First publication – Translit #5 (2009)
Recently I understood clearly that art couldn’t help but be communist. This is not at all a manifestation of ideology, as it would seem to some. Nor is it dogma. It is just that suddenly it became obvious that all art – from Ancient Greece to the present day; that art which has overcome the egoism and conceit in itself – contained the potential to be communist. Regardless of its pessimism or optimism, such art is dedicated not to some social group but to one and all. This is not some kind of propaganda trick. That’s what happens with an artist whose art is not afraid of people. Often art is either afraid of losing itself in the crowd or, the other extreme, it attempts to be artificially populist so it isn’t suspected of being refined or subtle, or is addressed to an in-crowd of discerning connoisseurs and experts.
When I say communist of course I have in mind not membership in a party but a worldview. It is this breadth of worldview, which exceeds the boundaries of a single state, nation, class, artistic school, and the private or even spiritual interests of a specific individual, that predetermines the communist potential in a work of art.
This means that the artist has the strength to be not just one person, but many – the strength to not merely observe life and the multitude of living beings but to be or become them by means of art.
This mode of art where the artist can be “many” exists. Dostoevsky was able to be many people at once. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Vvedensky, Khlebnikov, Brecht, Mozart, Mayakovsky, Platonov and Beckett are other examples. The mode of art I’m speaking of is the so-called theater. I certainly don’t mean repertory or genre theater. Ninety-nine percent of repertory theater is just cultural entertainment. What I call theater is a kind of anthropological and political mode that arises as the capacity to artistically perform the transformation itself.
For me, this inevitable shift to the theater occurred on the one hand from poetry and, on the other, from contemporary art. The limiting factor in poetry was its monologism, the fact that it condemned one in a way to acmeism and lyricism, i.e., to in the end being preoccupied all the time with oneself even when one speaks of the world, and often to castrating the heritage of both the avant-garde and modernism. Contemporary art is in a certain sense the direct opposite of poetry. It is not psychological nor is it subjective. By and large, it continues to operate according to the modernist canon of reducing the world to its own artistic idioms.
However, contemporary art’s constant reference to its own territory and innovations in technique had already exhausted itself in the seventies and was forced to either dwell on the reproduction of languages, concepts and commentaries, or on eternally reproducing estranged spaces as modes of the optical unconscious. In any event, even when contemporary art attempts to come close to the event, it doesn’t succeed in doing this because it immediately negates its attempt. Contemporary art’s spaces of representation, exposition and commentary are organized in such a way that no matter what contemporary art concerns itself with, it is inevitably and in the final analysis concerned with itself and its own boundaries.
Even performance (or actions), despite its procedural nature and its unfolding in real time, is essentially the installation of a concept in space and time. It is a static, exhibited art object. It is forced to be this way.
Theater, on the contrary, is dynamic. It represents the experience of performing, not performance. In the mode of action that has not yet become but is becoming, it appeals to that which does not yet exist, whether in society, life or art. It not only lives through time, but performs time, i.e., it is capable of dealing with the present as if it were the future.
Exhibition spaces, even when they thematize certain social or political issues, remain bound by the politics of things and spaces. The theater presupposes politicization between people. The theater is experience that leaves things behind. It is the experience of consciousness becoming immaterial. If in contemporary-art performance the participant a priori conceptualizes themselves as a performer, then in the theatrical performance becoming-performer occurs thanks to the fact that the performer (actor) becomes a person and that person’s political destiny. In other words, the performer becomes an artist thanks to the fact that he performs a human being in the play.
The theater is a space for humans, not a space for artists. But the paradox is that becoming-human needs to be performed, while the artist must naturalistically and physiologically inhabit the conceptual art-space of the performance while remaining an estranged individual. Even when it is a monologue, theater is a dialogue and starts with the number two.
The theater is capable of speaking and acting out an idea without reducing it to bare form or neutralized concept. This is because, in the theater, the idea is acted out as the living substance of relationships, in the mode of unreduced multi-humanity and polyphony.
In poetry, for example, it is difficult to overcome being fettered in the habitat of self. There’s nothing bad about the habitat of self. There’s also nothing bad in observing the subject beyond reality, beyond people, beyond society. But this is the perspective of a single point of view, a single consciousness.
Vsevolod Meyerhold coined the term cabotinage, which he considered one of the most important features of the theater. Cabotains are nomadic players who perform anywhere. In other words, they are not bound to a room, space or time, but create both space and time out of their performance of worlds, ideas, people, and so forth.
