PRINT October 1997


When Boris Groys decided at the beginning of the ’80s to emigrate from the former Soviet Union to Germany, he was considered a suspicious character in his old home and an unknown in his new. Today, fifteen years later, he is still considered a suspicious character—though for different reasons. The reactions that followed in the wake of Groys’ first book to be published in German, his 1988 Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin—Die gespaltene Kultur des Sowjetunion (translated in 1994 by Princeton University Press as The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond), were explosive. In elaborations of breathtaking insight, Groys exposed the connection between Soviet policy under Stalin and the projects of the artistic avant-garde—an argument not necessarily designed to win the favor of those critics who were accustomed to painting a more elevated image of the art of the avant-garde. In his inspiring 1995 book Die Erfindung Russlands (The invention of Russia), he opened the eyes of his Western audience to the position of Russia within the geopolitics of ideas. Groys’ readers would discover how Russian culture since the nineteenth century has functioned as the West’s unconscious, as it were.
In Germany and Western Europe, Groys is one of the few unmistakably independent voices in contemporary cultural criticism. Between the time of his emigration and the present there are five or six incisive books and a hundred or more scattered essays, interviews, radio broadcasts, and lectures at galleries, museums, and universities concerning the foundations and phenomena of contemporary art—a body of work that, considered as a whole, offers nothing short of a new take on the philosophy of culture and art. In his theory of the avant-garde, Groys comes closest to the critical impulses of French poststructuralism, toward which he has otherwise always kept a sympathetic distance. A shared attentiveness to the material bearer of the encounters between Being and Meaning links him to Jacques Derrida, and he shares with Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek a well-developed instinct for the symptomatic significance of mass culture. Both these tendencies are pronounced in his most exciting book to date, Über das Neue. Versuch einer Kulturoekonomie (On the new. Essay on cultural economy, 1992). Many features in Groys’ spiritual makeup as well as biographical circumstances recall those of his countryman Alexandre Kojève, who, with his lectures in Paris on Hegel’s Phenomenology, decisively affected the intellectual development of his host country more than six decades ago. With Mephistophelean humor and genuine philosophical discipline, Groys has given free play to the theoretical concerns of the Western world. The days when his writings were an insider’s tip are over. They already belong to the essential library of all that our age has to say about itself.
—Peter Sloterdijk

FOR A LONG TIME NOW, the art critic has seemed a legitimate representative of the art world. Like the artist, curator, gallery owner, and collector, when an art critic shows up at an opening or some other art-world event, nobody wonders, What’s he doing here? That something should be written about art is taken as self-evident. When works of art aren’t provided with a text—in an accompanying pamphlet, catalogue, art magazine, or elsewhere—they seem to have been delivered into the world unprotected, lost and unclad. Images without text are embarrassing, like a naked person in a public space. At the very least they need a textual bikini in the form of an inscription with the name of the artist and the title (in the worst case this can read “untitled”). Only the domestic intimacy of a private collection allows for the full nakedness of a work of art.

The function of the art critic—perhaps art commentator would be a better way of putting it—consists, it is thought, in preparing such protective text-clothes for works of art. These are, from the start, texts not necessarily written to be read. The art commentator’s role is entirely misconstrued if one expects him to be clear and comprehensible. In fact, the more hermetic and opaque a text, the better: texts that are too see-through let works of art come across naked. Of course, there are those whose transparency is so absolute that the effect is especially opaque. Such texts provide the best protection, a trick well-known to every fashion designer. In any case, it would be naive for anyone to try and read art commentary. Luckily, few in the art world have hit upon this idea.

Thus, art commentary finds itself today in a confusing position, at once indispensable and superfluous. Other than its sheer material presence, one doesn’t really know what to expect of it or desire from it. This confusion is rooted in the rise of contemporary criticism: the positioning of the critic within the art world is anything but self-evident. As is generally known, the figure of the art critic emerges at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, alongside the gradual rise of a broad, democratic public. At that time, he was certainly not regarded as a representative of the art world but strictly as an outside observer whose function was to judge and criticize works of art in the name of the public exactly as would any other well-educated observer with the time and literary facility: good taste was seen as the expression of an aesthetic “common sense.” The art critic’s judgment should be incorruptible, i.e., bear no obligation to the artist. For a critic to give up his distance meant being corrupted by the art world and neglecting his professional responsibilities: this demand for disinterested art criticism in the name of the public sphere is the assertion of Kant’s third critique, the first aesthetic treatise of modernity.

