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Andrey Shental. Under Western Eyes

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Ilya Repin. What Freedom! 1903

Ilya Repin. What Freedom! 1903

The events of 2013–14 — the annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Ukraine, the passing of the ‘anti-gay propaganda’ legislation, to name just a few — brought Russia, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, to the epicentre of worldwide media attention. A newly aggressive and militantly ‘anti-western’ stance elicited both positive and negative reactions across the globe, but equally it prompted a sense of confusion. From that point on, almost every conversation I’ve had with a non-Russian has started with the question: ‘What the hell is Russia doing?’ For those who operate within the global art world — arguably a last resort of cosmopolitanism — events in Russia were indications of a severe backlash, a return to an identitarian logic of self-formation.

Such feelings of puzzlement, suspicion, and doubt have become the new normal: customary responses to the ‘post-truth’ spectacle. The question — ‘What the hell is Russia doing?’ — is asked of me on the grounds that I am a Russian passport holder with what is presumed to be exclusive knowledge of the local language, the internal environment, and the political and cultural nuances generally neglected by the Western media. The question assigns the interlocutor the role of the analyst, capable of uncovering hidden unconscious drives, interpreting the motifs and subplots of their country’s regime for the curious onlooker. These days, if in casual conversation my ethnic or national origins are exposed, I am immediately addressed as a citizen, a member of a national community, a representative of a nation-state. Through this act of subjectivation, I am assigned an identity I have not asked for and expertise I do not claim, becoming a spokesman for Russian geopolitics. Over and over I am made to answer for my country.

When the person asking the question learns that I also belong to a group whose civil rights are being violated — a journalist, an artist, LGBT, etc — I am treated with paternalistic compassion. If, for instance, I assert that I do not experience discrimination or suppression of speech in everyday life, I am viewed as a subaltern who has not realised my right to speak. My political position is considered to be complicit. I am assumed to have internalised oppression in the form of self-censorship. Such conversations move quickly from the lofty abstractions of contemporary-art discourse to the mundane specifics of the day-to-day. The geographic borders are inscribed onto my body. My voice is situated within a certain chronology (usually: underdevelopment, backwardness). I am never free in my self-determination, because my freedom is always compromised compared to the ‘real’ freedom of Western liberal democracies.

This overdetermination of nationality clearly shows that the process of decolonisation has miscarried in some way, becoming, to use Ekaterina Degot and David Riff’s expression, ‘perverse’. [1] They claim that the purportedly emancipative processes of postcolonial liberation, intended to overcome Western hegemony and cultural oppression, have in many cases simply resulted in the self-conforming market display of identities and neo-essentialism. It is necessary to perform standard modes of otherness and normalised forms of resistance to become ‘emancipated’. Not only should you follow recognisable identitarian patterns, but also your way of thinking, your reactions, and your perception of the world should conform to given protocols. As a Russian, one is expected to play the role of an unenlightened victim of excessive authoritarian state power. What is missing in this equation is any acknowledgement of the role of the West in the production of Russia, whose coercive internal politics are to some extent triggered by the aggressive and hypocritical rhetoric of ‘human rights’. The standardised discourse of ‘progress’ (or its local variant, the ‘democratic transition’ that all post-socialist countries are expected to undergo) does not reflect the world in its totality with the complexities, contradictions, and paradoxes that come with specific cultural conditions.

Despite the reemerging rhetoric of the ‘Russian soul’ and other essentialist myths, it has always been its elusive in-betweenness that made Russia difficult to define. It is not simply a matter of a Russian mentality; Russia’s differences have economic and political bases. As world-systems theory makes clear, it is neither a core, nor a periphery, but a semi-peripheral state. [2] To avoid subjugation by stronger empires, Russia has tended to suppress weaker countries like Ukraine, while publicly maintaining aggressive protectionist policies for the sake of its sovereignty. Russia has never been a metropole in the proper sense (as a central territory of a colonial empire it never had overseas conquests like Britain or France), but it has a history of imperial expansion and is now seeking once again to re-extend its territory into neighbouring lands. Simultaneously, Russia has always been a colonised country and is still colonised by the West in terms of its cultural, epistemological, and discursive subjugation (in Slavic studies this is referred to, vaguely, as ‘internal colonisation’). [3] Moreover, Russia’s current political regime does not fit within the strict dichotomy between democracy and autocracy, but is defined by some political scientists as a ‘hybrid regime’. It is not only its democratic institutions that are imitative; the authoritarian image is just as often a mask or simulation. [4]

