Dmitri Gutov: Art without Utopia
Dmitri Gutov (catalogue)
State Tretyakov Gallery
Marat Guelman Foundation
Readers, collectors, and viewers all know two Dmitri Gutovs: Gutov the thinker and Gutov the artist. The first Gutov often interferes with the second, presenting a block to the viewer’s reception of otherwise sympathetic works.
Gutov the thinker seems like a conservative, a theorist with the gall to say words like “realism” with a straight face. He propagates a Marxist-Leninist aesthetic, not in its likeable, utopian variant of the 1920s, but rather in the form that emerged during the 1930s, a decade with a completely different character, one of reaction and resignation. The aesthetic of this period became known in the West through Georg Lukacs, who was living in the USSR at the time. But in Russia, it is broadly associated with Mikhail Lifshitz, one of Lukacs’ colleagues, collaborators, and opponents, famous for his editions of texts by Marx, Engels, and Lenin on art, and literature, and notorious for his scathing critiques of modern Western art. Gutov has founded a “Lifshitz Institute” in this controversial thinker’s honor. The meetings of this “institute” are often strangely reminiscent of the ceremonies performed by some kind of religious sect: its participants recite and sing their own critical and polemical enunciations, as if they were speaking in tongues.
The second Gutov is the author of videos and installations, and even when he paints, his pieces would hardly pass a Stalinist artist’s review committee. Only once did he show, with self-revelatory daring, traditional studies painted from nature, and even if this exhibition (Dilettantism in Art, Guelman Gallery, 1996) was a key event in his career, it was followed by a crisis that lasted many years. This Gutov, the artist inscribed within the contemporary international art scene, cannot under any conditions be called a realist, no matter how intensive his interest in the real may be.
Does this mean that Gutov is a “Eurosoviet” artist, who adjusts Soviet art to existing capitalist standards and institutions, among which would be the somewhat critical system of contemporary art” (similar to, for example, the German artist Neo Rauch)? Like a “Eurocommunist,” the Eurosoviet artist works by abandoning all pretenses of changing the world at large; he castrates utopia, draining art of any real danger, any capacity for destroying reality. The project of monumental Soviet art is “domesticated,” and becomes a moderately sized painting on the wall. Isn’t this simply a way of making peace with the inevitability of the capitalist market? A way of quietly making oneself at home?
I am convinced that this is not the case with Gutov’s work. He may be against utopia, but his reasoning is different. In its contemporary usage, the word “utopia” presupposes a certain historical death-sentence. All the positive, romantic associations that might accrue to it have been paid for with defeat. Gutov thus presents us with a hypothesis of what communist art might have been in its time if it had been supported by the proper technological base, or today, if it had the social and political base that it now obviously lacks. He creates a historical hypothesis whose goal is to achieve, correct, and understand a project (or, to be more precise, to endow it with dignity and meaning, to justify it historically). But he does not try to recreate it. This would be unbearably pretentious. Instead, he leaves behind the realm of history, which is ruled by necessity, and finds himself in the far more problematic realm of the possible. This realm of possibility, in his view, is also the realm of art.
People who emigrated from the Soviet Union often spoke resentfully about having “fallen out of history” (although in actuality they had only fallen out of the market). Now this very condition often turns out to be a trump card, as the very same people attempt to sell the USSR (and now, Russia) as a sort of reservation for a utopia where time held no sway, where one could still dream, where natural resources like human friendship were inexhaustible. In this regard, the fundamentalist assertions of Russian Orthodoxy differ little from the naive dramatizations of the events of the revolution, even if the authors of these artistic and political gestures belong to opposing camps.
Gutov’s position combines a complete refusal to speculate on utopia with a clear affirmative answer to the key question of whether it is possible for one born in the USSR (and thus forever condemned to timelessness) to be a contemporary artist. This means that he must search for some other foothold in the Russian and Soviet traditions. To Gutov, this tradition is valuable not because of what it created or even because of what it dreamed of creating (e.g., Tatlin’s tower or the Palace of Soviets), but rather because of its mode of thinking. Gutov emphasizes the critical potential of the Soviet legacy, an emphasis that frankly strikes both Western and Russian ears as extremely unusual. Hardly anyone knows this USSR – only those who developed their intellectual position while living in it, and who prefer not to forget what it was all about. On the other hand, the way in which Gutov bases his work on the positive resources of the Soviet experience could serve as an example for current politics and economics if art in Russia today were to carry the significance that it did in the USSR.
