Authorship and the Artwork in the Age of Transgression
I am interested in three things. 1) How was the artwork created in Russia or rather in Moscow during the 1990s? How did "raw" material become a work of art? 2) How was the artwork authorized by the artist? 3) How did people who accidentally found themselves involved in the artistic community declare themselves artists? How did people from the "street" – it was the street that served as the main reserve for the cadres of the art-world during the 1990s – become authors?
Vladislav Mamishev-Monroe. "Tragic Love", photo series. 1993. Courtesy XL-gallery, Moscow
To discuss these questions, we will need a chronology, and I would like to offer my own version. While the previous epoch – Moscow conceptualism in all of its variations – drew itself out until the late 1980s and continues until today, the 1990s were over far before the decade's calendar end; it seems that there is little left of this period, aside from the memories of its participants and accomplices. So why did this epoch prove so transitory? Why did it fail to embody itself? Why did it produce so few tangible artifacts? In the following, I will try to offer my own answer to these questions.
During the 1990s, Moscow art corresponded rather closely to the social and economic processes taking place in the country in those years. It arose together with political reforms that led to the dissolution of the USSR and the establishing of parliamentary democracy of the Western model, as well as economic reforms that denationalized state and collective property. The reformers deliberately produced a small group of extremely wealthy people who were to serve as a positive model for the vast masses of the impoverished population and the emergent though embryonic class of entrepreneurs. In art, the boundary between the previous periods of the Soviet era and the Perestroika and this new epoch can be found in the exhibition "Aesthetic Attempts", organized by Viktor Misiano in September 1991. Actually, Moscow art of the 1990s was born on April 18, 1991, when the group E.T.I. laid down on Red Square to form the word "khui" with their bodies. Anatoly Osmolovsky, a former poet and beginning artist, led the group. Because of this action, Osmolovsky immediately became famous among Moscow's contemporary artists and soon became the leader of the new movement in art.
While E.T.I.'s action on Red Square demonstrated just how effective scandals and public commotions could be, it was, in fact, Oleg Kulik who finally established the scandal as a new strategy. Born in Kiev (Ukraine), Kulik had just emerged from the retreat of a Russian village, where he had been trying to lead the life of a Russian writer-saint, following the advice of Lev Tolstoy. Vladimir Ovcharenko, who was then beginning his career as an entrepreneur, hired Kulik as an "expositioner" for his newly founded Regina Gallery. The position entailed many functions, ranging from curatorship to advice on what to wear.
The most active phase of the 1990s came to a close in the summer/autumn of 1995, when both journalists and the general public stopped attending radical art actions. In late 1995, the Contemporary Art Center gallery on Bolshaya Yakimanka Street was closed, and in 1996, the Segodnya newspaper discontinued a column that had hosted heated discussions on contemporary art in 1996, discussions in which the authors' texts matched the artistic provocations of the time in terms of intensity. During the few years that lay between the action of E.T.I and Alexander Brener's flight from Russia, the general body of state property was divided among a hundred "businesspeople", twenty of whom already formed the basis of the new oligarchy by the middle of the decade. (Born in Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan), Brener is an Israeli Russian-language poet who had entered the Moscow scene as an artist and performed there successfully for quite some time.) As the period of "primary redistribution" and the oligarchy's emergence ended and the new elite began to speculate wildly with the funds stolen from public ownership and the credits supplied by Western countries, the IMF and other international financial organizations, the "Sturm und Drang"-period of Moscow art of the 1990s was also over.
