David Riff: Do you remember when we visited Fred Jameson at Duke University a couple of years ago? On the first night in America, Fred’s assistant Colin took us to a burger bar, where we sat around drinking beers and making small talk. Colin was telling us about his research: Adornian music theory, post-operaist virtuosity, and American radical politics. Suddenly, there was this extraordinary moment. Our friend Vlad Sofronov, a very thin Trotskyist bald spectacled activist philosopher who had been silent all evening, leaned over and looked Colin straight in the eye. Head on, he asked him in a thick Russian accent: “Colin, what is your method? Simply describing?” I want to start our dialogue with a similar bluntness: what is your method, Comrade Gutov?
Dmitry Gutov: I remember the situation very well; it is etched into my mind. What did Vlad want to say with his question? That “simply describing” is not our method, that it is non-partisan positivism that suspends its judgement on the phenomena of reality and is therefore poorly suited to the revolutionary transformation of reality.
But I want to make a case for “simply describing.” It is not so easy to provide a simple description. Tendentious statements are far easier to construct. Everything in the world is dialectical, every object, every event. Before adding home-grown truths to that general flow, or better yet, before inserting them, it is much better to let things speak for themselves. This is really what “simply describing” is for, as a procedure. In other words, there are two kinds of “simply describing,” and not all “simple descriptions” are bad. Anyone who says otherwise is being undialectical. Because “simple descriptions” can be false and they can be true. When an author proposes no solution and never takes anyone’s side too obviously, but makes an accurate image, his or her position can only gain from it.
DR: I like what you say about there being two kinds of “simply describing.” The question is how to tell the difference between a good one and a bad one, and how to get from the false “simple description” to the true. Even if “everything in the world is already dialectical” (which, said like that, sounds like religion), you can’t channel the twists and turns of change and rely on blind faith alone for reality to reveal itself. If reality itself is dialectical, that means it is constantly changing in a contradictory process. Most “simple descriptions” do not reveal those contradictions, but obscure them and close them off with a constellation of “simple facts.” That, in turn, creates an illusion of eternal truth, not only in the pubic hairs on a Nazi sculpture, but also the many facts and figures in an IMF report. Both are “simply describing” their respective objects, but as I would argue, in a very positive way. The question, then, is how to avoid doing that, how to avoid letting “simple facts” speak for those powers who think they are eternal, and how to reach a “simple description” of a fundamentally different type. And the former only comes after what Hegel called the “work of the negative;” it will be a way of handling the uncertainty that lies at the heart of all things.
DG: Here, I have to warn you away from using the notion of “uncertainty.” This, today, is one of the cornerstones of intellectual mass culture. Via popular scientific literature, the concerns of 20th century physicists and chemists came to the population at large, which is already in a state of permanent stress and inner unease at the uncertain immediate future. Quotes from Heysenberg came in very handy, because they gave some kind of scientific legitimacy to that social psychosis, to what was called the “uncertainty of tomorrow” in the Soviet Union. You can find one of the most vivid descriptions of the world as something unpredictable, instable, and indefinitive in a New York Times Bestseller of 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “The Black Swan. The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. This is a classical example of an undialectical approach. The author writes of uncertainty in more than certain tones. If he were an artist, he would have included uncertainty into the very fabric of his text. In these places, uncertainty itself would have become uncertain, which, in turn, would reveal that there are, in fact, laws that we can grasp. This would be a dialectical method.
DR: So there are two different kinds of uncertainty too. Getting back to the original question, is this how you work as an artist? I know, for example, that you methodically erase your paintings. Is that a dialectical method?
DG: There is no direct relation. Whenever I think that I could have made a better piece on that canvas, I wash it off.