Gutov began to exhibit as an artist in the late 1980s, during perestroika. The first of his pieces to be put on public display presented stylizations of the aesthetic of the Soviet sixties: paintings with the ephemeral contours of typical armchairs of the sixties, imitations of wallpaper or book covers with typically sixties designs (as well as content typical of the sixties, for example, Shakespeare in the English original, a language that came into style then, replacing the pre-war fashion of German). At that time, analogous stylizations came into fashion in music. This was hardly surprising, given that a large part of the art scene at the time had grown up in the sixties, making this pop-nostalgia seem pleasant and uncomplicated enough.
It is not coincidental that perestroika compared itself to another period of social freedom, to the period of the thaw under Khrushchev, with its beatniks and mods (and not to NEP, the comparison the official mass media seemed to prefer). Gutov’s turn to the Soviet sixties also had political meaning; its linear designs manifested both the period’s neo-modernism and the neo-Marxism and neo-Leninism that briefly galvanized Soviet society after Stalin’s death.
This only became obvious when the same flat patterns unfolded into three dimensions, when they appeared in the form of installations composed of strings intersecting in space like a web against the backdrop of the sky, or in any case in midair. The artist himself dates the beginning of this kind of “spatialization” to his piece For Art in Everyday Life (1988), a painting of a sixties design of vertical lines on a buffet door, into which he integrated a real glass with a spiraling design equally typical of the period.
Gutov began to work with these aerial installations in the era immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Moscow in 1991-92, he showed the installations Amphibian Man, Hammock, and Spike the Ball!, all of which evoke associations with sports, free time, and neo-modernist art, the dominants of the Soviet sixties. From 1992 to 1994, Gutov showed similar work in Europe. There, the fishing lines and strings referred to the ephemeral nature of musical notation (Mozart), dust motes dancing in the air (a piece shown at the Istanbul Biennale of 1992), and the mythical arrows from one of Russian history’s turning points (The Battle of the Novgorodians with the Suzdalians). His installation Above Black Mud (Moscow, 1994) continued this exploration of linear design from the Soviet sixties. Its lines were laid out on the floor of Moscow’s Regina gallery using thin planks of wood, like bridges, on top of twenty-five tons of black mud.
Throughout this period, Gutov was actually touching on an opposition central to the history of Russian art: the choice between the “flat” and the “spatial.” This dichotomy was already felt to be important in the nineteenth century, long before artists had found a language to express its problematic. Needless to say, “spatiality” has always had an aesthetic and ethical advantage. The earlier generation of Sots-Art and Conceptualism (for example, Erik Bulatov’s paintings or the albums of Ilya Kabakov) demonized all things Soviet as flat, one-dimensional impositions, a Soviet scheme or “grid” blocking out the authentic reality of freedom, the sky, white space, and flight.
Gutov comes to the problem from a completely different position. For him, “all things Soviet” take shape in a spatial structure whose fullness is emphasized by the possibility for motion in all directions. “Air” functions as a symbolic form for freedom. Then again, while this space remains structural and can be grasped by the intellect (a matter of principle for Gutov), it has also
been stripped of any hierarchy. There is no historical trajectory, as in most of Kabakov’s installations. Nor does it involve the collection of ritual space around a “mandala,” as in the projects and texts of Moscow Conceptualism’s other leader, Andrei Monastyrsky, who interpreted the Stalin-era Exhibition of Economic Achievements (VDNKh) and other “sacred” Soviet spaces in exactly this way. Just as the Sots-Art generation found a foothold in the aesthetics of its own Soviet childhood during the late Stalinism of the 1940s-50s, the next generation took as its historical mission the revival of the aesthetic of the de-Stalinized 1960s. Most importantly, they did not understand this period as totalitarian, but as a time of potential for the emancipation of the personality and for democracy.
