PRINT November 1988


The Art of Perestroika

IN THE LAST EIGHTEEN MONTHS, the situation of the Soviet avant-garde has undergone a significant transformation. Perestroika—the political and economic restructuring—has freed Soviet artists to exploit the many ways in which their situation remains unchanged, as they practice their dangerous and humorous elusions not only on the ministry of culture and its official adherents, and on one another, but now on the Western critics, curators, and buyers who are currently invading Moscow as well. What is most impressive is that the art’s change in disguise—from a seeming absence of meaning to a seeming excess of meaning—has drained neither its visual strength nor its political power.

Until recently—the date is vague because the change has been gradual—most of the artists in the self-acknowledging circle of the Soviet avant-garde constructed their artistic activity with the image of the ministry of culture and its ideal of a Socialist Realist art-of-the-people held always in abeyance. Their work therefore tended, in its abstraction or narrative extravagance, to appear “meaningless.” While this made it impossible for the powers-that-be to locate its subversiveness, it simultaneously, given the Soviet Union’s characteristic totalitarian fear of what it cannot pin down, made it more threatening.

Yet there was a key to understanding this art. And though the officials lacked it, these works’ intended audience did not. That key was a personal knowledge of the artists themselves. Deprived for many years of public exhibition spaces and galleries to exhibit their work, Soviet avant-garde artists have been compelled to mount shows in their own homes, studios, or meeting places. Only people who were personally acquainted or familiar with the artists—or others sufficiently oriented toward their activities—would hear about such exhibitions and visit them. This meant that the audience for these works was constituted almost exclusively by the other artists and critics of the avant-garde, an audience, inevitably and significantly, capable of reading the works in the context of their creators’ lives. It would be reductive and inaccurate to suggest, of course, that personal biography offered all the keys to meaning; both the artists and their intended audience recognized any such intentional fallacy as both simple-minded and Stalinist. Yet the peculiar circumstances of viewing and the extreme narrowness of the audience inevitably served to reinforce each artist’s life as an extension of his or her art, and to render each encounter with the art the occasion for a mutual “unraveling” of codified experience and intentions. And so meaning in these works emerged via a process of what we might call “loyal embezzlement": for only viewers who had been entrusted with a personal knowledge of each personality—and thus, in a sense, with the collective personality forged out of these artists’ mutual dependence on and dialogue with one another—were empowered to place these works into the context without which they were stripped of significance. Thus this art as a body functioned to declare its own labyrinthine complexity—a powerful impediment to the critic who seeks to distinguish product from process.

The greatest change, then—and greatest challenge—that perestroika has brought to the Soviet avant-garde lies in the sudden geometric expansion of its audience. Its works are now seen by a public completely unfamiliar with the men and women who made them, a public often lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge of Soviet life. Such viewers, schooled in the notion that “meaninglessness” is tropological, therefore tend to extract significance from Soviet artworks by way of the rhetoric of post-Modernism, an acknowledgment of “belatedness” that, systematized, can define an elusive but not inconceivable coherence. But such a reading is naive. For Soviet artists are working within a tradition in which the very act of producing a painting is political, no matter what the content of that painting may be, and in which the question of “belatedness” is therefore moot; elusiveness and quotation have their own unique tradition in Soviet art, and in no sense signal exhaustion. At the same time, this work tells the story of its own secrecy in far too many rich ways to allow systematization; indeed it is empowered by its eccentricity, with each artist’s primary arena for originality becoming the variety and/or particularity of his or her own disguises.

The irony of this situation is not lost on the artists. With exquisite fluidity, they are now replacing “pseudo insignificance” with “strategic philosophy.” In the studio of every artist who is discovering popularity in the West there can now be heard vocabularies of explication from the subtle to the stunning, which, though not inaccurate, are intentionally limited and distracting. The notion seems to be that after some hours or pages of esthetic/political patter, the viewer might understand what was entirely shrouded in mystery. But these performances, in fact, represent Soviet artists’ attempts to resist the hierarchization of Western canon-formation, their technique for maintaining independence in the face of the threat of alien artistic values. For, like the apparent meaninglessness they have replaced, these explications ultimately serve to maintain the mystery.

