In 1987, the most famous book by the philosopher and art critic Boris Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, was written. To the 35th anniversary of the book Igor Gulin talked with Boris Groys about the fate of the avant-garde heritage, competition in art, the possibility of new revolutions and the return to the XIX century.
In “Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin” you describe the art of the second half of the twentieth century as an attempt to interpret, to experience the utopian impulse of the avant-garde era. Has anything changed since then?
Nothing has changed. The main change occurred after the war. This is privatization, private appropriation of the avant-garde. The avant-garde projects of the early twentieth century are universal projects, attempts to somehow change the future, to create a plan of cosmic proportions. And the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s is their private interpretation. An individual artist did a project for himself or for a group of friends, for a community. Such individual myth-making originated in the late 1950s. It is enough to look at Mark Rothko, who builds a chapel for himself, creates his own religion.
But in the 1960s there was still the pathos of unity, the search for the universal? 1968, New Age.
In the 1960s, this myth-making really took on a more radical, communitarian character. Hippie communes and the Situationist International appear. But these groups do not last long and break up quickly. Just the new age is a completely private thing. You sit in the lotus position and go into space, but this union with space does not unite you with other people. They sit in a different position and unite with something else. The reason for this individualization is not that people have become so self-centered. They just became more careful. There was a belief that one could not interfere in another’s affairs. So now they are talking about the need to give a voice to women, to give a voice to blacks. Behind all this is the feeling that there is nothing in common between people, that what is common is the result of false theories of the Enlightenment and the European colonization of the world. Therefore it is impossible to speak for another. You can’t even speak for your family because women are different. Ultimately, you can only talk about yourself and for yourself. In the 1920s, speaking for others on behalf of others was considered good. If you gave your voice to a speechless crowd like Mayakovsky, that was right. And now it is believed that you humiliate, oppress and deprive them of their voice, replacing their voice with your own. It is this caution towards others that makes projects in the spirit of the avant-garde and early socialism impossible.
In the book, you describe the post-war reality as the world after the end of history, a kind of great museum of failed utopias. Is the inability to work for others due to such a feeling of the end?
That’s how it is. At the end of the story, the story does not disappear, it begins to multiply: instead of one story, many stories emerge. Women’s history, children’s history, Alaska Native American history, city, neighborhood, community history. And an individual story. The “museum” you are talking about – I would say that it is such a living museum and all today’s people are museum exhibits. They are individual appropriations of collective projects of the past. This is clearly seen in Russian art.
And what has changed in Russian art since the days of conceptualism, in which this process of appropriation began?
I would say that nothing much has changed in Russia or in the West. It just seems that everything is changing. The process of appropriating utopias is simply being academized. For example, if you take Russian art, the difference between Kabakov and, say, Zhilyaev is the difference between David and Engr. During the French Revolution, the life-building project of republicanism looked fresh and full of energy – in particular, destructive energy, which is clearly visible to David. And for Ingres, it is already more formalized, aestheticized. I would say that all the art of the postwar period is the academization of the avant-garde. This is a long process. The academicization of the Renaissance took several centuries. I think that the avant-garde academics will also take centuries. Everyone thinks that art is fashion. But art is actually an extremely conservative occupation, it is built on preservation. Fashion is based on the fact that you throw away yesterday’s dress, and yesterday’s picture you hang in a museum. And that’s it.
So you think we will live a long time, looking back to the beginning of the twentieth century, without the possibility of any new break?
In order for a break to happen, huge changes are needed. The rupture that occurred during the Renaissance was a transition from theology to humanism. That is, they decided that there is no god, but only man, and stopped practicing God, and began to practice man (no matter what they said). The consequences of this decision stretched for many centuries – until the turn of the XIX and XX centuries, when it was decided that there is no man, but only a car. As long as a person works, he is a machine, and because he does not work, it is not clear why he is needed. If we look at modern posthumanism, transhumanism, and so on, these are all exactly the same ideas. They are simply rewritten. Some Negarestani writes that man must be overcome. Nietzsche has already said this. That is, this mill is spinning further and further, and it will spin until people decide that instead of a car there should be something else. There are new technologies, but they are being used to rewrite earlier technologies. Technology is also conservation: the same thing is done all the time. What is an algorithm? Repetition of the same thing – no matter what. How long will this repetition last? As much as technology will continue. Do you know Einstein’s old joke? When asked how they would fight in World War III. He replied that it was difficult for him to say, but he knew exactly how they would fight in the fourth, namely with stones and sticks. If technology is destroyed, then new art will emerge, but as long as it exists, art will not change in essence.
But the avant-garde took the car and saw in it a means of reorganizing human existence, and modern art often fetishizes the car without offering any project.
No, it simply offers an individual project: turning oneself into a car. Andy Warhol has already said that he wants to be a car. That is, you yourself become a machine for making a product. To live in a machine civilization is to live in a project. An artist creates his project: he produces something, he creates a design bureau from himself, he creates management, a business plan, PR and so on.
