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#15: Reactionary Times

Dmitry Vilensky /// The Capitalization of Beliefs

In the ‘strength of negativity,’ Hegel saw the vitality of the spirit, and, consequently, of reason. In the final analysis, this strength was the strength to grasp and change given facts in correspondence with the development of potentialities, and through the negation of the ‘positive’ as soon as it became an obstacle blocking the path of free development. At its very essence, reason is contradiction, opposition, and negation until freedom does not become a reality. If the contradictory, antagonistic negative force of reason suffers a defeat, reality moves in accordance with its own positive laws; meeting no resistance from the side of reason, it unfolds its own repressive force.
Herbert Marcuse, from ‘Reason and Revolution’

I’m not exercising censorship but face control. You have to know what times we’re living in.
Oleg Kulik on his curatorial role in the project I BELIEVE

In the ‘strength of negativity,’ Hegel saw the vitality of the spirit, and, consequently, of reason. In the final analysis, this strength was the strength to grasp and change given facts in correspondence with the development of potentialities, and through the negation of the ‘positive’ as soon as it became an obstacle blocking the path of free development. At its very essence, reason is contradiction, opposition, and negation until freedom does not become a reality. If the contradictory, antagonistic negative force of reason suffers a defeat, reality moves in accordance with its own positive laws; meeting no resistance from the side of reason, it unfolds its own repressive force.
Herbert Marcuse, from ‘Reason and Revolution’

I’m not exercising censorship but face control. You have to know what times we’re living in.
Oleg Kulik on his curatorial role in the project I BELIEVE

01.
Russia. Early 2007

Recently, there has been a flood of propaganda to convince us that life is getting better and that all the miseries of the transitional period are a thing of the past. Ours is a time of stability and normalization. The quality of life is improving. Wise leaders rule the country, enjoying the population’s blind trust. There are no alternatives to the road ahead. Recent legislation makes it easy to declare that anyone who voices any serious doubts as an extremist, an inner enemy, or an agent of one of the growing number of adversaries abroad. In the media, there are more and more stereotypes convincingly reminiscent of Brezhnev-era phraseology. Feverishly scouring bygone epochs for sources of legitimacy, power chooses those moments that epitomize stagnation, stubbornly repressing their eventual outcome from collective memory.

02.
Belief in power

The elite is beginning to realize that it is not enough to control the economy and to manipulate politics. It is not enough to establish control over the public sphere, and to criminalize NGOs, trade unions, and other institutions of civil society. The doctrine of “sovereign democracy” actually only confirms that the elites of Russian society have already attained a maximum of sovereignty over the rest of the population, a sovereignty that now needs to be placed beyond the pale of doubt. The united sovereign of the state-corporate conglomerate requires confirmation in a new symbolic order capable of representing its unified diversity. This demands the reconstitution of the public sphere as a unified, affirmative whole, and the rejection of any idea of transformation that is not part of the state’s projects. Mechanisms of belief are mobilized to confirm power as something sacred, thus hiding its actual mechanisms. Businessmen and bureaucrats cannot solve this task alone. They need cultural workers to help them.

03.
Autonomy reloaded (Russian-style)

As the Russian elite strives to confirm its sovereignty, many people call for the autonomy of culture. However, it turns out that their notion of autonomy has rather dubious implications, especially when it entails a total rejection of social engagement or criticism. In fact, this corresponds to the distance Russian cultural producers have traditionally taken to politics, escaping into mysticism and sacral practices, renouncing negation in favor of optimistic affirmations. In a letter to Chadeev, dated 1836, Pushkin complains: “This absence of public opinion, this indifference to what is duty, justice, and truth, this cynical contempt of thought and human dignity leads to deep despair.” Since then, it seems that very little has changed.

Meekly deciding that it is impossible to change the world, art turns to the affirmative. “What we need today are positive values,” Oleg Kulik declares, finding general resonance among all kinds of cultural producers. One can easily see the economic motives behind such super-positive affirmations, no matter what they actually believe in; the general assumption is that culture will soon be firmly inscribed into the institutions of power and capital. Manifestations of positive thinking are rewarded generously.

04.
Project(s) of artistic optimism

The exhibition I BELIEVE has a record budget. But more importantly, it shows that an overwhelming majority of contemporary artists has finally come to terms with art’s new function, after a short period of deviance in the early 1990s. As testing grounds for a new age remix of sacral-national-traditional values, art projects like I BELIEVE are not only attractive to business. There is also a hope that the state will commit: “beauty with an element of secrets, fairytales, and mysticism” (Oleg Kulik) may well be a viable national brand. In any case, the elites of art, business, and government can agree: contemporary Russia does not need critical curatorial practices, but face control (1), a door policy in analogy to contemporary Russian politics: everyone incapable of suspending their disbelief is kept outside in a zone of in-difference, exposed to the elements as “bare life.”

