The crisis of the institution of representative democracy has now rolled into Russia. The place of politics in the classical sense is taken over by management and marketing, by different technologies of manipulation. The public sphere, corrupted and crunched, disappears before our eyes. The ideology of the market subjugates everything, including cultural production, to itself. We are persuaded to be satisfied with the private sphere, private enterprise (in this “to be satisfied” the notorious autonomy of art will take its honorary place).
Yet another crisis, a mimetic one (so should we imitate the West or not? and if yes, how exactly and to what degree? how far should the modernization go? and in general: who are we?) revealed itself in the wake of the mass anti-western attitude provoked by the NATO bombings of Belgrade, which finally led to the change of cabinet and in Russian politics as a whole. For political technologists this was an end of the age of (apology of) post-modernity, disillusion with the model of “open society” and with the politics of “human rights”. One of the results of this “reevaluation of western values” was the refusal of the formation of civil society, the rejection of pluralism in the social field – in favor of a centralized hierarchical model of power, roughly displacing any dissenting thinking to the political periphery. Simultaneously we can observe the return of a slightly altered super-power rhetoric by the formula of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, National Character,”which derives from the time of czarism, idealizing the imperialistic pre-revolutionary past (Alexander Sokurov’s “The Russian Ark” here extends a hand to Boris Akunin’s novels). Everybody has gotten tired of reforms and wants stability, which applied to art and literature means: no modernism anymore, no shocks. And the Avant-guard? – it compromised itself by association with the revolutionary will to rearrange the society (it’s enough to walk through the recently opened “Russian Avant-guard” exposition in the Russian Museum to see how prudently the traces of such association are covered up).
Advanced publishers are keeping step with globalization: they think by way of “projects”. The “project” is a contemporary way to join together commercial and creative interests, to give an article the shape of commodity, or what is now called “format”; “project” is at once both an ideological packaging and an industrial production line, which serves to form and to satisfy the customers’ demand “on-the-fly”. Such an approach had already triumphed on television, in the endless serials and around-the-clock musical channels. News programs are also beginning to reproduce the aesthetics of musical clips and soap operas.
The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). In other words, there are economical, political antagonisms, interests of different social groups, but instead of resolving or fighting for them we are channeling them – into Gesamtkunstwerk, into spectacle. This is a constitutive principle of faschizoid art. At a certain point – by means of high technologies and electronic mass-media – it merges with spectacle, as Guy Debourd defines it.
The model of political art is Brechtian theatre. What manifests itself as a quantitative leap at the level of theory in Brechtian theatre comes out as estrangement, when aesthetic illusion is interrupted by means of caesura, or syncope, introducing the moment of reflection and exercising an arrest, the suspension of dialectics. Such an aesthetic, which derives from “the uncovering of device,” from “estrangement” of Russian formalists, carries out several functions: it draws the recipient into the process of self-reflection and self-consciousness and at the same time the very essence of art as such is questioned, suspended. Thus the auto-referential nature of art obtains its adequate incarnation. In a certain sense it is the highest point, an acme of aesthetic reflection, inasmuch as it not only implies the process of self-reflection, but also thematizes the auto-referential nature of art. All radical experiments in visual art, Godard for example, proceed from this experience of rupture, the destruction of aesthetic illusion. Not to let this illusion harden into totality, not to allow aesthetics to grasp the world in representation. At the moment that it is grasped securely in representation, there Gesamtkunstwerk immediately appears – the totalitarian project, in which form crushes down matter and where the very social matter is dematerialized. Sociality with its antagonisms and struggles of interests turns out to be “removed”, “sublimated”.
Thus political art must not be confused with propaganda; it is an art which by means of estrangement, caesura, self-reflection, fragmentation, destabilization of the subject and dispersion of the narrative provides us with the a-semantic gaps, folds of meaning, not yet appropriated by ideology. Art, which draws the reader or spectator into the process of co-creation and becoming and thus bringing to understanding that he or she are connected to the bodies and consciousness of others.
We were raised in circumstances when it was urgently important to escape from the power of the collective body, to avoid depersonalization. However, today the evolution of depersonalization is different; it goes through the concretization of everything, through the exchange of commodities, through the consumption of images, the terror of mass-media and the compulsory withdrawal into the private sphere (as to a ghetto). In the conditions dictated by the invasion of commodity, with its fetishism and theological devices, art is also transformed into a mere commodity, a materialized labor, a mechanism of production of already known, prefabricated cultural meanings, which serve to maintain the status quo.
From here yet another necessity arises: to dismantle prefabricated cultural meanings, emphasizing thereby our own lack of wholeness and incompleteness. The particular question: how to politicize our own lack of wholeness? For we are originally incomplete, being colonized, traversed by others, by their discourse. Yet at the same time we are addressing them. Our problem lies in the fact that we are frustrated by the soviet type of collectivism. From childhood we bear the spirit of rejection of collectivity, but together with collectivity we annihilate solidarity, compassion, justice, the possibility of community.
