Prolegomena for Methodological Constraint
The Necessity of a Method as a Basis for Forming a Culture of Left-Wing Opposition
Anatoly Osmolovsky. "Untitled" (from the "Bugs" series), wood, enamel, 2004. Courtesy Stella Gallery, Moscow
It is widely known that from its very origins Moscow radical art (so-called "Moscow actionism") defined itself as left-wing art, following the great political tradition of the 20th century avantgarde. The absolute majority of texts, collective and individual declarations, manifestos, and interviews by almost all the main proponents of this movement contain an unmistakable left-wing political message. Almost no art critic took these political assertions seriously when they were made; instead, they were understood as rather obscure manifestations of artistic whimsy. In analyzing this strange tendency from today's perspective, it does not seem to be a great exaggeration to admit that a will towards method lies at the very basis of left-wing political choice, a wish to make one's own practice understandable and reproducible by others. In the past decade, this idea has passed through a thorny path of trial and error. At time, it has deviated from its main goal, but at other points, it has hit its mark, defining some of the central artistic events of the 1990s.
For me, the left-wing political choice has always been a deliberate position Ц I have always played an active role in the politicization of Russian contemporary art. It seems to me that from the very beginning, our only connection with the processes of international art lies in the context of the Left. After all, the majority of Russian artists was witnesses to the Great Soviet Experiment and, at the same time, was present and took part in its deconstruction. This was a unique experience.
In a certain sense, these historical circumstances forced Russian artists to experience the results of a real Choice. Undoubtedly, an accurate analysis of these fundamental social, psychological, economic, and political differences that this choice generated can be only take place within the borders of left-wing discourse. After all, during the time of its existence, the Soviet state Ц that is to say, what is under analysis here Ц constantly vowed its fidelity to the left-wing tradition. Yet the historical tragedy of 20th century is that its most humane and honest political conception, the conception that demanded both the most justice and personal responsibility, was drowned in blood, discredited, and exposed to ridicule.
Nevertheless, the artists of the 1990s saw themselves as part of the left-wing cultural tradition. This political choice occurred in parallel to the widespread anti-methodological revolt that took place in the Soviet academic organizations. During the 1990s, the absolute majority of institutional specialists (and in a broader sense, the entire intelligentsia) rehabilitated the value of individual and exclusive skills and abilities that the Soviet regime had marginalized.
All methods were rejected (first and foremost, certainly, that of Marxism) in favor of the sovereign Personality. Today, it is difficult to find anything positive in this process. The fundamental motivation of these "personalities" did not lie in the actualization of "universal human rights" or "those values common to all mankind", as it was publicly stated at the time. Instead, it lay in the attempt to privatize knowledge and personal institutional positions. This is what they really wanted. But, as a matter of fact, the social outcome of this revolt generated an alternate conception of "personality", whose slightly romanticized but otherwise organic mass-cultural image can be found in the TV show "Brigada" 1.
It is only natural that this anti-methodological revolt could not help but exert its pernicious influence on the artists of the 1990s. In Russia, the question of one's political identification did not go beyond proclaiming creative solidarity with the left-wing artistic tradition. Many texts were written in the 1990s, but only a few of them were able to avoid becoming bare declarations. The left-wing tradition has always used decrees, manifestoes, loud declarations, and other forms of public mass-medial representations. It cannot do without them, because they achieve a high degree of effectiveness. However, they have one essential disadvantage: in the absence of a well-defined methodology, their effect is short-lived and demands permanent renewal through endless repetition. Some of their parameters are dangerously close to mass culture. They have a clear tendency toward degeneration (a short history of the Soviet state). On the other hand, in the situation of brutal capitalism in the phase of its primary accumulation, every author experienced the permanent fear of losing his own place. This forced him to behave in a certain way, to take an ambivalent position: the left-wing political identification corresponded to the practice of questionable exclusivism.
Conceptualism as a Method
Even in the post-Soviet environment of the 1990s, artists remained devoted to the essential principles of methodological thinking. The circle of artists-conceptualists applied to their work a creative method that was fully mature. This method was endowed with a personal, rather ornate terminology, which combined the notions of psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and structuralism. However, conceptualism was not only Ц and even not so much Ц a creative method. Above all else, it was a way of life, an ideology. While one can clearly see that the radical art of 1990s often lacked any consistency or well-developed position, conceptualism was marked by its fatal over-production. When creative method replaces ideology, social engagement, and reflection on the everyday, it definitely becomes a form of perverted elitism amongst its adepts. The attempt to extend aesthetics to every single aspect of life produced political cynicism and led to a loss of social orientation. Thus, it hardly comes as a surprise that here was (and still there is) a diffused religiousness at work in conceptualist circles, sometimes in very obscure forms. The creative method is powerless in the process of social adaptation of the individual. If it is used in this process, different forms of false consciousness Ц ranging from fascism to religiosity Ц will always replace its insufficiency.
