Therefore, what we are lacking (for we do lack something in particular—there is no point in hiding that it is politics we lack) is not at all the matter and the forms from which myth might be fabricated. For that there is always sufficient rubbish, ideological kitsch that is as banal as it dangerous. What we lack, however, is the insight necessary to discern the events in which our future truly has its origins. They are not, of course, produced in the return of myths. We longer dwell in that dimension, in the logic of the source. We exist belatedly, in a historical future perfect. Which does not rule out the fact that the limit of belatedness might prove to be the starting point of some innovation. Moreover, it is precisely this that demands our thought.
– Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, Le mythe nazi

Many visitors to the pretentiously titled I Believe! (which opened on the eve of the Second Moscow Biennale) share the opinion that the show is no different from any other group exhibition of contemporary Russian art. Even critics previously hostile to the show and several participants agree with this assessment. They differ, perhaps, only in what they choose to emphasize.

The curatorial team and a number of the participating artists insist on emphasizing the show’s ideological aspect. The exhibition thus addresses, as it were, the search for “positivity,” the legitimation of “faith” in the minds of the intelligentsia. (However, faith here isn’t understood narrowly; there is no necessary reference to a particular confession, or, even, religion in general.) The project, then, aims to restore faith in contemporary art and, thus, between people. These themes have been discussed to death, and the roads taken trampled into deep ruts by the herds of god-seekers and theomachists who arose within our very same Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the nineteenth century. And so the “tragedy of the Russian intelligentsia” repeats itself as farce. Something new catches the eye in this latest production, however.

For the stated theme isn’t meant simply to accessorize the new, bearded image of Oleg Kulik and Co. Swaddling themselves in faith’s blinding rays, they would love to exit from the twilight of the nineties in order finally to go legal on the more-or-less emergent Russian art market. In this sense, we might compare the artists to the notorious Russian oligarchs: they didn’t pay taxes for ten years and even paid lip service to alternative economies and means of production. After the Yukos affair, though, their chutzpah immediately flagged and they began humbly serving the Fatherland. That is, they rejected the social-political projects that were in any case a heavy load for these ex-black marketeers and limited themselves to individual projects: building yachts and vacationing at upscale resorts with harems of underage supermodels. They satisfy their metaphysical yearnings by buying “black squares” at Sotheby’s. They atone for the above-mentioned sins by paying tithes to bureaucrats and the church.

Our artists also had their own Yukos affair—the Caution: Religion! show at the Sakharov Center, which was vandalized by Orthodox thugs and then officially condemned by the authorities. Despite the conceptual feebleness of the project itself (wholly trapped in the liberal illusions of the nineties), at least the show’s participants didn’t suck up to the powers-that-be by so flagrantly imitating their current ideological ambitions. Caution: Religion! pretended that we still live in a secular social democracy, although it was already clear to everyone that this wasn’t the case.

The organizers of I Believe! learned the necessary lessons from this disgusting story. They’ve harnessed the inertia of society’s unhealthy interest in the para-ecclesiastical problematic while deleting all those of its elements that Orthodox actionists and the courts might interpret as instances of Christiano-Russophobia and “incitement of interconfessional conflict.” To this end, under the pretense of combating “liberal postmodernism,” they’ve even rejected a minimal critical distance from the reactionary concepts—“faith,”  “myth,” “national art”—that have inflamed post-Soviet social consciousness. They’ve eschewed the slightest hint of ambivalence or subversion in their presentation of these themes.

Even if it’s possible to speak of irony in a number of the works exhibited, this irony is individualistic. Such works revolve around harmless personal myths that, having outlived their historical moment, are immediately filed in the brand-new card catalogs of the conceptualist archive. Such is the impression made by the contributions of Andrei Monastyrsky, Dmitry Prigov, and Vadim Zakharov, which are interesting apart from their faithological connotations.

As we assumed would be the case, however, neither these works nor the new masterpieces of our leftist comrades (Anatoly Osmolovsky and Dmitry Gutov) and our outstanding video artists (Olga Chernysheva and Viktor Alimpiev) has proved capable of decoding the “social commission” issued by the curator.

Several years ago, Oleg Kulik invited the members of our contemporary philosophy seminar (based at the Philosophy Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, it included both Gutov and Osmolovsky) to accompany him to the jacuzzi along with the prostitutes he was researching at the time. Kulik assumed that, whatever the content of the ensuing discussion, he would be able to present our seminar as part of a more-significant performance—and that to boot we’d benefit from PR-buzz that most intellectuals could only dream of. We turned him down, of course. But time has passed and several of our comrades have slipped into this very same baptismal font in hopes of drowning out the noisy flounderings of the Blue Noses Group and AES+F. They hoped in vain.

We do understand that for the fifty-some participating artists (all very different in their own ways) the topic of faith is just the latest and not terribly significant occasion to show new works. Housed in the common space of a former distillery, the works might just as well have been exhibited anywhere else and under any banner whatsoever—even I Don’t Believe! That was the impression garnered by several initially critically minded art-scenesters when they visited the show. The colloquia on religion and culture that Kulik conducted over the course of the past year and published in the show’s catalog, entitled Xenia, were likewise viewed merely as successful preventive PR-strikes that sold the project to many people.