The nature of the performance varies among the generations. The elder statesmen of the Moscow vanguard—Ilya Kabakov, Dmitri Prigov, Erik Bulatov, Andrei Monastyrsky, and Ivan Chuikov—seem trapped between their urgent desire to clarify the context of their work and their deeply self-conscious sense of responsibility to the artistic community they have helped to shape. Their belief in the high seriousness of their project is too strong to permit them to construct illusory significances for their work, yet their attempts to fill in the “knowledge gaps” for foreign viewers are apt to culminate in frustrated declarations about the impossibility of the task. The middle generation has divided itself into groups that are both social and intellectual—the Furmannyi artists, the members of Medical Hermeneutics, the remnants of the Kindergarten, the Champions of the World—and whose work is at the moment perhaps most interesting. These artists have not lost their sense of high seriousness, but they have nevertheless not yet attained anything approaching even the delusion of self-knowledge that makes for an acceptance of one’s limitations. These groups’ intricately woven and brilliantly articulated elaborations on the disguised meanings in their work, though they may be pretenses to unity or coherence, are intentional affectations strategically deployed. The youngest artists—the New Painters in Leningrad, and their Moscow counterparts like Zhora Liteichevsky and Gosha Ostretsov—are the great simplifiers, deliberately creating immediately accessible work as well as immediately accessible public personalities. In the mode of their heroes, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, they have constructed celebrity images of themselves; and have done so with the assumption that they will become as prominent as their work. They think of themselves as great innovators as they deploy a strategy in fact pioneered with consummate subtlety by their antiheroes, the Moscow vanguard.

These distinctions now inspire something of a collective nostalgia for the days of Brezhnev, when, as the artists themselves often put it, they were a community “unified like the early Christians.” For in contrast to “elder statesmen” like Kabakov and Prigov, for example, who always made the distinction between their “real” personalities and their constructed personas a tense and difficult one in order to engender complex questions, artists of the younger generation are now, in the influx of Western attention and influence, finding it all too easy to present their created voices as reality. Thus they ignore or evade the fact that the ultimate significance of a work of art emerges not out of willed intentions, but out of that often contradictory juncture of the artist’s stated aims and the artwork produced, which has a life of its own. The dignity of the mid-generation artists lies in their refusal to make an easy “package” for viewers; they neither programmatically blur the line between person and persona, nor draw a single reductive correspondence between the two.

Yet analyzing this situation places the Western critic in a deeply problematic position, for these distinctions invite the formulation of a false canon, in which influence itself would be traced along lines of stunning irrelevance. Nadia Burova, a long-time supporter of the Soviet avant-garde, tells the story of the occasion when a group of artists congregated to discuss Andy Warhol’s work, including his Marilyn Monroe prints. Monroe’s face meant nothing to them, but they had never before seen photo-silkscreens, and they were astonished by Warhol’s technical accomplishment. And just as the Soviet artists took from Warhol something we forget he had, these generations and groups take from one another meanings even more obscure to us than Marilyn’s image was to them. Our traditional canon is one based on issues and areas relevant to Western art, one that concedes that we can never decisively pin down the full significance of any given work, but that nonetheless seeks to identify, in a consistent manner, historical influences. But each of the self-consciously formed schools that dominate Soviet art today has bearing on the others, and a great part of the wit and power of the artists lies in their elegant formulation of multiple levels of influence that countermand one another, so that the effect of one artist on another operates at pure and separate philosophical, esthetic, and affective levels—including the level of personality—that may or may not be consistent. The critic observing from the outside may find valid connections that are, from the Soviet standpoint, tantamount to our confining our examination of Warhol to his connection with all other artists who have used silkscreen.

