Band XI Heft 4 / Band XII Heft 1 – Winter 2006 – Kollektive Amnesien
Marx’s Doctrine Is All-Powerful Because It Is True
An interview with the Russian artist Dmitri Gutov about the work and influence of the philosopher Michail Lifschitz
Gutov (born 1960) is one of the most important representatives of contemporary
Russian art. But it is precisely of contemporary art – a field in which he
works as an installation artist, video artist and painter – that he is so
sceptical. Since the end of the eighties, his main interest has been in the
Soviet thirties and the Marxist aesthetic that evolved during these years. And
that in its most conservative guise, as formulated by the orthodox Marxist
philosopher Michail Lifschitz (1905-1983).
In 1994 Gutov, together with the artist and curator Konstantin Bokhorov, founded the »Lifschitz Institute«, which focuses on this passionate anti-modernist. Conceived as a group for reading and discussion, the Institute collects the works of Lifschitz, now rarities, puts them online, organises seminars and discussions, and also runs exhibitions dedicated to Lifschitz and his cultural theory. In the following interview, however, we have tried to find out what is really at issue here.
David Riff: Over the past 30 years, artists from
Dmitri Gutov: At the end of the fifties, during the political thaw under Khrushchev, the intelligentsia rediscovered modernism, but they completely and utterly rejected everything that had to do with the »totalitarian« Stalin epoch. It wasn’t until the start of the seventies that the conceptualists started being interested in this period. The presentiment behind this endeavour was not wrong: there is a lot to be researched in this epoch. But, in practice, the conceptualists worked like archaeological thieves. They destroyed the most valuable layers, and simply ignored phenomena that were less striking, but all the more important. When trying to enhance the status of the Stalin epoch, they focused on its most primitive, appallingly vulgar elements, Soviet trash. What’s more, the conceptualists saw this epoch as a unified style. In this regard, they barely differed from the preceding generation. The »Lifschitz Institute« has made a completely different discovery (if you can speak of discoveries at all here): that the unified appearance of the gesamtkunstwerk Stalin was an illusion. We found an inner discontinuity in this epoch that had simply not registered on the meters of the
Riff: So, to put things in the terms of the
Gutov: Yes. The debates on literature and art in particular were the nervous centre of the thirties, and Michail Lifschitz was a central figure in these debates.
Riff: But if you follow Boris Groys’ account this inner conflict seems to have become conceivable again only when real existing socialism collapsed. Why? And why Lifschitz?
Gutov: To understand how it became possible to read Lifschitz from a different point of view, you have to think yourself back to the Perestroika. A phantasmagoric epoch, completely unique. On the one hand, an enormous degree of freedom suddenly arrived. The repressive state apparatus had neither the chance nor the desire to intervene in the way things were spontaneously developing. On the other hand, no one was really able to imagine what power money can actually exercise. The Perestroika was, so to speak, a ray of hope between two mechanisms of power; one had already disintegrated, the other was not yet really evolved. Michail Lifschitz called such periods »intermediate spaces of history«. In his philosophy, he paid a great deal of attention to such states. For example, that is how he understands antiquity: as a rift between the Archaic and the still undeveloped class contrasts of capitalist civilisation. In such moments, everything that can deform people and culture is weakened. He describes his life situation at the turn from the twenties to the thirties in a similar way. Between the vulgar Marxism of the twenties and the sombre dogmatic atmosphere of the second half of the thirties. Of course, the late eighties that we experienced were only a pale imitation of much brighter periods of hope, but still, there was something similar in the air.
At any rate, the discovery of Michail Lifschitz’s works was a shock. For my generation - that is, for those people who were students during the seventies and eighties -, Soviet Marxism was a murky soup, a sort of abracadabra. And Lifschitz was known as its most orthodox champion. To use the words of Dionysius the Areopagite: in the epicentre of this darkness we discovered light. It turned out that there are texts about the very same wooden themes that we had drummed into us ad nauseam, but they are subtle and refined despite their apparent simplicity. As the background with which Lifschitz’s texts were mingled disappeared, the key to his works was found: that they should not be taken literally. But this was not immediately clear to everyone, to put it mildly.
