Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Art Power by Boris Groys

Using few footnotes, this collection of Boris Groys’s essays offers a compulsively original account of contemporary art and the political systems that support it. Educated in the former USSR, now a professor in Germany who also teaches at NYU, he brings to contemporary art theory a highly original perspective. Groys discusses fundamental topics: the nature of the art market; the connection between museums and contemporary art; the role of curators; the relation of film to art; the place of video in the museum; the art critic’s position; art and terrorism; Hitler’s art theory; socialist realist art; the goals of cultural studies; the effects of privatization in Russia; and the roles of minorities in Europe. Unlike all too many theorists, he doesn’t back into discussion by way of commentary on the literature. Groys, rather, states his own position up front. His highly personal literary style, confident and erudite but jargon free, is as novel as his arguments.

Art from totalitarian cultures like Nazi Germany and the socialist world was outside the market economy. But in our secular world, that has changed. Today only the museum allows us to make historical comparisons, and so resist the dictatorship of contemporary taste. Art in the museum is of the past, and so in a sense dead, no longer a possible model for younger artists. And this means that museums in effect show what new art is not like. Thanks to their displays of older art, we can see by contrast what is genuinely original in contemporary art. We need museums because a great deal of contemporary art is almost indistinguishable from the banal objects we encounter in everyday life. But although art museums preserve objects, their collections themselves change constantly. By contextualizing art, curators play a key role in this process. To curate, Groys notes, is to cure, which is to say that nowadays the work of art needs help from the curator to become visible. According to Walter Benjamin’s famous account, modern technologies of reproduction cause art to lose its aura. In fact, Groys argues, now something very different happens, for it is possible not only to make a copy from an original but also to make an original out of a copy. Benjamin did not anticipate this development.

One key art form, which helps us understand these changes in the status of contemporary art, is film. Just as iconoclasts attacked religious images, and the anti-socialists destroyed sculptures of the fallen heroes of the USSR, so film wages war on the traditional high arts. Drawing on a marvelous sequence of examples, including the films of Guy Debord, Independence DayMars Attacks!,MatrixMonty Python’s Life of Brian, and Andy Warhol’s Empire State Building, Groys tells this story. To see a film in a theater, we normally remain seated. But when watching videos within the museum, spectators don’t need have to remain motionless. And often we come in and leave without viewing the whole movie. We consume most static museum art quickly, and all view the same object; but typically view only some chosen portion of a video. Today the unit of art is no longer the individual artifact, but the museum space in which art is installed. And so in a sense the curator has become an artist, and the artists’ identity determined not by what they make, but by what exhibitions they participate in. Museum architecture has become so important, because it defines this space in which installations of contemporary art take place. As for art critics, although they seem the least powerful members of this social system, in fact they matter, for without a text, art is naked and unprotected. And because these texts are not read, writers are free to say whatever they want, knowing that whatever they say, they cannot go wrong.

Groys then moves from the art world proper to discussion of its broader political context. The images from Abu Ghraib are uncannily similar to 1960s and ’70s films, for art, like politics, involves struggle for recognition. But because terrorists claim to make images that are true and real, they are the artist’s enemy. Hitler aimed to produce art with eternal value, images showing the hero. He is perversely fascinating, because modern art often celebrates the loser, and he was an absolute loser, whose military and political failures were not redeemed by moral victory. As for socialist realist art, it showed not the present but the future, a world in which we became better people. But since the USSR has disintegrated, the real question now is what the art market will make of this art. Postmodern taste, Groys argues, is not really tolerant, for it rejects the universal, uniform, repetitive, and communism. This taste is based on the globalized market, which requires that Russia move backward, from the Communist future (which now has disappeared) to post-communist capitalism. As for Western Europe, it faces a contradiction. Believing that human rights are universal, Europeans champion them worldwide, but then are accused of cultural imperialism. Whatever the political implications of this situation, that Europeans are torn between moral superiority and paranoid fear of the other is good for their art. But the identity of Europeans is difficult to define, Groys argues. If some Muslims have become terrorists, in this way they are well-integrated into European tradition, in which many distinguished scholars have defended terrorism.

I read Art Power twice very much under its spell before I began to critically think about Groys’s arguments. Most art history writing is over-burdened with the felt need for documentation. And so it was very exciting to read so terse and direct a presentation, which makes sweeping, challenging claims. He rarely presents examples or much argumentation, as if his conclusions were self-evident. But upon reflection, one may easily become critical. Some contemporary art in museums, Groys frequently mentions Marcel Duchamp and Warhol, does define itself against tradition. But a great deal of painting and sculpture does not. All significant contemporary artists are not doing versions of ready mades. And while it is true that video plays an important role in many contemporary art exhibitions, does Groys’s account adequately define the difference between these videos and films? When I go to the movies, I look forward to being entertained; in an art gallery, I have different expectations. In my experience, we art critics are not free to say whatever we want, for the artists and galleries who pay for our writing, and the journals that publish it edit us.

Groys’s political analysis also deserves critical examination. Since Osama bin Laden presumably knows nothing about avant-garde American art, I am not sure what to make of Groys’s parallel. The complex relationship of National Socialism with art, Hitler’s love of German old masters and hatred of modernism, is it adequately analyzed by Groys? Finally, his account of European defenses of human rights seems to me positively misleading. It is simply not true that our beliefs have no roots, also in other cultures. Finally, while some European intellectuals have written in support of terrorism, does that really give terrorist Muslims reason to feel at home in the West? When, then, I responded critically, I was reminded of a book that I read decades ago, Edgar Wing’s Art and Anarchy(1963) Like Groys, Wind is an effortlessly erudite writer who offers a dazzling perspective, which deserves careful scrutiny. He, like Wind, is a gifted writer who loves paradoxes. Eleven years ago, at a conference in Bielefeld, Germany devoted to Arthur Danto’s aesthetics, I heard Groys. While everyone else talked about familiar issues in cliched ways, he gave an absolutely unforgettable presentation, linking Danto’s analysis to the traditions of sacred art. How I regret that this lecture, which was given extemporaneously, is not published in Art Power, though some of its ideas do make their way into the volume. This, absolutely the best book I have read for a long time on the politics surrounding the display of contemporary deserves, is sure to get sober critical scrutiny. Even readers who are skeptical about or reject Groys’ claims will,  I expect, find his presentation spellbinding.