PRINT December 2005

Viktor Misiano

IN 2005, THE RUSSIAN ART SCENE was marked by encounters with official politics, money, and the media, which taken together constituted a confrontation primarily with power. The year began with the first Moscow Biennale and ended with “Russia!” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Putin regime, with its mania for absolute control, finally accepted art as an essential element in its cultural and ideological program. This year capital, too, collided with art’s commercial spaces: In the fall, the galleries that were created at the dawn of the economic reforms and survived the difficult ’90s began their second season in league with new and ambitious venues, including Stella Art, Ru Art, and Gary Tatintsian, among others. In addition, a group of galleries, taking the name of Art Strelka (or “art point”), set up shop in a former factory on the Moscow River by the walls of the Kremlin. Suddenly art, which post-Soviet society has looked on with some suspicion and even disgust, became fashionable, setting the stage for its encounter with the mass media. Stability emerged after an unfortunate transition period, and the depression of those on the margins turned to euphoria.

However, the Russian state has its own traditions, and, having arrived at the shores of art, it immediately provoked a battle for control. Reviving practices from the Stalinist era, curators and artists ran to the Ministry of Culture with information on each other, allowing state bureaucrats to operate in the art world through chicanery and manipulation, methods that have served them well in their dealings with businessmen. This had the noticeable effect of diminishing the art world’s newfound optimism, a situation compounded by the fact that state initiatives in the artistic sphere (as in others) were far from ideal. Setting aside the example of the Moscow Biennale, which aroused such disappointment that it seemed almost as if the collective depression from the past had returned (my personal involvement in the event’s early stages prevents me from elaborating further), artists representing Russia at the Venice Biennale came to publicly lament the failure of their project, regretting that they had heeded the curator-bureaucrats’ demands for empty spectacle. And finally, after the Guggenheim show was labeled by experts as pure propaganda, it became apparent that “Russia!” would more appropriately be followed by a question mark.

In the midst of all this, Alexander Sokolov, the new minister of culture and mass communications, publicly accused his subordinates of financial abuses, a trend that recent sociological findings would appear to confirm——in two years Russia witnessed a tenfold increase in corruption. This really wasn’t news to anyone in the art world: The ministerial budget for the Moscow Biennale was announced at the press conference as $2 million, but it was hard to imagine the event costing more than $300,000 to $400,000. And so, the chief reference point of the state was affirmed to be not ideology, as in Soviet times, but cash——not only that which the state dispenses, but that which it withholds and seizes. Accordingly, state museums, even the most respectable like the State Tretyakov Gallery, established the practice of selling artists (or their dealers) the rights to mount their own personal exhibitions.

Alongside money, the mass media exists as the fundamental tool for bureaucrats. Taking control of culture, they behave as pure managers or sponsors who are interested not in the content or illuminating ideas of cultural initiatives, but in their ability to function as conduits of information. According to this logic, they direct their attention only toward ephemeral actions that allow for the manipulation of large flows of capital and that generate plump press dossiers. Thus, the Russian authorities strive to make the world of art a fact of state politics, contrary to the traditions of Anglo-Saxon countries and divergent from the European practice of leaving art to its own experts and autonomous initiatives. The authorities are suspicious of the latter situation, regarding it as a breeding ground for independent and critical thinking.

But, truth be told, all this does not seem to be jarring to a certain moral majority. To this day, Russian viewers are bewitched by the culture of the spectacle, and they interpret any alternative phenomenon as a recurrence of the moralism of Soviet times. After the economic nightmare of the ’90s, the relative stabilization (fed by petro-dollars, not by a natural rise in the economy) has induced a feckless desire for “entertainment.” Moreover, for all the liberal reforms, a rather unsubtle ideology has been imposed by the authorities: the market. The only alternative to barracklike socialism, it is part and parcel with democracy, and, therefore, engaging in commerce is seen as a moral stance for the progressive artist and intellectual. Leading up to 2005, the first appearance of an art market was accompanied by the emergence of a commercial mainstream directed at a new connoisseur (and buyer), whose artistic temperament was molded by the Soviet era’s canonical socialist realism and by commercial advertising, which has become commonplace in recent years. This type of artistic language, premised entirely on pure spectacle to the exclusion of analytical or critical intentions, does away with inner complexity and antagonism and makes a hard sell for what could be called “imitation” contemporary art. It would thus seem perfectly fitting for a culture in which authentic political debate and criticism are overlooked, a culture that the Russian political scientist Dimitry Furman calls an “imitation democracy.”

Nevertheless, some antagonisms are beginning to take shape, and it is growing more and more difficult to cover them up. Players in the art market are beginning to understand the importance of doing away with the ubiquitous conflicts of interest and interested parties. And it is not simply that they no longer want to pay bureaucrats for the right to organize noncommercial exhibitions, a practice which obliterates any hope for vital critical commentary. They are also beginning to realize that the everyday mass media is somewhat fickle and that there can never be blind trust in ephemeral artistic events and spectacular exhibitions, since only fixed and uncorrupt institutions are capable of establishing stable reputations. Therefore, despite the current market euphoria, the enduring cachet of local star artists does not appear to be on the rise.

Appropriately enough, throughout the course of 2005, the problems of resistance (to the authorities, money, and the media) came to the fore in discussions in the art world. If in the ’90s (when art and politics were tangled in the general chaos) a critical position was treated as an affected posture, then today it has true meaning. At the risk of oversimplification, this developing discourse was defined by the collision of two main positions. The first was put forth by proponents of direct political activism, such as the artists and intellectuals of the group Chto delat’? (or “What is to be done?”), who have propagandized the ideas of the Western Left in the pages of their eponymous publication. The second was put forth by proponents of the autonomy of art, in particular the artists Anatoly Osmolovsky and Dmitry Gutov, who pay attention to the fact that a critical stance in art risks making a mockery of itself if it is deprived of complexity and inner antagonism. As was the case years ago, kitsch and mass-media propaganda are once again provoking a political reaction in artists and find them withdrawing toward the purity of formalism. In fact, in the 2005 issue of Moscow Art Magazine, Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” will be published in Russian for the first time, along with commentary from advocates from the two opposing camps. This legendary text was written with the experience of Soviet cultural politics particularly in mind. Today, however, it is beginning to be used in Russia as a critique of post-Soviet cultural politics.

Viktor Misiano is a Moscow-based critic and curator. He is founder and editor in chief of Moscow Art Magazine and an editor of Manifesta Journal.