The ghost of communism wandering across post-Soviet Russia in the dress of contemporary art engenders heated discussions on the role of an artist in society. And in the manner of a brief introduction, I would like to provide a hint of this local discussion in order to give you some insight into the context we are dealing with. First of all I have to say that I’m a member of the group Chto Delat, which aims to combine art practice and theory with political activism. As soon as our group appeared and made itself known on the Russian art scene, we were immediately blamed by the milieu for openly supporting a leftist political discourse and program. Thinking about our experience of survival in that jungle has led me to prepare some considerations related to the question of how to understand the afterlife of communism. In characterizing the relationship between art and life, we have to avoid two extremes – on the one hand, high-flying idea about the development of art according to its own inner laws and its own immanent logic, regardless of the context, and, on the other hand, explanations of all the facts of artistic life by its unilateral dependence on a social conjuncture. With the development of capitalism in Russia these two extremes stand out as two directions and two general intentions within the reflexive quarters of the field of contemporary art.
For about ten years, the aesthetic debate in Russia has endlessly circled around the contradiction between so-called autonomous or pure art on the one hand and engaged or political art on the other. The adherents of artistic autonomy understand this as the pure self-sufficiency of the artwork and claim that artists with political ambitions will end in aesthetical degradation. In turn, the followers of a socially active art accuse their opponents of idealism, conformism or loyalty to the authorities.
The truth obviously lies somewhere in between. Indeed, art is autonomous, and yet that autonomy is a product of a fundamental unfreedom—an unfreedom before which artists are extremely vulnerable, since it is the condition of their labor. Artists can resist the status quo or serve it, but both in their resistance or in their service they never cease dedicating their everyday experience to the laws of aesthetic perception, which they establish themselves in order to do violence to reality. Art is truly autonomous and sovereign in the sense that it establishes its own law within itself and for itself. But this sovereignty derives it energy and its productive force from relations, and not from the absence of relation. Its source is outside it – in the material world, in which artist tries his formal key.
Here and now the freedom of an artist consists in undergoing the experience of unfreedom in order to turn it into a certain form. This experience can be religious, political, social, existential, sexual, or whatever. But if its modified form imposes on us something transcendental which is supposedly lying behind it, then the artist’s game is up, since in that case the form is like a shell, and inside the shell an unborn world is dying.
In the situation of a quite secular contemporary art, aesthetic form does not refer to the infinitely superior totality of the presence of God. Instead, it pretends to be self-sufficient, without any external instance competent to define its meaning and its value. Concern for the achievement of an absolute autonomy of form seems to be a path to freedom, but on that path one can meet very strange traces.
In Spring 2008, at the Centre Pompidou you could see an exhibition called “Traces of the Sacred: The Relationship Between Western Art and Spirituality in XX Century”, which included works by most every famous artists, as well as of some writers, philosophers and musicians, from the romanticism of XIX century till nowadays.
According to the concept of the exhibition, secularization liberated artists from the Church, but did not deliver them from a metaphysical questioning about the intimate essence of being. From Goya to Kandinsky, From Malevich to Picasso and from Newman to Viola, art allegedly continues to bear witness to something beyond. And modern art, which, as you know, passed through Marxism, psychoanalysis and other practices of radical atheism, from this perspective, just invents new expressive forms of this relation to an invisible beyond.
Between the epoch of romanticism and the present time there is a continuing tradition which maintains the sacred in a profane situation: that was the idea of the exhibition in Paris, which is not in fact the only example of collaboration between religion and contemporary art. Thus, as you know, among many other projects there was the Singapore Biennale in 2006, entitled “Belief”, as well as the big exhibition project “I Believe” in Moscow in 2007.
The latter is very emblematic of the Russian situation, insofar as it took place five years after another exhibition, “Caution! Religion”, which was vandalized by a group of orthodox believers. The organizers of “Caution! Religion” were prosecuted. In the course of a long humiliating trial it became obvious that in the absence of official censorship, state power is able to control the art scene through the instrument of the Russian Orthodox Church. In such a context, the exhibition “I Believe”, which advanced so-called “positivity” and non-criticism as slogans, has to be interpreted as a demonstration of the loyalty of the artistic community to power.
