Художественный журнал
digest 2005 – 2007

Boris Kagarlitsky: "A Meeting of Two Degenerates..."

Boris Kagarlitsky
Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarsky. Vermeer's Drapes. Oil on canvas. 2006
Viktor Misiano (VM): Recently, the consolidation of power in Russia has prompted attempts to formulate something that comes close to a new official culture. To be more precise, local cultural production has become a staging ground for projects from which the state is then supposed to choose or compile some conglomerate suitable to its representative needs...

Boris Kagarlitsky (BK): ... and this is why state funding is used to produce so many different things, ranging from blockbusters like "Night Watch" and "Ninth Platoon," via Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art to new directions in architecture... Yet at the same time, paradoxically, the state's most ambitious project is the reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater. On the one hand, the state is not building anything new. But on the other hand, the entire idea that one could take something old and invest huge amounts of money into its reconstruction in order to claim it seems to be a programmatic conceptual statement. The reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater as an integral object is a prototype for what state art might be in seven or eight years. This is how the state would like to see itself in art, and how it sees art in itself, to paraphrase Stanislavski. This also concerns what will be shown there, how it will be shown, what this will look like, and how it will be presented...

There is an obvious way of explaining all of this. First of all, when a bureaucracy begins to make art, this art is derivative at best. Second, since big budgets are involved, the results have to be grand, imposing, fundamental, and serious. You need lots of gold leaf, marble, ornaments, vignettes and buckets of expensive paint... That way, it will be clear just how much money was spent, and this time, not in vain. It doesn't matter that the real materials might have been stolen and replaced with surrogates that cost far less. The main thing is to make it obvious that a great deal of work and money were invested.

There is another aspect that has nothing to do with bureaucracy. In Russia and elsewhere, the slogan of modernization clearly heralds a broad reactionary trend. Yet strangely, today's reaction speaks the language of modernization, using a vocabulary that originally belonged to left liberalism or the left proper. It employs notions like "progress," "reform," "transformation," "renewal," or "change." The last twenty years have seen a dramatic takeover of this vocabulary, which now utilized by forces that traditionally occupied exactly the opposite position. At the same time, there is a clear and conscious identification with a project of social revanchism, as state and society abandon all the 20th century's accomplishments in favor of a return to the past. But for a world that experienced the 20th century to buy into the idea of a return to the 19th century, one has to sell it a 20th century language. Thus, people typically speak of modernization, and proceed to sweep aside all other ideas, slogans, and even structures that served as the basis for modernization in the first place.

Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarsky. In a Chair. Oil on canvas. 2006
The most obvious result is that official culture is programmatically insincere, in terms both its aesthetics and its politics. One can be evil but honest. One can say horrible things, but this can also be attractive in a way. A barbarian can be evoke sympathy. But a deceitful bureaucrat cannot. So there is a fundamental disingenuity at any official project's base.

There is also another, second aspect. The current project for a new official culture is deeply reactionary in a cultural sense because it opposes innovation. This leads to a very interesting state of affairs. On the one hand, you have a host of new technologies, especially in the field of reproduction. But on the other hand, there is no originality whatsoever; projects are either derivative or suffer under a fundamental lack of content. You can see this problem in art, politics, advertising, whatever you like... The orientation toward technical progress and novelty in the fields of transportation, communications etc. is actually quite characteristic of reactionary times. It seems that these improvements will solve all problems, because it would seem that art, culture, intellectual life, and the overall social structure already has everything it needs. All that remains to be done is to optimize the structure, improving and mending what is already there instead of making something truly new. It is precisely this kind of conservative modernization that the Putin project has as its aim...

Finally, we could try to talk about a more global aspect, climbing up onto a world-systemic level, so to speak. It is obvious that capitalism is in a state of crisis: there are many signs, and not only the war in Iraq. This may not just be another of the world system's endless crises, but a sign for capitalism's decline as such. That is, capitalism has entered a unique phase of disintegration unknown to its predecessors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when capitalism itself was actually still on the rise. However, this does not necessarily mean that we are on the brink of a revolution that will establish some kind of new society. Maybe we are, and maybe we're not. It's too early to tell.

Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarsky. Name day, 1st part. Dyptich. Oil on canvas. 2006
This gives rise to extremely gloomy thoughts. How can one define a society in a state of disintegration but incapable of revolution?! It reminds you of the Roman Empire at the time of its decline: on the one hand, society has been subsumed by a process of globalization, and, on the other hand, the distinctive feature of this process is a descent into barbarism on a massive scale. The desire for luxury and decorativeness actually bear witness to the ascendancy of barbaric taste... Disintegration does not take place because funding or technology are sparse. Quite on the contrary: it is backed by abundant resources. What it lacks is a positive dynamic and inner drive; this is why it favors elementary decorativeness as its means of expression.

VM: Your diagnosis of today's taste is very precise. Barbaric decorativeness really is a central stylistic trait of all varieties of contemporary art, but now, it has also developed the pretense of becoming the official art of Putin's Russia. Heavy materials are back in style. There is lots of bronze and gold plating. Art is becoming conspicuously labor-intensive and hand-made, overloaded with images, and full of redundant plasticity. That's what we call glamour. I think you are also right when you talk about the derivativeness of the images themselves. Only I would add that today, the remake does not necessarily have to be historical, but it can be global as well. What I mean is that many aesthetic product are not just derived from the art of earlier epochs, but also reproduce other contemporary visual products like clips, advertising, video-grams, etc.

BK: Remakes don't necessarily have to be historical. Their position does not have to be at a chronological distance from the original; this distance could be geographical as well. The remake doesn't need to have its object in the past. The remake could be a foreign thing, an American thing, a global thing...

Another moment is very important. In the 1920s-1930s, art was informed by the context of political propaganda, often rigid and aggressive to the point of brutality. This context was a unified whole for art, no matter whether it was politicized or not. In the 1950s-1960s, the total context of propaganda was replaced by advertising, especially in Western Europe and America: as advertising became ubiquitous, it too reached the point of totality. You can accept such total contexts wholeheartedly and conform, or you can protest or run away. But no matter what you do, they will always determine the flow of culture as a whole. Today, we are facing a deluge of "pop." We all know what "pop" is without needing to define it. And this affects the logic of the remake.

Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarsky. Name day, 2nd part. Dyptich. Oil on canvas. 2006
On the one hand, our culture still relies upon the classics, on tradition, and, if you like, historicity. But on the other hand, pop imposes a certain norm of what "the people will eat" onto this tradition. The classics are turned into pop. Sometimes, this combination can be quite catastrophic. Take, for example, the new Russian TV mini-series of Dostoevsky's "Idiot." The problem is not the quality of the classic novel's primetime adaptation. The worst thing is that it is not meant to replace the book, but to remind us of its existence. Actually, this is even worse. The mini-series is full of positive pathos. Its stated goal is to re-popularize Dostoevsky's novel, and to "return" Dostoevsky to Russian culture! So how is this to be done? Only by making a mini-series. There is already no other way of creating popular awareness of Dostoevsky than by turning him into a soap opera. When the mini-series was over and the publishing houses began to pump out new editions of "The Idiot" with stills from the film on their covers, this was a small cultural catastrophe's apogee... All of this seems highly symptomatic: something important has been irreversibly lost. I mean that it is no longer possible to return to the context of classical culture without such distortions of meaning. The remake of classical culture is a zombie that shows that everything is already dead. And this, in a sense, is even more tragic than if people didn't read the classics at all. Many teenagers have not read Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita" at all. Even if they have, they have read him very differently from how our generation read him. Because they are bound to judge the novel based on its mini-series adaptation's special effects...

VM: The poetics of special effects are just as important as the remake in mainstream contemporary culture. One can see this quite clearly in the films you mentioned before, "Night Watch" and its sequel "Day Watch." Power seems to prefer such poetics precisely because technological spectacles help it to show just how much it partakes of modernity. Special effects are fireworks that confirm the rhetoric of modernization – "progress," "reform," "transformation," "renewal," and "change" – that you spoke about before.