To be obliged to speak on behalf of such a country would be a schizophrenic exercise. But, arguably, such a splitting of personality might also reveal something about the global art world by reflecting and ungrounding one’s position therein. My ambitions as an art writer have always been to produce theory and philosophical criticism, but most of the time, if I want to write in English, I have to slip into the nationalised discourse of art history or the judgement of taste. While studying art history and philosophy in London, I worked as a foreign correspondent, reviewing British shows for Russian-speaking audiences. When I returned to Moscow, I made a U-turn by becoming a foreign correspondent for an established international art publication, exporting my thoughts on the local scene for international readers. For a period of time, this liminal position made me immune and exempt to attacks from both sides: evading local parochial squabbles and at the same time side-stepping involvement in significant international debates. But a policy of non-interventionism can make a person vulnerable. The outside world can take you as an expert (even though you may not be interested in the local art history), while within your own country you are considered a gatekeeper, filtering what is given visibility (though in our post-critical era I would question how much institutional power a critic actually holds).

This position is privileged, but it also has its disadvantages, particularly if you have any ambition to overcome the limits of your locality. If you see yourself as a producer of theory, your very localness can relegate you to the position of commentator or interpreter. Theoretically, an artist might be able to successfully escape this kind of nationalised essentialism through the lingua franca of visual art. In the 1990s, Russian artists such as Oleg Kulik or Konstantin Zvezdochetov consciously exploited ideas of (respectively) wild or indigenous ‘Russianness’. Today’s generation often uses the more universal language of post-internet aesthetics or new materialism. The shrinking market of art criticism, however, categorically imposes national identity on the writer. Even in a digital era, if you do not bear a EU/US passport, do not hold a visa of a ‘core’ country, or your level of English does not approximate that of native speakers, you are unlikely to get very far beyond your locality. To use Mladen Stilinović’s formula, if an artist who cannot speak English is no artist, a critic who does not speak English is no one. [5] So, in the neoliberal logic of outsourcing, the role of the foreign correspondent is sometimes the only one available. Obviously, the fields of pure theory, philosophy, or criticism are competitive, but they are also often hierarchical and essentialist. This situation is most apparent in academia, where many PhD students from Russia are gradually pushed into the field of ‘slavisitics’. [6]

It is almost a tacit rule that if you are coming from outside the core (or West or ‘centre’ or whatever term you want to use), you must rely on and emphasise your own perspective. Your localised knowledge is the thing that defines you. But this insistence on authentic experience is quite often illusionary, since readers are usually already politically biased, having been exposed to certain predefined narratives and assumptions about those peripheries and semi-peripheries the outsider is called on to recount. Western media editors tend to prefer black-and-white answers, and many writers are more than happy to oblige, writing about the Russian situation in dismal terms for international publications as if they were banned from doing so in their own language. To represent Russia as an ‘Empire of Evil’ and Russian art as an enclave of freedom is quite common among certain authors. The Western imaginary expects — even sometimes demands — a lonely warrior, fighting heroically with the authoritarian leviathan. [7] What was once a dangerous act with risky political consequences in the late-Soviet era, can now (in the hybrid regime) be easily commodified. This is a paradox of perverse decolonisation: the more notorious your country becomes, the more often you — as an artist, critic, or academic — are invited to express your opinion on it. But speaking about censorship and oppression within your country for the consumption of Western readers can have a directly counter effect, propelling even more aggressive assertions of national sovereignty against the enemies from without (and within). In certain cases, this kind of commentary winds up causing harm to those the writer purports to protect. Not that this stops the writer from earning symbolic capital.

Another common (and equally controversial) representational strategy is to neglect the region’s internal difficulties by translating them into the esoteric language of locality. While many art aficionados are fed up with Soviet avant-garde art and Moscow Conceptualism, the Coke and Pepsi of Russian art history, there are other new branding strategies that exploit the idea of national art, not least the term ‘New East’ — popularised by writers for British publications like the Guardian and Calvert Journal. [8] New East is a belated attempt to rebrand ‘post-soviet’ and ‘post-socialist’ identities by flavouring them with some of the energy of ‘European integration’ that came out of the Ukrainian revolution while at the same time undisguisedly exploiting a cult of youth. Another way to represent this art is to adapt the mythology of the Russian soul, refashioning it as Russian cosmism or left Eurasianism’. [9] These modes of presentation are predicated upon invented traditions that obfuscate their nationalist undertones. They attract attention and are given credence because their otherness seems to be ineffable, inexplicable, illogical, untranslatable, and therefore seductive. What is striking here is not the willingness to self-exoticise on the part of artists or writers, but the institutional appetite for such categorical markers. Under the aegis of inclusivity, Western museums, galleries, and publications favour (and cultivate) national brands, in which essentialism meets purely commercial interests.

