SOCIALIST MODERNISM AND BEYOND
by Victor Tupitsyn
The socialist modernism of the 1920s and ‘30s, which pleased neither the pure avant-garde zealots nor the Stalinist art mavens, existed simultaneously with socialist realism but, unlike the latter, was able to create a style of its own. The architecture of Moscow's first metro stations, book and magazine design, posters, photography and photomontage, the decoration of workers' clubs - this is only a partial list of the media in which the socialist modernists (Gustav Klutsis, El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Sergei Senkin, Valentina Kulagina, Solomon Telengator, Gruntal and many others) worked. The protopostmodernist course of their position, compared to the traditional avant-garde, is in the dialectical transcendence (removal) of negation, that is, in the transition from negation to affirmation. Giving this fact due credit, socialist modernism may be viewed as an affirmative avant-garde. But in order to fully understand what it means one needs to realize that in the 1920s socialist modernism was more than just an art movement or a sensibility shared by a limited number of individuals. It was the representation of the Soviet (post)revolutionary identity addressed to a nation-wide audience, which was extremely receptive.
Parallel to this process, the overwhelming majority of the population was, for the most part, forcibly recruited into collective farms or, in smaller numbers, wiped out or banished to distant regions of the country to perform forced labor. A significant number of others were compelled to migrate to urban areas. This phenomenon engendered a housing problem of enormous proportions and reached its climax when two or three different tenants had to live in one room. As the result of this crisis, the communal ghetto was formed in urban Russia. Toilets, baths, and kitchens became the site of this “great experiment” in mass communalization. As a prerequisite, it required a radical change of one’s sense of visual identity – “communalizing” oneself, as it were.
Kazimir Passion Group's film still from Lenin in New York, 1982.
Examples of historic mass identification allow us to speak of a multiple (symbiotic) subject, whose identification with the illusory universality of idols, leaders, and celebrities allow the communal unconscious to be treated as a baby glued to a societal mirror. Each of these images is larger than life, and contrasts with the fragmentary nature of the collective body. The features of multiple subjectivity are also manifested on the level of the individual: the subject of social identification who calls himself “I” frequently acts on behalf of a “we.”
One may argue that the portraits of Soviet leaders functioned as mirrors (screens) or reflectors) responsible for redirecting the identificatory waves of the communal psyche from some image to others; that is, they functioned de facto as instruments of synchronicity. The idea of the screen or the reflector also extends to other identificatory schemes related, for example, to the post-revolutionary NEP (New Economic Policy, 1921-1928) in Russia. During the NEP years, posters for Western movies as well as billboards that advertised cookies, cigarettes or household goods used images of attractive women. Beside these commercial advertisements, one could also see propaganda posters and photographic displays that represented images of "model" citizens and their deeds that were worthy of imitation. In such instances, when the consumer's gaze moved from the erotic image to the political one, it still retained (by dint of inertia) its libidinal intensity. As a result, what occurred was a transfer of libidinal interest from one iconographic context to another. The former context turned out to be a screen or a reflector in relation to the latter. In this manner, a consumer optic facilitated eroticization of political imagery. Later, the libidinal economy of socialist realism and of Soviet mass media came to be dominated by two aspects: ideological perception of the body and bodily perception of ideology.i
It is worth mentioning that in their interpretation of the Constructivist veshch (thing) most scholars limit their analysis to the NEP period, the time when capitalist objects were reintroduced within the socialist context. In other words, they are talking about an object in its transition (and its division) – a dichotomised object still hesitant to quit its horizontal axis but already exploring the vertical one. Parallel to the NEP’s aim to re-introduce capitalist commodity to a country swept by communalism, there was yet another process that had been developing on a much larger scale. I am referring to the production of socialist commodities -- things that can be characterized as both psychedelic and didactic. These “quasi-objects” had nothing to do with the items of everyday use -- kitchenware, furniture, clothing, etc. Such items were habitually dismal; they lacked any sense of pleasure, any hope for prestige or comfort. The ways in which the communal psyche connected itself to communal objecthood were completely de-fetishized. The communal Eros was redirected to the sphere of public (read socialist) objecthood which -- for the most part -- consisted of indexical sign-objects from the inventory of photographic, sculptural, or architectural agitprop.ii These also included “cine-forms” through which one could “perceive a tempestuous and incessant flow of people as an interrupted moving form of never stopping content.”iii Even if they looked tangible, they were still images and traces of something else. Thus, socialist commodity had a repeatedly postponed presence -- an object in its pure potentiality. However elusive, especially as seen through the lens of individual (i.e., noncommunal) optics, socialist commodity (“obshchestvennaia veshch” in Aleksei Gan’s terminology) has never failed to be perceived as an object. By this I mean the tendency to objectify the indexical and anticipatory nature of socialist commodity by turning the representation of its presence into the presence of representation. As was mentioned earlier, many socialist objects functioned as instruments of synchronicity (they were “in charge” of channeling the waves of communal desire in the “proper” direction). The fact that socialist commodity had a postponed presence was in harmony with the deferral of individual subjectivity.iv With this double deferral, the capitalist subject/object dichotomy was subjected to the same fate.