For the easiest thing to lose sight of when work is “cut off” from its maker is its irony. In the eyes of the Soviet artists, Western critics’ yen for a canon is closely tied to the Western buying public’s yen for overt politics, and to the ministry of culture’s newly discovered pleasure in satisfying both. After years of consistently suppressing any hints of subversiveness, Soviet officials are now taking delight in the way subversiveness captures both the imagination and the hard currency of capitalism. (Perhaps, then, the most subversive gesture of all right now on the part of the artists would be a reversion to the Socialist Realist painting of the happy-farmers-atop-a-tractor ilk, simply because it would be so unmarketable.) But as the critic Viktor Misiano has suggested, today’s Soviet artists draw on three traditions simultaneously: the avant-garde tradition of the prerevolutionary period, the tradition of the West, and the tradition of Socialist Realism. And so it must be remembered that the overtly and explicitly political art produced by some members of the Soviet avant-garde today is in fact a continuation of the (invented) mode of Socialist Realism, critically transformed, as the play between the politics “described” by the painting and the politics of painting confront one another. But a canon that privileges work of explicit political content over work whose ideology is more intuitively derived and expressed would trivialize grossly the significance of both practices in a nation where just the act of lifting a paintbrush can carry the onus of putative treachery.

To rest content with the assertion that Soviet art is by definition incomprehensible to anyone outside the Soviet avant-garde is useless; but at the same time, to formulate a canon based on misapprehensions seems idiotic. The few critics who operate within the Soviet avant-garde have disciplined themselves to speak of the art as though they come from outside, and are judging only formally. But their canon reflects the infrastructure of the avant-garde in which they have achieved critical maturity and renown. Is it reasonable for Western critics to throw out the Soviet canon and formulate one entirely its own? Or should Western critics and curators simply acknowledge total ignorance and fill up museums on the basis of the word of the artists themselves? The Soviet vanguard, recognizing the problem, is perhaps trying to pave the way toward a third solution: the coexistence of two canons, a Western one and a Soviet one, with some overlap and many inconsistencies—accepting, as it does, that it is best not to communicate too much and not to be too well understood.

We might as well opt for beauty. To fail to judge a work of art on the basis of how it functions in the world and in the experience of its viewers—independent of the artist’s personal claims for it—is to lose its very essence. For Soviet art, an insistence on a multiplicity of truths is as political as the act of painting, an acceptance of a single and easy truth an old habit of Stalinism. Thus it is the nature of elusiveness itself—rather than the thing eluded—that must be the focus of any critical effort. It is, in short, valid to applaud brilliance of disguise; it is a gross error to applaud the disguise itself.

This is ultimately the locus not only of meaning, but also of affect. Much of the evasiveness of these artists is founded in what seems to the West to be exaggerated paranoia, for self-indulgent anthems to the courage and “risk-taking” of artistic expression, no matter what the rigors attending it may be in any given time or place, are familiar tunes in Western art. But the fact is that at the moment, the work of the gifted artists of the USSR is bringing much-needed Western currency into a country where freedom of expression is only another provisional experiment in a continuing quest for food and industrial goods. There is too much at stake, and too much to lose, for the visionaries in this company to give up their evasions. Bred to believe that what is worth saying cannot be said, these artists are learning that even what can be said can be reduced, and ceases to be worth saying. Though their art is not belated, their fear is that it could, if the mask of encoding is dropped, actually sink to the status of meaningless to which it has pretended for years.

In July 1988, I traveled to the Soviet Union to attend the Sotheby’s auction of “Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet Contemporary Art,” and to spend 11 days in Moscow, another 6 in Leningrad. For this opportunity I am indebted to Sergei Popov of the Soviet Union’s ministry of culture, and to the directors of Sotheby’s who arranged my visa and initiated my contacts with the members of the Soviet avant-garde. In Moscow, Lena Olikheyko and Viktor Misiano, curator of contemporary art at the Pushkin Museum, helped to put me in touch with the approximately 40 artists whose homes or studios I visited, or whose exhibitions and performances I attended. In Leningrad, I was guided primarily by Timur Novikov, and spent time with artists and musicians in a circle that includes many of the New Painters. The most consistently interesting and revealing activity was “hanging out” with chance and deliberate groups of artists, which I did more or less every night for more than two weeks, often until dawn. This article, then, emerged out of all of these experiences.

Andrew Solomon is a New York writer who currently lives in London. He is a contributing editor of Harpers & Queen.