The judicial ideal, however, was betrayed by the art criticism of the historical avant-garde. The art of the avant-garde consciously withdrew itself from the judgment of the public. It did not address the public as it was but instead spoke to a new humanity as it should—or at least could—be. The art of the avant-garde presupposed a different, new humanity for its reception—one that would be able to grasp the hidden meaning of pure color and form (Kandinsky), to subject its imagination and even its daily life to the strict laws of geometry (Malevich, Mondrian, the Constructivists, Bauhaus), to recognize a urinal as a work of art (Duchamp). The avant-garde thus introduced a rupture in society not reducible to any previously existing social differences.

The new, artificial difference is the true artwork of the avant-garde. Now it is not the observer who judges the artwork, but the artwork that judges—and often condemns—its public. This strategy has often been called elitist, but it suggests an elite equally open to anyone in so far as it excludes everyone to the same degree. To be chosen doesn’t automatically mean dominance, even mastery. Every individual is free to place himself, against the rest of the public, on the side of the artwork—to number himself among those constituting the new humanity. Several art critics of the historical avant-garde did just that. In place of the critic in the name of society arose social critique in the name of art: the artwork doesn’t form the object of judgment but is instead taken as the point of departure for a critique aimed at society and the world.

The art critic of today inherited the older public office along with the avant-garde betrayal of this office. The paradoxical task of judging art in the name of the public while criticizing society in the name of art opens a deep rift within the discourse of contemporary criticism. And one can read today’s discourse as an attempt to bridge, or at least conceal, this divide. For example, there is the critic’s demand that art thematize existing social differences and position itself against the illusion of cultural homogeneity. That certainly sounds very avant-garde, but what one forgets is that the avant-garde didn’t thematize already-existing differences but introduced previously nonexistent ones. The public was equally bewildered in the face of Malevich’s Suprematism or that of Duchamp’s Dadaism, and it is this generalized nonunderstanding—bewilderment regardless of class, race, or gender—that is actually the democratic moment of the various avant-garde projects. These projects were not in a position to suspend existing social differences and thereby create cultural unity, but they were able to introduce distinctions so radical and new that they could over-determine differences as they stood.

There’s nothing wrong with the demand that art give up its Modernist “autonomy” and become a medium of social critique, but what goes unmentioned is that the critical stance is blunted, banalized, and finally made impossible by this requirement. When art relinquishes its autonomous ability to artificially produce its own differences, it also loses the ability to subject society, as it is, to a radical critique. All that remains for art is to illustrate a critique that society has already leveled at or manufactured for itself. To demand that art be practiced in the name of existing social differences actually means that an offering will be made to society in the form of social critique.

In our time art is generally understood as a form of social communication; it is taken as self-evident that all people want to communicate and strive for communicative recognition. Even if the contemporary discourse of art criticism understands the famous “other” not in the sense of particular cultural identities, but as desire, power, libido, the unconscious, the real, etc., art is still interpreted as an attempt to communicate this other, to give it voice and shape. Even if communication is not achieved, the desire for it suffices to secure acceptance. The work of the classical avant-garde and even that of Surrealism is blunted when it is understood as subordinated to the earnest intention of bringing the unconscious into expression: the incomprehensibility to the average observer of the resulting art is excused by virtue of the impossibility of any communicative mediation of the “radical other.”

This “other” that desires unconditionally to convey itself, that wants to be communicative, is, of course, not other enough. What made the classical avant-garde interesting and radical was precisely that it consciously shunned conventional social communication: it excommunicated itself. The “incomprehensibility” of the avant-garde was not just the effect of a communication breakdown. Language, including visual language, can be used not only as a means of communication but also as a means of strategic dis-communication or even self-excommunication: that is, a voluntary departure from the community of the communicating. And this strategy of self-excommunication is absolutely legitimate. One can also wish to erect a linguistic barrier between oneself and the other in order to gain a critical distance from society. And the autonomy of art is nothing other than this movement of self-excommunication. It is a question of attaining power over differences, a question of strategy instead of overcoming or communicating old differences, new ones are produced.

