eipcp News
12 2008

An Open Letter on the 2008 Kandinsky Prize

Social movement "Forward!/Vpered" / Platform Chto delat

Social movement "Forward!/Vpered" / Platform Chto delat

[also see http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/2008/12/13/kandinsky-is-ashamed-vpered-and-chto-delat-picket-the-kandinsky-prize/]

We have to admit it right from the start: we don't care for the artist Alexei Belyaev, and we don't care much about him. His art is beyond the pale of criticism, and we have never had any illusions as to his political views. By the mid-1990s, he had already gravitated into the orbit of Limonov's National Bolsheviks and Dugin's Eurasian Movement, and you don't have to be a political scientist to recognize these for what they are: part of a reactionary global trend toward ultra-right/ultra-left nationalism. Belaev's statements and artworks manifest this political identity. His work glorifies violence, imperial domination, blood, soil, and war, and it does so in a consciously triumphal neo-Stalinist aesthetic, mixing crimson with gold leaf to confirm its redundent imperialist messages. Some members of the local bourgeoisie are taken with this aesthetic. And thus, fascism enters the salon...a salon we would much rather ignore...

This is why we 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 60 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 neo-liberal franchise, easiest to promote with the most servile and aggressively populist local force. Its first edition was able to buy at least some credibility by supporting the beleagured curator Andrei Yerofeev and giving its chief award to activist-turned-formalist Anatoly Osmolovsky. But now, as the overall socio-political situation shows signs of changing, the divided jury of the Kandinsky Prize has decided to include Alexei Belyaev into the short list of its main nomination. And Alexei Belyaev is a crypto-fascist. Needless to say, this is a scandal, and one that was immediately picked up by the liberal press. And, as always, such scandals in the salon always play into the hands of the artist, his gallery, his critics, and his admirers. Most importantly, they promote those political views that these people represent. We do not share the rosy liberal illusions that the free market and the circulation of capital can convert any kind of engaged art of any kind fully, so that artists like Belyaev do not tame and defuse potentially dangerous ideologies; instead, they make them fashionable among the salon's novelty-loving clientelle in a newly mutated, glamorous form.

So enough about Belyaev. He deserves the Leni Rieffenstahl Prize, as dissenting jury-member Andrei Erofeev aptly put it. What seems more important is that this decision is a critical symptom of the general condition of cultural production in Russia today. The problem 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, commisar of the Moscow Biennial noted. The problem is that they are ultra-liberals. Their market-utopian ideology makes no fundamental difference between right and left, brown and red, fascism and communism, and 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 contemporary art at the State Russian Museum, going on to claim that Belyaev's work is a distanced and playful take on the etatist Zeitgeist. But there is nothing playful in Belyaev's calls for Russian tanks to march on Tbilisi, to execute the Georgian president, to create a "Greater Serbia" or to "liberate" the former Soviet republics under the slogan of founding a Eurasian (read: Russian) Empire. And most importantly, there is nothing playful in his art, much of which serves agitational purposes, and should be judged as such.

By casualizing Belyaev, Borovsky proves that he is indifferent to art's political dimension, and it is precisely this point of indifference that unites the obscure "left-nationalist," essentially post-modern ideology of Eurasianism and the panaestheticism 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 and thus legitimate the possibility of increasingly overt expressions of genuinely felt fascism in the public sphere. Their indifference is complicity. This indifference also extends to the non-Russian members of the jury such as future Moscow Biennial curator Jean-Hubert Martin or Guggenheim curator Valerie Hillings, who 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 neo-colonial irresponsibility, when foreign experts choose to ignore the contexts into which they plant the seeds of contemporary global culture.
And indeed, the local context is taking on an increasingly ominous form. As the prominent Russian art critic Andrei Kovolev puts it cuttingly, the presence of figures like Belaev-Gintovt bespeak the "ruling elite's rapid drift toward fascism" in a moment of crisis. This class is already deeply reactionary, anti-democratic, and elitist to begin with, having accumulted its capital violently through shock privatization and expropriation. Five years ago, it took to using contemporary art as a means of civic legitimization, establishing its hegemony over the more liberal, glamorous side of cultural life during the Putin "normalization." The "boom" of Russian contemporary art over the last years is closely connected to the use of surplus oil profits, and expresses a special bourgeois-progressivist self-confidence that silences any doubts as to the "bright and shining" future. In other words, the authoritarian undertone has always been there. For example, when the first Moscow Biennial 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 to be thankful for what they had received. Now ArtKhronika is printing sympathetic interviews with Alexei Belyaev, and its editor in chief defends his creative position, saying that it "expresses the tendency of state-building" with its search for a "great style." Does he mean that Russian state-building will soon consists of militarism and neo-imperial claims after the petrodollars dry up? 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 artist, 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 following in their wake.