Chto Delat / Vpered — An Open Letter on the 2008 Kandinsky Prize

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An Open Letter on the 2008 Kandinsky Prize
We admit it upfront: we don’t care much for the artist Alexei Belyaev
(Guintovt), and we don’t care about him. His art is beyond the pale of
criticism, and we have never had any illusions about his political
views. By the mid-1990s, he had already drifted into the orbit of
Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks, and he would later join
Alexander Dugin’s breakaway Eurasian Movement. You do not have to be a
political scientist to recognize these people for what they are: part
of a reactionary global trend toward ultra-right/ultra-left
nationalism. Belyaev’s statements and artworks reflect this political
identity. His work glorifies violence, imperial domination, blood,
soil, and war. It does this in a consciously triumphal neo-Stalinist
aesthetic, mixing crimson with gold leaf to confirm its redundant
imperialist messages. Some members of the local bourgeoisie are taken
with this aesthetic. Fascism thus enters the salon—a salon we would
rather ignore.
We thus have no vested interest in criticizing the Kandinsky Prize.
Founded on the cusp of the recent Russian art boom, this $50,000 award
(with its longlist show of sixty artists) is a contemporary version of
the salon, the institution that has defined art throughout the
bourgeois age. Initiated by the glossy art magazine ArtKhronika,
supported by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and sponsored by
Deutsche Bank, the Kandinsky Prize is clearly yet another neoliberal
franchise, easiest to promote with a servile, aggressively populist
local contingent. Its first edition earned at least some credibility
by supporting the beleaguered curator Andrei Yerofeyev and giving its
top award to activist-turned-formalist Anatoly Osmolovsky. But now, as
the overall socio-political situation shows signs of changing for the
worse, the divided jury of the Kandinsky Prize has decided to include
Belyaev in the short list of its “Artist of the Year” nomination.
Belyaev, however, is a crypto-fascist. The liberal press immediately
picked up this scandal. Such scandals in the salon always play into
the hands of the artist, his gallery, his admirers, and the critics.
Most importantly, they promote the political views of these people. We
do not share the rosy liberal illusion that the free market and the
circulation of capital can fully convert any kind of engaged art, that
artists like Belyaev tame and defuse potentially dangerous ideologies.
Instead, the market makes them fashionable among the salon’s
novelty-loving clientele in a mutated, glamorous form.
Enough about Belyaev: he deserves the Leni Riefenstahl Prize, as
dissenting jury member Yerofeyev aptly put it. What is more important
is that this decision is acutely symptomatic of cultural production in
Russia today. It is not that the curators and critics in the jury of
the Kandinsky Prize are fascist sympathizers, although “the jury’s
decision can be interpreted as a show of solidarity with [Belyaev’s]
position,” as Joseph Backstein, Moscow Biennale commissar, noted. The
problem is that they are ultra-liberals. Their market utopianism makes
no distinction between right and left, brown and red, fascism and
communism; it sees irony lurking around every corner to make
everything nice and normal again. “We didn’t talk about the artist’s
political convictions,” says jury member Alexander Borovsky, head of
the Russian Museum’s contemporary art department. Borovsky also claims
that Belyaev’s work is a distanced, playful take on the etatist
zeitgeist. But there is nothing playful in Belyaev’s calls for Russian
tanks to roll on Tbilisi, to execute the Georgian president, to create
a “Greater Serbia” or to “liberate” the former Soviet republics under
the banner of a Eurasian (read: Russian) Empire. Most importantly,
there is nothing playful in his art. Much of it is propaganda, and
should be judged as such.
By airbrushing Belyaev, Borovsky proves that he is indifferent to
art’s political dimension. It is this indifference that unites the
obscure “left-nationalist,” essentially postmodern ideology of
Eurasianism and the pan-aestheticism of the Russian business and media
elites who control the board of the Kandinsky Prize. “Let a thousand
flowers bloom!” “All ideologies are equal!” “Art beyond politics!” cry
all these respectable people as one, thus legitimizing increasingly
overt expressions of genuinely felt fascism in the public sphere.
Their indifference is a form of complicity. This indifference also
extends to the non-Russian members of the jury such as future Moscow
Biennale curator Jean-Hubert Martin or Guggenheim curator Valerie
Hillings. They can always excuse themselves by saying that they are
not really familiar with the Russian context, and were not able to
participate fully in the selection of the Kandinsky Prize’s short
list. But this “excuse” often disguises the cynicism of neocolonial
irresponsibility, when foreign experts choose to ignore the contexts
in which they plant the seeds of contemporary global culture.
The local context is indeed increasingly taking on an ominous form. As
prominent Russian art critic Andrei Kovalev cuttingly puts it, the
presence of figures like Belyaev testifies to the “ruling elite’s
rapid drift toward fascism” in a moment of crisis. This elite is
already deeply reactionary and anti-democratic, having accumulated its
capital violently through shock privatization and expropriation. Five
years ago, it began using contemporary art as a means of civic
legitimation, establishing its hegemony over the more liberal,
glamorous side of cultural life during the Putin “normalization.” The
recent Russian contemporary art “boom” is closely bound up with the
use of surplus oil profits, and expresses a peculiar
bourgeois-progressivist self-confidence that silences any doubts about
the “bright and shining” future. In other words, the authoritarian
undertone has always been there. For example, when the first Moscow
Biennale opened, ArtKhronika’s editor-in-chief Nikolai Molok wrote an
editorial entitled, “Everyone Shut Up!” in which he ordered the art
scene to suspend criticism and be thankful for what they had received.
Now ArtKhronika prints sympathetic interviews with Belyaev. Molok
defends the artist’s creative position, saying it “expresses the
tendency of state-building” with its search for a “great style.” Does
he mean that, after the petrodollars dry up, Russian state-building
will consist of militarism and neo-imperial claims? Does the Kandinsky
Prize want to tell us that a corresponding style of engaged art is
already a legitimate part of the Russian public sphere?
“Everyone shut up!” This is the result of fifteen years of Russian
society’s political degradation, and the conclusion of the epoch of
transnational privatization. It has left society bereft of even the
most basic tools for critical analysis, democratic discussion, civic
consciousness, and class solidarity. We call upon artists, critics,
editors, and art lovers to boycott the Kandinsky Prize and to distance
themselves from its model of valorization. We call upon anyone still
capable of critical thought to interrupt the fascistoid dreams of the
Russian elite and the apolitical indifference of those who follow in
their wake.
Vpered (Forward!) Socialist Movement (vpered.org.ru)
Chto Delat Work Group & Platform (www.chtodelat.org)
NB. The Russian version of this open letter, which differs in several
respects from this English version, has been published on the Vpered
website as well as the Chto Delat Live Journal