The end of the phase was marked by a collision; in 1996, a group of Moscow artists headed by Viktor Misiano came up against the international system of contemporary art in the person of a Swedish curator and the participants of "Interpol", a Russian-Swedish exhibition held in Stockholm. The entire period that followed, which ended with the financial collapse of 1998, could be understood as an "afterlife" of sorts. This sluggish phase finally ended when the state prosecutor's office began legal proceedings against Avdey Ter-Oganian, a Moscow artist who publicly had slashed orthodox icons. The emergence of a new class of proprietors made the image of the artist-gangster irrelevant, since he was, in fact, the twin of the gangster-businessman, who belonged to the period of predatory privatization and property redistribution. Attempting to forget its criminal past, the new ruling class needed a more respectable image of the artist as soon as possible. "Property is sacred" was the slogan of the day. During this period, Vladimir Putin's star began to rise; he would soon be called upon to achieve the transition from socialism to capitalism, to finalize the redistribution of property among the oligarchs, and to draw up a truce between the oligarchs and the state-apparatus, as well as between the oligarchs themselves. The end of the process was also marked by the fact that what was called aktual'noe iskusstvo, i.e. "contemporary art" had become a thing of the past. The adjective aktual'no in its connotation of "contemporary", "hot", "current", "of topical interest" or "fashionable" was now appropriated by the artists of the 1990s themselves.
In 1995, however, "contemporary art" had already begun its rapid decline. By the middle of the decade, most of the young activists of the 1980s and the Perestroika had already left the art scene. They moved to the spheres fed by the money of the financial boom during the second half of the 1990s, to spheres such as graphic design or advertising.
Nevertheless, let us attempt to identify the principal categories that defined the 1990s. One of the period's key ideas is "sincerity". It is pronouncedly opposed to "distancing oneself" from authorship, a practice cultivated over the previous twenty to thirty years, an epoch that Ilya Kabakov remembers as schizophrenic time. On the one hand, the artist deliberately separated himself from his own works; this was important, for an example, if the KGB interrogated you; it meant that you could always deny involvement in the piece's subject matter. In other words, the content of the artwork – quarreling neighbors in Kabakov's work, for an example – had become a transparent, objective mirror of processes taking place outside the artist and his art. On the other hand, the artist was as close as possible to his colleagues and confederates. It's far easier to "go through life" together; they will always help and console you if something comes up.
According to Moscow conceptualism, the interpersonal ties with the group (i.e. the syntax of the group itself and the syntax inside all the works of conceptual art taken as a single statement) is far more important than how the artist or the conceptualist artwork relates to reality. From this point of view, the conceptualist collective creates a single text, an autistic message that does not address any outer addressee.
Hence, the accented corporate nature of conceptualism. This quality expresses itself in a strict hierarchy, supported by the composition of nomenclative lists and the constant reshuffle and purge of party ranks. Conceptualism epitomizes "artists v zakone" (in law); in Russian criminal society, the "thieves in law" are the elite of criminal world, criminal brotherhood; zakon in Polish is orden (order); to be a thief in law (v zakone) means that you belong to an Orden, a secret order. In other words, the artists of the 1970s belonged to a secret order, even if their manners were academic and outwardly diffident.
In contrast, the artists of the 1990s were not tied to one another by any mutual obligations. Instead of hierarchical relationships among the actual members of the artistic community, instead of eternal authorities, there were ephemeral hierarchies, formed through the never-ending contest of ambitions and competitions, whose structures resembled those formed in teenage gangs. On closer inspection, it became clear that they were actually fighting against - bellum omnium contra omne – the "authorities" (as the Russian mass media called criminal bosses). Every contemporary artist is actually a separate trend in art or at least the wish to create such a trend and to present it together with its own followers, admirers, critics, etc. Thus, the contemporary artist is constantly trying to form some kind of a group. But even groups formed around a successful idea, like Anatoly Osmolovsky's Nezezüdik, could not exist for very long. Because a contemporary artist values external ties more than anything else; the relationships within the community are not important.
While their predecessor were fascinated with archiving their own legacies – the best example of this kind of self-archiving can be found in the Moscow conceptualist Andrei Monastyrsky and his group "Collective Actions" (KD) – the artists of the 1990s never attempted to archive their own artworks. The only notable exception, perhaps, is Kulik, who was constantly publishing catalogues of his works for the entire decade.