The systemic conflict that emerged in the 1990s between conceptual artists and radical artists expressed the protest of the latter against conceptualism's pretenses at being more than just a creative method. In fact, every active figure of the 1990s recognized that the foundations of the conceptual method still were in effect, which is why they were used actively. Even the radical break from this method, which became evident in a series of art events of the 1990s, manifestly contained the methodology of conceptualism, albeit in its reversed, negative form.
Exclusivism. The Result of Privatization Hysteria
The specific behavior of the most successful artists of the 1990s expresses the anti-methodological revolt as a refusal of all understandable and reproducible methods of creation and analysis of artworks. All the different variants of this behavior achieved one thing: to single out the artist and to eliminate all possibilities for imitation once and for all. If imitation (and sometimes, even comprehension) is practically impossible for Kulik and his absurd ideology (mythology) of zoophrenia, then this position of exclusivism is rather suspicious when it is taken up by those figures of the 1990s who associated themselves with so-called left-wing art
Without doubts, the most vivid figure to refract the major contradictions of the 1990s was Alexander Brener. Brener joins exclusivism and left-wing choice, messianic ambitions and democratic rhetoric. It is not an exaggeration to state that some artists used left-wing rhetoric as a form of aesthetic distinction: Kulik as the man-dog, and Brener as the individualist-anarchist.
The remarkable entanglement and irrelevance of all established notions in post-Soviet Russia (the Red-Brown opposition, the National-Bolshevik party and so on) formed the conditions for such extraordinary arabesques. While the conceptualists understood their creative method as political position, the radical artists of the 1990s came to see their political position as creative method. For example, many readers are baffled by the extremely negative treatment that Brener adopts towards those artists who are seem to be close to his views. He proclaims all those artists who might somehow claim his place as a left-wing radical activist as enemies or "opportunists". In his attempt to privatize the left-wing position, Brener faces the fact that, primarily for its own inner configuration, this position is such an open one and not reducible to one person that he needs all the time to violently "shut" and "hold" it if he wants to keep and create the illusion of exclusiveness. In his effort to "privatize" the left-wing tradition he is similar to the official representatives of intellectual privatization: Yakovlev, Volkogonov, Radzinsky, et al. who tried to privatize Knowledge 2.
The Fragmentation of Social Relations as a Way of Avoiding Responsibility
The artists of the 1990s often resorted to another technique in creating the illusion of exclusivity. This technique was fragmentation. Usually, art fragments a broader social context and not only the structure of political identifications. Any artist will use this technique. The very fact of selling a work of art and legitimately appropriating sizable sums of money only becomes possible through the fragmentation of social relations. Brener constantly employs fragmentation as well. He fragments the historical and cultural context of the Moscow art community by letting loose a hail of accusations, reproaches, and pretensions onto all of his former friends, acquaintances, colleagues (without considering their political identification), many of whom have played a fundamental roles in his fate, supporting him morally, through intellectual dialogue, or through the organization of his career. These accusations are simply unpleasant for the people who took part in Brener's life. However, the issue at stake has nothing to do with morals or ethics. Defending his symbolic capital with fragmentation as an individualist-loner, Brener is attempting to prove his otherness, his exclusiveness. In his texts, he violently tears up the context, representing himself as a highly disinterested and severe "observer-expert" of Moscow art life. Any researcher who claims to be a professional has to ask how such a "talent" could have been born in this wretched atmosphere of careerists, losers, and untalented people?
Certainly, individualists-loners do not only emphasize their uniqueness and exclusivity, but they also continue to avoid any responsibility for their actions. Since they only see themselves in the narrow contexts of their private lives and personal choices, they fragment the consequences of their social activity. The inability to define the connection between their own actions and the social life around them becomes the basis for the emergence of a neo-liberal organization of society, where only one mediator creates connections between people, namely the market, whose forces are subject to neither criticism nor regulation. It is characteristic that the neo-liberal organization of society resists any method, that it is fundamentally anti-methodological and irresponsible. It creates a sense of the subject's powerlessness in the face of society and its laws.
