Responsibilities of the Post-Soviet Artist
Yevgeniy Fiks at work
The programmatic and conscientious rejection of responsibility as instrumental in the process of cultural production constitutes perhaps the most characteristic feature of post-Soviet art. In the countries of the former Eastern bloc, a tendency of the 1990s and 2000s has been to deny responsibility operational legitimacy in artistic practice and violently push it out as incompatible with and foreign to the post-Soviet context, eagerly privileging its diametrical opposition – irresponsibility – as the only appropriate and fitting for the contemporary moment.
This rejection of responsibility by an overwhelming majority of post-Soviet cultural practitioners translates into their cynicism and suspicion of activist and other socially-engaged, "leftist" strategies. Thus, a tiny community of post-Soviet Marxist artists and intellectuals (for instance, What Is To Be Done?) who are trying to speak of criticality in the context of the crude post-Soviet capitalism are often subjected to ridicule. Overall I cannot help but read this situation as a byproduct of a condition of post-Soviet dysfunctionality, frustration, and disorientation and a general current confusion of the mapping of the political spectra in the East and West alike.
Speaking of socially-responsible position, the issue at hand is not whether or not commitment is in fact a category of art (according to Jacques Ranciere, for instance, it's not). The real question is rather site-specific: In a situation of cataclysmic transformations in the social field, which have occurred (and are still occurring) in the post-Soviet space, what can replace the operations of commitment and responsibility of a cultural producer? Therefor, the question is more operational in nature: Does the programmatic aesthetics of "post-modern" irresponsibility of the 1990s and early 2000s post-Soviet art remains adequate for addressing the post-Soviet condition today, in 2006? Or better still: Are there traces in the fabric of contemporaneity in the mid-2000s that point to a necessity of a radical shift in self-expectations of the post-Soviet artist toward a position of social commitment and responsibility? My answer is a plain yes.
Are we as post-Soviet artists content with our own passive reaction to arrays of images thrown at us by global capitalism and seeking escape in formalist practices rather than seriously engaging with the post-Soviet social reality on the ground? What can replace today rolling our sleeves and getting into a lengthy, messy, and perhaps ungrateful direct interaction with some concrete manifestations of a thing called "post-Soviet"?
Yevgeniy Fiks. Communist Party USA. Adbul. Oil on canvas. 2005
The social reality in the post-Soviet space has in recent years become increasingly crystallized and formed, both because of a relative economic and political stabilization and trivial legitimizing effect of time passed. The turbulence of the 1990s and early 2000s has been replaced by a sense of stagnation, routine, and normality. The politics of the post-Soviet condition has become increasingly a politics of everydayness, which ironically enough, is having a depoliticizing effect on artistic production across the board.
The current state of post-Soviet art necessitates of a tactics of social engagement that privileges responsibility as formative condition for artistic production. The type of responsibility of the post-Soviet artist I'm advocating is grounded neither in moralization nor political correctness. I hope that responsibility and commitment will manifest themselves not as forced on the artist from above and aiming at control and limitation, but rather as a grass roots occurrences where exercise of responsibility becomes deeply embedded in the fabric of artistic practice itself, and not imposed by the government, society, professional community, or political affiliation.
Among crucial responsibilities of the post-Soviet artist first and foremost is a responsibility for the post-Soviet language. We live at a peculiar time when the terms "postcommunist", "post-socialist", and "post-Soviet" have become self-referential, divorced from their signified, and depoliticized. Today, these terms no longer connote endless possibilities as they did in 1989. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, they have emancipated themselves from the original "communist", "socialist", and "Soviet" and simply become more sexy names for the decades "1990s" and "2000s". Hopefulness that had been imbedded in these terms until the early 1990s has evaporated and "postcommunist", "post-socialist", and "post-Soviet" have become terms of stagnancy and the new routine. Ironically enough, the vocabulary of the post-Soviet has become a matter of the late-capitalist calendar. The language of the post-Soviet has gotten subsumed by that of the late capitalism.
Yevgeniy Fiks. Communist Party USA. Dan. Oil on canvas. 2005
The post-Soviet artist must inject the terms "postcommunist", "post-socialist", and "post-Soviet" with a new criticality. We must not forget that these terms are still open to negotiation and that what is happing right now on the ground in the former Eastern bloc is not necessarily what these terms were destined to mean/to be linguistic containers of. The post-Soviet artist must reclaim the vocabulary of the post-Soviet and to give the terms "postcommunist", "post-Socialist", and "post-Soviet" their earlier uncertainty as terms of endless possibilities. The only thing that is certain about "post-Soviet", "postcommunist," and "post-Socialist" is that they designate a time AFTER the big narrative of really existing Socialism in Eastern bloc. A change of direction of the current post-Soviet is not out of question and the present-day post-Soviet is not the only possible post-Soviet. This particular post-Soviet that we are currently experiencing is only one possibility among many.
The assumption of responsibility for the language of the post-Soviet and reclaiming its vocabulary should start with an operation of negation – a refusal to use "postcommunist", "post-socialist", and "post-Soviet" in the discourse of late-capitalism. Instead, we should employ such terms as a "time of interruption of socialism", "time of regression", "time of betrayal of progress", "time of crude retro-capitalism", or simply the "1990s and 2000s."