In his installations, Gutov appeals to the spatial model of “all-sidedness,” which dominated Soviet architecture, projects of public space, and cinema. In the USSR, “all-sided” space was actually understood as something “dialectical” that simultaneously accentuated both vertical and horizontal dimensions, the dimensions of the social dynamic and of interpersonal communication, or, to put it differently, of self-realization and of brotherhood. In this sense, the sixties directly inherited many of the ideas from the 1930s that bypassed late Stalinism. What’s more, they were the direct heirs of Marx’s ideas, especially his critique of the personality’s alienation through labor and his apologia of the personality’s self-realization through creativity. This is quite easy to explain. Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which contain the most compact formulation of this thesis, were only published in 1932 (even if an incomplete version had already appeared in Russian in 1927). While the conditions in the Soviet Union during the period hardly facilitated their public theoretical discussion, they certainly had an impact on art. Their influence seems particularly strong in the new left-wing architecture’s ideas about the “garden city” in the late 1930s, which centered on the mobility of the individual, the development of his or her personality, and the organization of his or her free time. A complete Russian version of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 was only published in 1956, following the official beginning of de-Stalinization in the same year. By the 1960s, this manuscript and the problem of human alienation stood at the center of Soviet neo-Marxist debates, bringing them closer to Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School. This proximity was generally acknowledged, so that post-Stalinist skepticism toward “critical theory” was more of an immanent critique than an external condemnation. This discourse, in turn, exerted considerable influence on 1960s urban planning and industrial design, thus affecting the lives of millions of people. In part, these included those depicted in Yuri Pimenov’s painting A Wedding on the Street of Tomorrow (1962), which Gutov set into scene in his monumental installation Above Black Mud (see above). Obviously, such installations were only possible in the early 1990s, in the Russia of “Yeltsin’s first term,” when hope for emancipation – whatever that meant – dominated the social atmosphere of Russia. The euphoria of a social space of enormous possibility, simultaneously open on all sides, dominated this period as well. Everyone had a chance to get rich instantly (or to get killed in a criminal showdown). The actual venues where artists showed their work – exhibition halls, the Center for Contemporary Art, the Kuskovo Museum-Park, or the abandoned Gagarin Pioneer Camp outside of Moscow – were not yet perceived as privatized space, even if they were no longer owned or run by the state.
Capitalism already loomed on the horizon, but the most fascinating phenomena in the socio-political landscape had not yet been subjected to the mechanisms of the market; quite the contrary, they were intensified to the point of becoming a kind of phantasmagoric communist gift economy, a ritual economy of excess. Money, life, fate, and entire historical epochs easily became worthless and were thrown out the window. One of Gutov’s projects, The Little Nothings of Our Life (1991), was dedicated to inflation. In this performance, he hired an actor to sell by the pound the small coins that had become worthless after the currency reform. The Sixties, or Once More about Love (1993), whose title refers to a famous Soviet film from 1968, was Gutov’s first “total installation,” occupying the entire exhibition space. It was also dedicated to this subject. The sawdust that completely filled the exhibition space testified to the fact that its unseen hero had worked through and used up a huge amount of material (with a circular saw) before finding a place for love, yet another “anti-economic” act, somewhere in all the waste his creativity had generated.
The installation Above Black Mud (1994) was a turning point, as well as the last installation in this series. It was guarded by rather humorless security guards, making the closure of the space and its visibility to surveillance more than symbolic. At the same time, huge shop windows maximized the expositional quality. There was no doubt that this was a very different type of space, a commercial gallery that had recently been opened with capital from a new Russian bank (in 1992-93, primary accumulation was at its peak). Here, the artist already understood that capital “flows” into an existing framework like black mud, a framework that incidentally proved just as ephemeral as the installation itself: the space closed soon afterward.
In this moment, Gutov’s attention shifted from space to reality, and even to the notion of “truth,” which is really only a conception of reality emphasizing its moral superiority over fantasy, imagination, or art. This is precisely the role that the notion of “mud” had always played in the Russian aesthetic tradition. As Pavel Tretyakov, the famous Russian 19th century collector and patron of the arts, put it, “Give me at least a puddle of mud, so that there might be some truth in the matter.” Therefore, the questions Gutov posed in this work were, how much truth can a commercial gallery take? And how much realism can international contemporary art take in a time when realism is forbidden?
Gutov founded the Lifshitz Institute in the same year, confirming his commitment to realist aesthetics.
