ART WITHOUT JUSTIFICATION
ART WITHOUT JUSTIFICATION
By Anatoly Osmolovsky
AFTER SEPTEMBER 11
Must art react in any way to political events? Or does art confine itself only to the logic of its own immanent development? Do artistic actions have any effect on society, and how are they different from political actions? Is there a clear-cut social function for art? Does art inflict any damage on itself when it clarifies its social position?
The very emergence of these questions is usually associated with extreme political disturbance. There is no doubt that the extraordinary air attack of September 11 was a development of that sort. It was a crucial moment for art. A ridiculous episode with Karlheinz Stockhausen, a famous composer, provides a straightforward picture of the confusion and panic that struck artistic circles after the terrorist attacks. As a matter of fact, Stockhausen declared that any artist could envy the attack on the World Trade Center. His words were immediately assessed as a provocation and scandalous nonsense (which is rather strange given Stockhausen’s status as a living classic of avant-garde music): the composer was to cancel his concert and leave for Switzerland for some time.
Perhaps, Stockhausen was wrong, but what made him utter these words? Is it possible that there is some fundamental mistake in the understanding of contemporary art, or that the present artistic situation provokes such scandalous statements?
Nobody would argue with the fact that the attack on the World Trade Center was artistic, striking, even movie-like, but what does it have to do with the real ideals of contemporary art, the ideals of formal experimentation, of shifting meaning, of persistent and ultimate reflection? Such an ecstatic spectacle has already become an instrument used to manipulate people and is fully exploited by the entertainment industry, isn’t it? Maybe the confusion is born from the evident conceptual heuristic character of the project of air attacks and their exquisite performance (if it is proper to use these definitions in respect to such an act, of course)?
THE END OF PROJECT ART
The criticism of an ecstatic intoxicating spectacle has become classic in
contemporary culture. It began with Russian formalists, the authors of the LEF magazine (Left Front of Arts). It was further developed in the method of alienating viewers from the actions on the stage or on a movie
screen, as in Brecht’s work or French New Wave cinema. Unlike in theater or cinema, this aspect of the spectacle has never been fully addressed in visual arts, and the body of critical speculations on the nature of the visual spectacle and its effect on the audience still remains unchanged.
The path leading to reconciliation with the September events is
different.1 It comes from the practice of so-called project art. For me, the term refers to a varied (and today quite popular) practice of realizing different social, political, and analytical projects. A heuristically invented idea (made for effect but not effectively realized) is central to these projects, which enter into the widest possible dialogue with society.
It seems that art was to champion the defense of civil rights after such a
shocking event (Russia witnessed the analogy of this attack in the holding
of hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002) which provoked a long series of repressive measures, such as the tightening of governmental control over
everything, the “temporary” infringement upon all sorts of rights, etc.
Various types of artistic projects finally found an area that called for immediate action. But it was precisely these repressive measures which quickly demonstrated the ephemeral and illusory quality of the social influence of project art. All the political illusions of art
dissipated like smoke in the wind when they faced real force. Real
political struggle (which is absolutely necessary, but which has no
straight-forward association with art) needs action, self-denial, and
efficiency, and project art can only offer helpless conversations and
declarations of its political engagement. More than that, it seems that the
discourse of project art, which often reaches the level of useless
chatter, is simply intolerable in this situation. Political opposition does
not need art like that. Political opposition has a real need for art, but
it is for art which uncompromisingly defends its autonomy, not the
art of decorating rallies.
Art-activism (the most consistent form of project art) is to face a
dilemma that arises in the new political situation with increasing
frequency: either it finally becomes a simulation, almost like a theatrical
performance, or it is to be responsible for its own political consequences,
thus turning into real political action with different principles to
determine its efficiency. Yet the main problem is not with this lethal
dilemma, it is with the content. The practice of project art reconciles society with direct political action, inhibiting its own influence and the
aesthetic effect of art proper. The confusion between a terrorist act and an art project, this fatal elimination of borderlines, undermines the
efficiency both of these phenomena have in their fields. If the interference of art in the life of society neutralizes its aesthetic influence, society mistakes the false identification of a political gesture as an artistic one. “Objectified consciousness denounces the interference of art works in the life of society, as it produces a secondary objectification of an already objectified, materially concrete artwork; its objectification, when it is directed against society, turns into the social neutralization of an artwork for consciousness.”(Theodor Adorno)
But what should the reaction of art to September 11 be? What is an
adequate response to it if it is not the intensification of project activity?
There is only one possible answer: silence. The silence of art is the creation of artworks which “say” nothing on their own, which are “equal” to
themselves and leave no opportunity for useless discussions as a result. It
is a silence directed against mass-media.
It is precisely project art where discourse was developed to the level
of useless, meaningless chatter and irresponsible political phrasemongering. That is what made it possible for Stockhausen to make his scandalous and incredible statement.
