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PRINT March 2008

BORIS GROYS

ANTICIPATING THE FUTURE was a declared objective of many modern art movements. But few of them were endowed with the divinatory powers necessary to achieve this goal. Sots art, conversely, never tried to be futuristic—and yet contemporary Russia looks a lot like a Sots art installation. Orthodox priests consecrate a new long-range missile (actually an upgraded Soviet model, decorated with a red star) on national television; Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body lies exposed not far from Armani and Gucci boutiques. The visual world of the Soviet past is amalgamated with that of Western consumer brands, just as it was in the work produced two or three decades ago by the Russian artists grouped under the aegis of Sots.

The movement’s name itself equates Communist propaganda art with the branded goods circulating in Western markets: It is a combination of “socialist realism,” or “sotsrealism,” and Pop art. But this equation was of course more deliberately ironic than sociologically correct. Pop art emerged in the 1960s inside the market economy and operated within a gap between the market for cheap products destined for mass consumption and the more restricted, elitist art market. Pop artists, taking Duchamp’s example a few steps further, found a way to elevate nearly valueless goods to the status of expensive artworks. Of course, this elevation could be seen as a critique of the capitalist economy and/or of the traditional notion of high art. But it was also indubitably a clever marketing strategy. Sots art could not develop such a strategy, because under the Soviet system there was no market—either for consumer products or for art. Goods were produced and distributed according to a centralized plan. The value of ideological signs, including artworks, was defined by the signs’ positioning within the symbolic economy, whose currencies were social recognition and political acceptance. The main goal of Sots art was to reveal the mechanisms and mirror the deep ambiguities of this symbolic economy.

By using banners stating OUR GOAL IS COMMUNISM! and portraits of Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Leonid Brezhnev as mere readymades, Sots artists profaned sacrosanct ideological signs. Such iconography was supposed to be deployed exclusively in the official art of socialist realism, and its use was inscribed in rituals designed to educate the masses, to prepare them for the coming Communism. Divested of their educational function in the unofficial context of Sots art, these iconic images looked strange, surreal, even embarrassing. Imagine an artist in ancient Egypt mounting an exhibition of mummies in his or her private atelier instead of reverently placing them in the pyramids. Or imagine a Byzantine artist holding an open studio to display Christian icons instead of bringing them to a church. These are actions that would have shocked their audiences, registering as parodies, as blasphemies—even if the mummies and icons had been carefully and correctly executed. For Russian authorities, Sots art was a comparable provocation.

And yet this kind of blasphemous use of official ideological signs constituted the true popular culture of late-Soviet civilization. It was a culture composed primarily of jokes of varying degrees of dirtiness that made fun of Soviet rituals, leaders, and slogans. And of course the Soviet elite participated in this culture along with the hoi polloi. In the Brezhnev era of 1964–82, a powerful position in the party hierarchy came to be regarded mainly as a way of getting permission to travel abroad and buy Western goods, including anti-Soviet literature. Actually, efforts to define the difference between “Soviet” and “anti-Soviet” had been more than problematic from the beginning. To be truly Soviet entailed knowing how to be anti-Soviet—even if one chose not to use this knowledge publicly. It is precisely this ambivalence at the core of the Soviet ideological universe that is thematized by Sots art.

During the cold war, the central question was: Are you for or against Communism (or capitalism)? Are you critical or affirmative? But as Mikhail Bakhtin showed, blasphemy—without ceasing to be blasphemy, without losing its critical edge—should be seen as a kind of religious practice. Everybody who participates in a symbolic economy regulating the circulation of a given ideology’s texts and images enters an ideological universe. To be critical of a certain ideology (whether religious or secular), in other words, is to be part of it. By this logic, one’s subjective attitude toward an ideology is of less significance than one’s “objective” participation in the circulation of its signs. This view is rooted in and reflects Marxist tradition, which perceives ideology more as an objective social practice than as a matter of personal conviction. But even more to the point, the objective approach reflects an ambivalence between critique and advertisement that is characteristic of our time. In our media-driven culture, the fact that a certain political attitude or religious belief is publicly mentioned is of greater relevance than whether that mention is positive or negative, affirmative or critical.