Video: the Temptation of the Moving Image
By 1995, Russia’s newly formed political landscape had begun to ossify. But more and more resources were also being spent on its maintenance through overt and hidden PR, a word that first entered the Russian language during this period. Dominated by young intellectuals in highly paid positions, both television and the press undertook an unprecedented, rather mercenary propaganda campaign before the presidential elections of 1996 to discredit all political forces aside from those in power. Institutionalized in a large number of agencies disguised as analytical consulting firms and scholarly research groups, political spin doctors were able to supply the Yeltsin administration with a victory on both federal and regional levels. In discrediting the administration’s opponents, this PR industry generated technologies as witty as the most daring conceptualist art projects. With the universities struggling financially, the position of the uninvolved observer lost the ground under its feet and became unattractive. Dissidence was now understood as something “marginal.” Art was expected to affirm the capitalism that was emerging, although the state was even willing to pay for negative provocations thrown its way, since what was being said seemed far less important than about whom it was being said. While continuing to represent many artists, including Dmitri Gutov, the art dealer Marat Guelman found himself at the center of this whirlpool of politics, art, PR, and money.
For someone looking for some kind of distance from which to observe all of this, if that was even possible, the category of freedom proved far less interesting than the category of ideological illusion. It seemed high time to approach the problem of “false consciousness.” At this point Gutov stopped making installations. For a certain period of time, he capitulated to reality, whose phantasmagoria seemed to go above and beyond all expectations, presenting a rich weave of banditism, consumption conspicuous to the point of self-caricature, financial pyramids, imperial pretenses, and the anecdotal restoration of Tsarist and Russian Orthodox rituals. Taking part in a group project for the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995 (together with Evgeny Asse, Vadim Fishkin, and the curator Viktor Misiano), he suggested filling the pavilion with weapons confiscated by the FSB over the course of a year, or dedicating the entire exhibition to the completely Gogolian story of MMM, the most famous financial pyramid of the time. In the end, the joint project consisted of documentation of Russian reality with photographs, newspaper clippings, and films about the cyclical epic of the construction-destruction-construction of the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.
For Gutov, the main question then became how to understand all of this anti-historical and anti-economic bedlam. This is why he suggested a quote from Marx (“Consciousness is something that the world has to acquire, even if it does not want to”) as the name for this exhibition. One of his pieces also figured prominently in the exhibition. It was a fragment of a newsreel from the mid-1930s that shows a performer from an amateur talent group sticking the tips of his fingers into his mouth to whistle the sweet melody of Tchaikovsky’s “Neapolitan Song.”
This figure of the whistler – a muted singer with his fingers stuffed in his mouth to prevent himself from saying anything, which, in the context of the 1930s, inevitably means to gag the voice of criticism – bears a strange similarity to Gutov’s other pieces and projects. In 1999, he shot his Blind Singers in a pedestrian underpass (which he then exhibited as a series of photos and a video on a monitor). Around the same time, the participants of the Lifshitz Institute’s meetings began to sing; in other words, they gave up discussion and began to perform as artists or rhapsodists. It may well be that they too were gagging themselves by singing, or at least muting a certain form of distanced thinking. This gives rise to the question, can one really engage in critical reflection through recitative incantations? If Stalinist film heroes break into song when overwhelmed by an excess of emotion, is this really proof of this art form’s totalitarian quality? Or, put differently, is critical reflection even possible through art, if art is basically something that affords aesthetic pleasure, if it is an “opium of the people,” a form of manipulation? And what if it is an “aestheticization of the political”? This last question can obviously only be answered in one way: by politicizing the aestheticization of the political.
If one subscribes to Walter Benjamin’s claim that “with regard to the screen, the critical and receptive attitudes of the audience coincide,” then the moving image is the weakest link in the front of those arts that see the author’s critical attitude as a prerequisite for the artwork’s aesthetic and moral integrity. Until “video-paintings” on flat screens become standard household objects, the moving image is still oriented toward collective reception by a mass audience, and thus always carries the potential of mass euphoria. Since Gutov categorically rejects this kind of euphoria, insisting upon art’s critical impulse rather than its utopian aspect, he began to work with video, a material that resists his intentions. Benjamin quotes the French writer Georges Duhamel, who wrote that he could not think while watching films because his “thoughts have been replaced by moving images”; Gutov wants to reveal the mechanism that allows this eclipse of thought to take place, and possibly, to suggest ways of resisting its pressure, a little like an experienced spy offering detailed instructions on how to fool a lie detector.
