Lily Fürstenow-Khositashvili: How would you characterise critical tendencies in contemporary artistic discourse, what role does the critical aspect play as far as artistic value is concerned?
Boris Groys: Malevich wrote that an artist should never do what he/she likes. Because as soon as one does so, the work is inscribed into the already existing aesthetic parameters. In fact, one has to observe that due to critical aspects contained in the artwork people start talking about things, for example, about Arthur Zmijewski, or about the notorious Pussy Riot. You and me inclusive. That's right, they were disliked but they are remembered precisely because of that. And whoever was liked by the public has already been forgotten.
LFK: Why is this sort of artistic practice so problematic to be accepted?
BG: Critical artistic position has always been a minority position. We never remember whatever we like but all that we dislike. Only this serves as an example, only this causes reaction or gets press coverage. Everybody reacted to Pussy Riot and to Zmijewsky, they were in the centre of attention. They're the only ones who stuck in memory, because nobody liked them.
LFK: I would raise here the issue of what is being represented in art being at odds with the means of representation. I mean, what is at stake here: the intrinsic quality of the art works as well as the targets the artists set themselves.
BG: Art cannot be explained from the intentions of the author. The issue is here the contextualisation of the art work, as well as other political and artistic gestures of the artist.
As for the aesthetic criteria it would be problematic to speak of these at this particular moment in history. One would go as far as to presume that there are none. Kunstwissenachaft als Pseudowissenchaft: I would suggest that art history could not formulate any criteria of quality so far. Artists are people, we cannot separate different aspects of their lives. We like Byron because he wrote poems, because he died in the Greek war, because of the women related to him. That's why, we like him, we admire him, we're irritated by him. All this counts. All in all, it constitutes our attitude to the author and the work.
The decisions: political, economic or aesthetic are all related. A decision of that kind is always to your advantage, and ... your disadvantage. There's always a positive and a negative part to it.
Art history cannot be separated from human history. It is not a natural science like Botanic, or Zoology. Animals, for instance, never read scientific papers, nor change their colours as a result of this reading. Artists, on the other hand, study texts related to arts and take respective decisions and do change their colour. This is the significant difference.
LFK: The artworks speak for themselves...
BG: No, our reaction to the artworks depends on their context. The whole contemporary discourse on art evolves around the contextualisation of the work of art within the whole of the artistic and political strategies taken by the artists. Political decisions define one's aesthetics.
If Albert Speer were not a friend of Hitler, if he were not a fascist, no one would be interested in his architecture. One can hardly remember any other German architects from this period if one is not specialized in the history of architecture. We remember Speer, only because he was a fascist, we remember Leni Riefenstahl only because she was a fascist, there were in fact many other documentary filmmakers at the time, but we remember her.
LFK: Can we expect these subjective experiences to inform the logic of the archive, that decides what gets in and what stays out with time?
BG: If we some day appreciate the so-called Soviet artists: Russian, Georgian or others it we will only happen because they were communists, not because they were good artists. Quality issue never existed in fact, and it completely disappeared by now. Quality wasn't the issue ever. The artist's social and political stance mattered. Aestheticism is also a certain social, economic and political position. The artists of the movement were as good or as bad as any others.
Yet we value them not for their merit but for their attitude, because they stood for their ideas, or claimed they had ideas. But, of course, all these attitudes have to be critically analysed.
LFK: What about the issue of artistic merit? Could one still go as far as defining certain criteria of quality?
BG: Art is interesting in so far as it is a symptom of the processes that take place in peoples minds, in peoples hearts, as a symptom of the socio-economic and political relations. This is the essential aspect of artistic value if at all.
Art history is not a science but rather a compilation of politically and ideologically motivated, extremely complex statements, generally false as they are. As such, they are interesting for socio-economic and political analysis, otherwise they don't have any value of their own, neither does art. Apart from these, art is of no particular value.
LFK: Do you mean that the value of an artwork is contextual and relative depending on the political and socio-economic climate? What is the logic behind some artworks being acquired by museums or put on show and others not?
BG: At any rate there are no criteria defining artistic merit. Today something is considered in, tomorrow it is out. It does not make much sense anyway. Museums are based on our historical consciousness and function in agreement with it. If certain art is symptomatic of its time then it is in, selected for the shows, otherwise it is not.
As for Kant's Critique of Judgement you've been mentioning, he mostly refers to natural phenomena, rather than to art. Any educated person after contemplating art for a while gets back to contemplating nature. Because no work of art can ever compare to an average sunset, which surpasses any artwork in its beauty. To say noting of waterfalls or else. Kant, who set up the criteria of aesthetics, actually excluded art from them. Art was subjected to these criteria on a later date, which is nothing more than a commercial strategy.
Art is symptomatic for the development of culture. And since we are interested in people, we are interested in what people do, we take a look at art and either it speaks to us and we can identify with it or not. So basically what matters, is the identification with the position of the artist. It happens on many registers: aesthetic, social, economic, temperamental. All this is symptomatic, and interconnected.
