19.05.2016
egor koshelev: «comrades, the time has come to definitively raise the dukh»
COLTA.RU and the V-A-C Foundation present the latest conversation in their collaborative series, the Center of Experimental Museology. In this piece, Arseny Zhilyaev speaks with artist, curator and academic Egor Koshelev.

arseny zhilyaev: Egor, I know you not only as a masterful painter, capable of creating complex compositions that grapple with the problems of contemporary forms of pictorial realism, but also as a critic, a teacher, a researcher, and, last but not least, an attentive professional spectator. Along these lines, I thought we could start this conversation right off the bat. You are familiar with my attempts to connect the permanent displays in the various Museums of Revolution and, more generally, the type of exhibitions that fall under the rubric of "avant-garde museology," with the art of Soviet Realism. More specifically, it seems to me that the Museum of Revolution is the communist answer to the Modernist museum. After all, both places present us with a reflexive collage in the form of a multimedia installation, constructed for a specific aesthetic purpose. It's true, there are a number of important distinctions in how they move beyond the boundaries set for art in the context of bourgeois democracy. Here I usually defer to Groys's ideas about the difference between an artist's installation and a curatorial display. The former is a manifestation of a sovereign, but limited freedom; the latter, a manifestation of the institutional freedom that places the constraints on the former. And so it seems to me that the Museum of Revolution is itself arguably a variant of the Modernist art installation, albeit one created collectively, within the context of a proletariat that is expanding up to the very limits of the class divides. The Museum of Modern Art is built on exactly this kind of neutral curatorial display, presenting a framework for individual artistic freedom. The Museum of Revolution is always a work of art in itself (in addition to providing a document of social life), spinning tales of the death of the exploiters, of social intervention and the transgressive laurels of art's hopes and expectations. The Modernist museum offers an eternal present for different variations on the death of art, in the hope of transgression and social transformation.
the museum of the revolution is always a work of art in itself
This brings us back to the beginning. The Modernist principles in the exhibition practice of Avant-garde museums brings them closer to the strain of realism that Brecht championed in his debate with Lukács. Brecht drew from the findings of Russian Formalists to argue that the artistic form of realism should be in step with the times, a reflexive collage, operating alongside the critique of the illusion of the mimetic realism of the 19th century. Lukács, on the other hand, insisted that the integrity of the artistic expression is indispensible, as a counter to the fragmented experience of life under capitalism. Accordingly, he called for a rethinking of the formal language of critical realism of the 19th century, but under the condition that it expand to include the new Socialist content. In fact, in many ways Socialist Realism was shaped by Lukács and Lifshitz. Tell me please, as a practicing professional realist – I don't mean a "Socialist Realist," but maybe someone rethinking that tradition – how do you rate the phenomenon of Museums of Revolution and the larger body of non-art museums of the Soviet era? In your opinion, in what ways is it, as a specific medium, aesthetically similar to Socialist Realist painting, and what distinguishes it?

egor koshelev: I agree with you about the proximity of Soviet museum displays – and really, a lot of Soviet exhibition culture in general – to the Brechtian understanding of realism. The only thing is that we cannot forget that the artists behind the exhibition culture of the USSR – figures like Konstantin Rozhdestvensky, for example, or El Lissitzky – in their individual practice clearly could not be lumped in with realists. We have to understand, the official endorsement of pictorial realism in the USSR was not without a lot of drama. Many of the most odious Socialist Realists in all sincerity looked on the advance of their aesthetic as if they were the leading masters of their craft, at last enjoying their well-deserved revenge on the "damned Formalists" (after all, this was exactly the same kind of professional persecution that Isaak Brodsky had to face at the beginning of the 1920s.)