Most often, we are dealing either with the elemental yearning for identification (identification at any cost) or with the exploitation of this yearning by the “power structures,” by market and other mechanisms which give this unconscious process its conscious shape. In The Museological Unconscious,v I argued that “the Real (le réel) is manifested in the viewer’s impossibility to appropriate jouissance through imitation of a hero’s experiences without loosing tempo. In the Soviet Union, where identification without alienation was demanded at any price, the emphasis was placed on the cathartic optics necessary to decrease the distance between the viewer and the hero, whose ideological (rather than sexual, or commodity oriented) jouissance was supposed to be instantly, without delay, shared by the audience. It seems that attempts undertaken during the time of socialist modernism at divorcing or rupturing the relationships with a painting can be attributed to a battle with alienation. Various means were used to try to overcome it: by going out to the street, as well as when art was produced for workers’ clubs, for decorating city squares, etc. It did not take long to realize that as soon as one alienation is replaced by another, the latter is perceived as a loss of the former, and then what emerges is a temporary illusion or the affect of a non-alienated state. In this respect, socialist modernism’s effectiveness was based on its ability to instantly recontextualize alienation.
Larry Gagosian with Marlboro in Moscow, by Andrei Molodkin, 2009
There is an opinion that the interesting stage of socialist realism lasted no more than five or six years. This was the period of delusion when it seemed as though alienation had been set aside -- a period connected with the ecstasy of surmounting alienation. As a result, many avant-garde artists, including socialist modernists experienced the temptation to return to painting -- Malevich to one kind, Rodchenko to another, Tatlin to yet a third. The cycle repeated itself in the 1980s, when the conceptualists of the previous two decades were upstaged by German, Italian, and American neo-expressionists whose painterly thermidor was once again directed toward the “positive transcendence of all the estrangement” (e.g., estrangement from “tactile visuality”). Likewise, in the nineties when installations were being made -- they were made with the goal of eradicating estrangement. What occurs next is a relapse into alienation. Its transition from one cycle to another (especially, when the process repeats itself) emulates the movement of the pendulum which makes us feel hypnotized, thereby creating the illusion of zero degree alienation. However suspicious, this feeling of momentary relief is one of the reasons why we keep clinging to art. And this is precisely the recipe that the culture industry have perfected.
The acceptance of the fact that the alienation cannot be de-realized is a statement of failure which is also, in a higher sense, a success. On the one hand, the “great longing for a great defeat”; on the other hand, confirmation that failure has become a speculative phenomenon. Defeat is celebrated like a victory, a victory as a defeat. Heidegger believed that boredom was conducive to philosophizing. Melancholy is even more so, considering that melancholic spleen is a synonym for the dejection that we feel (according to Nietzsche) when contemplating unvarnished reality; this is particularly true of zealous champions of beauty and harmony, who include quite a few members of the political class and of economic elites. Noah’s fear of his own nudity, which led to the banishment of the witness/factographer (Ham), can be defined and even introduced into colloquial usage as “the Noah complex.” The “Noah complex” is the trembling of the mollusk which cannot exist outside its shell/ark. In order to survive in the conditions of modern Russia (and not just Russia), this human mollusk requires the camouflage of imperial slogans and identity-based constructs such as “statehood,” “pride in one’s history,” the sense of “national belonging,” etc. The inevitable psychodysleptic effect takes the form of a determination to enthusiastically accept the nakedness of post-Soviet reality seen through an opening in the shell. Something similar happens to the viewer when witnessing Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés (1945-66).
