Categories
#15: Reactionary Times

Viktor Misiano – David Riff /// Suspending Criticism: Criticism in Suspense

David Riff: In the last three or four years, Moscow’s contemporary art scene has undergone some intense development, bringing new galleries, foundations, institutions, and big events. The homogenization of the public sphere has heralded processes of consolidation that go in hand in hand with an influx of capital in search of representative cultural investments. A gentrification that has been approaching Moscow for the last 10 years is now in full swing. It often seems like there is no escaping this process’ entrepreneurial logic and its pervasively glossy results. But when people try to come to terms with the new situation, they find themselves resorting to blanket notions: it is chalked up to the “market,” a figure of speech that is just as homogeneous as the “power” Russian liberals used to lament. Which realistic view could help us avoid conceiving of the new culture industry as a new version of the same old “bad totality”?

David Riff: In the last three or four years, Moscow’s contemporary art scene has undergone some intense development, bringing new galleries, foundations, institutions, and big events. The homogenization of the public sphere has heralded processes of consolidation that go in hand in hand with an influx of capital in search of representative cultural investments. A gentrification that has been approaching Moscow for the last 10 years is now in full swing. It often seems like there is no escaping this process’ entrepreneurial logic and its pervasively glossy results. But when people try to come to terms with the new situation, they find themselves resorting to blanket notions: it is chalked up to the “market,” a figure of speech that is just as homogeneous as the “power” Russian liberals used to lament. Which realistic view could help us avoid conceiving of the new culture industry as a new version of the same old “bad totality”?

Viktor Misiano (VM): The institutional scene in Moscow really has changed over the last years. Still, let’s not exaggerate the scale of these changes, and most importantly, let’s note that they are not qualitative and contain no symptomatique that could be considered fundamentally new. Instead, it’s all essentially a realization of the model of cultural development suggested by the apologists of neo-liberal reform in the early 1990s. In Spain, for example, post-Franco reformers placed their bets on the development of a public infrastructure. In Russia, on the contrary, the focus has always been on dismantling the public sphere: the emergence of a private infrastructure, dominated by the principles of market economy seemed to promise the best perspectives for the future. In the official ideology of those years, the “market” was just as total a category as “power,” appearing as a universal solution to all the problems at hand. In fact, most new initiatives today are personal and private. Even those initiatives started up by the state profess the same ideology. This does not create a stationary, transparent infrastructure under community control, but “investment projects,” carried out by bureaucrat-businesspeople operating with money from the state budget.

DR: This has always seemed like a big paradox to me: the announcement of “exceptional development measures” goes hand in hand with a structure of parallel investment in a diversity of short-termed ventures. Their only common denominator is that they have all been commissioned by different branches of a state capitalist conglomerate whose left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. Then again, one could argue that the history of bureaucracy shows that this “inefficiency” is actually a great mechanism of control: what you get is a non-committal “faceless” body of power, capable of playing out reactions and counter-reactions in order to perpetuate a very peculiar form of unity. This emerged with great clarity at the last Moscow biennial, which looked like a “project-accumulator,” a testing ground for new corporate and individual strategies on how to tap into old potentials. Facing staunch resistance, contemporary art has to legitimate itself. But these legitimizations were sketchy, half-hearted, indefinite, temporary, and what’s more, they didn’t really add up. There was no real subject. The lack of a discursive frame seemed to confirm the biennial’s central statement: it is what it is: contemporary art. A process without a subject…enjoy!

VM:
I think this observation should be enough to keep us from perceiving the cultural industry as a “bad totality.” It is enough to uncover the contradictions of the current state of affairs to understand how contradictory this perception is in and of itself.
The source of these contradictions largely lies in the fact that the culture industry is being constructed on consistent anti-intellectualism and the dismantling of the expert community. Following the medialization of politics, contemporary art has consistently placed its hopes in the medialization of the cultural field and the expert community. Note that criticism of art and culture in the mass media is extremely loyal to the current status quo, even though the same mass media host far more fundamental and radical critiques of other social and economic processes.  Of course, medialization is an ever-present attribute of any neo-liberal order. Yet in other countries, this tendency never fully replaces other forms of information and cultural significance. As it gains more and more impetus, it encounters increasing opposition. In Russia, however, where the function of the experts has been rendered void, it remains unclear what contemporary art actually is. The history, specificity, parameters, and basic facts of this phenomenon are basically still unknown and have yet to be put forward!