Method versus Technology
How does method differ from technology? This is a serious question, with a considerable margin for substantial errors in finding an answer. Maybe it is not enough to simply declare that technology is a specific list of consecutive operations known a priori that leads to a result, while method is a clearly formulated system of thinking, which does not only demand the application of creativity in accordance with the surrounding social context, but also requires its own development. Foucault once made the fruitful observation that the key difference between Marx and his predecessors is that Marx made distinction the cornerstone in the development of his theory. According to Foucault, to be a Marxist it is necessary to differ from Marx and not to follow him. Foucault related this definition to the notion of discourse. However, in my opinion, it is also effective if it is placed in relation to method (especially if we consider that Marx did not know the notion of discourse and called his own system method). In this sense, technology is a contemporary expression of religion, of dogmatic thinking. Religious thinking is constructed according to the principles of repetition, of constant approval of the same. In this, it is very similar to technology. The entire contemporary world is quasi-religious Ц thanks to its saturation through technology.
However, method differs from technology in one very important aspect, which lies in its accessibility, its democratization. In order to realize itself, any technology requires industry, a system of social relationships constructed according to the principle of the production line. Industry belongs to those who have the power. It is an instrument to rule the world. A method, in contrast, is above all located in human consciousness. It rejects the principle itself of estranged de-individualized industry. A method creates individuality in a wide and understandable context of transparent social relations (which the method itself makes visible).
Novelty and the Industry of Leisure
The defense of methodological thought cannot help but bring us to the analysis of the notion of the New. In the context of 20th century culture theory, the New is a symbol of progress and development, and plays the role of political identifier of this or that artistic initiative. It is this notion (or its criticism) that serves as the center around which gigantic discursive systems are organized. One of the most recent system of this kind to attract attention in Russia consists of Boris Groys's theory of the "valorization of the profane". In his text, Groys actually places the New and fashion on the same level. Mistakenly considered by some readers as an actualization of modernist analytic strategies, its intellectual constructions actually are far closer to anti-modernist tendencies. After all, the best way to destroy the New is not by insisting on its impossibility (that is what several post-modernist discourses affirm), but by showing its relative character, its commonness, its inclusion in the everyday logic of cultural exchange.
Deeply rooted in the community of Moscow's intelligentsia, this position requires a more exhaustive analysis. First, it is connected with the loss of historical thinking. The established neo-liberal illusion of the immobility of society, its "dormancy", its "irreversibility" ultimately leads to the negation of progress and of any and all distinctions in general, including those at work in aesthetics. In fact, the distinction between high and mass culture lies in the way they are produced. Mass culture Ц and its making, functioning, and consumption Ц are linked primarily to the leisure industry. In their time, the Situationists noted that estranged labor generates an estranged form of leisure, whose main characteristic is the absence of choice. The industry of mass leisure has to meet certain conditions: speed of production and consumption, constant renovation and continuity, multi-purposefulness. These conditions guarantee the possibilities to capitalize cultural processes and gain immediate profit from them. High culture with its complicated system of differentiations is too awkward for the leisure industry. Furthermore, in order to be understood, high culture requires its reader to change his own mode of perception and to refuse many well-accepted cliches. These changes happen very slowly. Years go by before the specific distinctions between composers, artists, or writers are understood in full. These speeds do not conform to the speeds of the leisure industry and the movement of capital that it implies.
In speaking of the differences between high and mass culture, we also have to mention the other side of a fundamental difference between them. An important attribute of high culture was and still is the novelty of the artifacts that it produces. Any understanding of the New is directly connected to the methodology of its making. A new artifact is not a fortuitous miracle, unforeseen excess or a scandalous piece of news. A new artifact is the result of the evolution of aesthetic thinking, the possible new quality of a sociality that can be realized by generations to come. Adorno is absolutely right in comparing the work of art with the model of the ideal society made inside the limits of space and time.
For the cultural analyst, the New is related to the historical and contemporary contexts of art. The mutual interaction of these two contexts generates the New. It is only because the activity and variety of these contexts have today reached a high point of tension that it is very difficult to identify the New. Its appearance is usually prefigured by a rather long period of accumulation, during which the analytic efforts of humanity are arranged, but the actual transition to a new quality usually happens swiftly and takes the form of instantaneous explosion.