Theater is implicitly public, but often the concept of being public is identified with the audience who watches the spectacle, i.e., the contemplation of action as entertainment. But the fact that it is public means that the theater has the potential to be about everyone, about how the world is for everyone, about how to be with the world, if it is not for everyone; and what to do with those who for one reason or another have been left without a world. The theater assumes that it will no longer wait for money, prosperity, education or beauty, but it turns waiting itself into action, as in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
In this sense, the theater’s capacity to dealt with politics exceeds the capacity of the idioms of contemporary art, no matter how numerous they may be, and even the capacity of poetry, no matter how existentially profound or socially critical it may be. This is because in the theater the political is not a theme or an issue, but is clarified between people when those people are not just documented objects or observed characters, but speaking political subjects. The essence of dramatization is that it is never reduced to the representation of a single idea; rather, many ideas or ideas/people come into conflict with one another in such a way that the solution or conclusion to that conflict flows from the action itself without being predetermined.
The voices and discourses of theater are not just the sounds, opinions and narratives typical of many video works and documentations within contemporary art. They are not interviews with victims who recount how they suffered or accounts of an event. The theater treats suffering differently than do the media, contemporary art, literature or poetry. It incorporates a performance of this role by the victim themselves or the so-called oppressed person (an awful word that is humiliating and degrading) that would be a (artistic) performance of their own victory over circumstances. Herein lie the political, aesthetic and communist potentialities of theater.
To be able to learn to speak not only for oneself but (as in the case of the author and the actor) to speak instead of many others: this has to be done if only to understand or clarify what happened or is happening among us, in our country, in our state, in the world; in order to understand how to go on living within it. (Isn’t that Hamlet’s purpose in launching his “theater”?).
The hardest thing is to imagine not only one’s own development and self-improvement, even if it achieves great heights in viewing the world, but to discern the development and self-improvement of others. In other words, to understand the universal dynamically, multitudinously, as an action that happens “alongside” (one), rather than conically, spiritually.
I rely on one assumption: artistic achievements don’t count, and the spiritual quest for the transcendental is not worth anything if they occur only because they don’t take into account the great majority of people on this earth, who have neither time nor place nor elementary living conditions, the freedom of existence that makes it possible to think, create, love and live. No personal connection to the sublime counts if we do not understand that all people, no matter who they might be, are potentially artists, scientists, engineers, philosophers, interlocutors, comrades in arms, and just people. Without them it is impossible to achieve the fullness of the world and life. And potentially they are also capable of thinking the same way. Nothing more. This is the communist assumption in simple terms.
Actually, there is no communism and there never was, but there is the project of communism. It cannot help being just as humans can’t help being as long as they are, as long as people exist in their multitude.
Many resist the communist in themselves, in reality, in art and in history. This is out of fear for oneself, for one’s well-being, for what little power one has; for one’s success, and, finally, for one’s education and culture, acquired through such long, hard work. Everyone without exception has this fear. It is a bodily fear. But so what? It can be overcome. It is quite possible to think of oneself as if you were thinking about others, as if you were not thinking about yourself. This is very difficult, but it becomes easy when these thoughts take on flesh in the situation of artistic performance.
The nomadic theater of the communist is in a certain sense the opportunity to temporarily (artistic time is temporary, although it lays claim to immortality) create the relations of political Eros using the means available now, to introduce (albeit temporarily) this artistic communist space into the existing environment in spite of the circumstances. As many people as want and are able to do it right now do this, in the place they have found for it now and for those who are ready for such an encounter now.
In this case, the theater is not a genre but a method of emergence for the territory of the “artistic.” Here the “artistic” borders on the poetic, and poetry emerges in the performance of an impossible situation, not in writing. The artistic becomes human and the human becomes artistic, because the entire person is engaged in the process of performance: her body, mind, thoughts, desire, and not just individual capacities or qualifications.
This doesn’t at all mean that such “theater” presumes nothing more than creative improvisation, that it happens somewhere, somehow and is about something, in a spontaneous situation among spontaneous participants. It is also not an illustration of some story or plot on the theme of communism or the political struggle.
The nomadic theater of the communist is connected with a special type of metanoia that doesn’t just beget a desire to create, but requires the world and other people in this world. This metanoia is an event and it presumes a desire for the universal and universality, making the person as it were a “communist” and an artist at one and the same time. It makes them an artist because it must repeat, “rehearse” this inescapable event of metanoia, which is realized in the repetitive practice of performance. And it makes them a communist because each time the performance makes it possible to experience, understand or create a co-presence with others, to examine the bases of such co-presence, and to perform the fulfillment of the universal.