LFK: What are the basic artistic strategies after the collapse of the USSR? Could one speak of continuity of tradition, or rather the tradition of avant-garde has been obsoleted in favour of other more urgent modes of artistic expression?
BG: I wouldn't say that avant-garde is forgotten, neither in Russia, nor anywhere else. The problem of avant-garde is that it aimed not at the description of life but at the transformation, reorganisation of life. And it coincided with the historical moment of revolution. The moment when the old system was destroyed and there was the feeling of something on the rise. That was the moment of the new beginning that the post-Soviet space doesn't experience. On the contrary, it is defined by the return to the past.
The fall of the Soviet Union brought about the establishment of the reactionary and conservative social structures. The return to capitalism, to nationalism, the return to the 19th century in fact. The post-Soviet territory has returned in a certain way to the pre-revolutionary stage of development. Practically it is the period of Restauration. In France it took a few years before the Restauration started: from the French Revolution till the end of Napoleon wars. In Russia it took quite a long time, seventy years, now the period of Restauration started.
In the epoch of Restauration the ideas of avant-garde can be further developed but they don't coincide with the Zeitgeist, they are not synchronised with the general situation and the public state of mind. We know that, and Marx has also written on what is art in the epoch of Restauration. It was the art of realism. Like the art of Balzac as Marx’ favourite example from literature. The post-Soviet world is the world in the epoch of Restauration with all its specific characteristics, of which there are three basic ones: capitalism, nationalism and the return to religion. Critical reflexions on reality, a certain form of realism, a certain aspect of the Russian Peredvizhniki movement are more relevant now than avant-garde.
LFK: Social relevance of realism containing the element of critique has a long tradition in Russian painting. Does it still remain politically efficacious and relevant within contemporary international artistic context? Speaking of archive, could one determine differences between the aesthetic practices and the political value of contemporary post-Soviet artists and the international art scene?
BG: I think that both in Russia and in Georgia all this has to settle down. I would say that the process of internationalisation is not complete yet, practically nowhere on the post-Soviet territory. The cause of this is partially the extreme nationalism and, generally, regressive, reactionary and restaurationist social climate in these countries.
LFK: Yet there's so much unresolved creative potential...
BG: The Soviet Union attempted at creating a certain type of Soviet identity. Now each and every national state that emerged in its place, is attempting at creating some sort of their own national identity, and, of course, the local archives and the cultural policies are all subject to this goal. One can always argue about what makes up a national identity, but practically all involved into this argument are pretty overwhelmed by the subject. This argument is meaningless and useless, though. It has neither winners nor losers. One cannot take sides either. And the argument is endless. Nationalism, once again, largely blocks the integration into international community. It will still last for some time.
This argument will end when the participants get tired of arguing. Tiredness is in fact an immense culturally formative power. Only when people get tired of this nationalistic discussion and start looking further, one can talk of integration and the archives.
LFK: How would you characterise contemporary post-Soviet artists work, the idiosyncrasies of their artistic practice, if at all?
BG: The Russian art of the 19th century is the art of the Peredvizhniks, I don't think Russian art has changed a lot since then. Russian art is still involved with social criticism. It is also realistically oriented, and the same is characteristic for Ilja Kabakov or Erik Bulatov, to name but a few. These artists strive in various forms to express their critical attitude towards the existing reality. I'm currently writing about Olga Chernyshova, and she is also a realist artist, working in contemporary media, with contemporary artistic means, dealing with the lives of common people.
As for contemporary Georgian artists I would mention Gia Edzgveradze whom I know and wrote about, his wife Tamara K. E. is also an interesting artist who was exhibited here and in New York. Also a couple of other Georgian artists that were working in Germany and in the US. I would say, I can speak about the Georgian diaspora artists. As for the situation in Georgia itself, I cannot speak much about it, I have never had a chance of visiting the country, I was invited a couple of times though.
In any case Georgian diaspora artists may not be characteristic for Georgia itself since the are strongly influenced by the West. Their oeuvre is characteristic for the countries they live in. Speaking of Russian art, there's a certain art scene, quite a large one, with quite a large number of artists. I'm under the impression, that they search for a national approach to art, but what is basically characteristic for the art scene in Russia, I noticed it during my last visit there, that this art is highly politicised. Abounding in very strong leftist neo-Communist tendencies, with very strong protest spirit against the existing power structures in Russia.
Boris Groys is Senior Fellow at the IKKM in Weimar, professor of Russian and Slavic studies at the New York University, and senior research fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Art and Design. He is an internationally acclaimed expert on late Soviet postmodern art and literature, as well as on the Russian avant-garde. Groys is a permanent member of the Association internationale des critiques d’art (AICA) and served as the curator and organizer of various international art exhibitions, such as the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. His recent publications include The Communist Postscript (2010); History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism (2010); Going Public (2010); An Introduction to Antiphilosophy (translated from German by David Fernbach, 2012); and Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media (2012)
Dr. Lily Fürstenow-Khositashvili is researcher and curator working in Berlin and Tbilissi