That is why Sots art was a provocation for people on both ends of the Soviet political spectrum. The negative official reaction was predictable: Participants in the Sots art movement had positioned themselves from the beginning within the unofficial art scene that developed in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. This art scene, concentrated in Moscow and Leningrad, was tolerated by the authorities, though of course they regarded it as suspicious and potentially anti-Soviet. But Sots art was also a provocation to denizens of the unofficial-art milieu, because Sots artists adulterated the supposedly pure space of independent culture with the vulgar signs of Soviet-ness. The majority of unofficial poets, artists, writers, and intellectuals believed that true protest consisted not in criticizing the Soviet system but in ignoring it. And so the poets cultivated the tradition of high-modernist hermeticism, following the examples of Osip Mandelstam, Rainer Maria Rilke, and T. S. Eliot; the artists created their own painterly worlds in the Impressionist, Surrealist, Suprematist, or Abstract Expressionist traditions; and so on. These independents told one another the same (anti-)Soviet jokes as everybody else in the country, but they preferred to forget them the moment they started their serious artistic work. They saw in Sots art’s use of Soviet symbols an advertisement for the regime, an incursion into the territory of unofficial culture. In a sense, their critique of Sots art was not unlike common critiques of Pop art in the name of high culture. (And, as one might expect, their critique was criticized in turn—by the Sots artists, many of whom also wrote theoretical and polemical texts, and who were not hesitant to characterize their antagonists as elitist and contemptuously dismissive of the real culture of the majority of the Soviet population.)

In the West, too, the Sots strategy was hardly understood—even though Sots art is better known internationally than any other post–World War II Russian art movement. One should not forget that under the conditions of the cold war, Soviet culture remained for a large majority of the Western public an unknown phenomenon. Paradoxically enough, the reason for that lies in the fact that Communism was regarded in the West as something that was already very well known. The ’70s and ’80s, after all, were a time of intense interest in the Other, and this interest gave rise to a flourishing theoretical discourse. Every kind of cultural identity was investigated and the signs of its “difference” extensively discussed. The only exception was (and still is) Soviet culture, because it was (and is) not seen as a culture but simply as a manifestation of a misunderstood and badly applied Western Marxism. Looking at the Soviet Union, Western intellectuals became convinced that their interpretations of Marxism were superior to the Russians’. And on the basis of this insight, they came to view Soviet culture as nothing but a historical mistake, a perverted utopia based on an interpretation of Marxism that was all wrong (dogmatic, primitive, etc.). As far as they were concerned, any further investigation was useless. One could perhaps be interested in Russian culture (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy) but not in Soviet culture. On the Western political spectrum’s rightward extreme, the Communist regime was seen purely as a machine of repression, and only those cultural activities that were censored by the Soviet powers were deemed worthy of attention. On the left, there was interest only in the question of how to perpetuate the promise of a better life, of utopia, after this promise had been so cruelly parodied and so deeply compromised by Soviet reality. Everybody in the West, that is, was interested only in his or her relationship to, and interpretation of, Communist ideology. Almost nobody was interested in the culture of Soviet Communism itself.

But however cruel or compromised the Soviet system may have been, the fact is that many generations of Russians and non-Russians spent their whole lives, or most of their lives, inside it. Beyond being an embodiment of a certain reading of Marxism, Soviet culture was an everyday experience for millions of people throughout most of the twentieth century. Citizens of the USSR participated in the festivities of the First of May or the annual commemoration of the October Revolution the way that citizens of Western countries participate in Christmas or Easter—which is to say, without necessarily being Communist or Christian believers. Any attempt to erase the Soviet dimension of Russian identity would be a reactionary and futile effort to demodernize Russia—to say nothing of the fact that it would be an impossible task. The naive iconoclasm of the ’90s that saw the razing of Communist monuments throughout Eastern Europe and Russia failed, after all: These were pseudopopular uprisings, which, while they may have physically destroyed Communist art, occurred only with the de facto consent of the party’s Central Committee under Mikhail Gorbachev. Contemporary post-Soviet culture is an effect of the profanation and secularization of the Communist past—not of its disappearance. And it is precisely this secularization that was anticipated and effectuated, long before it became a reality, by Sots art.

Present generations of Russians who grew up under the Soviet system and still have memories of everyday Soviet culture are glad to discover this art and to identify themselves with its attitudes and sensibilities. This is understandable, but it means, ironically, that a movement that seemed critical of Soviet culture has become the only form in which that culture has survived the collapse of the ideology subtending it. Today, many new Russian art collectors are eager to buy Sots art, and many younger artists work in its tradition. Yet the history of Sots art remains virtually unknown. In the Soviet period, public exhibitions of it were impossible. And so the exhibition “Sots Art”—curated by Andrei Erofeev and shown at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in the spring of 2007 and at Paris’s Maison Rouge last winter—was the first representative exhibition in Russia that was specifically dedicated to Sots art and accessible to the general public. Unquestionably, the show’s organizers, especially Erofeev, must be thanked for realizing this difficult and overdue project.