But the topic of faith isn’t an innocent incidental detail in Kulik’s feast of the fine arts. In the given instance, faith is the big bathtub where the artists splish-and-splash with priests and Kremlin spinmeisters instead of whores. Although none of the works in I Believe! directly engages in aestheticizing the religious symbols and values that are actively represented in the contemporary Russian mediasphere, the project’s political meaning is flagrantly conformist and reactionary. We see represented the willingness of artists to fulfill functions contrary to the nature of contemporary art—to further the cause of ideology and myth-construction, rather than protest, criticism, and revolution. Artists have grown weary of dwelling in the critical reservation of the nineties, where they carried out the diagnostic work of social clinicians. They want to infect society. This mythopoetic sentiment permeates all the “gatherings” transcribed in the catalog as well as the interviews with participating artists, even when they identify themselves as anarchists, leftists or atheists. The problem, then, is not that the artists have suddenly become “believers” (if they weren’t ones already), but that they try to view art exclusively in its faithological-mythological dimension, that they speak of creating a “new ideology,” and so forth.

Via the concept of faith they attempt to feel their way towards a new language for communicating with society. This language turns out to be the language of power: the artists want to guide ideological processes themselves and turn art into an instrument of this control. Thus, we are dealing here with the mimesis of political power that conservative thought has urged on art since Plato onwards.

I would caution, however, against calling this situation fascistic. For the essentially reactionary concept of faith is superimposed not on the revolutionary emotion of youthful antisystemic wreckers (yobs or skinheads), but rather on artists (most of whom live outside Russia) whose careers blazed like meteorites in the eighties and nineties. Nowadays, they are disenchanted with the revolution their generation made during that period and its models of collectivity. Thus, the reactionary concept of faith gets mixed up with the equally reactionary (or inert) emotion of post-Soviet bourgeois individualism, which Kulik has unsuccessfully attempted to foreclose with the pseudo-mobilizing appeal I Believe!

In this sense, the ideology behind Kulik’s project represents a trite illustration of the contemporary cynical stance that never ceases to amaze, most conspicuously, Slavoj Žižek. One cannot help but agree with him that the problem of cynicism lies in the lack of chasteness and unoriginality on display in symptomatic concepts like faith. Here they appear pre-interpreted by the artists who appeal to them for support. That is why our colleagues don’t call themselves nationalists, fundamentalists or fascists. They act, however, as if this weren’t important. They recognize, that is, that the entire topic stinks, but they act in the exact same spirit (thus obeying the logic that like cures like).

Thus it would be wrong to overestimate and demonize these virtual pilgrimages and acts of faith by accusing them of irrationalism and a lack of scientific rigor. It would be even more wrong to take them at face value, like the Psoi Korolenko-type literature scholars, unfunny analysts of laughter, and hesychast physicists who’ve come swooping down on this veritable honey pot from out of nowhere. Read the transcript of the conversation between Kulik and Sergei Anufriev: faith is knowledge, knowledge is faith—but it all still ends up in weed, shrooms, and that same-old jacuzzi.

The problematic of faith contains, nevertheless, an important ethical meaning that the exhibition’s curators and artists have passed over in silence.

The only kind of faith accessible to the individual isn’t a sentiment that can be acquired or an individual experience. This faith belongs wholly to the Other, to his free will. The Other isn’t here an object of faith, but rather its only subject. Not in the sense that it is always someone else who believes, but in the sense that what faith names isn’t dependent on the ego-subject’s will. In other words, my desire alone isn’t enough to force the Other to respond to the solicitation of my faith. Faith is founded on an absolute break, on difference that never passes into identity. It is merely the Other’s open-ended potentiality, the possibility that my trust in him will prove justified. It is no more than this, but also no less. Thus, we have access to faith only in the mode of trust (in Russian, doverie: literally, “pre-faith,” as opposed to vera, “faith”), only as a certain personal potential, as the real possibility of love for the Other—not as the confident (uverennoi) manipulation of his feelings. This manipulation, though, is what most interests Kulik and Co., the inventors of a newfangled ideological masturbatory machine. For Kulik, the Other is the masturbatory phantasm of his own divine subjectivity. In this he follows Alfred Rosenberg, who also once detected the “strong one from above” in his own soul.

Faith isn’t something innocent on this particular ideological plane. It is the inscription of violence and human misery on society’s body. It is a voluntary hell that masks itself as religious asceticism and the hope of heavenly reward for one’s earthly torments. It is a slave’s compact with his master about an acceptable measure of poverty and pain—a compact that the master constantly breaks in any case. Faith as a matter of “domestic policy” thus time and again is transformed into faith as a weapon of foreign policy, as an instrument of religious and ethnic warfare, as the principal key to the subject of violence’s identity (as Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy argue in Le mythe nazi). Belief in the “true God,” in “race” and “nation,” is here transformed into a mendacious public myth that justifies the destruction of the Other, and of other slaves who aren’t in possession of the “true faith.” (The first slaves were prisoners of war.) There thus can be no doubt about the reactionary nature of this concept in the political realm.

It would be naive to assume that the practice of a cynical faith and the construction of myths “for others” are capable of saving contemporary Russian society from decay and collapse. For cynicism is a bad thing not in itself. It is bad because it is a form of powerlessness in the face of advancing political reaction. It is bad because it is the silent (and, sometimes, frank) acceptance of power’s reactionary ideologemes, which I Believe! amplifies with its mimetic counterpoint.

Igor Chubarov (born 1965). Philosopher, anthropologist, head of the Logosaltera publishing house, and editor of a series of books on intellectual concerns and current affairs. Lives in Moscow.