The artwork of 1990s is something transitory. It only lives for as long as the rumors of its existence; it dies as soon as the buzz fades from public memory. The artwork of the 1990s is simple and one-dimensional; it lacks subtext; it is superficial and shallow. In contrast, the conceptualist artwork is multiplex; like any schizoid object, it has a certain depth, providing many more opportunities for interpretation, which, in turn, prolong its life expectancy. While the conceptualist artwork is indefinite and poly-semantic, the artwork of the 1990s is medial (i.e. it is no more than a piece of news). If we consider such crucial differences, we can say that the possibilities for interpreting them are very different from one another. As a rule, a conceptualist is as unaware of his object's meaning as is the audience; his work is often made intuitively and its sense eludes the author, while a contemporary artist of the 1990s would nearly always explain what he wanted to say in several sentences. A conceptualist is always a theorist; he permanently speculates on art and tries to interpret it. An artist of the 1990s is a practitioner; all his theoretical opuses are no more than fiction, and his arguments hardly ever concern the problems of art.
Conceptualist strategy was meant to be read slowly; it was meant to achieve success gradually and to retain its hard-won positions for long periods; the strategy of the 1990s, however, was geared toward a rapid career that might turn out to be senseless the next day. If the contemporary artist failed to gain success, he changed careers without hesitation, much like his counterpart, the Russian businessman. His sphere of occupation meant nothing to him in and of itself. Only the result was important. Fast promotion and profitability above all else. Having understood that nothing was left for him in Moscow, Alexander Brener, the most scandalous character on the art scene of the 1990s, left Russia. In this sense, he was much like the heroes of redistribution, who took heel and fled to Germany or Nepal with the money they had stolen...
A conceptualist is always hiding, behind his character's back, among other places, like Dmitry Prigov, a well-known Moscow poet and artist. The artist of the 1990s, however, persistently demonstrates his personal attitude, his sincerity, his figure, his authentic authorial face. But, jumping a few steps ahead, I would like to say that upon closer examination, one can easily see that the artist's sincerity is affected, that his opinions are stilted, and correspond to wide-spread clichés. This is why we will have to use quotation marks with the word sincerity.
The aforementioned Alexander Brener is one of the most vivid examples of "sincerity" and frank opinions. Brener is actually one of the is the most popular artists of the decade. However, as far as art is concerned, sincerity is not a trait of character; instead, it is a certain discourse, an aesthetic quality dictated by the decade. Thus, the rule: everybody who wanted to look sincere had to choose from a small set of clichés, from a list of roles ready-made by Russian and Soviet culture. Otherwise, the artist faced failure; without sincerity, his character would simply remain unnoticed. One of the most obvious methods of being sincere is publishing scandalous details of one's biography. Unfortunately, Brener had no greater number of scandalous biographical details than any average citizen, which is why he constantly had to create them by means of hooligan tricks. Nevertheless, those tricks attracted public attention to the author. It is important for such aesthetics to use direct speech; as Sartre noticed, direct speech looks most evident and dramatic. The favorite artist's method is addressing the audience, the readers directly. Often, this looks like ordinary abuse. Sometimes, it looks like assault and battery.
Every artist of the 1990s had to choose a well-known role, namely one that suggested sincerity, frankness, and personal attitude, in accordance with the Russian cultural tradition. Brener played the role of a poet-rioter, a kind of Rimbaud or Mayakovsky. Other contemporary artists selected different images, either fatal lovers or revolutionary leaders in the style of 1968. After an exhaustive search, Oleg Kulik, for an instance, assumed the role of a human-dog, i.e. a cynic, Diogenes... Some donned the democratic costume of the Marxist philosopher, others, a pastor's habit. It seems that the last noticeable image was the unfortunate role of the blasphemer and iconoclast, which fell to Avdey Ter-Oganyan; accused of stirring ethnic foment, he was forced to flee the country in order to escape prosecution. Since the selection of female roles was not as broad, women-artists usually played very similar roles, becoming libertines, femmes fatales, and whores.