The discussion of melancholy makes me recall a recent visit to Pisa, where an entire colony of illegal immigrants from Africa has taken up residence near the old churches and the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. They cannot be sent home, since they refuse to name the country from which they came. As a result of renouncing identity (Odysseus’ tactic), they have found themselves in the twilight zone, in the “zone of indistinction.” The locals don’t pay attention to them, and all they do is sell various fake goods and Chinese-made kitsch in the streets. They have their own mafia which collects their revenues from sales. All of them together are an embodiment of collective sorrow and melancholy, of great failure and great defeat. Who is to blame for this? The local bureaucracy, the immigrants themselves, their sponsors? Or, perhaps, the state of indifference that invites the analogy with modern societies, where independent artists and writers are “aliens in their own land.”
International group exhibitions such as the Biennale and the Documenta are “Potemkin villages” that shield the non-Euclidian nature (landscape) of contemporariness, co-spatiality and complicity. They attest to the lack of immunity from globalization and to the desire for integration into the culture industry at any price. When I say “at any price,” I mean the leveling of contextual distinctions that do not fit the stereotype. Every such stereotype (now “global”) is instilled by art-world bureaucrats and, as a rule, as impervious to theorizing. And not just because Obrist, Bourriaud or Birnbaum are incapable of it, but also because their appeal to a meta-language contradicts the principle of the singularity of the artistic act – and without that, everything we do is meaningless. In this sense, the international curators of contemporary art can be compared to the “irrigation” officials of China, Egypt, or pre-Columbian America. Their vulnerability lies in the fact that “the international artistic context” is an artificial concept. It’s like a visit to the zoo: yes, we see a lot of exotic animals and birds, but everyone realizes that the context of the zoo is different from that of the jungle. If art is still subject to reanimation, it is only because no one really knows how it’s different from everything else. Art is not identical to itself, but as soon as it acquires such an identity, it ceases to be art and turns into its own tombstone – i.e., becomes a part of the culture industry. Art’s failure to coincide with itself is the main thing I find interesting about it. It’s too bad that this manifests itself (mostly) in convulsions and shudders.
This is Not a Bomb by David Ter-Oganyan.
In April 2009, I visited the AlterModernism exhibition at the Tate Britain, curated by Nicholas Bourriaud with pretensions to novelty. The selection of works and the entire exposition generally left a dreary impression, as did the curator’s text in the exhibition catalogue. This begs the question: how do functionaries and bureaucrats, naturally deprived of their own resources, always manage to appropriate someone else’s – be it natural resources, the art world, or world politics. And globally, too. The landscape of globalization is a bureaucratic Eldorado, and although only a part of this landscape is reserved for the art-world bureaucracy, the egalitarian globalist project presupposes the expansion of (a) its powers and (b) the very concept of “the artistic.” That is why we increasingly encounter people who have no direct connection to art on the art scene – and, in group exhibitions, the kind of infantile kitsch that matches the bureaucrats’ cultural level and is promoted in order to strengthen their position. The flourishing of bureaucratization is related to the disappearance, or the decline in status, of the carriers and caduceators of what Alain Badiou called “generic identity.” This refers to the negatively engaged portion of the population whose functions were once performed by the no longer existent proletariat. It has been replaced by a multimillion army of clerks, no less prone to inertia than the clerkship of imperial China. The difference is one of scale: at one end, the highly paid bureaucratic elite accredited in Brussels and Strasbourg; at the other, low-budget rabble, office clerks employed in urban centers or on the periphery. If this contingent takes an interest in aesthetics at all, it is the aesthetics of inertia and stagnancy – especially since the compensatory resource (i.e., the opportunity to “kick back”) does not include “topical art.” Thus, the main character of Gogol’s novella The Overcoat, Akaky Akakievich, has become the embodiment of “generic identity.” Many contemporary artists, critics and curators try on this Gogolesque overcoat, including those who service a more respectable clientele. Political reflection becomes inappropriate: art dressed up in an overcoat is guaranteed a comfortable but lowly existence. The paradox is that the overcoat is a good fit – and not just for art: intellectuals, traditionally regarded as legionaries of alienation and negation, no longer perceive themselves as such. The lack of demand for political discourse and, accordingly, for the critical function is linked, above all, to the collapse of utopian consciousness: art deprived of political aspirations is reduced to the level of décor and loses all interest in regeneration.