THE SOCIAL PLACE OF ART
During the 1990s artists and art practitioners cherished the idea of finding a clear definition of the social function of art. They produced extremely different versions of it ranging from rather archaic and trivial ones saying that the work of visual art is, first and foremost, an exclusive object for a rich interior, to the most advanced ones claiming that contemporary art is a laboratory where new ways of social communication are developed. In Russia, this analytical activity was used to justify the existence of art in the situation when there was a fatal lack of any need or demand for it. The end of the Cold War immediately made the efforts of ‘fighters of the ideological front,’ both proponents of Socialist Realism, and their opponents, underground artists, totally unnecessary.
That was the time when art which justified itself emerged in Moscow. It was
Moscow Actionism, the most radical variant of ‘project’ art activism.
Actionism strove to be a permanent happening in art, not just something remembered in a museum. The Utopia of continuous action provided the basis for Moscow actionism. Yet, just as happened in other cases, it was relatively soon obvious that the permanent nature of action was a political category and it almost exclusively utilizes the means of real political pressure. Certainly, actionist artists could not become serious rivals of real political organizations. After numerous and morbid enough clashes with repressive organs of the state and of individual public organizations, artists had to admit that there was a limit to art’s activity. The awareness of its social limits inevitably turned into the search for aesthetic limits.
Thus a certain social skepticism was born which followed the boundless
enthusiasm of the 1990s. The search for the social function of art is
torpedoed by the poisonous words of Adorno: “When art is conceptualized as
a social fact, the sociological definition of its place seems to regard
itself as being higher than art and having the right to dispose of it.” The
meaning of this statement is that the conceptualization of art as a social fact takes place without (and sometimes contrary to) any indication of its place in society. Art becomes social when it is realized without any presupposed functions. Social action--and this is its main
characteristic--is always outside reflection. When we face reflection, we
understand that we are reflecting upon what already exists—a fact, not an action.
Derisive attempts of art to be socially important in a political sense, and art’s striving for immediate political influence upon society are miserable or comic in most cases. Here art interferes with itself. One cannot be aesthetically and politically effective at once.
THE POLITICAL DIMENSION OF ART--ITS MATERIALITY
At the same time it would be wrong to deny that art has any political meaning. The false Utopia of “art for art’s sake” cannot be a true guide for contemporary artistic work. There is no doubt that visual art has a political dimension, its own materiality and objectness. What is politics if not the ability to move objects in space? (“The table will not move if you do not move it!” Mao Tse-tung.)
It is time for us to remember that among all artistic disciplines it is primarily visual art which is immediately associated with its carrier: the unique, author-made thing. In the course of the 20th century this characteristic of visual art was interpreted as an inescapable sin, a deficiency that turned art into an exclusive object of consumption. An important aspect in the development of art in the 20th century was that it overcame the materiality of the work of visual art. Each new trend displayed its own method of overcoming it. Mass copying and easily understandable content (pop-art), ephemeral and non-material qualities (conceptualism), continuousness and performative characteristics (actionism), invisibility and lack of distinctiveness (non-spectacular art) are a few of the most radical attempts to renounce the materiality of art. It was the rebellion of art against an artwork.
Yet could visual art, instead of denouncing its own materiality, retain it as a concrete political instrument? Why not fight capitalism on its own territory, the territory of private ownership symbolized by the work of visual art?
There is no doubt that the unique characteristics of any carrier of the
visual image contain huge potential for criticism. Isn’t the group of
people in front of a painting a direct living metaphor of limited access to
vital resources of the world?
So the political dimension of art appears when art is understood in a
concrete way. The understanding of concreteness is, first and foremost, in
the awareness of the materiality, thing-ness of visual art: it is in the firm claim that art is possible in the pragmatic and cynical world of today; it is an uncompromising escape from any justifications of its existence. Yet, at the same time, it is an understanding of the real limit of the political influence of art which one must know, but never exaggerate.
The materiality of art, in the end, is not cancelled out by its visual character. On the contrary, the visual image is a part of what constitutes the notion of a unique object. It saves the object from sinking into the abyss of the empirical world and turning into a ‘blind’ thing on the margins of our consciousness.
A fundamental question emerges here: what are the potential parameters of
the new visual object? As it emerges from the concrete aspects of the
political, it is to inevitably acquire aesthetic parameters. It is precisely aesthetics that singles it out from the world of everyday objects, sending it into the autonomous space of artistic production.
I believe that the most logical outcome of these speculations is to claim a new potential for immaterial visuality. The visuality of an abstract image is inseparable from its materiality in the real world. The abstract image is always “equal to itself.”
HISTORICAL ABSTRACTIONISM AND ITS NEUTRALIZATION
This is not some extraordinary discovery, of course. The political aspect
played an important part in the genesis of abstract art, and the
conceptualization of the artistic objectives of American Abstract
Expressionism, for instance, was determined by its striving for the
concrete character of painting (interpreted as the achievement of its
It sounds strange now that some abstract composition could carry certain
political meaning. This art, being sold for a lot of money, decorates the
offices of major world banks, and it obviously poses no threat to them, it
doesn’t even arouse uncomfortable questions, being perceived as a habitual
enough background of everyday life. Abstract composition ceased to produce
any shock long ago and almost nobody perceives it as a serious and
significant political statement. Evidently here we see the consequences of its well-planned, decades-long political and aesthetic neutralization.
