The goal of the present exhibition is to introduce to a Western public an art movement that is known in Russia as Moscow Conceptualism and that today’s art world in Russia rightly considers the most important Russian art movement of the second half of the twentieth century. Admittedly, many of the artists whose work is being presented in the exhibition – such as Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Vitaly Komar, and Alexander Melamid – are already relatively well known in the West. Recently, moreover, works by Andrey Monastyrsky, Vadim Zakharov, Pavel Pepperstein, and Yuri Albert have also been frequently shown. However, these have all been either solo exhibitions or contributions to group shows that offer an overview of current Russian art or to international art exhibitions such as documenta in Kassel or the Venice Biennale. Although the contributions of the individual artists are by all means interesting, something important is missing: namely, an opportunity to categorize these contributions historically, to understand their cultural and social context, and to define their relationship to one another and to the other Russian art of recent decades. Moscow Conceptualism is a coherent, relatively clearly defined art movement that has consciously set itself apart from other Russian art and that has its own aesthetic, which is readily identifiable to Russian viewers, and even its own quasi-institutional internal organization. This group solidarity of the Moscow Conceptualists – even if it may have faded with time – has both fascinated and irritated many in the Russian art world. In any case, Moscow Conceptualism is a well-defined concept for Russian culture and is very familiar to everyone who deals with art inside Russia itself. In the West, however, the situation looks rather different.
The reason for that lies above all in the way information about developments in Russian art since the Second World War has reached the West. Moscow Conceptualism is an art movement that evolved within the independent, unofficial art scene in Moscow in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This scene emerged in the larger cities of the Soviet Union almost immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953. Although it was tolerated by the relevant authorities, it was almost entirely cut off from both official exhibition activity and the state-controlled mass media. For that reason, information about this scene was not available to broader audiences either in the Soviet Union or the West. The few Western collectors who were already interested in unofficial Russian art back then could not get an overview of the totality of the scene. The selection of works was usually random and determined primarily by the personal acquaintances and individual preferences of the collector in question. Moreover, the conditions for acquiring and exporting unofficial works of art often entailed quite a bit of risk. Nor did the situation improve much with the end of the Soviet Union. The Western curators and collectors who traveled to Russia in the 1990s were confronted with a large number of unfamiliar artworks signed with names that were just as unfamiliar. Once again, it was largely a matter of following chance and personal intuition. Numerous exhibitions resulted that attempted to offer a survey of Russian art current at the time. From an art historical perspective, however, they mixed up very different, often incompatible artistic positions.
In contrast to, say, Surrealism, Arte Povera, or Pop art, Moscow Conceptualism was not initially presented to a wider audience as a specific art movement defined by a shared aesthetic and a binding group ideology that later broke down into individual artistic positions. The West became acquainted with the art of Moscow Conceptualism in the opposite way. It started in the 1990s, at a time when the original group dynamic was beginning to wane and the shared ideology was crumbling. Hence works by individual artists were absorbed but without the historical context in which they had been produced being addressed clearly enough. It was not just in the East that the cold war necessitated a later period of catching up. In the West too, many cultural events that had taken place behind the iron curtain were overlooked. We have set ourselves the task in our exhibition to remedy this deficit and to document both the history and ideology of Moscow Conceptualism as completely as possible. Even the group’s name deserves particular analysis. The attribute “Moscow” may seem to be unproblematic at first, as it was indeed a group of artists in Moscow. The term “Conceptualism” poses greater problems, however. It obviously refers to the Western – more precisely, Anglo-American – Conceptual art of the 1960s, which can give the impression it was merely an attempt to relocate Western Conceptual art to Moscow. The artistic praxis of the group Art & Language and that of Joseph Kosuth was indeed well known to the Moscow Conceptualists, thanks to Western journals and catalogs that made it to Moscow at the time. Yet this praxis underwent a fundamental transformation in Moscow. The attribute “Moscow” is thus more a program than a mere place-name.