Nicholas Schneider, The Trial of the Truant, circa 1931
Just generally speaking, it's impossible to talk about Socialist Realism as a monolithic event. There are at least two principle trajectories: the Moscow variant, which arose from the paintings of the late Peredvizhniki group and local strains of Impressionism, and the Leningrad history, which followed the more rigid, formal culture of the Imperial Academy of the Arts. What's more, the first generation of artists to pass through the Soviet educational system were actually raised on the introductory concepts of Modernism. For instance, VKhUTEMAS was quite modernist in spirit for an institution, and the artists who graduated from it (Aleksandr Deineka, Yuri Pimenov, Petr Vilyams, etc.) had an inherently different character of formal expression than those schooled in pre-revolutionary institutions (such as the MUZhViZ or the aforementioned Academy.) Seeing as how in the VKhUTEMAS and the Leningrad GINKhUK, students were taught by key figures from the Avant-garde, they were exceedingly well-versed in contemporary art, and if for, let's say, Aleksandr Gerasimov, Cubism or Futurism had been framed as an unequivocal sham, then for Deineka, all of these movements were perfectly understandable, and he could respect them and borrow from Modernist formal techniques within his own work. Another thing is that already in the mid 1930s, the art of the USSR begins to be universally dominated by the more conservative group, which goes back to the late Peredvizhniki, with just a touch of the colorist flourish of Impressionism (if you're talking about the Moscow strain), or the more severe Leningrad style of Brodsky and his followers, which was heavily influenced by, among other things, advances in photography. "Modernists" were forced to either adopt a new style or leave the world of "pure art" for related fields: Lissitzky, Rozhdestvensky (who would become the father of Soviet expo-design) for the fields of exhibition-making, Nikolai Suetin for the design of ceramic products as well as creating museum exhibitions (and here we should note that all three were tremendous successes – it's enough just to recall his USSR Pavilions for the World's Fairs of 1937 and 1939, or Suetin's exhibition on the defense of Leningrad), Alexander Tyshler and Vilyams for theater design and stage sets.
Boris Ioganson, Worker's Faculty (Students Walking), 1928
In fact, by the second half of the 1930s, Soviet painting had been radically de-Modernized, while Modernist artistic principles were only applied outside the limits of traditional fine arts. As cynical as it might sound today, this state of affairs reveals the surprising practicality of the system. The government allowed Modernists to work where they were most useful, where they could have an obvious impact. There was little of this in the fine arts (reaching the masses required a more conservative, accessible form), but when it came to design, planning exhibition space, industrial architecture and sign-making, the field of activity turned out to be quite open to the Modernists. As a result, the Soviet cultural project found itself in a surprising paradox; the continuing anti-Modernism (at least, from 1932-1955) in the fine arts would co-exist with the thriving of the Modernist legacy in many of the applied arts. In the near future, the fields of the applied arts would all increasingly converge with Late Modernist and Post-Modernist strategies, while in the fine arts, the core element remained that same good old-fashioned realism, although, of course, with certain "corrections" over time. So in a sense, the art of interior design (which includes the design of exhibition installations), the full spectrum of industrial art and applied arts all served as their own kind of artistic enclave, allowing for the use of Modernist strategies. Meanwhile, in painting, if the artist felt drawn to formal experimentation, his most likely course would be to shift to monumental art, where these kinds of formal decisions were met with decidedly less resistance. In this way, both conceptually and formally, traditional easel painting ended up being the most conservative aspect of national culture. We have to admit though – that is, I should qualify, as I see it – this position has quite a few advantages.
Alexander Samokhvalov, Portrait of the Mechanic Gavrilov, 1931
a. z.: It seems to me that we could find quite a few parallels between the situation you describe and that of contemporary art and propaganda in today's Russia. Not too long ago I started to watch the television channel Russia Today, which broadcasts in English and is oriented mainly towards the US. I should confess that I was not prepared for such a high level of state propaganda. And I mean this also in the technical sense – in terms of content, RT looks absolutely antithetical to the Russian television channels for the domestic audience. Let me give you an example of how it works. In Turkey they recently arrested academics teaching at local universities for having signed a petition calling for an end to the administration's military operation against Kurdish rebels. All told, this petition was signed by 1000 people from 90 universities across the country. RT set up a live broadcast with one of the authors of the petition, a Turkish human rights activist. Over the course of the conversation, it came out that in addition to the arrests, which no longer strike any fear even from the academic community, there were also threats from leaders of the Turkish mafia. This last bit is much more dangerous, as it happens outside the field of vision for the international media. Following this conversation, having expressed his gratitude for the activist's solidarity, the host announced that among the other names on the petition are Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. And then they played an animated clip based on a related rant by Chomsky against Erdoğan. The accents and context in which this type of material is created is clear. But it's also clear that to show an animation with Chomsky and Žižek speaking out in support of an ultra-left separatist organization live on air on a federal television station is simply not possible. And this is just one of the typical motifs for RT… In this particular context, we can recall the ceremony for the opening of the Olympics in Sochi, which practically set a new standard for the export version of Russia, mashing together references to the Avant-garde, the Socialist Realist era of industrialization, and the romanticism associated with the Non-Conformism of the 1960s.
if you follow its development, sots-realism in painting turns out to be a surprisingly open system.