Here Gutov turns to Soviet art for help yet again. From the very beginning, Soviet art tried to involve the collectivized spectator in a social process, even if it never crossed over to film completely (at least in part due to a deficit in technology) and still kept a place for painting. Thus, the aesthetic of Soviet painting presented something of a compromise between moving and static images. Since the artist had to be a materialist, he needed to paint reality as it was. However, since he also had to be a dialectician, he could not simply produce self-sufficient, static pictures. Instead, he had to respond to the demand of 1930s aesthetic theory “to develop the image beyond its frame.” This meant that the image became little more than a stage in an overall process, a phase in a general sequence of movements. Understood as such, the Soviet painting has little value in and of itself, and cannot be measured against the bourgeois notion of the “masterpiece.” This is reminiscent of the serial aesthetics often employed in contemporary art, though it is actually far more radical. It also provides a space between video and painting, which Gutov began to explore.
In his film Moscow Summer (2000), produced for an exhibition dedicated to the story of the “lower levels” of Soviet everyday life and Soviet emotions, we see a series of girls in miniskirts (and a little of what is under them) on the steps of an ascending escalator in the metro. Here, the erotic effect of peeking up women’s skirts is directly related to the aesthetic project of the Moscow metro and its ceiling mosaics. Any effort to look at these mosaics attentively without stopping – and movement, after all, is what the Moscow metro was made for – produces a sense of vertigo and, as its architects hoped, an ecstasy akin to that of the heroine on the Stenberg brother’s famous poster for Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, who throws her head back so far that she literally “loses it.”
The film is accompanied by a recording of a “criminal chanson” by Arkady Severny, who was popular during the Soviet seventies. The combination of Severny’s husky, masculine voice with the joy of fluttering miniskirts and the metro, a symbolic shrine of Soviet communality, transports the spectator into a stream of love, friendship, and free time, which is what the Soviet sixties and seventies were all about. This effect becomes even stronger in a series of small paintings, in which the artist has replicated frames from his video, painting them with a “Soviet sprezzatura,” a certain virtuosic carelessness that hides a boundless belief in the goodness of human nature, that doesn’t waste time on recriminations or unkind criticism, since, after all, the spectator is “one of us” and not the enemy.
Essentially, the question being raised here is, how can one experience euphoria without losing one’s head in the process? The video installation From Apartment to Apartment (2002) also presents a meditation on this theme. Two parallel screens show projections of a moving panorama of Moscow, shot from a moving car. Both cameras were turned upside down, so that both shots have been turned over by 180 degrees. This piece was inspired by the famous “camera obscura” effect, which Gutov once experienced when he rode through his home city in the back of a closed truck while helping a friend to move from one apartment to another (hence, the installation’s name). However, unlike the camera obscura that served as a favorite funfair attraction from the seventeenth century onward, Gutov’s project lacks a mirror, so that the image remains inverted.
Would it be going too far to read this mirror as a symbol for reflection, and the author’s gesture as a resigned renunciation of the position inhabited by the distanced observer or the flaneur? Gutov likes to quote the early Mikhail Lifshitz: “The time has come to say farewell to the mousy scrambling of reflection,” but this hardly means that reflection should be replaced by the glorification of reality. We see Moscow “from all sides,” dialectically and positively, but this dialectic destabilizes us – literally knocks the ground out from under our feet – so that it is reflection’s prohibition that allows us to see Moscow as it really is. If all Russian artists are searching for a new aesthetic and ethical gesture, Gutov suggests that one can be found in “human resignation.” Coined by the nineteenth century literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, this term was Mikhail Lifshitz’s favorite turn of phrase. It refers to a type of wise and stoic participation in a reality with which one does not agree. Perhaps this is why the film From Apartment to Apartment accompanies its flow of images of neo-capitalist Moscow, so unsympathetic for the artist in all of its splendor and squalor, with a romance, in which a velveteen tenor confesses to his new lady friend that he does not know whether or not he really loves her, but suspects that he may.
Do love or commitment inevitably create a false image of the world? Or is this actually our natural, physiological point of view before our consciousness develops, the way in which an infant sees? As we know, Marx used the camera obscura and its inverted image (before it was corrected by the reflection of the mirror) as a metaphor for ideology. But is it possible to see the world in a completely non-ideological way?