Taking into account the peculiarities of the local disposition, I must however emphasize that the new Russian believers are just a variation of a common symptom, untimely described by Nietzsche:
“Art raises its head where the religions relax their hold. It takes over a host of moods and feelings engendered by religion, lays them to its heart and itself grows more profound and soulful, so that it is now capable of communicating exultation and enthusiasm as it formerly could not. The wealth of religious feelings, swollen to a torrent, breaks forth again and again and seeks to conquer new regions: but the growth of the Enlightenment undermined the dogmas of religion and inspired a fundamental distrust of them: so that the feelings expelled from the sphere of religion by the Enlightenment throw themselves into art; in individual cases into political life as well, indeed ever straight into the sciences. Wherever we perceive human endeavors to be tinted with a higher, gloomier colouring, we can assume that dread of spirits, the odour of incense and the shadows of churches are still adhering to them” (Human, All Too Human, 81).
Indeed, neither the process of what Max Weber defined as the disenchantment of the world, nor the death of God as an historical event, are something surprising now. But as new evidence makes clear: neither this process nor this event have been completed. It seems that the world was not entirely disenchanted and after the death of God a ghost remains, with which our ghost of communism has to meet face to face. Contemporary art has become a kind of battlefield for these two ghosts, who share the space of afterlife. I mean, there’s a war going on, between two spectral forms of existence, called into being by the two forms of critique of capitalism.
Because you know, believers, too, call it into question. They ask themselves, is there in our society, satiated by materialism, rationalism, market, consumption or whatever, any place for spirituality? But they already know the answer: of course, there is, and it is art that occupies this privileged place. But the fact is that there is no contradiction between the spiritual and the market. Consumption in our time is a full-grown spiritual practice, and capitalism deals a lot with religion.
Thus, at the beginning of Capital, Marx compares the commodity to a human being, who supposedly has body and soul. Use-value is the body of a commodity, whereas the value, that is the exchange value, is an analogue of the soul. “The use-values – coat, linen etc., i.e., the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements – matter and labor”, says Marx, and below I would like to return to these two elements, matter and labor. Concerning the value of commodities, he argues that it “…is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition”. But this “soul”, free of materiality, due to its correspondence with the universal equivalent, considers itself the very nature and the very essence of the human being or the commodity.
Marx then gives voice to the commodity, which starts to speak with a human voice: “Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values”.
The souls of the commodities speak to each other in a language of value, constituting by themselves what Benjamin calls “the spirit that speaks through the ornamentation of banknotes”. But this banknote spirit lies. In fact, as Marx says, “There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor…”.
It looks like the production of value tears a commodity away from its origin that is matter and labor. That is to say, value makes a commodity forget matter and labor. And we, too, forget it, insofar as in modern capitalism the general mediums of value, brands and trademarks are located very far from the real production of commodity-bodies.
That is why I speak about the oblivion of labor by Capital. Take for example popular discussions about disappearance of material labor, as if labor could just turn round and dissociate itself from this glorious world of consumption. This is the effect of an ideological inversion, which claims the superiority of the category of value over the category of labor, as well as the superiority of the class of bourgeois consumers over the class of real producers, I mean workers, just as in religion the soul reigns supreme over the body. The superiority of form over matter is of the same order.
In his book on Heidegger, the French philosopher Frederic Neyrat analyzes the phenomenon of consumption and refers to the Aristotelian doctrine of four causes – formal, efficient, final and material. He observes that there is an inequality between the four causes. Notably, active form dominates over passive matter, which exists simply because it has to be shaped. Such an inequality is part of the philosophical tradition of idealism. Capitalism epitomizes this tendency, called by Neyrat “the oblivion of matter”. The system of consumption requires endlessly new forms, involving a kind of non-stop shaping of matter, so that matter becomes more and more amorphous. Matter, reduced to an indifferent material, conforms to the commodity form and abandons its own strength and resistance.