There is no exaggeration in the fact that the capitalist world based on the
permanent struggle of opposing forces pays only when it is aware of
potential danger. Money doubtlessly played a leading role in the mechanism
of the political neutralization of art. It is possible, then, that abstract
art decorates the offices of banks and corporations because it is neutralized there, and not because it is inherently neutral?
The main result of this neutralization is in the liberation of abstract art from the shock effect it had on the audience. The shock of facing an
objectless painting is in the past. But is the political aspect of the
abstract image exhausted by this shock effect? Could this shock be one of
the channels of compromise in communication with society? (There is
also no doubt that often the shock effect has given rise in artists themselves to a false sense of the social importance of art in society. The present attempts to prolong this shock, ranging from Damien Hirst’s artifacts to the outrageous words of Stockhausen that were mentioned above, have more to do with the entertainment industry, than with the fundamental problems of contemporary visual art).
Inherent to this mechanism of neutralization is the death of neutralization. It is precisely neutralized art that acquires materiality. It chooses silence as its main political weapon.
THE PRESENT MOMENT
Just as the emergence of new figuration in the mid-1980s was not associated with traditional realistic art but used mass-mediated figurative images, the new abstraction has little in common with historical abstractionism
(Russian Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, etc.). The return to
abstractionism was surely mediated by project art, first and foremost, and
is, in fact, its ultimate form.
The following analytical conclusions were produced on the basis of real
artistic processes in Moscow. Suddenly, without any coordination, several
artists who often did not know each other displayed new objectless imagery.
We have observed the emergence of a new artistic trend that faces serious
opposition on the part of the traditional artistic context of Moscow. Although Russia is regarded as a birthplace of abstract art, the fact that this art was associated with the communist Utopia provided the basis for the negative attitude of several generations of the artistic underground of 1970s and 1980s towards it. The Moscow conceptual school based its political values on the ideology of the dissident movement (human rights, representative democracy, liberal economy etc.), and this orientation interfered with unbiased mastering of the early 20th century aesthetic experience. The radical political changes in Russia during the 1990s brought the aesthetic values of the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods back into the forefront (though in a new way). This process coincides with the new conceptualization of the meaning of an objectless image.
At present, this image cannot acquire legitimacy exclusively from the subjective will of the artist. The subjective gesture detached from any justification is not, unfortunately, possible today. The contemporary artist is a slave to circumstances, to theoretical constructions, to various economic bonds: the territory of artistic autonomy has been considerably reduced for the past two decades. In the present situation the abstract image separated from any basis is not possible. Yet it is still possible to achieve the effect of abstract art. One could imitate it, according to the term used by Clement Greenberg in his article titled “Avant-garde and Kitsch.” In other words, the mimetic and conceptual basis for the creation of the contemporary abstract image retains the value of a reference point, but it no longer plays the leading role in this process. The simulation paradigm is also unacceptable here. The simulated image demonstrates its simulated nature, but this nature is as unimportant for contemporary abstraction as its mimetic or conceptual bases. The new method used in the creation of an artifact makes the presence of these bases insignificant.
The second important feature of contemporary abstraction is its pop-art
characteristics. Everything that is presented should look as if human hands had nothing to do with it. Just as in any revolution, the new imagery returns to borrow its clothes from the past. Art history can offer a clear example in the paintings of Jasper Johns featuring pop-images made in abstract style. One of the most fundamental justifications of art is its self-realization as craft. This fight against mastery does not resort to the creation of outspokenly clumsy, rough works; on the contrary, one has to use machine production so that the feeling produced by the art work could not be associated with human participation to achieve success.
Another distinct feature of contemporary abstract artifacts is their
somewhat weakened articulation. Contemporary abstraction often repeats
itself, it doubles, triples avoiding simple, obvious meanings and visual
clarity. It is abstraction without clearly outlined forms. We don’t mean
here a brilliant subjective gesture of an artist (Pollock, de Kooning), or a severe, well-built plastic form (Newman, Rothko) or an iconographic
conceptual sign (from Malevich to Hailey): this kind of abstract art would
rather refer to the dim depictions of Gerhard Richter. Yet here it is not only the figurative depiction which is hazed out, it is the very possibility of clarity. The new abstract imagery makes unsure steps repeating its own self in dozens of variations or presents an obscure painted surface without strict borders and outlines. Everything that is associated with completion, distinctness, or clarity is refuted as the manifestation of the subjective and the individual.
1 I must say that I'm not an inveterate fighter against terrorism. Government services are successful in immunizing people against any other assessment of terrorism except an a-priori denunciation of it. As a matter of fact, it violates one fundamental democratic principle: any nation has the right to wage armed struggle against total governmental oppression if the majority of people or a part of the country’s population understand the situation this way.