Clearly, the “stringing” of symptoms and side effects changes nothing. The essence of the problem is that art is just as much of a utopia as democracy. Autonomous aesthetic practices uncorrupted by the culture industry epitomize instrumentality of the utopian project already (always-already?) doomed to de-realization. Curiously, awareness of the hopelessness of this venture does not presuppose measures for winding it down. Like Sisyphus, we keep rolling the ill-fated rock in the same direction as before. Many believe that to catapult oneself out of the vortex of culture is more suicidal than to continue participating in it. If a single drop of blood suffices to revive a vampire, then one should think twice before extending its life.
The law of the negativity of the symbolic function does not spare either the creator of artistic production or the creator of the curatorial project. The egocentric gesture usurps either the image or the status of the other, depending on where we are and to what we (unconsciously) appeal, be it the “Mirror stage” or the Symbolic register. Artists function as curators and curators as artists, in the sense that the work of curating art manipulates the art of those participating in a group exhibition in the same manner that artists master artistic material. From their point of view, all the elements of the exposition (including the works of other participants, the curator’s concept, etc.) are nothing but an extended frame for their own work, and the bigger the exposition, the more baroque it looks as a frame. Apparently, it’s time to start looking for new exhibition paradigms and alternative forms of contact with viewers, for whom utopias (such as art and democracy) are not necessarily unattainable.
To follow up on the issue of unattainability, I will argue that the repeated multiplication of the utopian matrix U by the matrix of its de-realization, U-1, gradually causes the revolutionary forward movement to grind to a halt. The wheel of utopia starts to spin uselessly; utopia itself turns out to be (or starts to seem) unattainable, i.e., befitting its definition – though this is only a problem of translation. When utopia suffers defeat, what triumphs is its evil twin – bureaucratization,vi which contributed to the decay of Marxism in the USSR. But if the apotheosis of bureaucratization (be it imperial, corporate, clerical, globalist, etc.) is not just an empty word, what about the utopia on which it parasitically feeds? What seems to be at stake here is how to prevent “thermidorian elements” from assuming control of the reversibility principle, UxU-1=E, where E is an “identity” matrix (consisting of ones on the main diagonal and zeroes elsewhere).vii Apparently, the presumption of “unattainability” should be attributed not to the immanent teleology of the utopian project, but to the teleology of de-bureaucratization. This reassessment presupposes the use of new critical technologies and behavioral strategies, as well as the rejection of familiar notions of what utopia is.
“The concept of ‘immaterial labor’… involves activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work’ – be it defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards or shaping tastes, fashions, consumer norms, and…public opinion.” It comes as no surprise that the tendencies outlined in the above statement by Maurizio Lazzarato, have surfaced long before the publication of his book, Il lavoro immateriale. Forme di vita e produzione di soggettivita (Ombre corte, 1997). The same is true of contemporary culture where “immaterial labor” is often (albeit falsely) presented as metanoia that unbinds art from the alterity of the object. To enjoy the outcome, one needs to “amen up” the various rips and chinks through which the gaze of a critically engaged artist can see the nakedness of the reality underneath. The reality underneath is tinted with corporate and financial terrorism, aimed at conquering new markets for trade and territories rich in oil reserves.
The experience of recent years (clash at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, the rioting in London, and the revolutionary events in the Middle East and the "Occupy" movement in the US) convinces us that in disseminating “immaterial values,” the lion's share belongs to Internet and mobile phone services. Both function as operating systems for the digital unconscious, and due to these brain-hacking practices, streams of desire are washed ashore. Converted to a digital format, performative speech-acts regulate the dynamics of mass communication, regardless of the differences between parties. Heterogeneous contexts are reduced to a common denominator in a fraction of a second. Bouncing between paranoia and metanoia becomes routine. Leftist anarchists and fundamentalists instantly work out a joint platform in virtual space, not realizing that among them there is no (and cannot be) ideological unity. Confrontation will begin later.
i Ideological objectification in the USSR can be regarded as analogous to sexual objectification in the West, taking into account the fact that ideological objectification is generally a prerogative of the communal vision -- the vision that allows the individual "I" to look at the world through the lens (or on behalf) of "we."
ii Some of these sign-objects combined symbolic and indexical dimensions.
iii Aleksei Gan, “Da zdrastvuet demonstratsiia byta!” Quoted in Margarita Tupitsyn, El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 32.
iv This gave way to a build up of communal ego and communal perception.
v See Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009).
vi Bureaucratized utopia bears resemblance to art, corrupted by the culture industry. Both thrive on reification.
vii UxU-1=E means that we're back to square one.