T. Adorno, "Aesthetic Theory"). This is why art must deny its history, becoming a specific type of entertainment. The social mobility necessary for permanent actualization marginalizes art. Or, to put it differently: the extent to which art remains art determines the extent of its marginality in relation to those forms of artistic practice that have crossed the Rubicon of historical conditionality into the vast expanses of mass consumption.

The Politicization of Art as a Result of the Artwork's Concretization

Returning to the still-so-recent 1990s, one can note that aside from art's union with show business and mass culture, there was another, opposing vector, namely the politicization of art (which is also still popular today). This latter opposes the autonomization of art just as much as the former, though it is determined by a completely different sociology. If the political aspect of any connection with mass culture affirms the dominant symbolic order, then the politicization of art is a radical (though infertile) protest against it. Thus the French Situationists, one of the first and most consistent artist-activist groups, proclaimed: "We are artists only insofar as we are no longer artists: we come to fulfill art [in everyday life]."[5] The concretization of the avant-garde artifact leads to its logical conclusion in the concretization (read: politicization) of all elements of the everyday. According to this logic, everything that the autonomization of art rejected becomes paradoxically important again: political or social orientation, ethical imperatives, behavioral models etc. are all actualized, though they are no longer understood as natural effects (or causes) of everyday life, but as concretized artistic gestures (or objects). The artistic law of the avant-garde attempts to apply itself to life at large. If this expansion is not reinforced by political institutions, it leads the artist into a fatal social contradiction. The political process appears as a highly concentrated, tangled knot of unresolved contradictions, and as such it has far more resources, since it involves almost all of humanity en masse. In the role of a political activist, the artist looks completely negligible in comparison to real political processes. This negligibility is something that very quickly becomes obvious. Thus, art dooms itself to sterile efforts that will never have any real political effect. Though mollified by an illusory conviction in its own historical rightness, this kind of art must eventually realize just how negligible it is, so an admission of utter failure seems inevitable.

The Deterritorialization of Art and its Consequences

The impossibility of subjecting everyday life to total artificiation and aesthetization leads to artistic compromises, either to radical artistic transgression or "deterritorialized" art. The process of deterritorialization cannot cancel out the boundary that differentiates art from life; according to the logic of the avant-garde project, it already represents a compromise, a hidden capitulation before the dominant symbolic order.

Without political backing, efforts to reach a maximum of artificiation soon lead to the creation of unbearable conditions for public communication. It is impossible to apply the laws of aesthetics to the everyday in a society that is hostile to art. The attempt to do so anyway creates a situation pregnant with potential repression: when even the most unsophisticated, unprepossessing, and aggressive gesture claims the right to be recognized as an artistic event, public communication becomes a permanent conflict in which there can be no compromise. One could observe such conditions quite clearly in Russia during the 1990s. Under these circumstances, aesthetics always plays a doubly negative role: it legitimates any crime and discredits any protest against it, so that it comes as no surprise that many active cultural producers of the 1990s were accused of being proto-fascist. Oncee it takes on such unattractive functions, any aesthetic becomes oppressive and must reject itself "naturally" as a logical conclusion. Take the case of Aleksandr Brener, who consciously "broke" with his own art and declared "war" on all its forms.


All this being the case, is it possible today to continue and develop the project of the avant-garde? And if so, then in which form? It seems obvious that the sociological conditions are highly unfavorable. But does the project of the avant-garde itself mean anything? Again, I will have to cite Adorno: "If art limits its own autonomy, it places itself fully at the disposal of the existing society; if it stands fast on the positions it has chosen, it can be integrated just as easily as a rather harmless and innocuous sphere much like any other field of human activity. This aporia expresses the totality of society, which swallows everything that takes place and arises." In other words, Adorno is carrying to grave if not the project of the avant-garde then the possibility for any explosive socio-political effect it might have. And really, it seems long ago that art could shock anyone with pure innovations without having to resort to cheap tricks straight out of Madame Tussauds. But this is a political problem that art has no power to solve. Attempts to forcibly continue developing methodologies of shock and provocation bring art back to its romantic stage and are obviously regressive. In any deeper sense, such returns are impossible anyway, since its way home is blocked by a mass culture that feeds off of romanticism like a parasite.

The political neutralization of the avant-garde project has been a success. But is artistic activity really that innoccuous and harmless to capitalism? As the ideal of "carefully formulation," art criticizes capitalism by the very fact of its existence. At the same time, the concretized artistic image criticizes its own relativity and its own limitations, demonstrating them on its own material. The fact that this critique can no longer marshal the kind of mass media resources that it was able to harness in the early 20th century may be an argument for, and not against this type of criticism. It acts immediately and on a physical level, but it is absolutely uninteresting to those instances that would strive to neutralize it through the mass media. In this way, visual art in general and the avant-garde object in particular free themselves of their communicative use, becoming pure, silent, material things, or, to speak with Walter Benjamin, "a brake on the locomotive of History."


  1. ^ See: Виктор Мизиано "Институционализация дружбы: проект "Transnacionala"" – в: ""Другой" и разные", НЛО, Москва, 2005 с. 96 (In English: Cultural Contradictions of Tusovka, Frakcia, Zagreb, 1999, pp. 82-97; and in: Umelec, 7, 1999, pp. 34-35; another version of the same text: An Analysis of "Tusovka". Post-Soviet Art of the 90s. Art in Europe. 1990-2000 (edited by Gianfranco Maraniello).SKIRA editore, Milano. 2002).
  2. ^ Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
  3. ^ Cited after V.G. Bryusova, Russkaya zhivopis 17 veka [Russian 17th century painting. Moscow: Iskusstvo 1982, p. 9
  4. ^ This quote and the quotes that follow cite Theodor Adorno's "?sthetische Theorie," Frankfurt a.M.: suhrkamp 1970 (2002). Translation DR.
  5. ^ Situationist Questionnaire. Bureau of Public Secrets. http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/9.questionnaire.htm. Link last accessed on 12.1.2007 

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