The first consequence of contemporary art’s anti-intellectual attitude lies in the unstable, ephemeral infrastructure you mention. By failing to connect any principle of value with artistic production, new initiatives – including those run by the state – feel free of any heightened sense of responsibility. This is why so many initiatives come and go, rapidly and radically changing policies and leaders. Their programs are disappointing, combining the rhetoric of their sponsors with the desire of drawing profit from trifles.

DR: Then again, everyone in post-Soviet contemporary art complains about the lack of good books, proper educational programs, and frames of reference. But nothing ever changes, because every effort to make a difference is yet another ephemeral project. The excuse for such failures is two-fold: on the one hand, the situation itself is inert but on the other hand, the “ultra-rapid” turnover of the project-economy leaves precious little time for reflection…Expensive new initiatives are started and then abandoned; everything sinks into the oil swamp…

VM: It is quite understandable that such lamentations are commonplace. Consistently ignoring the task of intellectual research, the new infrastructure tends to identify value with price, which is why the dialectic between price and value almost never really works the way it would in a full-fledged market. This, in turn, leads to a growing divide between local and international markets. This is something that very few people here realize: for now, they are too excited about Russian contemporary art’s participation in international art fairs and the first sales made there…

DR: Then again, there has been a superficial improvement over the last years, at least in the number of books printed and exhibitions organized. This reflects the elite’s rising demand for new ideologies to justify the international status of its national economy with its contradictory history and its uncertain future…. The confusion of value and price, or use value (art as representative-cognitive technique or practice) with commodity value (art as an expensive fetish), seems characteristic of the nouveau riche. A lot of the “new things” we see look like overpaid bricollage, improvised and then declared legitimate as new mythologies. I find it interesting that many people take this as an occasion to declare the uselessness of criticism as such; since everything has been captured, we might as well let the market do its job, and somehow hope for artistic or political “miracles…” Has this always been the case?

VM: From the very beginning, liberal publicists have been telling us that it was “first necessary to put the market on its feet” and that this would then lead to the emergence of a new non-profit sphere. However, a complete consensus in the apology of the market’s prevalence over culture led to an absolute reduction of the extra-market dimension, to the point of eliminating the very need for it. Existence beyond the market can only constitute itself as distance, as a criticism of the market’s values. But what we get is a situation that rests upon a consensus on the renunciation of criticism. Indeed, the dominant attitude assumes that it is better not to “wash dirty linen in public;” the main thing is “to establish the system.” Remember how they hammered it into the art community: don’t criticize the first biennial because there won’t be a second one. Remember how much pressure was applied to those who dared to doubt the integrity of its organizers in public. And also think of how the producers of so-called “critical culture” insisted on “holding back criticisms to keep the system intact.” Obviously, this kind of relationship to power is corrupt by its very nature.

DR: At present, this renunciation of “criticism” has accompanied what Oleg Kulik has been calling “artistic optimism.” In a new affirmative key, the “mysteries of Moscow” are rendered comfortable and profitable as decoration-objects and soft machines, creating an ambitious temporary social site for the upscale petit bourgeoisie. The creative managerial effort of “artistic optimism” tries to mobilize its target group by sounding affirmative: “I BELIEVE!” But what is belief for the post-Soviet upscale petit bourgeoisie, which is largely from the ex-intelligentsia? An older culture of theosophical speculation and idiosyncratic devotion to eclectic ideals, an identity crisis with plenty of latent nationalism. In contemporary art, this dispels any hint of neo-orthodox incense (spreading so rapidly in mass culture) with an older smell. In search of new “positive” values, “artistic optimism” opens the door for the ex-intelligentsia’s pseudo-critical general intellect and its overwhelming propensity for metaphysical speculation at the kitchen table. Its discussions about “god and the world” were always inconclusive; now, it turns out that they are being mobilized to express enthusiasm in a corporate spirit…