At the same time, however, it has to be said that the exhibition interpreted the term “Sots art” very broadly. The range of exhibited artists and artworks exceeded by far the body of work that is traditionally associated with the moniker. In the most narrow and at the same time most historically precise sense, the term “Sots art” should be applied to a small group of Russian artists who emigrated from Moscow to New York in the ’70s—Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who are rightly considered to be the inventors and main representatives of this art movement, Alexander Kosolapov, and Leonid Sokov (works by all of these artists were included in the first exhibition of Sots art, shown in 1986 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and curated by Margarita Tupitsyn)—and also to some artists who remained in Moscow, such as Boris Orlov and Rostislav Lebedev. To a certain extent the term can also be applied to Grisha Bruskin, who later emigrated from Moscow to New York. This group of artists made frequent use of easily recognizable Soviet ideological icons in their artistic practices: red banners, Communist slogans, portraits of Soviet leaders like Lenin or Stalin. Thus Komar & Melamid signed official Soviet slogans with their own names, or painted their double self-portrait in a style typical of double portraits of Lenin and Stalin. This last was a blasphemy as such, but additionally so because of the artists’ resemblance to Stalin and Trotsky—an ideologically impossible pairing. Or consider Kosolapov, who painted the slogan COCA-COLA: IT’S THE REAL THING and signed it LENIN. In these cases the sacral images and names of Soviet ideology are profaned by their use in either a private or commercial context.

This group was fully represented in the recent exhibition. So were artists who in Russia are usually associated with Moscow Conceptual art because they were especially concerned with the relationship between artwork and discourse, image and (ideological) text: e.g., Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Dmitri Prigov, and the Collective Actions group. But many works by these and other artists from the so-called Moscow Conceptualist Circle (especially those works dating from the ’70s and ’80s, before a number of these artists went to the West) reflected the ideological texture of Soviet everyday life, and so might be considered a version of Sots art. In this respect, it is thoroughly legitimate that their works were included in the exhibition. It is also understandable that a number of original works were represented by copies produced later by the same artists for the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection. Here we are seeing the repercussions of Soviet censorship: Many key works of Sots art went abroad rather early and became inaccessible to Russian viewers.

More controversial was the inclusion of numerous works, dating from shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union up to 2007, made by much younger artists. But I think that this curatorial decision, too, even if questionable from the standpoint of historical correctness, was the right one, because it raises the most important question about the legacy of the movement: Can Sots art as an artistic method survive the end of the Soviet system? Has Sots art developed into an artistic strategy that can be applied not only to the Socialist past but also to the political realities of contemporary, capitalist Russia?

As I’ve said, contemporary Russia looks to a certain extent like a work of Sots art. But sadly, many contemporary works of “post-Sots” art seem to exploit Sots aesthetics in a superficial and redundant manner. In such works, the aestheticized, ideologically and politically neutralized images of the Soviet past become part of a new national folklore. In this form they function as easily salable commodities on the rapidly expanding contemporary Russian art market. The oligarchs love Sots art, and many neo-Sots artists love them back. And while this neo–Sots art is pro-liberal, pro-Western, and antinationalist, it is not really antigovernment. It simply aestheticizes Soviet ideology in a manner that leads to its commercialization. It is adapted to the extremely consumerist attitudes dominating contemporary Russia.

The Sots art legacy has, however, shown itself to be pretty effective when applied to current attempts to replace Communist ideology with the spiritual guidance of the Russian Orthodox Church (which is closely aligned with nationalist sentiments). The highly irreverent, carnivalistic use of Christian imagery is especially characteristic of the contemporary work of one of Sots art’s veterans, Kosolapov—who in 2001, for example, combined an iconic image of Christ and the famous quotation “This is my blood” with a Coca-Cola advertisement. This work, which refers to the earlier Kosolapov work cited above, suggests the continuity between old Soviet and current neo-Orthodox propaganda. The same can be said about some works by younger artists in the “Sots Art” show—for instance, Dmitri Vrubel, who (in collaboration with his wife, Victoria Timofeeva) combines lines taken from the New Testament with images taken from the news, and the Blue Noses group, which produced a series of photographs of scantily clad men taking part in various sexual activities and wearing masks depicting the visages of Bush, Putin, Bin Laden, Milošević, Saddam Hussein, etc.

The inclusion of these and similar works in the “Sots Art” art show aroused the fierce ire of radical Orthodox Christian groups. Such groups have made a habit in recent years of persecuting artists for their use of Christian symbols and explicit sexual imagery. In this case, the result was the partial censorship of the exhibition by Russian authorities, who often become oversensitive where the Russian Orthodox Church is concerned, and who prevented nineteen of the exhibition’s works from traveling to Paris. As this fraught history suggests, Sots art remains virulent—though now, perhaps, it should be known as Orth(odox) art.

Boris Groys is professor of philosophy and art theory at the Academy for Design, Karlsruhe, Germany, and global professor at New York University.