As Russia’s election nears, protests meet counterprotests meet little white balloons, tied on cars circling the Garden Ring. With an exercise in mass hand-holding scheduled for this Sunday, critic and openspace editor Katya Degot has paused to warn protesters that such lyrical gestures can dilute the message of the protest.
Today, Degot outlined her argument in an article for the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, economically titled “Less Art!” This article was written in Russian, but as it has ignited quite a debate among the Russian art community, we have decided to offer our own translation here, for the purposes of this blog.
To be clear: what follows is Baibakov Art Project’s own translation of the article for the purposes of this blog and this conversation and should not be quoted as a translation approved by the author or the original source, which can be found here.
This Sunday, many of us will get up off of the couch and, as is becoming the habit these days, go stand a while, only this time holding hands. I will go too.
This will no doubt be an enjoyable experience. Whether or not it will actually be effective remains to be seen, but perhaps it was not intended to be effective. The act of standing around the Garden Ring should not advance a particular position. It should have no other purpose than to be worthwhile in and of it itself, as a type of true art.
Art is the key word here. Many have already observed that it will resemble a collective performance, a flash mob. If it were summer, I’m sure the mobilized masses would show up in swim trunks and bikinis, if not entirely naked, like with the thousand-person actions of Spencer Tunick.
To make an artistic gesture is to do something interesting, something original and, in the end, beautiful. It is also to do something not entirely in full earnestness.
Another purely artistic gesture can be found in these white-ballooned trips around the Garden Ring. Much of how this has evolved from the protest developed in the space of the symbolic and the unreal – from which also sprung the ruling party’s wish “to thaw under the rays of the spring sunshine.” All very creative.
As far as one can tell, this depoliticization of the protest gesture is not coming from the leaders of the protest movement (who could then be suspected of being bribed into disarming the masses.) It is largely the will of the movement itself, or at least of the part that is always trying to take the full credit for the movement. This is an educated, financially stable, young creative class, working in fields like mass culture, entertainment, advertising, media and the like. Their pretensions are more informed by aesthetics and taste than anything else. Power for them is something anonymous, gray and entrenched.
This creative class (of which there is quite a lot in Moscow and other major cities, especially if one includes those who aspire to this class) has until only recently shunned general politics – for instance, the Strategy 31 demonstrations – in the same way, as something too colorless and un-artistic. It still to this day secretly despises the economically disadvantaged lower classes, as well as pointed financial demands, on which they assume the position of the left. To make an artistic gesture is something interesting, something original (and therefore not obliged to proclaim membership to any group this class feels may be beneath its principles), something, in the end, beautiful. It is to do something not entirely in full earnestness. This leaves a loophole. A genuine, straightforward gesture never leaves this type of out for itself.
While it is still difficult to imagine that we might have something like what just happened in Madrid – a million people taking to the streets for a very concrete reason, in all earnestness, pointlessly and persistently protesting against one article of the Labor Code. Such specificity is still jarring to most Russians. Even the spontaneously protesting creative class is constantly torn away from areas of ethics, economics and politics, and into aesthetics. It’s more familiar and safer there. What’s more, this aesthetic zone offers a sense of superiority; in our country, culture is historically understood as a guarantee of elitism, a sort of surrogate capital, as there really wasn’t that much to go around to begin with.
It was for this very reason that a year ago the actions of the group Voina were elevated to a cult status. In Voina, what we saw is not artists entering into the realm of the social, but rather, society itself taking on the mantle of artistic intention to make the necessary gesture of protest.
That’s how it was a year ago, and Voina served as a symptom of powerlessness – a powerful and frightening symptom. But the situation has radically changed since, and now there is a chance for political power, not just for the powerless. Today there is no justification for the constant retreat into the area of artistic expression.
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has called art one of the major areas for the rejection of the social, a factory for its destruction. Any artist knows that he holds in his hands the weapons of depoliticization, decontextualization and decoration, and for this very reason, the relationship of the true artist to art is always complex and ambivalent. Today it is the artists who are calling upon the others to be more careful with the lighter side of creativity. Now is one of those moments when the added injection of art can prove to be deadly.
Ekaterina Degot, Vedomosti, No 7 (289), 24 February 2012
Translation Kate Sutton, Baibakov Art Projects