The departure from social communication repeatedly practiced by Modern art has often been described, ironically, as escapism. Such escapism is always followed by a return: thus the Rousseauian hero first leaves Paris and wanders through forest and meadow only to return to Paris, set up a guillotine in the center of the city, and subject his former superiors and colleagues to a radical critique, that is, to cut off their heads. Every revolution worth its salt attempts to replace society as it is with a new, artificial society. The artistic impulse always plays a decisive role. That so many attempts to produce a new humanity have so far met with disappointment explains many critics’ trepidation that they will put too much hope in the avant-garde. Instead, they want to drive the avant-garde back to the stable ground of facts, fence it in, and tether it to the real, to existent differences.

Still, the question remains: What are these real existing differences? Most are artificial through and through. Technology and fashion generate the important differences of our day. And where they are consciously, strategically produced—whether in high art, design, cinema, pop music, or new media—the tradition of the avant-garde lives on (the recent enthusiasm for the Internet, reminiscent of the time of the classical avant-garde, is a case in point). Social art critics don’t go in for such technical or fashionable differences, even though they have the success of such artificial differences to thank for the fact that their brand of discourse is in style (or at least was until fairly recently). So many years after the rise of the avant-garde, the discourse of contemporary art theory continues to suffer because artificial, consciously produced differences still remain unprivileged. Just as in the era of the historical avant-garde, those artists introducing artificial, aesthetic differences are reproached for being motivated exclusively by commercial and strategic interests. To react to the fashionable with enthusiasm and hope, to see in it a chance for a new and interesting social difference, is considered “improper” in “serious” theory.

The unwillingness of the critic to identify himself with specific artistic positions is chalked up theoretically to the opinion that we have reached the end of art history. Arthur Danto, for example, argues in After the End of Art that those programs of the avant-garde intended to define the essence and function of art have finally become untenable. It is thus no longer possible to privilege a particular kind of art theoretically as those critics who think in an avant-garde mode—in the American context the paradigm remains Clement Greenberg—have again and again tried to do. The development of art in this century has ended in a pluralism that relativizes everything, makes everything possible at all times, and no longer allows for critically grounded judgment. This analysis certainly seems plausible. But today’s pluralism is itself artificial through and through—a product of the avant-garde. A single Modern work of art. A huge differentiation machine.

If the critics had not, as Greenberg did, taken specific works of art as the occasion for drawing new lines of demarcation in the field of theory and art politics, we would have no pluralism today, because this artistic pluralism certainly cannot be reduced to an already existing social pluralism. Even the social art critics can only make their distinctions between the “natural” and the “socially coded” relevant for art criticism because they place these (artificial) distinctions like readymades in the context of Modernist differentiation. And Danto makes the same move as Greenberg when he attempts to draw all the consequences from Warhol’s Brillo Box and to think this artwork as the beginning of an absolutely new era. Today’s pluralism definitely means that no single position can be unequivocally privileged over another. But not all differences between two positions are of equal value; some differences are more interesting than others. It pays to concern oneself with such interesting differences—regardless of which position one advocates. It pays even more to create new, interesting differences that further drive the condition of pluralism. And since these differences are purely artificial, a natural, historical end cannot be attributed to this process of differentiation.

Perhaps the real reason today’s art critic no longer passionately champions a particular attitude in art and its relevance for theory and cultural politics is more psychological than theoretical. First, in so doing, the critic feels he is left in the lurch by the artist. One might easily have supposed that after the critic has crossed over to the side of the artist he would have won the artist’s gratitude and become his friend. But it doesn’t work this way. The critic’s text—so most artists believe—seems less to protect the work from detractors than to isolate it from its potential admirers. Rigorous theoretical definition is bad for business. Thus, many artists protect themselves against theoretical commentary in the hopes that a naked work of art will be more seductive than one dressed in a text. Actually, artists prefer formulations that are as vague as possible: the work is “charged with tension,” “critical” (without any indications of how or why), the artist “deconstructs social codes,” “puts our habitual way of seeing into question,” “practices an elaboration” of something or another, etc. Or artists prefer to speak themselves, to tell their personal histories and demonstrate how everything, even quite trivial objects that fall under their gaze, takes on a deep, personal meaning for them (at many exhibitions, the observer has the feeling of being put in the place of a social worker or psychotherapist without receiving any corresponding financial compensation, an effect often parodied in the installations of Ilya Kabakov and, in a different way, in the video work of Tony Oursler).