BK: Even more, technological complexity begins to stand in as proof of just how serious an artwork really is. But again, this is not the complexity of the baroque, whose redundancies were totally justifiable, its figures full of energy that breaks out in a whirlwind of passion. But at the same time, everything still adheres to geometric proportions and laws: somehow, baroque complexity is both possible and impossible all at once. An important aspect of special effects, on the contrary, is that they show something that is obviously impossible, which is something the audience always knows...

VM: What is the place of culture and art in that hyperurbanized, hyperdesigned, hypermodern environment that seems to be the ideal of today's ruling class? In the Soviet epoch, which identified with the tradition of the Enlightenment, art was a form of knowledge and had a clear educational function. In the 20th century, innovation became a hallmark of contemporary art as it did for fundamental scientific research. At least, this is what happened in Western society. And now? As of yet, we seem incapable of imagining any function for these fields other than the special-interest section of the leisure industry...

BK: There is one paradox that makes post-Soviet space unique: it is the meeting place of two disintegrating worlds. On the one hand, the current neo-Russian order rests upon the continued devolution of Soviet culture. Though it could be defined as a new regime, it is also really an epilogue to the Soviet system's collapse. We continue to inhabit the old infrastructure: old roads, old factories, an old educational system, universities operated by old instructors – this is what we have. A new system has yet to emerge, and the old system is in its final stage of disintegration. The political economy of Russia today is that of maggots trying to "organize" some kind of active organism for themselves in the corpse they inhabit. We are not speaking of ants capable of building, but of maggots: all they can do is continue consuming a body that is rapidly falling apart.

Yet on the other hand, contemporary capitalism is understood as a recipe for how to salvage or renew this disintegrating structure. But capitalism is also undergoing a disintegration of its own. So in that sense, the post-Soviet situation can be conceptualized as a meeting of two degenerates, two systems devolving in very different ways. These leads to very strange paradoxes when one system's symptoms of degeneration are misunderstood as forms of renewal or salvation, as paradigms of vitality, dynamism, life, and modernity. So there is always also an element of childish joy, which again, is a telltale sign of barbarism...

Anyway, let's get back to the idea of art as a form of knowledge. This classical Hegelian, Marxist pathos originally comes from the Enlightenment, which gained a firm aesthetic foothold in the 18th century, when art becomes one way of attaining knowledge on being. But this form of knowledge is very specific, since art allows you to know things that cannot be known rationally. In this sense, art is very important for the classical European intellectual project. Since antiquity, one of this project's main strengths and weaknesses has been the tendency to separate the mystical-intuitive-religious element from rational science, scholarship, and ascertainable knowledge. On the one hand, this is a great breakthrough that provides the possibility for a great many scientific discoveries and inventions. But on the other hand, something important is inevitably lost. This is why art has always inhabited a place next to science in the European project, serving as an extremely important counterpoint. Romanticism, for example, can be understood as a certain kind of emotional-cultural compensation for bourgeois rationalism. In the 20th century, a century of dizzying technological and industrial growth, this entire problematic seemed more than relevant.

Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarsky. On the Easel. Oil on canvas. 2006
But now, there has been a dangerous reversal: we can clearly see that art is losing its connection to knowledge at large, finding itself unable to play the role of a counterpoint to science. Instead, it becomes a trifle or plaything to be enjoyed in leisure time. This leads to the loss of aesthetic meaning, because aesthetic meaning cannot exist beyond cultural content. Once the content of art begins to disappear, the fundamental difference between applied art and high art in its traditional European sense also begins to vanish. There are no more criteria to differentiate art from non-art. As the boundary between art and design becomes increasingly transparent, some artists see their aim in opposing their work to the world of design and the aestheticization of post-industrial everyday life through the intentional meaninglessness of the artistic object or act... However, when art becomes intentionally meaningless, it becomes incapable gaining any new meaning. This does not prevent its sale (everything can be bought and sold). But an important constructive pathos has been lost...