We have something like this in the sphere of contemporary art. On the one hand, there is the densely-packed local scene, with its awkward, hastily-formed interior policy in the spirit of "Romantic Realism" (rus) and the various breeds of patriotic blockbuster. On the other hand, there is the export-friendly, polished version of Russian art and culture that can be put on display through the formal exercises of Zvyagintsev or the conceptual realism of Groys (although both examples are largely independent from the official pro-government structures, as it's impossible to avoid total distancing.) And despite all the attempts of this inner world to reconnect itself with the outer one, this doesn't happen, which probably says something about the presence of a more or less conscious state policy here. In general, this is no trivial matter. Can the commitment to progressive aesthetics be politically regressive? And what about the other way around? With certain modifications, the progressive method of collage has been used successfully both in Stalinist propaganda and in fascist Germany, and now it's in segments on RT, as well as in stories about the "crucified boy" on Pervyi Kanal
Mikhail Antonov, Exposing the Enemy of the People on the Shop Floor, 1938
You insist on the features of conservatism in the easel painting of the Socialist Canon. However, a big part of what we understand about Socialist Realist easel painting, if we put aside the controversy of the 1920s up through the early 1930s, was that the very same ROSIZO archive is itself part of something larger, some kind of bigger picture. Whether it's the gigantic exhibitions of Socialist achievements or a narrative exhibition design for displays in non-art museums. We often hear that it's because of the characteristics of easel painting that the medium became the central concern for Sots-Realism. It is precisely because of the fact that it is figurative, narrative painting on canvas that it can be embedded so easily within any curatorial statement, thus depriving the painting of the subversive potential it wielded as the end result of a more complex system of artistic production. Here we once again fall dangerously close to the Cold War-era ideological formulation that would have Abstraction = Progressiveness = Freedom of Speech = Democracy, while Figurative Painting = Conservatism = Creative Control and Censorship = Totalitarianism. And if we try to escape these oppositions, which have been in place for most of the 20th century, then what, in your opinion, are the defining features of Socialist Realist easel painting in the USSR and what do you see as its potential today?

e. k.: I think the power of Socialist Realist art was defined first and foremost as a grand-scale Soviet cultural project. It was intended to educate a new type of humanity, while actively engaging with the artistic experience of the past, and, it has to be noted, it plotted an entire life cycle for the artist's function within society – from primary school to the well-deserved repose on one's academic laurels. It provided the artist with a clear understanding of progress, formalizing the hierarchy of professional and ethical values. It truly offered an alternative to bourgeois art: a collective (or at least, keeping in mind the collective's interests and requests) creative expression against the individual.
Boris Tsvetkov, Delivering the Lifeboats, 1937
It should be understood that Sots-Realism as an artistic phenomenon (and, naturally, in its particular manifestation as painting) by and large was constructed, rather than developing organically. Of course, its framework made space for those who couldn't work any other way, simply because of the nature of their creative orientation – for instance, Igor Grabar, Aleksandr Gerasimov or Vasily Efanov, as well as the stable of artists from the late Peredvizhniki, who saw this new cultural turn as a return to the good old days. But all the same, if we analyze its development, then we can clearly understand how the "machinery" came to be, how the superfluous elements were swept aside and the base design refined, establishing an optimal "grade" for the products of Sots-Realism; in the formal arsenal used by budding Sots-Realist painters, one can find techniques borrowed from Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism, Post-Impressionism, Naïve Art, folk painting, and art from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Now it was as if some kind of collective creative consciousness could definitively resolve the question as to what of all of this was worth using and what needed to be discarded. As a result, we ended up with the famous trio, the "Great R's" – Rembrandt, Rubens, and Repin, each with their own stylistic imperative for Soviet painters (although this is quite a paradox, if we think about it logically) – became the foundations for the genre, which one had to accept, heavy heart and all. In the training process, Sots-Realism was frequently substituted with the much more effective (and much more contradictory) formula: "Alexander Ivanov's drawing + Vasily Surikov's painting." For the education of creative individual as a whole, like with the best artists of the past – including that same Ivanov (who, let's note, painted and sketched exactly like Ivanov, just as Surikov painted and sketched just like Surikov, and no one else) – this method is detrimental. But – and this seems a key point to me – a system that cultivates an artist for whom art is not something supernatural, not some kind of revelation, but just a construction made up of this, this and that (and all these elements are known), which can be augmented and modified is a system that is much closer to the model for creative production that we see today. When something doesn't work for you, you just get rid of that element and bring in something else, or even a few other things. In a word, here you have real working possibilities.