On the other hand, the critic’s attempts to turn back to the public and offer himself as the defender of its legitimate claims lead to nothing: the old betrayal hasn’t been forgiven. The public still regards the critic as an insider, a PR agent for the art industry. Ironically, the critic wields the least power of anyone in that industry. When a critic writes for a catalogue, it’s arranged and paid for by the same people who are exhibiting the artist he’s reviewing. When he writes for a journal or newspaper, he is covering an exhibition the reader already assumes is worthy of mention. The critic thus has no real chance to write about an artist if the artist isn’t already established; someone else in the art world has already decided that the artist is deserving of a show. One could object that a critic can at least give a negative review. That is certainly true—but it makes no difference. Through these decades of artistic revolutions, movements and countermovements, the public in this century has finally come around to a position that a negative review is no different from a positive one. What matters in a review is which artists are mentioned where and how long they are discussed. Everything else is everything else.

As a reaction to this situation, a bitter, disappointed, nihilistic tone pervades the art criticism of today, which clearly ruins its style. This is a shame, because the art system is still not such a bad place for a writer. It’s true that most of these texts don’t get read—but for this very reason one can, in principle, write whatever one wants. Under the pretext of opening up the different contexts of a work of art, the most diverse theories, intellectual takes, rhetorical strategies, stylistic props, scholarly knowledge, personal stories, and examples from all walks of life can be combined in the same text at will—in a way not possible in the two other areas open to writers in our culture, the academy and the mass media. Almost nowhere else does the pure textuality of the text show itself so clearly as in art criticism. The art system protects the writer as much from the demand that he convey some kind of “knowledge” to the masses of students as it does from the competition for readers among those covering the O. J. Simpson trial. The public within the art world is relatively small; the pressure of a broad public forum is missing. Therefore, the text need not necessarily meet with the concurrence of this public. Of course, fashion does emerge as a consideration—sometimes one should sense authenticity in an artwork, at other times perceive that there is no authenticity, sometimes emphasize political relevance, at other times slip into private obsessions—but not a strict one. There are always those who don’t like the prevailing fashion because they liked an earlier one, because they’re hoping for the next, or both.

But above all, the art critic cannot err. Of course, the critic comes under repeated accusation of having misjudged or misinterpreted a particular art form. But this reproach is unfounded. A biologist can err, for instance, if he describes an alligator as being other than an alligator is, because alligators don’t read critical texts and therefore their behavior is not influenced by them. The artist, in contrast, can adapt his work to the judgment and theoretical approach of the critic. When a gap arises between the work of the artist and the judgment of the critic, one cannot necessarily say that the critic misjudged the artist. Maybe the artist misread the critic? But that’s not so bad, either: the next artist might read him better. It would be false to think somehow that Baudelaire overrated Constantin Guys, or Greenberg Jules Olitski, because the theoretical excess the two produced has its own value and can stimulate other artists.

It’s also not that important which artworks the art critic uses to illustrate his theoretically generated differences. The difference itself is important—and it doesn’t appear in the works but in their use, including their interpretation—even if various images seem suited to the purposes of the critic. There is no dearth of useful illustrations, because we’re observing a tremendous overproduction of images today. (Artists have increasingly recognized this—and begun to write themselves. The production of images serves them more as a cover than as an actual goal.) The relationship between image and text has changed. Before it seemed important to provide a good commentary for a work. Today it seems important to provide a good illustration for a text, which demonstrates that the image with commentary no longer interests us as much as the illustrated text. The art critic’s betrayal of the criteria of public taste turned him into an artist. In the process, any claim to a metalevel of judgment was lost. Yet art criticism has long since become an art in its own right; with language as its medium and the broad base of images available, it moves as autocratically as has become the custom in art, cinema, or design. Thus a gradual erasure of the line between artist and art critic completes itself, while the traditional distinction between artist and curator, and critic and curator, tends toward disappearance. Only the new, artificial lines in cultural politics are important, those that are drawn in each individual case, with intention and strategy.