But what would it mean to speak on behalf of your country without resorting to victimhood or crude self-exoticisation? The role of a foreign correspondent implies writing about the local for the global. To do so, you are asked to provide a context, elucidating a personal, historical, economic, political, and/or cultural background that can be lost in translation. Such an exchange assumes that all differences are in principle translatable and adaptable. The act of cultural translation is based on a double twist. First, you need to wear the shoes of an imagined foreigner, divesting yourself of what might be your culturally contingent features, those very characteristics, that is, that enable you to write about a ‘world culture’ in the first place. You are forced to erase your own particularities, assume the position of the universal. Second, though, you also have to wear your own shoes, or contradictorily wear both sets of shoes at once, completing the image of your subject with its inextricably local specificities. This process reminds me of a kind of mummery, a self-deceit, a constant oscillation between self-colonisation and decolonisation. In this process of self-imaging and self-narrativisation, to what extent can you remain immune to self-annihilation? This continues to be a big question for me.

On the one hand, the foreign correspondent has the option to write about blockbuster shows or huge retrospectives of blue-chip artists in well-funded institutions. Such a mode of writing is predicated upon an acceptance of the status quo, where institutionalised contemporary art functions as a proxy for the implementation of universal artistic, critical, and curatorial values. To perform the role of an art critic in such a situation — one of the precarious global army of outsourced freelancers — invites a certain kind of dissent. What can you say that is new, what is your contribution, if you simply repeat those clichés in praise of or denouncing work that has already been shown or could easily be shown somewhere in the core countries.

On the other hand, you could present something ‘autochthonous’ for an English-language readership. In this case, depending on the level of carte blanche, a critic could focus on something that is not too vernacular, but also not too typically transnational. This can be more rewarding, but there are limitations. What does not fit into the global (i.e., Western) art canon is unlikely to be well-received. Artists are given media representation only if they can either be absorbed into the canon, or they are exotic enough to be taken as an exception. For instance, to speak from my own experience, I would be disinclined to write on a retrospective of a living socialist-realist painter (unless for a specialised publication), because ‘easel art’, art that is too figurative, too un-conceptual, is generally dismissed as reactionary. Its contemporariness is called into question. While both commercial galleries and biennial curators across the globe have recently begun to revaluate figurative art, late-socialist realism (haunted by the spectre of the Cold War) is rarely acknowledged. This attitude itself seems to be steeped in a Eurocentric, modernist hierarchy of values. Countering it would require a long methodological analysis of decolonisation. [10] As art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson argues in relation to realist painting, the task is not simply to expand the grand narrative of art to incorporate the great bulk of works left out of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but rather the disincorporation of the canon itself. [11] Surprisingly, in this situation, the semi-periphery has less chance of acknowledgement than the periphery. This resistance to alternative values or criteria makes the ‘inclusivity’ of art post-1989 seem like a false promise; contemporary art appears, at times, like a vindictive son of modernism.

So what is the way out of this identitarian dead end? I could propose three strategies to overcome perverse decolonisation. The first one we might think of as ‘splendid isolation’. Isolationism is praised by fundamentalists and essentialists, who dislike hybridity; at the same time both evolutionary biology and art history tell us that a relative degree of isolation will produce the most interesting endemic species. According to this logic, a desertion of contemporary art might be the way to produce something original and unique. Isolation could take the form of professional self-detachment (as in those cases described recently by Martin Herbert [12]), or it could be a more discursive or epistemological removal, what I have called elsewhere (with some provocation) ‘contemporexit’. [13] The latter strategy could be thought of, adapting the title of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous book, as ‘provincialising western art’ [14]: finding, that is, certain historical episodes where the periphery or semi-periphery was in some way ahead of the West, decentring Western modernity in the process. [15] This might even extend to what Ekaterina Degot refers to as ‘stealing from the West’. [16] Those who are underprivileged or marginalised could ‘steal’ the West’s precious conceptual methodologies, ransacking the very language of criticism. Instead of withdrawing from contemporary-art discourse (and the language in which it is encoded, English), aspects of its infrastructure could be appropriated and misused. This form of resistance would of course be subject to Audre Lorde’s cautionary suggestion that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. [17] Hypothetically, though, imagine the delicious irony of the critical apparatus and art jargon of the West being retooled in such a way that Western art writers would have to relearn a post-digital English?

