Художественный журнал
digest 1993 – 2005

Contemporary Art: Here and Now (Rejection of museums)

Anatoly Osmolovsky
"Artists, gallery owners, critics, and the public throng to wherever 'something is happening.' But the reality of this 'something happening' is the reality of money. In the absence of aesthetic criteria, it is possible and useful to determine the value of works of art on the basis of their profitability. This reality reconciles everything, even the most contradictory tendencies in art, provided that these tendencies have purchasing power."1

It is generally recognized that contemporary art is in a state of crisis that is becoming more profound every year. The infrastructure created in the 1980s is being destroyed, and there is a dearth of new ideas in the artistic community. Thousands of people employed in this field ("art system") are seeking employment in other areas. It appears that the visual arts that used to be the standard by which experimentation and innovation were measured in the past are yielding to other forms of expression. In reality the general cultural setting has changed so radically that the basic functions of contemporary art are no longer relevant. At the same time it must be recognized that the contemporary visual arts in many years of development have garnered considerable strategic experience in interacting with society. No other type of human activity can make this claim. The contemporary artist is acutely aware of the function and structure of contemporary society and is an expert in communication. With very limited means he is able to maximize the dissemination of information. Contemporary art is a platform for developing the most shocking, the most paradoxical, and the most fantastic forms of representation.

Representation itself is never neutral and carries within itself a certain way of perceiving reality. The modern artist is primarily concerned with how the perception of the consumer is formed. This process has continued without interruption throughout the twentieth century, and there is no indication that any other area of the humanities has taken this function upon itself. In actual fact it is not modern art that is in a state of crisis, but the outdated model of its functioning created in the 1980s. This model contains at least several stereotypes:

1) a claim to innovation which created commodified art in the art market;

2) reliance on the market system of production and redistribution of art as the main determinant of its reliability and universality and, as a consequence, the tendency toward the creation of high-quality "art products";

3) obligatory achievement of museum status as a guarantee of historical worth.


What all of these points have in common is the conviction that art has an intrinsic value outside of the communicative event. Whereas the postmodernists accused classical modernism of being excessively ambitious without any basis in reality, criticized the position of the "genius" who made his works appear out of nothing, as well as classical modernism's claims to independence, etc., the newest art can also criticize the postmodern culture of contemporary art of being concerned with its preservation and monetary worth. In reality the only value that art possesses is within the confines of the process of its creation. Outside of this event any artifact (work of art) must be seen only as the documentation of this event outside of any relationship with a preceding artifact and works of art. Art that is valued in this way is truly "contemporary," as its main goal is to provide for maximum communication.

Contemporary art is not a commodity, nor is it an innovation or a universal value, which deserves to be conserved. How can it be defined?

In order to be contemporary, art must be specific to the utmost and functional, i.e., it must relate to the real world -politics, show business, music, analytical practice, medicine, etc. I do not mean that art should be subservient to the above-mentioned activities; what I am referring to is their mutual transgression. When art encroaches on politics, we save art from art and politics from politics. When art diffuses itself with some sort of analytical practice, a new type of activity is the result.

Among the many genres of contemporary art, the most current are those which are the most functional and communicable. The following is a list of the more important ones: performance, posters, strategic planning of representational activity, different types of design, club and institutional activity. The main task of the artist is to synthesize the different artistic genres into a unified system and to introduce this entity into another sphere of human activity. Under functionality I do not necessarily have in mind the positive "utility" of art as it was understood by the Russian Constructivists, but finding another mode for its existence. The introduction of art into real life could also be destructive, malignant, chaotic, and confusing. The Italian artist Oliviero Toscani provides one of the best examples of this approach. His ads for United Colors of Benetton are a synthesis of art and advertisement intended for a mass public. Toscani is not dependent on museums, galleries, or curators, nor does he define himself through the existing system of modern art but demonstrates a completely new approach to the functioning of art. His images are ubiquitous in all the Benetton stores and on Benetton products, where they fulfill a certain function (advertising, in this case), but bear a direct relation to art. Seen from a broader perspective, Benetton itself has become Toscani's artistic project. The most important aspects of his approach are the interaction of art with other types of activity and his attempts to build nontraditional relationships with society.

