June/July/Aug 2008

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Boris Groys questions how art is presented to its audience

Matthew Jesse Jackson


Boris Groys has been working in the gap between art and philosophy for more than thirty years. Born in East Berlin in 1947, educated in the Soviet Union, and active as a critic in Moscow’s underground art scene in the ’70s, he emigrated to West Germany in 1981, eventually receiving a doctorate in philosophy. In recent years, he has lectured on art, literature, media theory, and philosophy at New York University and the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, while pursuing an increasing number of curatorial and art projects. Well known in eastern and central Europe, his books and essays (written at first in Russian, now primarily in German) are less familiar to the Anglophone art world. Art Power, however, aims to introduce an English-language readership to the depth and breadth of Groys’s thinking on modern and contemporary art in a single volume.

A collection of fifteen essays written in the past decade, Art Power offers an odd yet penetrating account of visual art over the past hundred years, one curiously uninterested in the paradigmatic histories of the subject. Adolf Hitler and the philosopher Alexandre Kojčve assume major roles in Groys’s narrative, while the art historians T. J. Clark, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Meyer Schapiro are never mentioned. Arthur Danto and Clement Greenberg appear briefly, as do Douglas Crimp and Thierry de Duve, but for the most part, Groys leaves aside discussions of art criticism and art history. Although he contemplates the work of relatively few artists, fine-grained analysis is not the point here. Surveying the cultural landscape from somewhere on high, Groys writes to make the world safe for untimely and unorthodox interpretation. In this sense, youthful exposure to the rhetoric of Soviet officialdom seems to have cultivated in the author a taste for willful idiosyncrasy and an eagerness to subvert ideological truisms. Having witnessed firsthand the decline of a secular superpower, Groys takes for granted that there will be further shifts in the balance between religion, politics, and art.

The book is divided into two parts: The first nine essays concentrate on contemporary art and its public, while the remaining six consider art’s engagements with war, fascism, communism, postcommunism, the market, and “European cultural identity.” Despite their wide focus, these arguments do not yield an overarching picture of the visual culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Diffuse and improvisational in their concerns, Groys’s essays take the critical path less traveled by, often narrating excursions into uncharted territory.

He bores relentlessly into the ideological circuits that link art, war, and religion in “the global political reality of our time,” arguing that we have witnessed a transformation in the historical significance of radicality, iconoclasm, and iconophilia. According to the author, the radical behavior of the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century has been taken up most aggressively in recent times not by artists, but by terrorists and antiterrorist warriors. Yet contrary to the popular media narrative, today’s terrorist/warrior does not practice iconoclastic, avant-gardist negation. As Groys points out, it would be more accurate to describe this figure as an iconophile, a determined producer of “strong images” designed to shock the viewer into submission through their literal representations of extreme violence. “The terrorist, the warrior is radical,” Groys writes, “but he is not radical in the same sense as the artist is radical. He does not practice iconoclasm. Rather, he wants to reinforce belief in the image, to reinforce the iconophilic seduction, the iconophilic desire.” In this way, the artist, as the radical embodiment of contemporary iconoclasm, functions as a counterproducer who critically analyzes and challenges “the claims of the media-driven zeitgeist.” Thus, in the pages of Art Power, the artist is no longer a maker of images, but an expert in their unmaking.

One of the charms of Groys’s writing has always been its eccentricity. His breakthrough 1988 study, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (published in translation in 1992 as The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond), initially met with much bewilderment among historians of Soviet modernism. Taking his text to be a right-wing diatribe against the avant-garde rather than a collection of ironic musings on art and history, many readers misconstrued the underlying thrust of Groys’s writing. The Total Art of Stalinism made extraordinary claims and shocking associative leaps, arguing that Joseph Stalin may have been the greatest avant-garde artist, while portraying the state’s imposition of socialist realism as the culmination of the Soviet avant-garde’s numerous experiments with art and life. In so doing, Groys did not make many friends in American academia, nor did he offer anything like a rigorous historical account of these themes, but he did manage to disrupt the stultifying binarisms (an innocent, apolitical avant-garde confronts a voracious, vengeful state apparatus) that had dominated the study of Soviet art—and the field has never been the same.

Art Power’s most persuasive arguments and provocative proposals confront the decision-making processes that allow artworks to reach the public. Consistently circling back to a core group of philosophers (Agamben, Foucault, Hegel, Kierkegaard) and artists (Duchamp, Malevich, Warhol), Groys thrusts the reader into a freewheeling, multipolar conversation on the relations between art institutions and the atmospheres of “real life”—what the book describes as modernity’s “infinite sequence of images.” For Groys, despite the proliferation in recent years of extra-institutional curatorial projects and alternative art venues, the museum continues to secure crucial space for informed, historical comparison within an ever-expanding spectacle culture. Moreover, the art museum offers a place “to contemplate and enjoy something normal, something ordinary, something banal as well.” In other words, the only true refuge for “the normal,” “the ordinary,” and other manifestations of “real life” ends up being the art museum, since the museum has the power to include a potentially infinite range of banal objects and practices, from shovels to bricks to a man sweeping up, thereby establishing a “paradoxical archive of . . . profane immortality.”

On the question of inclusion/exclusion, Groys also wonders, What would happen if all art created within market structures were to be judged as morally suspect in the same way as the art produced in totalitarian societies? What would the history of twentieth-century art look like under such altered conditions? He does not offer any answers, but the questions propel the reader in unaccustomed directions. And this is characteristic of the experience of reading Art Power. The book causes one to lose one’s interpretive footing on nearly every page. Consider Groys’s comparison of Jesus Christ and Duchamp’s readymade (a typically Groysian analogy, by the way): Since Christ is outwardly similar to other men, and the readymade resembles other objects, both embody a “difference beyond difference”; that is, they manifest a difference “that we are unable to recognize because it is not related to any pregiven structural code.” In art, the author concludes, the “new” is not merely that which is different, but that which is different in a different way.

Over the past decade, Groys has produced works of video art that incorporate his voice and texts, accompanied by appropriated moving images. As such, his professional activities are gradually coming to align themselves with those of an artist, rather than those of an observer (not coincidentally, one of Groys’s essays from the ’80s ruminates on the status of “The Observer and the Artist”). In the present volume, he writes that “art criticism has long since become an art in its own right; with language as its medium and the broad base of images available, it moves as autocratically as has become the custom in art, cinema, or design.” Not only does this remark speak to the dynamics at work within Groys’s writing, it also emphasizes his navigation of the gap between the practice of art and a life of philosophical reflection. In fact, it might be accurate to describe Art Power as a work of art that unfolds through philosophical language, rather than as a collection of philosophical essays on art. One might even be tempted to claim that Art Power follows the lead of Groys’s Christ/readymade: While outwardly resembling other scholarly texts, it does not claim to be a work of criticism, or history, or philosophy, but rather a “differently different” piece of art writing. By probing unacknowledged, repressed, or otherwise unexamined relationships that hover in the background of art-world conversation, Art Power recombines categories, reconfigures assumptions, and, in the end, reimagines what art writing can be.

Matthew Jesse Jackson teaches in the departments of visual arts and art history at the University of Chicago.

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