The nature of the transformation that Conceptual art underwent in Russia resulted from the specific circumstances under which art as a whole functioned in the Soviet Union. Conceptual art can be characterized briefly as the result of putting image and text on the same level. The image is replaced by a written commentary, by a description of a certain art project, by a critical statement. This use of language can be seen as a dematerialization and hence decommercialization of art. In the capitalist West, the artwork is above all a commodity. Art is primarily defined by the art market. Every commodity, however, is first and foremost a material object. Hence it was very tempting at first to see the substitution of the artwork by the word as a path from the “materialist” art market to the freedom of the immaterial and hence the unsalable, the “unexchangeable.” In the meanwhile, of course, it has become clear that text is also a kind of image, because language has its own materiality, and that Conceptual art cannot therefore lead the artwork to immateriality or to liberate it from commerce. In retrospect, Conceptual art can rather be seen as a crucial step toward objectifying and hence commercializing language. In any case, the relationship of art to the art market – and to the market in general – was and is a central theme for Western Conceptualist theory and praxis.
In the Soviet Union, by contrast, there was no market and hence no art market. The value of a work of art was determined not by the rules of the market economy but by the rules of the symbolic economy that governed life in the Soviet Union in general. They were rules of social recognition and political relevance as laid down in certain texts – whether official statements or unofficial pamphlets – that determined the value of every single work of art. Thus the theoretical, philosophical, ideological, or art historical commentary on an artwork – and not its price – ultimately decided its fate. Or rather the ideological texts circulated in the Soviet symbolic economy just as money circulated in the Western market economy. It could be said that Soviet culture had always been conceptual, and indeed in its entirety. When looking at a painting normal Soviet viewers quite automatically, without ever having heard of Art & Language, saw this painting inherently replaced by its possible ideological-political-philosophical commentary, and they took only this commentary into account when assessing the painting in question – as Soviet, half-Soviet, non-Soviet, anti-Soviet, and so on. From this it followed that the explicit use of texts of art commentary, philosophy, ideology, science, or literature in the artwork as practiced by Moscow Conceptualists functioned primarily to reveal the procedure that defined all of Soviet culture – and not as an alterative to a Western-style market economy.
In a certain sense, however, Moscow Conceptual art was quite closely related to Western Conceptual art. Anglo-American Conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s was primarily concerned with the question “What is art?” For that reason, it is often seen as a point of departure for institutional critique. And in fact the market did not need discursively formulated definitions of art, but the bureaucracy that governs the museums, exhibition halls, and other institutions of art needs them to justify and legitimize its decisions. It could thus be said that by moving away from the market and asking the question “What is art?” Conceptual art ventured forward into the discursive realm that had previously be reserved for bureaucratically run institutions. This is particularly true of continental European Conceptual art such as that of Marcel Broodthaers or Hans Haacke.1 The institutional critique that had its origins in Conceptual art was relatively uninterested in mass culture and left it to Pop art and the artists in that tradition to descend into the dregs of mass culture. In that sense, one could say that Western Pop art and Conceptual art divvied up the realms into which Western culture is split. Pop art was concerned with commercial, “low” mass culture, which was considered low precisely because it is disseminated outside of the discursive, institutional legitimization of art – that is to say, outside the question “What is art?” Conceptual art, by contrast, was concerned with institutional, “high” art and made institutional criteria of assessment and recognition, of inclusion and exclusion, its themes.
It is well known, of course, that the Soviet Union was one great bureaucratically administered institution. There was no distinction between commercialized mass culture and institutionalized high culture. Soviet culture was uniform – and it was exclusively institutional in character. The administration of everyday mass culture was just as centralized, bureaucratic, and institutional as that of high culture – and was assessed, recognized, and disseminated by essentially the same ideologically correct criteria. For that reason, the official discourse on what art is had an all-determining role in all areas of Soviet culture. The main modus operandi of Moscow Conceptualism was to exploit, vary, and analyze this official discourse privately, ironically, and profanely. In that sense, the Moscow Conceptualists were practicing a kind of enlightenment – specifically, total enlightenment. As Hegel rightly noted in his Phenomenology of Spirit, enlightenment – that is to say, the free use of one’s own reason – can only succeed in a society that has already acknowledged reason as its basis; divine reason, for example, as was the case in France before the rise of the Enlightenment.2 The Catholic Church had already acknowledged reason – understood to mean God’s reason – to be omnipotent. And so it was an easy game for the Enlightenment to practice a kind of privatization of reason and ironically comment on the church’s monopoly as a consequence of a lack of reason, of prejudice. The Soviet system was also based on reason – namely, Marxism as the embodiment of historical reason – and specifically as a direct successor of the classical Enlightenment. It was thus an easy game for the opposition to try to depict the party’s monopoly as the result of ideological blindness. Moreover, the Soviet state had always been a kind of artwork designed according to the taste of the party leadership and as the result of centralized planning of all aspects of Soviet life. In that sense, it was art that was best suited as a means of enlightenment. Hence the Moscow Conceptualists could extend their analytical and critical method to the entire Soviet system; they could claim to reflect all of Soviet culture. The Moscow Conceptualists understood their praxis to be enlightening Soviet culture about its own ideological mechanisms.