VM: In a recent text, I suggested that it makes strategic sense for Russia to invest into two areas, the energy sector and mass culture; in other words, it is lodged between a cult of fossil fuels, earth, and soil and “general intellect” (to continue using this term). It is typical for the contemporary art world that this ongoing development does not bother anyone very much. But in other fields, this developmental model has provoked stormy critical debate. It seems that there are circles within the ruling class that understand just how fake the official optimism sounds. It would essentially be more correct to define the rhetorical role of “Russia as an energy world power” as capitulation to being a “big energy appendage.” This is why the state-controlled press is full of talk about the need for developing the knowledge industry, of introducing educational reforms, of investing in intellect-intensive sectors of the economy, and so on. And even if this contradiction has yet to find its practical resolution, it shows that power (or some of its more ambitious clans) do not see the current situation as a “bad totality,” but as something fraught with contradiction. In this sense, the cultural community and its cultural bureaucrats take on the most retrograde attitudes possible, continuing to profess ideas that already seemed rather doubtful in the early 1990s. It looks like the state is still Russia’s “main European.”

DR: Recent developments show how cultural bureaucrats appropriate the “knowledge industry” tack as well, reworking it with a social democrat rhetoric that provides a “proper” place for immanent criticism in “critical culture reloaded.” Here, it lapses into open self-contradiction. Again, take for example, the current Moscow biennial. It is not only hosting “artistic optimism,” but also has already organized a conference with leading intellectuals. Most, if not all of these people are more or less critical, and moreover, critical of critical culture’s consensual role, its self-neutralization, its status as a pressure valve. What is so strange here is how bluntly and arbitrarily this rather self-critical discourse is presented as the intellectual legitimization for contemporary art, perhaps in response to the repressed criticism of its anti-intellectual quality. Intellectual, critical culture? Is that what you want? We’ll bring Agamben to town. This seems to point in a very similar direction as our “artistic optimism,” actually, though it mobilizes a global general intellect of what passes for critical theory, rather than the local resource of kitchen-table metaphysics, exported in the glamourous theme park. Again, the manager wins and declares reality. And again, our “critical” intellectuals shrug their shoulders, saying that we are living in reactionary times…

VM: Russia has seen many different types of reaction, from Nikolai I to Brezhnev. Each reactionary period had its reasons and special features. The main specificity of the present situation is that its consolidating factor is a corruption of proportions hitherto unknown.
In this context, the creative milieu’s main weakness – despite its ambitions of propagating critical consciousness – is that there is no alternative model of culture. The wrongness of the present status quo is generally recognized as an a priori of sorts, but it offers no realistic project for how to reorganize cultural production. It does not suggest any different relationship to power, nor has it found any alternate addressee. People in Moscow argue about autonomy or study 1930s Marxism, but they avoid any concrete discussion of positive perspectives for the future. But this kind of program, articulating itself in art and social life as set of very concrete demands and policies, social programs, and creative efforts, is the only effective alternative to the culture industry’s pretense toward totality. Without such a program, critical attitudes will have an academic status or the status of a personal or collective extravagance, to be humored as artistic idiosyncrasy. This is the problem, and not the fact that critical artists and intellectuals participate in anti-intellectual projects. There are a host of strategic and tactical reasons for criticism to take place on the territory of its object. This only really becomes a problem when criticism offers no clear alternative that objectively or subjectively delegates it to take this step. Lacking such a project, it becomes nothing more than conscious or unconscious corruption.

This is what makes it so incongruous when Agamben and his colleagues hang out in Moscow after being booked at random, lacking any larger system. It seems a little like the Russian nouveau riche ordering Italian furniture by pointing their fingers at a designer’s catalogue. As long as work on a responsible alternative project is forestalled, the utterances of invited philosophers are robbed of their context. People will go to look at them like a glamorous menagerie. There is no risk associated with bringing them to Moscow, just like the appearance of Osama Bin Laden would be harmless among in a settlement of religious sectarians who have never heard of Islam…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *