On Friday the NY Times had a glowing article on the “Ostalgia” show that just opened at the New Museum. “When Repression Was a Muse” is the title of Holland Cotter’s piece and gives you a good idea of his angle:
For some artists repression had a psychological upside. It gave their work a clear-cut sense of importance. It established art’s primary value as moral, not monetary; instrumental, not formal. If what you were doing was censorable, you could trust you were doing something right; heroic, even. And this attitude fostered solidarity and the growth of a counterculture in which experimentation, individuality and iconoclasm were protected and nurtured.
All this is well and good, but you really have to wonder what this has to do with Ostalgia, the neologism that combines the word East (Ost) with nostalgia and that means a longing for the socialist past, no matter how bureaucratic. Perhaps no other work of art expresses this better than the film “Goodbye, Lenin” that I reviewed in 2004. Given the preponderance of bitter rejections of the socialist system on display at the New Museum, one wonders why they didn’t call it “Anti-Ostalgia” instead.
Just by coincidence, I planned to go to the show on Friday. Although it was well worth my while and that of my readers, my praise is somewhat qualified. Here’s my impression of the work that I was mainly interested in seeing:
Perhaps a true artistic representation of “Ostalgia” would have consisted of works from the Stalin era, the typical socialist realism schlock with tractors and corn-fed smiling peasants. The only engagement in the show with that period consisted of art that borrowed from that genre only to subvert it through transformations of one sort or another. Sergey Zarva’s series of paintings based on old Soviet magazines is typical:
Standing apart from the largely inward-gazing and apolitical Conceptualist works that dominate the show is the time-line on “The Rise and Fall of Socialism 1945-1991” on the fifth floor assembled by Chto Delat, a Russian collective that is not afraid give itself the same name as Lenin’s famed “What is to be Done” (Chto Delat). However, its members are not the sort of people who celebrate Stalin’s birthday, nor would be caught dead painting pictures of grinning peasants celebrating a record-breaking harvest. Despite the tendency to think of the Russian left in terms of the bedraggled and discredited Communist Party, there are small numbers of artists and intellectuals whose inspiration is the Marxism that arose alongside Stalinism and that served as an alternative. If you look through a copy of the English-language edition of a Chto Delat newspaper, you will find references to Gramsci, Jameson, Lukacs just as you would in an issue of New Left Review, a journal whose politics they have an affinity for.
Chto delat describes itself as follows on its website:
Chto delat works through collective initiatives organized by “art soviets,” inspired by the councils formed in revolutionary Russia during the early 20th century. These “art soviets” want to trigger a prototypical social model of participatory democracy, translating an open system for the generation of new forms of solidarity into the realm of contemporary cultural work. The “art soviet” takes on the function of a counter-power that plans, localizes and executes projects collectively.
Usually, this process results in artistic interventions, exhibitions, or artworks (video films, radio plays, performances), which, in turn, trigger new issues of the newspaper. Most of these projects have a two-fold intent: on the one hand, we are interested in the translatability and actualization of left theory (classical Marxism, post-structuralism, post-operaism, critical theory) and artistic practice (situationism, documentalism, urbanism, realism) under post-Soviet conditions and how this relates to parallel efforts elsewhere. On the other hand, we have also often focused on actualizations of the potential of the Soviet past repressed in the course of Soviet history, floating signifiers that need to be captured and used before they are subsumed totally by the present mode of production.
To give a few examples: in 2004-2005, Chto delat carried out an artistic examination of a working class neighborhood in Petersburg, attempting to actualize the communitarian utopias of its constructivist urbanity through the community, adrift with an enactment of Debord’s derive. This research into the Fordist utopia of the late 1920s and its incomplete, uneven transition to late capitalism was presented in two exhibitions and a newspaper. Another actualization of the Soviet legacy can be found in the project “Builders” (2005), in which the group restaged a classical socialist realist masterpiece from the late 1950s, which then falls apart and comes back together. In September 2006, Chto delat collaborated on a project called “Self-Educations”, an international exhibition and seminars-program at the NCCA in Moscow, dedicated to alternative, community-based forms of self-learning as emancipatory practices.
One of the members of Chto Delat is Thomas Campbell, a Yale graduate and a subscriber to the Marxism mailing list who has been my liaison with the group for some time. Thomas invited me to check out the exhibit and a talk by two members of the collective given last week while they were in town. I am glad he did since it reinforced my conviction that Marxmail and the Unrepentant Marxist blog must have at least one purpose in a period when the left seems so isolated, and that is to strengthen our ties and increase our solidarity. If the only Marxists in Russia were those in Chto Delat, they would be the people I would want to join hands with. For those on the left who are pursuing “counter-hegemonic” alternatives to Western imperialism like the BRIC, I will have to part ways, especially since the gang running Russia today would have no compunction about jailing or killing serious opponents on the left.
In addition to the time-line, there was a video on display at the New Museum from the Chto Delat collective. It is an unabashedly pro-working class work, but hardly in the “socialist realism” tradition even though it is a take on the Soviet past. Like just about everything they produce, you can see it on the Internet:
Last Saturday night I went all the way downtown to attend a meeting hosted by the 16 Beaver Group, named after their street address just a stone’s throw from where I used to work at Goldman-Sachs in the 80s. I guess the stock market crash has made a loft affordable among the ruins.
There was going to be a film showing of Chto Delat’s “Perestroika Songspiel” as well as a discussion of the Ostalgia show led by Dmitry Vilesnky and Nikolay Oleynikov. The 16 Beaver Group organizers described the event this way on their website:
But should we feel any nostalgic feelings in regards to the collapse of socialist bloc which happened 20 years ago? How do we feel today in regards to the past living through the period of globalization and neo-liberal governance?
How could we find political models and displays which help us not to betray an emancipatory potential hidden and betrayed, in its own way, by the real politics of socialist states? What lessons can we gain from all socialist developments in economy, culture, everyday which we’re not subjugated to the logic of capital and ‘free market’?
Since I am so used to thinking of Marxists in terms of social and political isolation, the meeting was a major boost to my morale. There were probably more than 50 people in attendance and the discussion was on an incredibly high level. My first reaction was to wonder where all these people were coming from. I should have realized that the ongoing capitalist crisis has a lot to do with turning people around. Sooner or later we will figure out a way to unite all of us in the spirit of Chto Delat—what is to be done.
I will conclude with my video of the highlights of the event, followed by “Perestroika Singspiel”.