The former strategy may sound defeatist, the latter resentful. But perhaps there is a third way, combining aspects of the first or second or neither. After all, in the Trump era, right-wing neoreactionary rhetorics have risen in popularity in precisely those core countries that have been accustomed to blame and reproach the semi-periphery, by situating such right-wing values conveniently in ‘other’ places. Under these circumstances, surely it makes sense not to focus on differences but to embrace similarities. What appeared to be backwardness or underdevelopment in the case of semi-peripheral countries has transpired to be (in the technical sense) ‘avant-garde’, the precursor of emerging conditions in the West. In this inverted or perverted situation, the West is now catching up with what used to be referred to, derisively, as the ‘East’, albeit in terms of its supposed backwardness. What appears to be radical, shocking, unthinkable in the core countries may have already happened, and been analysed, processed, and (crucially) resisted in the semi-periphery. What seems alarming and urgent in the political realm might be recognised as sheer performance, hollow, though useful as propaganda or ideological mechanism. So instead of making transhistorical parallels between political extremes (fascism, Nazism, totalitarianism) one could instead learn something from the ‘in-betweenness’ of the semi-peripheral countries. To explore commonalities, share experiences, and somehow identify a common language of resistance against the rising of right aesthetics and ideologies could be a strategy for a decolonised future.

Notes:

1. These problems were addressed during Perverse Decolonization, a research and discussion project at the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne (2017–18) that ‘addressed the current crisis of postcolonial studies and identity politics and its possible appropriations in new nationalisms emerging on a global scale’. See https://www.academycologne.org/en/article/1411_perverse_decolonization

2. Immanuel Wallerstein. World-Systems Analysis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 29.

3. See Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).

4. Quoted in Paul Goble, ‘“Hybrid Regimes” Simulate Not Only Democracy But Dictatorship Too, Schulman Says’, The Interpreter, 18 August 2014, http://www.interpretermag.com/hybrid-regimes-simulate-not-only-democracy-but-dictatorship-too-shulman-says/

5. In his seminal eponymous work, An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist (1992), Mladen Stilinović inscribed the words of the work’s title on a pink artificial-silk flag, something like a DIY protest banner.

6. Slaviс studies is itself a curious discipline, the study of people who lived under virtual colonial rule, encoded in an academic the field that itself implies or enacts a certain form of colonialism. Departments of slavic studies — which thrived during the Cold War and were underfunded and shrinking from the 1990s on — are now once again becoming popular.

7. See, for instance, the following discussion: Alexandra Novozhenova, Andrey Shental, and Boris Klyushnikov, ‘Lonely Warriors Against an Authoritarian Regime’, Flash Art, no. 317, November — December 2017, https://www.flashartonline.com/article/lonely-warriors-against-an-authoritarian-regime/

8. See, for instance, the Guardian’s coverage of ‘the post-Soviet world’ as part of its ‘New East Network’: https://www.theguardian.com/world/series/new-east-network

9. See my interview with Michael Hagemeister, ‘The Hybrid Ideology’, Inrussia, 2017; http://inrussia.com/the-hybrid-ideology

10. The revaluation of socialist realism is a popular subject among art critics and historians of my generation in Russia

11. Matthew Jesse Jackson, ‘5 Questions with Matthew Jesse Jackson’, post, 21 December 2016; https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/934-5-questions-with-matthew-jesse-jackson

12. See Martin Herbert, Tell Them I Said No (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016).

13. See my essay ‘Contemporexit’, Umtitled, Vol. 10, November 2017, https://umtitled.net/issue-10.

14. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

15. Think, for instance, of the legalisation of gay marriages by the Bolsheviks as early as the 1920s.

16. This is the name of the show that Degot curated at the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne, 20 October–10 December 2017.

17. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 110–14.

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This text was originally published in the print edition of Paper Visual Art Journal, Vol. 10 (March 2019).

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