Riff: What exactly makes Lifschitz’s aesthetic theories so special?
Gutov: To explain more precisely what is at stake here, we can draw on one of Marx’s best-known statements on art from the introduction to the »Fundamentals«. Marx writes: »The difficulty does not lie in understanding that Greek art and epos are coupled with particular forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us artistic pleasure and, in a certain regard, are considered as a norm and unattainable model.«
If we put aside all considerations of the normativity of Greek art, we see a central problem in this sentence: the fact that an art work gives us artistic pleasure at all, independently of the social circumstances under which it was created. That sounds like a non-Marxist, metaphysical problem. Basically, this quote postulates that art has an extra-historical component and that this component is actually the most important part of the art. No form of sociology can explain it.
In the thirties, some thinkers discovered a consistently anti-relativist message in Marx’s legacy. This can be seen with the greatest clarity on the margins, so to speak, of the classic Marx themes, in Marx’s cultural philosophy. Before Lifschitz, it was thought that this philosophy didn’t even exist. He reconstructed it using meticulously collected statements of Marx and Engels on art and literature, which he published as an anthology. At the end of his life, he said that he held this work in much higher esteem than his other, original works.
Riff: But I still wonder whether the aesthetic debates of the twenties and thirties were concerned with the »artistic pleasure« that Marx describes in his introduction. And how did Lifschitz understand this pleasure? »Artistic pleasure« sounds to me like late Romanticism, Biedermeier, a superficial bourgeois luxury.
Gutov: The nature of this artistic pleasure is bound up with the fact that a person sees the meaning of his own historical and personal life in the mirror of art with greater clarity. As we know, Marx did not like to speak of eternal matters. Since his early article »Debates on the Law on the Theft of Wood« (1842), he concentrated his attention on material issues. However – and this was the big discovery of the thirties: the extremely down-to-earth language of Marx contains more pertinent approaches to issues traditionally seen as metaphysical than doctrines that tackle such issues head on. One could say that the old proverb from the Orient, »He who knows speaks not, he who speaks knows not”, was projected onto Marx in the thirties.
Riff: In this sense, then, the debates of the twenties and thirties were about truth and not about pleasure, that is, about Lenin’s dictum: »The doctrine of Marx is all-powerful because it is true.«
Gutov: Precisely. Lifschitz puts his most important discovery as follows: »An absolute standpoint is by no means alien to the true Marxist classicism. It sees truth, justice and beauty not as things dependent on time, but as the highest content of the class struggle, and true values are anyway among the objective predicates of reality itself.« That was Marx, read not simply through Hegel, but through Plato.
Riff: Another question: You say that Lifschitz understands Marx as seeing the ultimate content of art as being extra-historical. But there is another, no less interesting way to read this quote from the »Fundamentals«. »The Greeks« Marx writes there, »were normal children.« For us, the fascination of their art has to do with the fact »that the immature social conditions under which it arose … can never return.« Like normal children, they anticipate becoming adult, but the demagification of adulthood gives their hope no chance: »What can Jupiter do faced with a lightning rod?« What still remains of the art work, however, is its premonition of a coming truth, a redemption. But this redemption is a long time in coming. The result. a cleft between a »coming community« and reality, whose historical forces drive us together like cattle. Precisely this expectation is palpable in every work of art, comprises its worth and justifies its circulation as a product that, despite all its unrepeatability, forces reproduction. So, in the end, we will always betray the hopes of the »normal children«. Couldn’t we make a connection here to the twenties and thirties? To the awareness of a catastrophic betrayal that is taking place or will take place soon? If this is not the issue, all our discussion about the unrepeatability of the twenties or thirties is nothing but historicism.
Gutov: Well, the reflection on the Soviet twenties and thirties is not historicism. The uniqueness of this period lies in its anticipation of the future. If we put it more broadly, we could say the same about the whole of Marxism. Interest in it is interest in a future that became visible for a short moment with an intensity that is almost beyond perception. That is why it is only with the greatest effort that historical memory has been able to record this experience. Today, this experience has to be pieced together again from fragments, from feeble traces in the ruins, from scraps, intimations and shadows.