Form is thus a kind of will to power, longing to be autonomous both from matter and labor. You know, two things with the same texture, produced with the same labor, but with the two different brands, have different values. It doesn’t matter whether the commodity is made of gold or plastic or paper or whatever, it doesn’t matter how difficult the process of its production. The commodity form tends to the pure condition of value, which is a mode of afterlife, of post-mortal spectral existence of the sublime object of religion in modern capitalist society.
In the world of art, the dictatorship of form is twofold. On one side, we observe this priority of commodity form, commodity fetishism, and on the other, there is the claim of the autonomy of the art object. In the beginning, the love affair with aesthetic form arises when artists feel disappointment in the possibility of any political action or affirmation. Capitalism has deceived us, – say the readers of Badiou and Adorno, – it appropriated all our protest culture. Therefore art has to escape both from the culture industry, from flirting with entertainment, and from politics, or, that is to say, it must avoid the temptation to attach its own truth to the external political or ideological realm, in order to escape the instrumentalization of art.
Artists ask themselves, what if political intervention condemns art to a non-intrinsic existence? What if politics is just one of the modes of limitation of art, whereas art in itself posses its own completeness and its own freedom? What if freedom is an inalienable immanent truth of art as such, which is pure form, and which can only be distorted by the external political meanings?
Appeals to the idea of autonomy wrongly interpreted as authenticity and purity of form opposed to the coarse matter of the world wallowing in politics and economy, is, however, a real trap, because in this way art launches within itself and against itself a repressive operation of “keeping its place”. Such an art relates itself to eternity and space rather than history and time. Hence the overproduction of spatiality in cultural and artistic fields. Everybody is looking for space – another space, an alternative space, an autonomous space and, finally, a sacred space, even if most would not use this name.
Meanwhile, time, particularly the past, is treated in capitalism as a commodity, a value and a subject of the total inventory of things. Ideology privatizes time and then pretends to separate the wheat of eternity from the chaff of the revolution, imposing a non-historical meaning to the heritage of avant-garde. This is the logic of any power – to eternalize things, to finalize history, to declare itself the last and the sole heir of the past, which is already dead, the sole owner of the archive.
How not to remember in this context Benjamin with his Theses on the Philosophy of History: “Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession on which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are cold cultural treasures…” (VII).
This very situation makes it imperative to refer to another afterlife, another form of spectral being, which is the ghost of communism. A ghost of the future whose time is never ripe, he lives in the past like in an empty deserted house. To forget the hope of communism, cherished by the past, means to close this door once and for all, to let it die for the second and the last time.
As Benjamin says, “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievable” (V). He makes us aware of an urgent necessity to save the past, according to a kind of secret agreement with it. The past, according to Benjamin, has a claim to a “weak messianic power”. It is still waiting for us, and every moment is a chance to recognize ourselves in its images. And we cannot recognize ourselves in the images of avant-garde without sharing its revolutionary expectations. Otherwise, we give it up.
But, after all, what is communisms’ afterlife? In what does its spectral existence differ from the spectral existence of the sublime object of religion, which is preserved in the form of value in capitalist commodity fetishism? The difference is that the ghost of communism is not truly a ghost, because it has a body. The body of communism consists of matter and labor. And it is something forgotten, something that we have to bring back to memory.
Memory is important. Let’s reflect briefly on the two meanings of the word “souvenir”. Firstly, a souvenir is an object that recalls a certain place, occasion, or person. It is a thing from the past. The spoils of those who participate in the triumphal procession, can also be regarded as souvenirs. There are a lot of souvenirs of a dead communist past being sold for cash in the marketplaces of the capitals of almost all former socialist countries.
But souvenir means also remembrance, memory, or what Heidegger calls Andenken, faithful thought. As faithful thought, memory is a weapon. It is, to cite the term of Badiou, fidelity to the event of revolution. Faithful thought keeps a thing from the past, a souvenir, inside you. And we can recognize ourselves in the ghosts of communism only if we keep them inside us, until we really become, ourselves, the communisms’ afterlives.