VM: You've already appealed to classical culture several times. This is highly symptomatic! The fact that the state is placing its bets on glamour and pop makes it necessary to redefine the strategy of resistance. It seems that resistance to contemporary culture no longer corresponds to its countercultural historical archetype. The counterculture of the 1970s, after all, was "against culture" in proportion to power's appropriation of culture as such. Today, resistance in opposition to official taste needs to reconstruct the idea of culture in its high sense, as the idea of the value of art's intellectual component.

BK: I would say that power is omnivorous. It eats up whatever it can. It would be untrue, for example, to say that the state appropriates kitsch but throws the opera overboard. This is also a symptom for a loss of criteria. "Anything you catch is fish": a shoe, a soup can, an octopus; it turns out that everything belongs to one category; everything is thrown into one pot. No matter what you put into the soup, it turns out as kitsch anyway.

VM: And still the only form of resistance accessible today seems to lie in attempts at creating what we have defined as "zones of autonomy" and "zones of solidarity" in a recent issue of Moscow Art Magazine. By these, I mean social networks that realize attempts at maintaining genuine dialogues focused on gaining new knowledge under laboratory conditions and in intimate forms, as an alternative to the corrupted channels of mass communication and distribution.

BK: The more I encounter the milieu of leftwing artists – is there really such a thing as leftwing art; that's another story – or the radical art scene, the more I see a conscious self-ghettoization of sorts. We reject certain things on a systemic level, and we reject the social order of the establishment. This, basically, is already enough. We socialize and cement our friendship by rejecting certain norms and gaining pleasure from artistic statements and creative acts whose value rests upon the degree to which we form a unified milieu that rejects society at large.

The only problem is that there is still such a thing as a general public. When you create your own segmented, ghettoized audience, it can be very dangerous... Radical culture develops its own criteria for success or defeat, which determine in how far something is good or bad, shallow or deep. But these criteria have nothing to do with the lives of millions of people who do not consume that kind of culture. So what you get, basically, is a form of cultural racism that leaves all the others to their fate at the hands of official culture and kitsch. We let the consumer be a consumer, resigning ourselves to the fact that he is a consumer. The classical project of resistance assumed that one could turn the consumer into a citizen, a transformation in which art would play an important role.

Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarsky. Portrait. Oil on canvas. 2006
VM: Then again, cultural and artistic resistance in the epoch of modernity rested upon the powerful social movements of its time. Are there any such movements today that help people to break out of the parochialism you describe?

BK: Yes, in fact, there are social movements. They are rather weak, but a new dynamic is already emerging. In Russia, one can speak of a workers movement for the first time since the October revolution, as one can see through an increasing prevalence of strikes and protest actions, if one follows daily digests. A few days ago, I met in Petersburg with Alexei Emanov, a legendary trade union leader who won several strikes in a row. He said that they need someone to decorate a training center for activists that they are in the process of setting up. Why isn't this a job that artists could do? I assure you that radical aesthetics would be ideal here! Very few social activists would go to an exhibition of radical art. So you have to bring the exhibition to them.

In this sense, contemporary radical art is quite different from the art of the avant-garde or radical art in the early 20th century. Though the masses may not have liked the avant-garde, it constantly offered itself to the masses, to the point of imposing. The revolutionary avant-garde did not want interact with connoisseurs and fellow artists, but with society at large. Obviously, some of its representatives were making monumental propaganda, while others were producing far more specialized work for much smaller circles. But in general, avant-garde art was not made for the gallery. In this sense, radical art and contemporary artistic pop have one thing in common, which I think is terrible, namely the destruction of art's broader social purpose. In my view, this is not just a certain relationship to society, but a form of interaction with it, and these are definitely two different things. We are always saying something about how we feel about society, but we make these statements to one another. This can lead to an extremely antagonistic relationship with society at large. In lampooning the bourgeoisie -epaté le bourgeois - the avant-garde wanted to frighten, anger, and unsettle people. But now, no one plans to make fun of the bourgeois. The bourgeois does his thing, while radical artists do theirs, and both sides are pretty much happy. So this really is a problem: isn't this yet another variety of conformism, albeit in a more decent, radical form?