Among urgent responsibilities of the post-Soviet artist is a responsibility for her own present-day post-Soviet context, a responsibility that she cannot pass neither to the government, capitalism, nor the West. The post-Soviet artist must recognize the present as a "real time" that requires critique, reformulation, and change. The post-Soviet reality on the ground should not be viewed passively but rather as a site of active intervention. The post-Soviet subject is in a historically privileged position having lived through and experienced both crude socialism of the Soviet era and today's (post-Soviet) crude capitalism. This experience has put her in a unique position from which she can rightfully analyze both the post-Soviet present and Soviet history indiscriminately.
Yevgeniy Fiks. Communist Party USA. Esther. Oil on canvas. 2005
Being responsible means being proactive. The acceptance of responsibility on the part of the post-Soviet artist for her own context will inevitably lead her to active engagement with the social field, away from escapism and unsubstantiated hopes in the autonomy of art. We must get our hands dirty and engage with our context directly, recognizing its capacity to change as well as our own agency within it. No matter how integrated the post-Soviet cultural producer might become in the global context, there cannot be a sustainable artistic discourse in the post-Soviet space in the void of independent local institutions, publications, and most importantly, art schools. The alliances with the government or private sector can never replace grass-root initiatives, self-organizing, and independent platforms.
The post-Soviet artist must reclaim the construction "second world", which in recent years have disappeared as a designation of an alternative to worlds "first" and "third". The discourse of the "second world" must be revived and injected with a new meaning. Today, however, the "second world" must reemerge as a non-geographic construction as it could no longer be linked to a particular geographical space (countries of the former Eastern bloc). In 2006, the term "second world" should be employed as a linguistic container for multiple alternative forms of government, political margins, contested identities, in the East, West, and elsewhere. Modern-day "second world" must be envisioned as an "imagined community", a virtual think tank of the multitude.
Yevgeniy Fiks. Historical Leaders of CPUSA
However, there still a critical reserve of agency remains in the old, historical use of the term "second world" (as a designation of the countries of really existing Socialism of Eastern bloc). This old, historical "second world" is not as nonexistent today as it might appear on first glance. In the former Eastern bloc today there are still pockets of socialism, both as result of nostalgic governmental policies and most importantly as "socialist ruins", especially in provincial cities and towns which are not so much yet affected by capitalist attitudes and practice. This still quite real and physical yet fragmented "second world" still exists in the geographical space of the former Soviet bloc and has an important role to play today in the formation of the "second world" of a new kind. The remnants of the physical, historical "second world" and the virtual post-Soviet "imagined comminutes" should be envisioned as one political body, where the immaterial coexists with the tangible.
The post-Soviet artist must assume responsibility for the Soviet history. An overwhelming sense of denial of Soviet history as a way of dealing with the (post) Soviet trauma is perhaps one of the most striking symptoms of the post-Soviet condition. While the pre-Revolutionary history is being discussed at length and with much interest, the Soviet history is almost totally repressed. As the last ten years have shown, however, this repression and denial have not served the post-Soviet subject well. Reclaiming and activist engagement with Soviet history can be a much more effective way of dealing with the (post) Soviet trauma. In no way, however, am I suggesting that the post-Soviet artist should have a rosy nostalgic view of Soviet times and be affirmative of the excesses of that period. The post-Soviet artist should also be careful to avoid exploitation and commodification of the Soviet past. I'm advocating quite the opposite – a critical nostalgia, where work of memory becomes a tool for exposing excesses of both the past and present indiscriminately.
Taking responsibility for one's history means regaining critical agency toward/within that history. Soviet history should be viewed as much a site of intervention as the post-Soviet present on the ground. Interventionist tactics normally applied to physical social reality can and should be effectively applied to history. Approaching history via interventionist tactics means uncovering and exposing repressed histories and scrutinizing the generally accepted "official" historical narratives. Activism within the discipline of history is about formation of a parallel/alternative base of knowledge, which starts with collecting radical historical data.
Yevgeniy Fiks. Communist Party USA. Jarvis. Oil on canvas. 2005. Yevgeniy Fiks. Communist Party USA. Sheltrees. Oil on canvas. 2005. Yevgeniy Fiks. Communist Party USA. Sam. Oil on canvas. 200
The post-Soviet artist must assume responsibility for the West. If Boris Groys is correct in his estimation and the East is in fact the subconscience of the West, then we must assume responsibility for at least a part of West's actions. In particular, the post-Soviet artist must assume responsibility for the political left in the West in the face of her own frustration, disillusionment, and political disorientation. We have no moral right to abandon the Western left now in this post-Soviet period. This responsibility for Western left on the part of the post-Soviet artist must emerge out of her feeling of guilt for betraying the Revolution and giving way first to the corrupt Soviet Socialism and then the crude post-Soviet capitalism.
Even in this particular moment in time when no political commitment seems possible, when the trauma of the impossible Soviet Socialism is still very present, and when cynicism seems the only escape from the ugly post-Soviet reality, the post-Soviet artist must realize that there is still no effective alternative to the leftist critique. As of today, the critique of the crude capitalism in the former Eastern bloc is still only possible from the left. No other position can offer a system as effective for its deconstruction as the left. And the leftist critique should and will remain a tool of choice for a post-Soviet artist of responsibility until new more effective tools are available.
Born in 1972 in Moscow. Artist and critic.
Lives in New York.