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CRITICAL REFLECTIONS

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

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