in all actuality, sots-realism has provided the foundations for the development of an enormous part of Russian art, whether the individuals that make up the latter would agree with that statement or not.
This is a serious point that stands to be debated, as it's clear that it's not supported by many critics of Soviet art, who, for the record, barely know anything about their subject, even on the level of visual information, they're all just waiting for exactly this kind of moment in the conversation, so they can open their mouths and start yapping about the Gulag. If you follow its development, Sots-Realism in painting turns out to be a surprisingly open system. The moment the ideological pressure loosens up, it is freely "stirred up," updated, or, the reverse, plays up the archaism of its means of expressions. It's from this single system that we get the so called "severe style," in all its variations, the Soviet neo-Renaissance of Dmitry Zhilinsky and Oleg Filatchev, the Orthodox Post-Modernism of Ilya Glazunov, the latest strain of official art, and the collaboration Dubossarsky & Vinogradov and their myriad imitators. You follow me? In all actuality, Sots-Realism has provided the foundations for the development of an enormous part of Russian art, whether the individuals that make up the latter would agree with that statement or not. Within this same system, painting, oddly enough, has turned out to be all the more enduring, thanks to the fact that from the beginning, it was counted on as the genre of art most amenable to museum-display, as well as the least "useful" and the most loaded with ambition. Other artists turned out to be a lot simpler to re-train. If you are a painter, then you can only paint – sometimes counter to the expectations of critics, but always thanks to the potential of the system that created you.

Furthermore, in their attempts to make fine arts as accessible and effective as possible, Soviet artists in general, and especially those passing as Sots-Realists, were entrenched in the national practice of a whole range of methods and formal innovations that might have seemed dubious at the time, but which nevertheless today strike us as more relevant than the achievements of the seemingly much more original artists. For example, the dynamic use of photographic and cinematographic techniques by Brodsky, Aleksandr Laktionov, Piotr Belousov – no one active in the world at that time was painting anything like them. In a weird way, they were making photorealism before photorealism. Or consider the attempt to create a "picture-text" in Viktor Perelman's Workers' Correspondent, which foreshadowed the experiments of the conceptualists.
Viktor Perelman, Workers' Correspondent, 1925
Moreover, the restoration of the practice of collective creativity as the norm combined with the addition of a special universal "meta-language" at the level of the "mid-range" artists, working on painting and monumental collaborations (for Sots-Realism really did clear a decent space for the "average" artist, having constituted a demand for a kind of mid-range product to meet the needs of the consumer, thereby giving rise to a mass of products that were limited in their formal merits, but had genuine value as accurate gauges of social and cultural shifts) – this all looks quite stunning against the backdrop of the Western scene at the time, where dozens of talented artists were frantically crying out: "Hey, look at me, look at how fetchingly I warped the body of my lover!" "No, no, look at me! I'm making colorful patches of invisible forms." "Hey, look over here, you'll be in awe of how I paint an eye instead of an ear." And "I can do it this way," but "I can do it that way," and "I will go ahead and write something entirely flowery, because, among other things, art should be smart." Ladies and gentlemen, come appreciate us, we're all so original, so prime to sparkle with wit and entertain you in your living rooms to your heart's content. Just look at us, love us, value us – we're not forever, in the end..! You understand that it really did look like that. And opposite that, we have these humble artists, who were collectively painting pictures of village workers or the advancements of heavy industry. Even if they couldn't do it at a very high level quality-wise, their motivation was so much more meaningful. I understand how you can arbitrarily dismiss this kind of opposition, but all the same, you have one artist shouting out to the upper echelons of society, "Take me, I am talented!", while the other heeds the voice of a much more widely-representative public: "We need you. You are useful to us. Come and do what you can!"
Georgy Ryazhsky, Collapse of the Bank, 1932
a. z.: Degot, in her text for the exhibition "Struggling for the Banner," which follows the transformations of Avant-garde painting after the revolution, comes to a conclusion close to your own interpretation of Sots-Realism as a paradoxically plastic, even conceptual practice. In particular, she points to the collaging of stylistic techniques of various artistic media in the case of Malevich's student, Georgy Ryazhsky, and his Portrait of a Factory Committee Representative and His Wife, 1922, where, with the help of techniques associated with self-taught artists, he depicts a scene of a portrait photo being taken, or maybe he depicts the portrait photo itself. If progressive art, especially after the revolution, cannot move exclusively within the rut of formal negation, if the critical method becomes fetishized, then it is imperative to devise a type of method that could be metacritical, that could provide a running criticism on the given critical approach. And as one of the possible responses, you have an interpretation of realism that rejects a clearly-defined canon and suggests itself as a metarealistic or conceptual painted collage, as far as technique goes. But how can one be a realist in the context of a rapidly changing post-revolutionary reality? Under these circumstances, one has to talk about a picture as a construction, a machine consisting of different stylistic devices, different techniques of depiction, that together produce a specific vision of reality, roughly corresponding to the given moment. Actually, this constructed aspect, together with the ideological and conceptual evaluation of reality, lays the foundation for the project of Soviet art.

We can continue along this trajectory into the future. Then, more than half a century later, this leads up to a work emblematic of this "conceptual realism": Erik Bulatov's Soviet Cosmos. This portrait of Leonid Brezhnev against a backdrop of the flags of the USSR, fluttering in the sky, is practically a painted ready-made, a subversive appropriation, where the trajectory of official Soviet art overlaps with that of the underground artists of the 1970s. As a result, today it's hard not to recognize that many of the features of Socialist Realism coincide with those of conceptual art, and not just in its romantic Moscow variation, but also in the more rationalist Western version.
Isaak Brodsky, Constitution Day, 1930
But in the case of these museum experiments, the overall picture always remained open to interpretation. Unlike a canvas, which is an object whose format is relatively familiar to us, the exhibition is significantly more abstract. It does not give that sense of wholeness and control as looking at a painting, where someone is able grasp the picture instantly. The exhibition is always larger than a person, it welcomes that person in and makes him or her part of itself. In this understanding, the museum exhibition, particularly in the USSR, is a public space, a metaphor for the collective, for the collective power unfolding in a historical event. In this regard, the museum is no different from any other public space under Communism – for example, the holiday decorations in public squares. This is already outside the field of art in its prerevolutionary interpretation. Or on the contrary, it's the field of art brought into life, fundamentally organized by a collective of artists – ideally, the masses, i.e., the triumphant proletariat. As a rule, this raises less suspicion than the individualistic brand of production that is easel painting. On the public squares, like the exhibitions inside the Soviet museum, the individual is always incomplete. The individual needs the collective, needs history – and vice versa. In the case of the Sots-Realist painting, this effect alone can be produced.


Yuri Pimenov, Workers of the Uralmash Plant at the Factory, 1934
I should note that it was at this same time in the 1920s-1930s, that you start to see the body of installation practices of Soviet museologists, who already operate on a post-media level as they parrot the postulates of Socialist Realism. In the case of the experimental Marxist exhibition by Alexei Federov-Davydov, the effects of the different artistic media and painting styles are collaged not on one canvas, but directly in space. An additional effect of defamiliarization is achieved by creating aesthetic arrangements for different social classes and historical epochs, consisting not just of paintings and sculpture, but also of interior design elements, as well as research about each arrangement, its economic, political and social frameworks. This is what Sots-Realist painting is held to blame for from the left, this impossibility of controlling the context of its presence; that outermost layer of materiality, in the case of the dialectic experiments of the Soviet museologists, is peeled back. Although in this situation, what remains outside the equation is the museum itself and the social conditions enabling it to take this form. At a certain moment, the museum display should itself be museified as a kind of conceptual critical installation, pushing the movement and exchange with the changing reality even further.