Paradoxically, the contemporary artists of the 1990s made the conceptualists' dream of character come true. However, the characters of the conceptualists were deliberately estranged from their authors. Contemporary artists, on the other hand, donned the masks of their characters in a rather slipshod way, becoming actors. It is interesting that in the more narrow space of the Saint-Petersburg art scene of the 1990s, all roles originated from the so-called Silver Age of Russian symbolism: its modernist figures of decadence included aristocrat, dandy, affected belle, delicate student, or refined intellectual.
It almost goes without saying that in our culture the assumption of all these roles presuppose "authorship". Yet every action, role-gesture, or pattern of behavior, characterized by its own Gestalt, takes place as a result of identification: who performed this or that (transgressive) action? There is no authorship beyond transgression, beyond the violation of unwritten rules or criminal codes, beyond the ensuing investigation, which attempts to establish the criminal's identity. An author or authorship appear when the ordinary routine of everyday action are interrupted with someone's violation of ethical norms or the law.
When an ordinary man crosses the street at a pedestrian crossing, nobody is interested in his identity. It is only in violating traffic rules that he becomes interesting, not only to the police but to the onlookers as well. Authorship is not only established by the police but also by the audience. The author is always a disturber. Routine actions that do not violate the law, on the other hand, have no author: they do not attract audience's attention in any way.
An author is the result of a criminal investigation.
However, not only the "criminals" of the 1990s – Brener and Ter-Oganyan – were transgressive. The same could be said of Dmitry Gutov, a Moscow artist-intellectual. In an epoch dominated totally by what was arguably the most reactionary variant of bourgeois ideology, Gutov dared to declare himself the follower of Mikhail Lifshitz, a Soviet Marxist philosopher.
To dispel any doubts as to the authorization of the characters they had chosen, the artists of the 1990s often light-heartedly acted in ways that flirted with crime or even blatantly broke the law. The condemnation of this or that artist's action-offence, the rumors of its occurrence, admiration for the artist's bravery (coolness), and criminal investigations, court proceedings or the threat thereof were all actually processes of authorization, which in fact created the work of art.
On closer examination, it becomes clear that the artwork of the 1990s is an easily recognizable fragment of this or that well-known discourse, subsequently authorized through an offence and the ensuing investigation. For an instance, in 1993, Alexander Brener presented his project of "plagiarism-art" to Moscow artists and philosophers at the Laboratory for Visual Anthropology held by the philosopher Valery Podoroga and Viktor Misiano. At the presentation, the artist confessed that a text he had published under his own name in Moscow Art Magazine had actually been written by Paul Valerie.
The popularity of this kind of artist does not depend on his originality, his creative efforts, his diligence or on the time spent producing an object of art; instead, it depends on the audience-popularity of the discourse he has chosen for creative manipulation and on the popularity of his role as an artist-actor.
This raises a central question: why, exactly, were most of the artistic efforts of the decade directed at authorizing triviality, posing, and hypocrisy? There are several ways to explain this phenomenon. First, the principal participants of the 1990s artistic process had appeared at a point in time when the old Soviet institutions (including those of the nonconformist scene) had collapsed, and the new institutions had not yet begun to take shape. Second, as the symbolic legacy of the USSR was being divided up, nearly all artists that entered the Moscow art scene came out of nowhere. For an example, as I have already mentioned, Alexander Brener, a former citizen of Alma-Ata and a beginning poet came from Israel. None of them had any professional education in art. Consequently, none of them had been initiated as potential authors in any internationally accepted way; none of them had been legitimized by an art-school diploma or a gallery owner's authority. In accordance with the spirit of the age, every contemporary artist planned an immediate career and was ready to compete aggressively for his own piece of the Soviet legacy. Thus, new initiation rituals emerged: offences were first legitimated as works of art and subsequently authorized through investigative procedures. Both procedures were largely entrusted to the audience and rumors, and only partially left to professional criticism, since news-stories or critical articles immediately became rumors themselves. The ephemeral quality of these initiations gave rise to the need for their periodical repetition. If the artist did not renew the professional label that the audience had given him in every action, he lost it. The label itself only remained valid for as long as the rumors were alive.