VM: All the more – and this is something the opponents of social engagement through art like to repeat again and again – there are Western grants and social programs that support all types of artistic protest...

BK: ...which are actually a way of containing and managing resistance.

VM: Today, what used to be a relatively homogeneous cultural field has fallen apart into closely knit circles of cultural production and consumption. Isn't this actually the most characteristic aspect of contemporary culture, one we have yet to define?

BK: On the one hand, society is undergoing fragmentation, and not only on the level of culture. Unlike social stratification, fragmentation takes place horizontally, that is, it affects horizontal affinities. The difference to social stratification is that people cannot unite into one class or one social stratum because there is a mass of particulars that makes unity impossible.

The entire social history of the world can be described as a battle of these two tendencies, social integration on the one hand, and fragmentation on the other. If one follows history from antiquity to recent times, one can see that sometimes the tendency toward social fragmentation dominates, while at other times, the integrative tendency is on the rise. Growing and developing through revolution or other kinds of radical reform that require the collective will of a large number of people, societies undergo periods of growth and development in which there is a consolidation of social groups. These groups consolidate against one another. People's behavior changes depending on the group they identify with.

This highlights a key difference in the approaches of the "left" and the "right." The "left" attempts to consolidate social groups, while the "right" typically aims for a maximum of fragmentation. This leads to an authoritarian, manipulative type of controlling people: The more fragmented people are, the harder it becomes for them to interact and work together. This increases the need for rigid external control.

So in principle, the present level of fragmentation is quite natural and has its roots in history. Here it is important to understand which role we should play as intellectuals, artists, political peoples, etc. Which vector should our own efforts pursue? Are we a factor that amplifies this fragmentation? Or do we introduce a factor that counteracts fragmentation by creating some new mechanism for a collective coming-together? Culture can be an extremely powerful consolidating factor, as Antonio Gramsci was clearly able to show. Cultural projects can muster an important effort to counteract fragmentation. But if their aim is to create a unifying cultural context, they take on a great deal personal responsibility. This is why I have more problems with radical art than with its official counterpart, as strange as this may sound. Because official culture speaks for itself (i.e. for power), meaning that it is against consolidation in the first place.

Alexander Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarsky. Official Portrait. 2 parts. Oil on canvas. 2006
VM: If we are indeed pursuing the goal of social consolidation, there is a need to clarify our tactics. Our work in reconstructing values in the public sphere necessitates dialogue with preexisting structures. To which degree can we compromise? Our statements belong to very different spaces, different fragmented subcultures, different channels of communication, different discourses! We will inevitably need to work in the contexts of the state, the more it takes control of art and any other form of representation. There is a high likelihood that our work will be distorted, losing its original meaning...

BK: The success or failure of a given tactic depends on its adequacy to the intended goal. Our problem is not that our tactics are bad; our problem is that we cannot formulate our goals. Without strategic aims, we will not be able to gauge the usefulness of a tactic, and all criteria will slip from our grasp. We can talk about opposition, but it cannot just be opposition alone. It has to be opposition through systemic social consolidation; what seems most important is to keep from turning one's back on society and facing it directly. This is where we can begin to take at least some steps and ask whether they are right or wrong. Otherwise, we cannot criticize anything.

The left assumes that its "leftness" can be a consolidating factor. At the same time, it never quite succeeds in consolidating politically, which, in my opinion, would be impossible, since pluralism is its strength. The real problem is that the left seems incapable of consolidating on the level of language, culture, and aesthetic preference as it did in the 1960s. This also concerns both late 19th century social naturalism and the schools of the avant-garde that existed in parallel: they may have spoken different aesthetic languages, but at the same time, there were common points of reference, providing a cultural framework for their polemic. By now, most of this has been lost. It is important to create contexts that are open to communication and interaction with society at large.

Edited by Polina Zhurakovskaya

Boris Kagarlitsky
Born in 1958 in Moscow. Sociologist and politologist.
Published more than 10 books published in Russia and aboard.
Lives in Moscow.
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