Let us take for example “The Crazy Pierrot,” or “Weekend,” or better still “The Gay Science,” made in 1968. Two “characters,” male and female, and the actual revolutionary events at the background. Slogans, pictures of Lenin, quotations from Derrida and Foucault. And everything is penetrated by strange erotic emanations. Visual sequence works as a syncope, caesura: collective actions on the streets and immediately following – the naked body or a fragment thereof. This is Brechtian, Benjaminian rupture in an aesthetic fabric, rupture which turns us back to reality and through reality back to art, because we ask ourselves: what is art? where is the border between the intimate and the public?
In Konstantin Boltyansky there is also the problem of the impossibility of personal memory as something detached and separate, belonging exclusively to me, the subject. In history, our common history, something happens that dematerializes memory, crashes and collapses it, leaving us only the ashes of memories, the ashes of archive. I refer to his “Family Album”. Typical amateur shots, nothing special. “I, Kostya Boltyansky, in a given year on the river with my mother.” Boy, parents, friends, acquaintances — the most simple, everyday shots. Written everywhere – I, Boltyansky, this or that year. Then suddenly, at the end of the album, we read that these are not his photographs. He used photos of various people and simply attributed his name to them. With this nomination, he blew up personal history and blew up art, demonstrating the entire problem of the veracity and authenticity of the photographic document. A huge question arises: what is “me” if all my history, the history of my life, starting from birth, can be replaced by the stories of other people? There is a negative moment in this — a moment of radical doubt, a gesture that calls into question both the concept of a document and art as such, and at the same time confronts us with the unique, irreducible nature of personal experience of time.
In Russian poetry, a similar experience can be found in Yan Satunovsky, in Vsevolod Nekrasov. This is the poetry of dislocation (the time is out of joint), disjoint, spasmodic articulations and feet, interjections, stumps, “torn”, “forgotten”, “flushed in the toilet” shreds and scraps. Here is the extreme poverty of language media, muttering, tongue-twisters, sudden breaks revealing a system of public and private taboos. The struggle for the possibility of a personal, individual statement is conducted in the territory of an ideologized, terrorizing idiom. “No, I can not …”: shame acquires a political, ethical ring, disavows language as a hotbed of communal violence and potential dictatorship. A largely opposite example is Mikhail Sukhotin’s poem about Chechnya, in which he makes a desperate attempt to expropriate politics, to return it to the public sphere. From this effort, Kirill Medvedev emerged with his choked up speech directed to the void of publicity. Many of Sergey Stratanovsky’s poems, both early and recent (“Next to Chechnya”), I would attribute to politicized art, which does not exclude the presence of metaphysical, historiosophical problems, quite the opposite.
The disposition of capitalism, when everything could be converted into everything else and everything is displaced, activates a nostalgia for something absolute, that cannot be transformed into commodity. All totalitarian structures, from religious sects to political extremists, exploit this nostalgia, they impose this absolute from above. The role of the intellectual, of the artist consists in the deconstruction of this coming-from-above despotic discourses that pretend to represent the absolute. But at the same time that role lies in discovering those points where the dimension of the transcendental, or sacred, break off the horizontal chain of values, pointing in the direction of that which couldn’t be inscribed into the restricted (capitalistic) economy. Like eroticism, laughter, purposeless expenditure or sacrifice, which Bataille considered as the fundamental, irrevocable needs of human beings.
Translated from the Russian by Alexandr Skidan with Larissa Shmailo
Born in Leningrad in 1965, Aleksandr Skidan is one of Russia’s most important contemporary poets and cultural critics. His new book of essays is Сыр букв мел. Об Аркадии Драгомощенко (Syr bukv mel. Ob Arkadii Drogomoshchenko 2019). His poetry collections in Russia include Delirium (1993), In the Re-Reading (1998), Red Shift (2005), Dissolution (2010) and, most recently, Membra disjecta (2015). A selection of his poetry in English translation appears in Red Shifting from Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008. He is also the author of four books of essays: Critical Mass (1995), The Resistance to/of Poetry (2001), Sum of Poetics (2013) and Theses Toward the Politicization of Art and Other Texts (2014). His poetry has been translated into Danish, English, Estonian, Finish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Swedish and was published in different anthologies, both in Russia and abroad. His many translations include books by authors such as Paul Bowles, as well as various short stories, poems by Charles Olson, Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, and criticism by Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Jan-Luc Nancy, Paolo Virno. In 1994 Skidan was selected to participate in Iowa International Writing Program. From 1999 to 2005 he ran a translation workshop in the American program Summer Literary Seminars in Saint-Petersburg. Skidan is the recipient of the Andrei Bely Prize (2006), Turgenev Award for the short prose (1998) and “Most” (“Bridge”) for the best critical text on poetry (2006). In 2018 he was awarded Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fund fellowship. Since 2009, he is a co-editor of the Moscow based New Literary Observer magazine.