Art Market Vs Experiment? An Open Question
The left-wing art tradition regards the art market with the utmost skepticism. Criticizing the mechanism of mass culture, I have spoken rather skeptically about the processes of capitalization of the leisure industry and noted that high culture is too complicated to be profitable. In a way, all of the declarations above oppose the facts of artistic life in Western European and North America. From the beginning of the 1980s onward, the deep link between the art system and business has created a rather ambivalent situation in which artistic experiments destroyed all conventions of perception and were included in the structure of the commercial galleries. A similar state of affairs makes it difficult to clearly understand the relationship between culture and political processes in the West. What is all this? Can be understood as the justice and effectiveness of capitalism? Or does it entail the insufficient revolutionary drive of the same artists? Many critics of the capitalistic system became victims of the illusion of this apparent unity, fully rejecting art as a form of human display that is held in high regard. Undoubtedly, capital soils all that it touches. Furthermore, when artistic experiment becomes a market-property, it becomes highly questionable. Capitalistic relations spread the specter of corruption into all the fields of human activity. First of all, this is why left-wing analysts face the psychological goal of defending themselves from these obsessive feelings. Certainly, capitalism cannot be overcome from any exterior position, since "capital is pregnant with its own contradiction". Contemporary visual art appears to be the most transparent and obvious scene of the struggle between experiment and capital. It possesses only one, but extremely serious distinction from all other forms of creativity, namely its own materiality. This materiality is the platform and scene of struggle. One can own a work of art. In this case, the work is the quintessence of private property, the symbol of capitalism. Like in a magic crystal, it refracts all contradictions and conflicts of the capitalistic system, which is based on the idea of private ownership. If an artwork is an object for the capitalist, then for the artists it is an image (or even a model) of an ideal structure.
The problem of original and reproduction is one of the most important themes in 20th century theoretical reflection. Beginning with W. Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", this problem entered the daily work of practically all contemporary artists. Benjamin was somewhat premature in burying the aura of the artwork. Maybe Marx was also early in prognosticating the quick end of capitalism. Answering the sacramental question of what aura is all about Ц as a matter of fact, Benjamin spoke about this fundamental attribute of visual art in a rather unclear manner Ц we have to account for the materiality of the artwork, its corporeality which, as a result, generates shortcomings and deficiencies. There is nothing more sacramental than people crowding in front of a painting, struggling to peek over one another's shoulders or squeezing past one another to get nearer. Whereever there are shortcomings and deficiencies, the system of repression and capital arise as well. Since it has its own corporeality, visual art is closer to reality and its actual problems than any other art form. The artist gets in touch with real sociality through the art market. For the contemporary artist, it would be an inadmissible luxury and an inappropriate pretense to stay away from the market.
To Be and To Seem: Political Position and its Public Representation (In Short)
In fact, the materiality of visual art is one of its most valuable characteristics. This property stands against the contemporary condition of simulation (spectacularity) of capitalist society. As paradoxical as it may seem, when an artwork becomes an object of purchase and sale, it begins to fight against capital, becoming a catalyst for its overcoming. In other words, the fundaments of any political position consist in the corporeal structure of the artwork and not only of its reproducible image.
Since antiquity, it has been clear that excessive confidence in one's own feelings, spontaneous perceptions, and cognitive processes lead to serious, fatal mistakes. The organs of our vision tell us that the earth is flat when in fact this is not true. Distrust toward one's own perception is the basis for any scientific (methodological) point of view. This brings us back to the problem that started this text: for the left-wing activist, as for the artist, ordinary public manifestations are simply not enough. It becomes necessary to realize oneself in a configurative, corporal manner as a left-wing figure. Furthermore, in some cases, public manifestations only confuse matters and make it difficult to reveal the authentic political meaning of this or that action. (For an example, in the pop industry, the image of the anarchist-trickster is placed on the production line). The field of public manifestations has long since been an instrument for the manipulation of the masses. There is only one way of defending oneself against this manipulation, namely method, or better yet, Marxist method. Today we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of relying upon political representation alone. Only a meticulous corporeal configurative analysis is capable of bringing us to the true state of affairs. Corporeal analysis: do not trust public manifestations and do not trust anything from the public sphere in general Ц simulacra have captured this sphere to the full. Marxism was and still is the basis for this analysis.
1 I am alluding to an extremely popular television series in contemporary Russia, which romanticizes the gangsterism of the Yeltsin era.
2 I am referring to the official and media bearers of historical knowledge in post-Soviet Russia.
Born in 1969 in Moscow. One of the leading contemporary Russian artists.
Author of various essays and critical texts.
Lives in Moscow.