What you are describing is absolutely capitalist logic. The vanguard tried to find a way out of it. And now maybe some vision of the way out?
The vanguard thought — and perhaps was right — that industrial civilization would lead to non-competition. One can imagine that the technology will be so complex that competition in it will become impossible. If so, capitalism will die by itself. Because when there is no competition, there is no capitalism. Many in the early twentieth century believed that this would be the case – Bogdanov, for example. It is very possible that this techno-socialist utopia is being realized. But I don’t think the art will change much. Now artists are competing with each other, but less and less. Because when you stand only for yourself, implement your project, it is unclear how you can compete with someone. You have your own audience, and another audience still won’t accept you. There used to be competition for a place in a museum. But it is clear that museums will go bankrupt because they are too expensive. This means that artists will be exhibited on the Internet. But what kind of competition is there? He has a website, and you have a website.
And what will happen not to artists, but simply to people? Will there be no more competition?
And there are no more people. People have disappeared. There are women, there are white men, there are millennials, there are IT specialists, there are artists. There were people in the era of humanism, but now there are no more people.
Then another question: what will happen to the progress from which avant-garde utopias and revolutions tried to escape?
Progress is likely to stop by itself. Here I live in New York. Here the subway was built in the early twentieth century, but the impression is that it was built under Cheops as a pyramid. And just like the pyramids, it is unclear how it can be rebuilt. The same with the road system: it was created as soon as cars appeared, you can’t remake it. It is not yet clear how the Internet can be redesigned. There is still progress in some areas. But if you have already made a technology once, it is difficult to change it later, and the way of life associated with it is also difficult to change.
We can talk not about technology, but about politics. There is no utopian project in the events that are taking place now, but there seems to be a desire to get out of the progressive course of history. Is it possible to somehow connect them with the history of revolutions?
There is no such desire in them. The wars that are going on now are related to competition. Here we discussed that in the future, maybe there will be no competition. But now she is. We now live under capitalism. Capitalism is a competitive model, this is how it differs from socialism. People compete with each other, and countries compete with each other. Note that during the Cold War, when China, the Soviet Union, and the socialist bloc countries were isolated from the competitive system, there were no major wars. Only wars of the colonial type. We have already seen the moment when, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany, Italy, and Japan emerged from a non-competitive state into a competitive state, that is, they entered capitalism. This entry into capitalism caused two world wars. Now we see that other countries – including Russia and China – have left socialism and entered capitalism. And as capitalism now includes more and more countries, the potential for conflict is great.
That is, structurally this situation is no different from the beginning of the twentieth century?
The whole current situation is a repetition of the end of the XIX century: free markets, imperial politics, nationalism, the domination of the media (then it was newspapers), the stars – in general, the whole social structure. And what is the XIX century? See: there was the eighteenth century with its utopian projects. The nineteenth century was a century of ideological reaction and the development of capitalism. Then the twentieth century began. The twentieth century was like the eighteenth. It was the age of a new era of enlightenment, revolution, utopia. Now it’s over. The 21st century has begun – it’s like the XIX: utopias have collapsed, the era of regression has begun. Again, conservative nationalist ideologies prevail everywhere, on the one hand, and competitive capitalism, closely linked to nationalism, on the other. We live in an age of restoration. After all, what is nationalism? This is the activation of the past. When people say: we are not Soviet, we are Russian, what do they mean? The Cherry Orchard, the Russia we lost. What is Russia? XIX century. They want back to the 19th century.
Only after all, Soviet history is somehow inscribed in this cherry orchard?
No, they do not want Soviet history. It’s all an illusion. Because the Soviet is internationalist, nobody liked it. I well remember the end of the Soviet Union. There was terrible nationalism. Absolutely everyone believed that their misfortunes were due to other nationalities and that if you get rid of them, everything will be fine. Armenians thought that they would live like in Paris, Georgians – like in New York, everyone thought that it was enough for them to separate, as they will show all the power and beauty of their national identity. And the Russians thought that they were living so badly, because everyone was taking money from them, they were providing international aid, they were feeding Cuba. If this stops, then Russia will also live happily and richly. It all started with this common opinion: nationalism destroyed the Soviet Union. Nothing has changed since then and is unlikely to change any time soon.
It turns out that there is a kind of mismatch between world politics and art: in art, competition is gradually disappearing, and in politics, on the contrary, it returns?
I would not say so. Both artistic and political conflicts are connected with the entry of new countries and strata of society into the technosphere. Hence the desire to oppress those who have already taken their place in the technosphere, including the media sphere – the desire to find their voice, to assert their identity. These conflicts will begin to disappear when everyone gets their technology and the desire to maintain this niche exceeds the desire to expand it. But, of course, this process of totalizing the technosphere will take a long time.
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