DR: I like the Chinese laconicity of your words. But let me denounce you again. You yourself are introducing the kind of one-sided uncertainty you yourself just criticized in another form, as an obstinant romantic insistance that there are unknowable personal reasons, dialectical secrets maybe. But there is a law governing the “work of the negative,” no? Reasons for your paintings to appear or disappear? So again, Comrade Gutov, please, a more dialectical answer: where does the decision to erase an image come from? Is the continual repainting of your work politically motivated? Maybe it would best if you “simply describe” your method…
DG: If you want a precise political analogy to washing off paintings, you can find it in that famous description of proletarian revolution in Marx’s “18th Brumaire.” The revolution constantly has to return to what it has already done, convince itself of its own limitations and flaws, and begin all over again, every time around. This doesn’t mean that yesterday’s certainties have been replaced by today’s uncertainty. There wasn’t any certainty yesterday either. In general, a dose of uncertainty is necessary to make any work of art. Bourgeois taste, by the way, doesn’t like that too much. Those people are infinitely sure of themselves in their dealings, and they like to see the same kind of strong hand in art. A bold and slightly savage brushstroke that makes its way across the canvas like a bulldozer. They like the surgical accuracy of the sniper. They like art that moves from victory to victory…
DR: …and you won’t give them that? Allow me to intervene in your “simple description” with a little vulgar sociology. I’m not so sure that you are saying about bourgeois taste is true any longer on a global scale. It’s a local effect of the Russian nouveaux riche, a Lumpenized socialist petit bourgeoisie violently propelled to the peaks of hypercapitalism. The haute bourgeois taste has evolved by several degrees. They don’t only like not only strident painting, but also fragility and uncertainty, wonderfully incomplete projects, utopias and follies of any ilk, unhappy consciousness, and even the deep political melacholia of Marxists like you and me. This is bourgeois philanthropy at its best and its most insipid: to fetishize the products of the producers it employs, to “pity its victims,” because they are so intricate and fragile, like little flowers, to love the uncertainty of the poor wretches, those subjects upon whose recognition their mastery depends, and to embed them in their world. Maybe we should say that there is fragility and fragility, just like there is “simply describing” and “simpy describing,” just like there is uncertainty and uncertainty? Much contemporary art suffers from the wrong kind of simply describing, the wrong kind of uncertainty, the wrong kind of self-negation, the wrong kind of fragility. It is the vagueness and self-negation of a recognized slave. Where would you look for examples of the right approach?
DG: You can find a great example if you look at Pushkin’s manuscripts. All those endless crossings-out, corrections, combinations. You can see the same thing in the manuscripts of Marx. Nothing comes on its own, and nothing comes easily. This is something like the creativity of nature that produces everything with an unbelievable overexpenditure of energy and material. That is, for the two of us to be able to sit in a corner of the world and talk about dialectics, we needed millions of light years of silent space to be spent in vain. It is a continual process of erasure in which there is a small chance that something might actually emerge.
DR: For me, this again sounds dangerously metaphysical, especially when you speak about lightyears and cosmos. But OK. I think I know what you mean. Not only because I erase every sentence I write on an average of a hundred times, only to then write it once, but properly in the course of ten seconds, but also because I see quite clearly that politically “we stand on the foundation of defeats.” Only, I think it is very dangerous to fall into a contemplative attitude in regard to that fact, to revert to “simply describing,” humbled, as it were, in the face of those who have recognized our status as the defeated. There must be some intervention in “simply describing” that changes it from positivism and metaphysics into something very different. It is not just enough to read about dialectics for years on end; you have to change something in your way of working, to prevent the wrong descriptions and the wrong uncertainties…
DG: You know that I really love to read not only Marx and Hegel but also Chinese tractates on art. A general conclusion that I have drawn from them is that you have to work through countermotions. If you want to make an upward line, make a downward line; draw mountains like water, and waves like rocks. Paint heaviness as something light, and lightness as something heavy. Look for dissimilarities in the similar, and for similarity in the disparate. This approach is very different from the more direct methodlogies, which, by the way, also work very well. If fact, most of the time, they are even better. Such methods are a little like a hammer, which is a simple and effective instrument.
DR: A hammer like simply describing.
Dmitry Gutov, artist. Lives and works in Moscow.
David Riff, critic, member of Chto Delat workgroup. Lives and works in Moscow and Berlin