In 2006, the artist used the same aesthetic device of inverting the image 180 degrees in his video installation Farewell, You Craggy Rock-Ribbed Mountains. Its soundtrack is the heroic Soviet song of the same title. Performed by the children’s choir customary at official celebrations, it combines the manipulative attitude toward “love for the motherland” with a genuine and irreducible measure of tragedy. The inverted projection on the screen shows seagulls, flapping their wings in the air so that their motion seems strangely impeded, as if they were trying to keep from sinking under a dense mass of water. The universal law of gravity – a law which binds people to the ground and which Soviet utopianism ignored with its ideal of free flight, defying the rest of the world much as it ignored the laws of the market – is in effect once again.
With the new century, new administration, new atmosphere, and new economy, unbridled privatization has given way to the systematic reconstruction of the state. Putin’s abolition of gubernatorial elections has also rendered the services of most political technologists useless. Television and the press no longer seem as interesting, simply because they no longer matter. The number of accidental or unexpected factors in political reality has dwindled to nearly zero. Parliament deputies no longer wear fake plastic breasts for polemic purposes. Moreover, they don’t get killed as often anymore. The superstructure has lost its tragicomic quirkiness, so that it no longer seems to contain the phantom traces of art. While it was tempting to see Boris Yeltsin as some kind of unbalanced artist, Vladimir Putin does not lend himself to such an interpretation. The fog of art that enveloped ideology and politics has lifted. And this also means that art is now free to pursue a professional and intellectual autonomy. Art is finally being bought and sold properly in Russia. While this entails a final resignation to the inevitability of the private market, it also seems to hold hope for a new social beginning: museums are slowly emerging from private collections, whose owners are finally beginning to realize their responsibility toward society at large. The new society will not grow on the ruins of Soviet society and Soviet space. These have been destroyed. Instead, it will emerge from private society, which has come to recognize its autonomy.
In this new era, Gutov has begun to paint. His paintings are figurative, although this is hardly shocking to most people today. Figurative painting usually refers to television, photography, or cinema, and not to the forgotten tradition of realistic painting that Gutov secretly remembers. Everything that surrounds us today is figurative, not just in the sense that our surroundings are not abstract, but also in that they are composed of images rather than reality. This historical triumph of figurative art over abstraction (something very few recognize, perhaps because it sneaked up on us through the “new” media) may well also be a victory over abstract thinking. But here comes another question from Gutov: can one really think in figurative paintings? Or has criticism invented certain routine forms that it needs to understand itself?
Gutov has not produced paintings superficially similar to nineteenth century realism since the exhibition Dilettantism in Art, although one could say that he rehabilitates this kind of painting through his videos. Some of his paintings present renditions of book covers, but these often transform the covers of serious books into the covers erotic magazines. In his series Superwoman (2004), the works of Hegel and Agamben are decorated by half-naked girls in seductive poses.
Here, Gutov seems to repeat paradigmatic statements of modernist art that liken the painting to a prostitute at the same time that reality became a process of buying and selling. This is the intention behind Edouard Manet’s Olympia (whose analogy in Russian realism can be found in Ivan Kramskoi’s painting Unknown Woman (1883), a variation on the same theme. In fact, modernism’s central discovery consists in the idea that “everything is a commodity,” an idea which most of its artworks demonstrate. In this sense, modernism is nothing but an artistic projection of Marxism. As we all know, the arrogance of the naked Olympia was followed by the arrogance of “bare” painting, which first consisted of blots and flat surfaces, and then led to the disappearance of mimetic representation altogether. The modernist artwork is nothing but a dramatization of the empty sign, which is how Marx describes the commodity, a sign that has traded in its genuine use value for exchange value, selling its birthright for a mess of pottage. While this burlesque staging of emptiness and nothingness is usually described as a form of criticism, Marxist-Leninist aesthetics understand it as a demonstration of impotence, a defeatist representation, a copy. In fact, Soviet aesthetic theory condemned abstraction for its naturalism, for its slavish reproduction of the commodity structure, which was seen as something that art should destroy.