In this regard Jeff Koons is the culmination of one of the most important stages of modern art. He made use of the aesthetic of kitsch and camp, and brought to a dazzling conclusion the orientation toward the creation of high-quality long-lasting artifacts. It is at this point, one could say, that art bids farewell to the Museum as one of the forms of transcendence. Another key figure of the 1980s, in my opinion, was Cindy Sherman, who used photography to create classical paintings for museums. The ideology of the Museum was implicit in the works of these artists. The "current" (contemporary) artist breaks with this implication -the success of his works is tested by their inclusion into social processes and their ability to synthesize the creative milieu.

If we were to attempt to formalize the activity of the current artist by assigning it to a certain "genre," the most elementary form of this activity could be characterized as Situation. This term, which was introduced by the Situationist International, refers to the construction of some sort of social event. Situation is not performance and not a Happening; it is rather a hooligan prank, a provocation touching upon not so much the aesthetic sphere of functioning within the system of art as the sphere of political (in the broad sense) legitimacy. In the Moscow art community, the ETI movement [Expropriation of the Territory of Art; founded by Osmolovsky in 1989] and Alexander Brener worked in this genre. One of the latest situations created by Brener, which received some notoriety, was performed at the international Manifests exhibition in Rotterdam. During a speech by the main sponsor of this event, Brener came up to the microphone and began commenting on the speech by using such words as "this is a lie, this is true," demonstrating on one hand the absurdity of such "accusations" and on the other hand their appropriateness precisely because of their absurdity. I believe that one of the most important elements of this gesture was its suddenness and spontaneity. It is precisely this factor that makes it possible to categorize this gesture as a situation rather than a performance. The gallery manager Marat Gelman works in a more complex and approximate version of this "genre." His project involving new Russian money was actually a situation rather than just an ordinary exhibition.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the contemporary artist is that he plans his works within the framework of complete projects. He does not think of his art as a succession of unrelated works but as a project, within the scope of which different works by him and other artists and documentation may be incorporated. Leading examples of this approach are Oleg Kulik's Consignment of Animals and Dimitri Gutov's Lifshitz's Institute. In my opinion an artist such as Oliviero Toscani also engages in this type of "project" approach, which is an attempt to conceive of art as a process rather than as an aggregate of works.

Finally, the most complex "genre" in current art is one in which a "milieu" is created, which encompasses the activities of several people united in a "disjunctive synthesis." The best-known current artist of this type is, of course, Quentin Tarantino. His main task is to create a milieu in which it does not matter to the participants of the process through which forms their flows of desire and creativity, whether literature, performance, objects, posters, exhibitions, film, theoretical articles, reviews, etc., are channeled.

The task of this type of current artist consists of initiating processes of positive disjunctive synthesis, intertwining different forms of activity, and taking part in events that completely differ in essence from each other: musical, political, theatrical, analytical, editorial, curatorial, etc. The topos of the current artist is the broadest possible, and it encompasses practically all areas of the humanities. This type of artist has turned from a creator of visual images into a creator of milieus and situations. This type of activity was well known in the past; one need only recall the activity of Andre Breton and David Burliuk, among others. This type of creative activity, however, was never formalized as "creative."

On the other hand, the process of creating situations and creative milieus is linked to political activity as it concerns the economic and political basis of society and the state. This process cannot help but enter into conflict with the laws and rules of late capitalist society, which essentially have not changed since the time of Marx's "Das Kapital".

We may add the following points in addition to the above-mentioned ones relating to the 1980s:

1) Communication instead of innovation;

2) Synthesis of social processes, milieus, and situations instead of creating products for the market;

3) A maximum of social functionality as a guarantee of historical and social viability.

In rejecting the museum, current art stakes out a claim in favor of situation and communication in the present, and thus aspires to become a permanent event in art rather than a recollection of an event stored in a museum.

Moscow, 1996

Projects: A. Osmolovsky
Proofs: G. Avanesova
Communication: Chudozestvennyj Zhurnal [art journal], no. 16
Originally self-published by the author and Chudozestvennyj Zhurnal in 1995. Translated by Daniel Rishik.


Anatoly Osmolovsky
Born in 1969 in Moscow. One of the leading contemporary Russian artists.
Author of various essays and critical texts.
Lives in Moscow.
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