#1- 25: What is the use of art?
Dmitry Vilensky: The theme of our number is formulated in the style of “crude thought,” which often asks art or critical reflection a simple question: “What’s the use of what you do?” This question can, of course, provoke a quite negative reaction: it might be regarded as completely out of bounds, naive or just meaningless. If we take a closer look, however, we’ll find that it is both legitimate and essential. It is clear that when we analyze it, we arrive at the traditional problem of the difference between the exchange and use values of everything produced by human activity. Today, we can hardly take seriously the idea that art’s importance has to do with its anti-functionality, with its eluding attempts to instrumentalize it on the part of the culture industry or direct political action. The idea of the modernist object’s “silence” is merely reinforced by the astronomically high price it commands on the market. The idea that art should dissolve into life, that it should be totally abolished in favor of daily life’s most basic functions, can likewise hardly be taken seriously. Based on the opposition between “to have” and “to be,” this old rhetoric risks descending into pure moralizing. How can we today find a way to continue not only the project of Bildung—the process of individual development via aesthetic education (despite all the obvious sympathy for it)—but also find a new continuation for the project of art and thought as a “coming out under the open sky of the sense of solidarity” (Schiller)? From Schiller’s time on, the goal of art as aesthetic education was the harmonious development of the individual, the formation of a whole man capable of creativity. This concept, however, was oriented toward the individual bourgeois subject: in the final analysis, it leads to the formation of the egoistic individual. It is clear that a return to this concept today would be reactionary, which is exactly what the last Documenta proved.
It is a commonplace that art is useless, that art is not utilitarian. This is in fact the case. However, art’s anti-utilitarianism often implies elitism, while, on the contrary, the resistance to elitism often results in the instrumentalization of art, in the application of its idioms towards one or another practical end.
In the former case, art turns into a sacred institution for the chosen few. In the latter, it functions as a form of social therapy or cultural production.
In the twenty-first century, each of these vectors seems to have run its course. Why? Because in the near future we will be more and more often confronted with the retreat of art from the places we traditionally have found it—concert halls, museums, theaters, galleries, etc.—and its reappearance in arbitrary, unpredictable places.
This means it will no longer be necessary to report back to the high priests of various artistic guilds and, therefore, to present oneself in those representative places where legitimation in literature, music, theater, and art is conferred.
Lenin’s decision to reintroduce certain aspects of the free market into the Soviet Union after the ravages of War Communism was a form of what might be called ‘revolutionary pragmatism’. The industrial base of the country was devastated, the working class atomised, and peasant discontent widespread, and therefore, a modicum of modernity had to be restored immediately. Without this, Lenin surmised, the fledgling revolution could be split apart and lost by the failure of the new state to meet simple, everyday needs.
One of the immediate effects of the New Economic Policy (NEP) was, of course, the rise of a new bourgeoisie, with its speculation, parasitism, conspicuous consumption, and petit-bourgeois tastes; another was the return to various forms of speeding up and coercion within the factory, resulting in widespread workers’ resentment. For many Bolsheviks on the left, then, (and subsequently) this is where the revolution was actually ‘lost’ as the technical transformations put in place by the Party (within a largely antiquated factory system) were immediately subsumed under a new disciplinary productivist regime. For Lenin there was no way of getting around this if the infrastructure of the state was not to collapse; for Lenin’s critics (including many workers themselves) it was one thing to protect the revolution, another to be worse off, and suffer increased levels of control. The NEP then was profoundly transformative of the direction of the revolution, because it forced the Party to address the limits of workers’ emancipation in conditions of general need. It is no surprise therefore that the factory itself becomes a source of massive political and cultural struggle and self-definition for the revolution during this period, because it is the factory that bears the full weight of the New Economic Policy. Indeed, the operations, relations and dynamic of the factory becomes a key focus of the revolution’s ideal horizons, as right and left seek to adjust their positions to the new Policy. Thus at one end of the ideological spectrum Alexei Gastev  proposed various time and motion programmes in order to create increased worker efficiency, punctuality, and hygiene, (all this backed, initially, by the Central Committee and its fascination with American-style Taylorism) and, at the other end, the various cultural initiatives developed by the newly emergent avant-garde (Constructivism and Productivism), that wanted new work practices, new forms of production, and, essentially, a return to the early Bolshevik debate on worker self-management and the relations of production. 
When we ask “what is the use of art?” today, it immediately sounds like an admission of ontological guilt. Aesthetic enjoyment, still the use of art par excellence, is nowhere to be found, at least not in its messianic form. Art is generalized into production and now works on a much more modest scale; sometimes it makes people think, sometimes it makes them smile, sometimes it makes them ask the right questions, and that’s all we should aim for, right? Wrong. Because it gets much worse. Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that the commodity really is in the process of subsuming everyday life, and this was generally understood as a challenge to the use of art from two different sides. On the one hand, you had the radical leveling of all art through the commodity form. Money, the great matchmaker, is indifferent to art’s many uses. In the mute world of commodities, where all human labor is equal, the singularity of aesthetic experience makes no particular difference; all artworks mirror one another. This is why it becomes possible to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board. Art is something you bump into while you’re thinking about money. That produced the strange non-objectivity or emptiness at the very heart of all the things we perversely love. Art becomes a foreign entity that leaves us—its producers—non-objective, bereft of the very skin on our backs. All we can do is mime this non-objectivity, reproducing an aura of wry disengagement and haughty uselessness.