In this ephemeral view into the future, there was a huge contradiction. On the one hand, it was a world after capitalism. The actualised presentiment of a classless society. The materialisation of a theory of a higher form of life. The found key to the mystery of history. Many aspects of everyday life already bore the traits of real communism. But the other side of this experience was a growing awareness during the thirties that the revolution had suffered a fatal defeat. That it remained unfulfilled in its most important facets. That it had turned into a completely irrational nightmare. The collapse of real socialism that we experienced in the eighties was nothing but a weak echo of this defeat.
So the quintessence of the thirties was that communism was adopted, but at the same time showed itself to be unviable. This unity – which shaped the inner experience of a whole generation – will remain alive for an indefinite period. Precisely because of this, we can still fall back on this experience, even if the situation at the present day may seem hopeless. There was a time when it was reality.
To return to amnesia: the shock of this unprecedented failure had its post-traumatic consequences; the most valuable elements were deleted. It is because of this that the Marx reading of the thirties appears so invaluable. That which they noticed is invisible under other circumstances. The twilight of the simultaneously victorious and dying revolution is unique. Our experience has far less colour. As survivors of the end of illusions, the people of the thirties were far more sober than us; but as witnesses of the realised revolution, which was not illusory, they belong to tomorrow.
Riff: Nonetheless, Lifschitz was a conservative philosopher, a dedicated opponent of modernism. Another contradiction! In what does his revolutionary potential, his anticipation of the future, consist?
Gutov: To answer this question, I would have to explain Lifschitz’s concept of conservatism, one that was central to his thinking. To reduce it to its essence: every mechanical confrontation between the revolutionary and the conservative is superficial and almost meaningless. There are ultrarevolutionary forms in whose heart is concealed a reactionary conservatism. Those possessing such an awareness often illustrate this idea with their destiny, especially if they pass without any hiatus from a radical break to religious obscurantism. But there is also a form of conservatism with an inherent democratic content, with a colossal protest potential. That is how Lifschitz understood Socrates, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Dostoevsky. This was also the source of his interest in the conservative artistic ideal of Marx and Lenin. All of these considerations should also be taken into account in the case of Lifschitz, who was mostly seen as an archconservative obscurant and reactionary. He called this the great restoration of the truth of old cultures without retrograde ideas.
Riff: Hence Lifschitz’s critique of avant-garde artists …
Gutov: One folder from the Lifschitz archive that was recently published in part is called »The Meaning of the World«. In this folder there is a fragment that sheds light on the rage with which Lifschitz fell upon the entire aesthetic project of the 20th century. It sounds like this: »The idea of the absurd is the most extreme expression of irrationalism (it exists already with Dada). The absurd is the negation of the >logodicy<, adaequatio rei et intellectus [the equation of things and the intellect]. Not irrationality as the best way to gain insights into the world, but the irrationality of the world per se, the dying of its reason – not only in this concrete form, but in the form of possibility.« Lifschitz sees the finally direction taken by art after Picasso’s »The Young Women of Avignon« as the artistic equivalent of the »dying of the world’s reason in the form of its possibility.«
Riff: So, a complete rejection of contemporary art in the name of truth and reason. But you are a contemporary artist and yet you find your most important inspiration in Lifschitz, of all people. How is that possible?
Gutov: I see something in the project of contemporary art that is unsatisfying. Particularly in the manifestations that are considered successful. When leafing through art journals and taking part in exhibitions, I feel an almost physical unease. But here I would like to use an observation that I have made previously regarding the Soviet experience in the thirties. Within this unity there is also an inner rupture. Something that is tantamount to a deep discontent. But it is precisely this discontent that comes closest to the art of a future communist society. My turning to the thirties is a turning to a beginning that has found no end. At the level of artistic practice, this corresponds to a reflection on the basics, elementary mimetic experiments, work on pieces of art that depict something. After all the artistic and social experiments of the past century, that is like wanting to turn a fish soup into an aquarium.