It is commonly believed nowadays that the recent economic crisis restored the state of affairs to what it should be expected to be: those illusions that used to dominate the Russian society before August 17, 1998 (when the crisis broke out) are more or less dispelled. First and foremost, that was the mirage of material well-being. This self-deception arose from the growth of speculative capital that had been accumulating inside Russia during the previous period of financial reform.
Surprisingly, those illusions were shared even by the enlightened intelligentsia in Moscow - a self-delusion that can partly be explained by the fact that their professional engagement with magazines, newspapers, and television was generously remunerated by the new Russian capital. It should be noted, however, that this generous support was only restricted to Moscow. Outside the Russian capital city, it was much more modest.
However, even in Moscow it was not all of the intelligentsia who prospered, but only those of them who were lucky to find a job with the media. All the rest, including the people of the art world, were eking a hand-to-mouth existence, a situation that became quite menacing after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
During the preceding period of Gorbachev’s perestroika (1985-1990), international interest in Russian art was increasing, especially in the so-called non-official art whose aesthetic foundations were compatible with international contemporary art. In fact, its success amounted to mild commercial interest largely entertained by Western tourists. However, due to this attention, there appeared another illusion, namely, that the Soviet system of aesthetic values had been ultimately defeated and that the aesthetics of the former underground was going to dominate the Russian art scene.
However, the Soviet - or, perhaps, even Russian traditional - roots in the present-day situation turned out to be much stronger then one would have expected. In the same way as, parallel to the increasing influence of the communists in the parliament and administration, one can witness the restoration of certain elements of the Soviet statehood, there are also Soviet elements in the new Russian official culture that are being restored.
It would be worthwhile noting that the Soviet official culture was formed outside the international context, as a purely local, almost ethnographic phenomenon. However, even nowadays, domestic art theory is quite incapable of elucidating this fact.
This is confirmed by the new permanent exposition, “The 20th Century Art”, that has just opened at the Tretiakov Gallery, the country’s major deposit of Russian art. Ones attention is immediately arrested by the complete absence of Western art work. The curators did not simply ignore Western art of the century. What’s more, international contemporary art is not represented in the Tretiakov collection at all, nor in any other museum in Russia. The only exception is a small collection of European and Russian modernism at the Russian Museum in St.Petersburg, a gift from Peter Ludwig.
The second moment that catches the eye is the absence of any installation concept whatsoever. The material is in no way structured, and the whole of the show appears as a succession of personal solo shows by those artists who were selected for presentation. Russian 20th century’s main contribution, the avant-garde together with its leader Kazimir Malevich, is represented by only few pieces. The icon of contemporary art, “The Black Square”, is hanging inconspicuously in an ill-lit corner. The central place in the exposition, however, is given to socialist realism, the ideologized art of Stalinist society.
Incidentally, I have nothing against this movement. In 1994, I happened to co-curate the project named “Stalin’s Choice” at PS1 in New York City. This project brought together the most significant and exemplary pieces, the cult paintings created by Soviet artists in the 1930s through 50s. The projects success surpassed all expectations. An American reviewer noted that it was the first rendezvous between the American public and the outstanding samples of modernism without which one could not understand the development of 20th century art. A very true observation.
The Tretiakov Gallery, however, only dared to show most mediocre socialist realist production - possibly trying to avoid accusations in attempted restoration of totalitarian aesthetic values.
One way or another, this show, symptomatically, demonstrates the present-day level of art institutional policy in Russia which prevents institutions from performing an adequate interpretation of Russian art in the context of contemporary art history.
The absence of articulated policy is one of the reasons why Russia has no system for visual arts. I mean a network of institutions such as museums, galleries, private and corporate art collections, art market, art journals, art educational institutions and last but not least a mechanism of financial support, including state-owned and private funding organizations, foundations, grants, etc. In most East European states such systems have already emerged. Not in Russia, however. The current economic crisis is one of the negative factors in the situation. But lack of money and bad organization are not the main problem.
As I see it, the situation is different from other European countries (incidentally, whether Russia actually is a European country, is a special question) because the new Russian national identity and statehood fail to express themselves in the language of art and culture. Russia nowadays is a geographical notion rather than a cultural one. Even now, in some aspects of its life, Russia remains an empire, a multicultural composition of internally disjoined elements. In such empires, that have not developed the consolidating potential of a popular culture in the Western sense of the word, any art form that claims to reach every-body in a universally understandable language necessarily acquires the ideological and totalitarian intention of imperialistic coercive unification. As soon as the empire loosens its political grip, the art produced by such an empire becomes a private enterprise. Neither the state, nor the society show any interest whatsoever. Just as is the case in Russia now.