Lolita Jablonskiene in Conversation with Dmitry Vilensky /// Spaces for Art, Political Learning, and Subjectivation
Lolita Jablonskiene: I would like to start our conversation with a historical note, taking a glance at Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club. After all, you chose to reference its title in the name of your project. I know that you have some interesting and rarely published material on Rodchenko’s Club? What is it and why does it appeal to you?
Dmitry Vilensky: The idea of the Activist Club diverges from the original concept of the Workers’ Club introduced in the USSR in the mid-1920s and represented by the famous piece made by Alexander Rodchenko. Created in 1925 for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, it was never produced in real life. So it was a sort of a model of how such a places should be organized.
The now-traditional view of the Russian avant-garde and Constructivism, which limits itself to two or three big names (Kandinsky, Malevich) or discrete works by leading figures (Rodchenko, Tatlin), reduces not only the sociopolitical context of these artistic phenomena, but also the dominant form in which they existed during their historical period—namely, as a form of Productionist art, which conceived itself as a species of collective artistic labor. It was a social practice that aimed at the revolutionary renewal of society and the creation of new types of relations among people—communist relations, to be precise. It was an art that could not imagine the creation of new artistic forms happening outside the transformation of social forms, and by this transformation it had in mind the production of “forms of intercourse” (Marx).
Nevertheless, the participation in Productionism of such renowned figures as Olga Rozanova, Liubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, Karl Ioganson, Gustav Klutsis, Moisei Ginzburg, Konstantin Melnikov, Anton Lavinsky, Alexander Vesnin, the Stenberg Brothers, El Lissitsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Tretyakov, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Dziga Vertov is often put down to passing leftist fancies or the forced “collectivization” of artists in the complicated circumstances of the first years of Soviet power. As a result, we know all these names either separately or as members of an amorphous “leftist avant-garde,” rather than as a broad movement engaged in the creation of a new material and intellectual culture for an enormous country—that is, in a project whose scale was unprecedented for artists. Art historians keenly discuss Suprematism or Expressionism, the struggle between non-figurative art and realism, but all of them are inclined to underestimate the epoch-making decision by twenty-five prominent leftist artists in 1921 to remove Wassily Kandinsky from his post as chair of the INKhUK (Institute for Artistic Culture). They thus made a total institutional break with easel painting and moved into mass production and political agitation. The same should be said of the theorists of Productionism who joined artists in the LEF group—Alexei Gan, Nikolai Tarabukin, Boris Kushner, David Arkin, Sergei Tretyakov, Nikolai Chuzhak, Osip Brik, and Boris Arvatov. They opened up whole new fronts in the study of art and culture, and they developed alternative artistic methods and strategies. Over the past eighty years, however, their writings have not been republished and have remained the object only of biased criticism. In fact, the work of such scholars as Arvatov, who were among the founders of the sociology of art, might prove, mutatis mutandis, quite relevant today for a critical grasp of the processes that have led to the fusion of art, the market, neoliberal ideology, and mass culture.
If facts destroy theory, then all the better for theory.
—Viktor Shklovsky, “In Defense of the Sociological Method,” 1927
Any discussion of factography first has to deal with the conspicuous strangeness of the word “factography” itself, an awkward and selfconsciously technicist term coined in Russia in the latter half of the 1920s to designate a certain aesthetic practice preoccupied with the inscription of facts. Those who are familiar with contemporaneous avant-garde movements in other countries and who may also be skeptical of the early Soviet zeal for linguistic invention will wonder if factography is not simply another word for documentary.
Despite indisputable filiations between factography and practices outside of Russia which were similarly engaged in the project of chronicling modernization and its concomitant transformations to the conditions of human experience, there are critical distinctions to be made between the Soviet factographic avant-garde and documentary as it is traditionally conceived. The chief divergence is one of epistemological disposition: if the term “documentary,” which was created in 1926 by filmmaker John Grierson came to designate work that strives to create the most objective depiction of reality possible, then this passive and impartial representational practice could not be farther from factography’s ambitions. Indeed, Sergei Tret’iakov, the most famous figure in the movement, founded his entire praxeology on the notion of “operativity,” on the claim not to veridically reflect reality in his work, but to actively transform reality through it. The objectivism of an indifferent documentary had no place in the interventionist practices of the factographers.
Although we can thus begin to posit certain differences between factography and conventional documentary impulses, hazarding a normative definition of the factographic genre presents additional problems. The movement’s manifest preference for the photo-essay and other intermedial hybrids, for example, thwarts customary aesthetic classification and complicates attempts to delimit a coherent factographic style. Futurists by provenance, the factographers who published in the journal Novyi lef paid little heed to the traditional divisions between the arts. Tret’iakov, who worked as a photographer, prose author, dramatist, reporter, film scenarist, radio commentator, and lyrical poet, considered genre as a shifting and protean aspect of the art work that must be dynamically and expediently negotiated in the process of aesthetic production. For him, style and genre were not fixed values.