Fyodor Reshetnikov, Peace!, 1950
If we are talking about Modernism, then in its most extreme variant, the materiality of an individual generally should be reduced to an all-powerful gaze, traveling in a perfectly neutral space. The way out of this situation usually entails either vulgar materialism, or vulgar idealism. And both of these options can be found to be constantly recurring trends in contemporary art.

But let's return to the beginning of our conversation. Let's take the Sots-Realist model of Lukács and Lifshitz, with its emphasis on the need to create an image, a composition, a mimetic visual entity (that is, all that the average Joe would associate with the fine arts), which is much needed in a world subject to the constantly increasing fragmentation of both society and the individual (on the level of the individual psyche) in today's unstable, precarious society. Here can you imagine – setting aside the actual artistic projects of the present that operate on the level of thought experiments – how it would look to be oriented around the principles of Socialist Realist art (i.e., not just painting)?
any impetus towards the conversation about "tradition" that obscurantists hold so dear should be intercepted through a definitive change in the meaning of the term.
e. k.: In my opinion, many works of contemporary art could be considered an unconscious form of Socialist Realism – even those diametrically opposed to it formally, such as, say, the linocuts of SWOON or Hito Steyerl's installation, Is the Museum a Battlefield? What's more, I'm absolutely convinced that the relevance of its fundamental tenets has repeatedly increased, making the emergence of genuine Sots-Realist works in the near future all but inevitable. However, let's note, the challenges facing artists moving in this direction are immeasurably greater than they have ever been. But at the same time, the possibilities opening up are pretty impressive. It's clear that for the many who've been scared off from realism more or less for good, the mere mention of the word is like a Satanic spell, immediately leading to the Goethean invocations of Aleksandr Gerasimov – what could be more horrifying?! Nevertheless, to the historically thinking man, it should be pretty clear the unquestionable merit of Socialist Realism as a method. It is the only effective way to overcome the impasses in the development of late Modernism and Post-Modernism, in so far as, given the narrow professionalism and ultraindividualism of artistic objectives, it takes on a problem that is immeasurably superior to all others: the promotion of man's progress and the development of his creative abilities. Man as an end goal! Not the invention of newer and newer formal tricks, not the frenzied artistic antics to catch the public's eye, but work in the service of mankind. I understand that this would get a laugh from a lot of people. We are all cynics, after all, never showing any interest except in our immediate needs, and always keeping a slop bucket at the ready in case of sudden encounters with romantic-enthusiasts. And yet all the same, let's drop the skepticism and look at the situation like this: On the one hand, you have an enormous, bloated "I," maniacally going on about its own greatness and despising his neighbor in the ward simply because they are every bit as ambitious and every bit as obsessively boring in their monomania. On the other hand, you have meaningful work directed in the interests of mankind, which can uncover talent at any scale, dissolving personal or creative oppositions, surpassing temporal or geographic bounds, and uniting multiple generations of people from different cultures into one entity. That's pretty awesome!
Hito Steyerl, Is the Museum a Battlefield?, 2013
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Ladislav Zajac / Art-agenda
A large part of the practice of this kind of revival of Socialist Realism, in my opinion, should and will bear the character of research and critical-revisionism. Actually, this work has gone on for a long time already, it's just that not that much has been accomplished so far. In effect, it will have to create a new perspective on art in socialist countries in general, and the USSR in particular, and make this the basis of a working platform for artists from the young generation. To leave in peace what is still able to develop and store the polemical daring of artistic statements, but to get to rid of the servility, complacency and formal conservatism. At the same time, any impetus towards the conversation about "tradition" that obscurantists hold so dear should be intercepted through a definitive change in the meaning of the term. Tradition as revolution –this is the framework within which it makes sense to continue the topic of discussion.

Here I will say a few words about the plastic arts, since this is the field I work in. The perspective that I advocate and that I try to pass on to my students, among others, does not allow for the perception of art from the Soviet period as "wrong," anachronistic, a kind of mishap in the development of the international artistic process. On the contrary, this fully complex and internally-conflicted art was the only possible response in the given historical situation. It is therefore quite natural that the conflicts not exhausted in Soviet times, philosophical as well as strictly formal (a la the "Ivanov's drawing, Surikov's painting" mentioned above) need to be worked out on the level of present thought. Today's plastic arts must let these conflicts flourish and then present them to the audience with as much clarity as possible, comparing particular images, different stylistic layers and texts with the goal of producing the broadest and most multi-faceted showing of the phenomenon.
the money that the state gives to culture is not the government's personal pocket change, nor some kind of mythical blood money of the regime; it is taken from the people for the purpose of redistribution for the common good.