It is a well-known fact that the representatives of the Russian avant-garde never used the term “abstract art,” but preferred to talk about “nonobjective” art. It is possible that this refers not to pictures that do not depict objects but rather to artworks that are not themselves objects in the sense of commodities, that is, proletarian “objects” selling themselves to bourgeois “subjects.” Soviet art rejected the capitalist market on an institutional level, but also on the level of each individual artwork. It achieved this not by privileging realism, but primarily by rejecting the bourgeois principle of comparison, according to which one picture is better than another. Soviet painting had to be a “subject” and as such, to be equal to other “subjects.” Soviet art endowed the singular painting with the status of a film frame that depended on its neighboring frames. A necessary consequence was that it was “unfinished” or “incomplete”; it could not be put on a pedestal. Today, artists educated within this system of a current or flow of paintings face the challenge of finding a way to exhibit their work as “things.”
One must remember that the girls in Gutov’s paintings are not really prostitutes in the strict sense, just as the paintings themselves are not really paintings. Both simply play the roles they have been given, while their “thing-ness” is actually quite weak. The girls are models and actresses and the paintings are covers of pornographic magazines. Both belong to the newest stage of capitalism, which is no longer ruled by the commodity but by its representation through advertisement. The new Olympias never even really surrender themselves to their clients.
In any case, it is easy to see that Gutov poses questions about modernism (or, more accurately, works through them) and not about the avant-garde, even if “contemporary art” considers itself the heir to the latter. Contemporary art as a system is so institutionalized and commercialized that anyone who claims the word “avant-garde” today risks ridicule, even if the claim is located within the artwork and not within discourse. Modernism, on the other hand, seems more relevant than ever.
The avant-garde – which was written about so often during the period of unrest surrounding 1968, when the notion seemed relevant again – has usually been understood as the fundamental critique of, even the destruction of, the “artistic institutions” of bourgeois society. The Soviet avant-garde went much further than other avant-gardes in this project of destroying the bourgeois conception of artistic autonomy. Yet in fact, it was this avant-garde that led to the complete dissolution of art into something else, into the ideological design of the USSR, or into commercial design in the West. As Peter Burger noted already in the 1970s, “where the formal possibilities have become infinite, not only authentic creation but also its scholarly analysis become correspondingly difficult.”4 This is precisely why the only effective analytical instrument available today is found in the notion of modernism. As Fredric Jameson has noted, this notion was born when there was still something that seemed unrelated to this category, when capitalism was neither total nor global.
There are two modernisms. One of them can be understood as a historical phase in the evelopment of Western art and is recognized through the use of certain forms (this is the type of modernism that Lifshitz was fighting against). The other modernism is independent of form; instead, it is a product, an expression, and an instrument of social and political modernization. This second understanding of modernism makes it possible, and even necessary, to expand its definition to include work like nineteenth century social realism (Courbet in France or the Itinerants in Russia), the art of Soviet industrialization from the 1930s, and the products of Brazilian industrialization from the 1960s. Such a view of modernism (and modernity) could provide the basis for a genuinely “inclusive” cultural policy.
It is for this reason that Mikhail Lifshitz’s scandalously famous text “Why I Am Not a Modernist,” which contradicted all the dissident sentiment of the Soviet intelligentsia during
the late 1960s, should not be discarded offhand. Like Gutov’s art, which is made to answer the question, “Why I am a modernist (but not an avant-gardist),” it too is part of the modernist tradition of immanent self-criticism, continuous self-recognition, and self-doubt as an impulse for the movement of history.
The only problem is that this tradition is in danger today. At this point, utopia (prosperity, health, and eternal life for all), totality, and totalitarianism (not to mention the manipulation of consciousness) find their main vehicle in capitalism, not communism. In reading the texts of theorists who continue to assert that art is a form of intellectual labor and not aesthetic pleasure, that they are against commercialism, and that they are providing a breathing hole within a suffocating mass culture, one cannot help but wonder whether these authors have noticed what galleries and museums are actually showing today. All too often, one encounters ponderous pretensions of Hegelian depth packaged in a glossy dust jacket designed to attract the passing customer, perhaps bearing the image of a naked Olympia.
At this point, we do not yet have the tools to describe, let alone analyze, this kind of art. Gutov suggests that we search for them in Soviet Marxism, and this presents at least some hope in what is otherwise (let’s be honest) a pitch black night of intellectual powerlessness and despair.