05.
Siding with strength

Reactionary times usually signal intense development of the most regressive cultural models, which are totally subordinate to populist tasks, set by the elite. Translating this into a political language, one could say that art renounces its constituent power and puts itself into the position of serving constituted power. Abandoning oppositional-critical practices, it gravitates to the stronger side and becomes a decoration for the dominant ideology. As Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s deputy chief of staff and Kremlin ideologist puts it: “The people can only be fastened together by a system of common images, common values, and common symbols.” Art’s historical role in times of reaction is to create such a system, and the Russian situation today is no exception. Contemporary culture, just like society at large, hypertrophies, leading to the most spectacular displays of barbarism, such as new Moscow architecture, new Russian TV shows, new blockbusters, pulp fiction and cheap biographies printed by the ton, and the latest tendencies in contemporary art’s salon.


06.
What is the strength of our “creative industry”?

Until very recently, the Russian elite has been disoriented as far as contemporary art is concerned. In comparison to pop-culture or sports, contemporary art was very much marginal and left unto itself, practically bereft of corporate or governmental funding. At the same time, the elite has garnered enough experience to know that the epoch of globalization requires a more contemporary form of national branding. Clearly, it would be quite stupid to ignore the potential of contemporary art entirely; over the last decade, the latter has developed into a major industry with plenty of capitalizations and an attractive image, interwoven with the leisure industry, tourism, and real estate development, all of which are transforming cities into unified shopping centers. Yet since Russia obviously is lagging behind in this regard, it is not enough just to call in foreign trainers for the national team. What it really needs is a national product that might compete with Western cultural goods.
Until very recently, this product had not reached the quantity or scale of wholesale distribution, remaining in a piece-meal zone of indifference for an elite largely formed under the conditions of a resource economy with a criminalized bureaucratic structure, lacking any objective need to embark innovative, risk-intensive ventures like contemporary art. Recently, however, Russian cultural producers have been discussing “art’s attempt to leapfrog out of the general atmosphere of innovation, creating a situation of a very different type: one of unchanging stability” (Anatoly Osmolovsky). This sounds far more familiar, so that funds have been forthcoming. The question is not whether there is any serious demand for “belief” on the international scene or not. The point is that the domestic demand for it is clearly present.
The Russian intelligentsia’s capitalization of “belief” has become a local form of know-how, developing its own original “creative industry.”


07.
How much is opium?

Opium is expensive now. The economy of belief has long since abandoned archaic forms of the church’s influence over its flock. Next-generation shopping malls and TV shows are far more effective than any number of newly opened churches. The main thing is not let any doubt arise that anything could be better or more desirable than the president (father of the nation), his ruling parties, full shop-shelves, high fences around the country villas with important owners eagerly waiting for a national artist’s work to decorate their living room. At the same time, kickbacks rise in proportion to investments. Formed by this economic paradigm, the logic of local capital says that no one is interested in supported modest projects. What we need today is scale. While there may be a deficit of critical consciousness in Russia today, there has always been more than enough belief to go around. The main thing is find the right packaging. And as usual, there are plenty of packagers to be found.


08.
On the importance of disbelief

One of the pitfalls in an old slogan like “the worse, the better” is that there may well be nothing left with which to build a better world. Like any other moment in history, a time of reaction is a dynamic equilibrium. In moments like these, the most destructive force in society is power itself. Having lost all point of orientation toward progress and freedom, it invariably plunges into yet another crisis. Reactionary times are always historically doomed, since the fear of losing they close off so many possibilities for further development. for fear of losing its illusory stability. Moreover, power is never unified, and falls apart into a great many groups desperately vying for supremacy, and thus incapable of keeping up the outer appearance of representative unity. And the most sensitive politicians sense the lack of any further perspective even in moments in which everything seems to be going extremely well.

Reactionary times are inevitably followed far more progressive periods, whose subjects will be forced to turn to other histories for a frame of reference. This is why some people still retain their fidelity to emancipatory practices even in the darkest of times. The source of any genuine social development lies in the presence of a critical multiplicity of approaches to the questions that society faces, and in the ability of seeing and insisting upon difference whereever power imposes the dead-end composition of totalizing integrators, such as nations, corporations, consumption, or the state.

The constituent power of human labor, freeing itself of the shackles that bind its creative energies time and time again, is capable of creating something new in art, politics, and the everyday, impossible to privatize and freely available for the common good. This is precisely why only one belief is not available for privatization in the theme park of an exhibition like I BELIEVE, a belief that gives people the strength to overcome themselves and become more, a belief in a world in which critical reason, human dignity, equality, or justice are not just empty words, in short: the belief in communism.

1. Cf. David Riff,  Face-Control, or Losing Face at the Moscow Biennial, https://xz.gif.ru/numbers/moscow-art-magazine/face-control/

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