An Open Letter on the 2008 Kandinsky Prize
We admit it upfront: we don’t care much for the artist Alexei Belyaev (Guintovt), and we don’t care about him. His art is beyond the pale of criticism, and we have never had any illusions about his political views. By the mid-1990s, he had already drifted into the orbit of Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks, and he would later join Alexander Dugin’s breakaway Eurasian Movement. You do not have to be a political scientist to recognize these people for what they are: part of a reactionary global trend toward ultra-right/ultra-left nationalism. Belyaev’s statements and artworks reflect this political identity. His work glorifies violence, imperial domination, blood, soil, and war. It does this in a consciously triumphal neo-Stalinist aesthetic, mixing crimson with gold leaf to confirm its redundant imperialist messages. Some members of the local bourgeoisie are taken with this aesthetic. Fascism thus enters the salon—a salon we would rather ignore.
We thus 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 sixty 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 neoliberal franchise, easiest to promote with a servile, aggressively populist local contingent. Its first edition eared at least some credibility by supporting the beleaguered curator Andrei Yerofeyev and giving its top award to activist-turned-formalist Anatoly Osmolovsky. But now, as the overall socio-political situation shows signs of changing for the worse, the divided jury of the Kandinsky Prize has decided to include Belyaev in the short list of its “Artist of the Year” nomination. Belyaev, however, is a crypto-fascist. The liberal press immediately picked up this scandal. Such scandals in the salon always play into the hands of the artist, his gallery, his admirers, and the critics. Most importantly, they promote the political views of these people. We do not share the rosy liberal illusion that the free market and the circulation of capital can fully convert any kind of engaged art, that artists like Belyaev tame and defuse potentially dangerous ideologies. Instead, the market makes them fashionable among the salon’s novelty-loving clientele in a mutated, glamorous form.
Enough about Belyaev: he deserves the Leni Riefenstahl Prize, as dissenting jury member Yerofeyev aptly put it. What is more important is that this decision is acutely symptomatic of cultural production in Russia today. It 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, Moscow Biennale commissar, noted. The problem is that they are ultra-liberals. Their market utopianism makes no distinction between right and left, brown and red, fascism and communism; it 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 the Russian Museum’s contemporary art department. Borovsky also claims that Belyaev’s work is a distanced, playful take on the etatist zeitgeist. But there is nothing playful in Belyaev’s calls for Russian tanks to roll on Tbilisi, to execute the Georgian president, to create a “Greater Serbia” or to “liberate” the former Soviet republics under the banner of a Eurasian (read: Russian) Empire. Most importantly, there is nothing playful in his art. Much of it is propaganda, and should be judged as such.
By airbrushing Belyaev, Borovsky proves that he is indifferent to art’s political dimension. It is this indifference that unites the obscure “left-nationalist,” essentially postmodern ideology of Eurasianism and the pan-aestheticism 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, thus legitimizing increasingly overt expressions of genuinely felt fascism in the public sphere. Their indifference is a form of complicity. This indifference also extends to the non-Russian members of the jury such as future Moscow Biennale curator Jean-Hubert Martin or Guggenheim curator Valerie Hillings. They 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 neocolonial irresponsibility, when foreign experts choose to ignore the contexts in which they plant the seeds of contemporary global culture.
The local context is indeed increasingly taking on an ominous form. As prominent Russian art critic Andrei Kovalev cuttingly puts it, the presence of figures like Belyaev testifies to the “ruling elite’s rapid drift toward fascism” in a moment of crisis. This elite is already deeply reactionary and anti-democratic, having accumulated its capital violently through shock privatization and expropriation. Five years ago, it began using contemporary art as a means of civic legitimation, establishing its hegemony over the more liberal, glamorous side of cultural life during the Putin “normalization.” The recent Russian contemporary art “boom” is closely bound up with the use of surplus oil profits, and expresses a peculiar bourgeois-progressivist self-confidence that silences any doubts about the “bright and shining” future. In other words, the authoritarian undertone has always been there. For example, when the first Moscow Biennale 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 be thankful for what they had received. Now ArtKhronika prints sympathetic interviews with Belyaev. Molok defends the artist’s creative position, saying it “expresses the tendency of state-building” with its search for a “great style.” Does he mean that, after the petrodollars dry up, Russian state-building will consist of militarism and neo-imperial claims? 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 artists, 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 who follow in their wake.Vpered (Forward!) Socialist Movement Chto Delat Platform