In the process the artists of the first generation of Moscow Conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Dmitri Prigov, and Lev Rubinstein employed above all the language of the “simple Soviet citizen.” The carefully chosen and repeatedly censored formulations of official Soviet ideology were inevitably damaged and misplaced in their daily, “uncultivated” use and in the process mixed with every conceivable purely private and half-baked opinion. Ilya Kabakov and Dmitri Prigov in particular drew frequently on this storehouse of everyday, uncultivated theorizing for their commentaries on their own art and that of others. Thus these commentaries became a place where the most diverse theoretical discourses and artistic practices suffered a linguistic catastrophe – and in a way that was highly entertaining to the informed viewer. Thus it may be said that Moscow Conceptualism took the discursive mass culture of its time as its subject: a discursive culture that may exist all over the world but was particularly omnipresent in the Soviet Union of the time. Moscow Conceptualism was indeed a kind of Conceptual art, but much more than that it was a kind of discursive Pop art.
Moscow Conceptualism strongly resembled Conceptual movements in the West in another important respect: the systematic organization of a counterpublic or, as it were, a micropublic. The Moscow Conceptualists made their art for a small public composed of the artists themselves and their friends. It could be claimed that this situation was resulted of necessity, since the artists were subject to Soviet ideological censorship. That is certainly correct, and the artists certainly suffered under the isolation from the broader public. Yet they did not protest this censorship publicly, nor did they try to loosen it, as many other Soviet artists tried to do. This was not entirely due to their desire to avoid a direct confrontation with Soviet authorities. They did not try to fight existing art institutions but rather to create their own, independent art institution. In a sense, nearly all the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century were structured in that way. They all created a micropublic that programmatically separated from the larger public.
One can also observe numerous attempts in the art of the 1960s to create micropublics. The Situationist International and the Art & Language group could serve as examples. In both cases, the goal of forming an artistic group was to create an independent space for social analysis, for an aesthetic metaposition, and for a communal praxis.
The entire unofficial Soviet art scene represented one such counterpublic. It was, however, above all the Moscow Conceptualists who systematically built and maintained this counterpublic. They met regularly to discuss new works and texts. They had their own publications and circulated international ones; they established archives. Andrey Monastyrsky and his group Collective Actions in particular contributed in the mid-1970s to setting in motion a kind of self-institutionalization of Moscow Conceptualism. Monastyrsky organized performances to which he invited other Moscow Conceptualists, and they were meticulously, almost bureaucratically, documented, commented on, and archived. Monastyrsky also involved many young artists in the group’s activities and deeply impressed them with his ascetic attitude toward art and systematic approach. These young artists, such as Pavel Pepperstein, Vadim Zakharov, and Yuri Albert only began to work actively in the 1980s, but nevertheless they saw themselves as members of the Moscow Conceptualist group. That is why Moscow Conceptualism has two generations of artists – an unusual phenomenon in the history of art.
With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, all of the Soviet state institutions were de facto dissolved or became irrelevant. In the post-Soviet era, the tradition of Moscow Conceptualism obtained a special significance, since this group, which also included curators and art critics, formed the core of the new public for art that was emerging in Russia. It can, of course, be said that the panorama of Russian art has changed and diversified enormously in recent decades. Even if the influence of Moscow Conceptualism on Russian art today is still strong, the conditions under which it emerged and evolved belong to the past. With the exception of Prigov, who died recently, all of the Moscow Conceptualists whose works are presented in this show are alive and working successfully. Nevertheless, Moscow Conceptualism may be regarded today as a historically concluded phenomenon – and that is why the present exhibition contains no current works but only those from the time when the Moscow Conceptualists had a certain unity. In that respect, Moscow Conceptualism still offers an example of how it is possible, even under conditions of a mass culture that dominates everything, for an artistic group to create its own institutions and establish them in the society.
1. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art, 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” in “Broodthaers: Writings, Interviews, Photographs,” special issue, October, no. 42 (1987): 119–55.
2. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1977), 333ff.