The problem of form can be resolved by looking back at the memorable Sots-Realist tenet of narodnost' [Ed."nationhood."] Here we have to find an effective means to appropriate the humblest artistic forms and mass culture: graffiti, pop music across every genre – from hip-hop to post-black metal – viral videos, etc. Ideally, at this point we should work with some kind of intellectual bureau, a collective of like-minded individuals who would debate this or that variant of development and then would realize the concept in every possible media – from traditional painting to video, sound art, and touch screens, to grand-scale social interventions. For instance, what would be best would be to find a way to shoot a television series broadcasting the artist statement. Parallel to this, other artists included in the project could make a few exhibitions on the themes (where it can be represented in easel painting) embedded within it, to make a museum display on the concept, zooming in on this or that problem or restaging the situation in the form of a total installation. I realize this may sound utopian, but something like this could really happen, considering on the one hand, the emerging generation of artists – desperate people with nothing to lose who are ready to take risks – and on the other hand, the bored masters (or "half-masters") who could compensate for their own lack of drive by providing opportunities to promote projects. For loner artists working at the level of the program, there is no longer any possibility just to engage solely with narrow professional interests or research into the all-powerful "metaphysical depths." The question of formal quality should diverge into two categories, denoted by the abbreviations MUKh [Ed. "fly"] – Minimalnyi Uroven Khudozhestvennocti ["Minimal Level of Artistry"] – and DUKh [Ed. "spirit, soul"] – Dostatochnyi Uroven Khudozhestvennocti ["Satisfactory Level of Artistry."] This will significantly simplify professional communication within the collective. "The concept is framed quite clearly, you just need to find some MUKh." Or, "Comrades, the time has come to definitively raise the DUKh, [Ed. In Russian, an idiom for "boosting morale"], or else our exhibitions will lose even their most steadfast audience!"
© Swoon
a. z.: Egor, the last question is for you more as a practicing painter and organizer. Under these current circumstances, and given the specificity of interest in Socialist Realism from the government and museum institutions, is it at all possible to collaborate with them? For instance, if the Ministry of Culture says, we're giving out money to realize the proposal for the intellectual bureau you just described. They are talking about the necessity of increasing the number of MUKh among the young generation and raising the DUKh [again, "boosting morale"] of the general public. To do this, they are going to create a special department at the State Tretyakov Gallery and so on and so forth. Tell us, would you agree to such a project? Or do the specifics of the historical moment prevent working in this manner in Russia?

e. k.: Arseny, I think the issue is in the nuances. In my opinion, it is categorically impossible to participate in projects that one way or another contribute to the realization of any kind of punitive actions of the state, as well as those that seek to justify unjust war, encourage obscurantism or any forms of chauvinism, or facilitate the emergence or reinforcement of a cult of personality. If anyone agrees to this, then they have to be either an asshole, or an idiot. In the given situation, the artist can have no illusions; he has a few greater opportunities for making an impact on society than the average Joe, and if he uses these opportunities for evil, then he leads to this precipice those who are helpless under the pressure of his mind or talent. And if you are going to deliberately go to such vile lengths, there is and can be no excuse of any sort for you.

There is, however, another aspect of this question. The money that the state gives to culture is not the government's personal pocket change, nor some kind of mythical blood money of the regime; it is taken from the people for the purpose of redistribution for the common good. That said, as far as the sphere of cultural work is concerned (which is free from the dictates of official ideology), I do not see any serious problems with using government money (as the needs of culture is precisely the reason this money was taken from the people to begin with!), just as I do not see any serious problems for subway workers, firemen or paramedics to take government money. Art for me is, above all else, work that someone needs to do. It's its own form of service, ensuring aesthetic and semiotic hygiene. If we just voluntarily give up the responsibilities accorded to us, then we need to remember: it will not take too long for the day to come when a neglected society suffocates from its own stench.