institutionalisation: fighting it, using it

Artist Arseny Zhilyaev and art critic Maria Silina discuss how the museum and art function in an environment of heavy institutionalisation, and consider how a Russian experiment of the early 1930s has been cruelly misread.

Arseny Zhilyaev: There have been more and more reports in recent years, even in non-specialised media, of museum staff standing up for their rights through trade unions, and doing so in spite of the specifics of the work they do and the mores that are customary in “temples of art”. We hear of actions to protest against a museum’s sponsorship policy or aspects of its display, its exhibition policies. We might see this as a drive towards social recognition of the museum as a special kind of factory with its own special kind of production – the idea is not novel in critical theory. With that there comes a drive to make this production more fair and ethical in respect of its employees and the people who depend on it, not through artistic action, but through action in “real life”, without reference to art. This seems to me to be an important difference between contemporary museum activism and the forms of resistance that were customary in the professional contemporary art community in the last century.

What were those forms? Refusal to interact with the museum (as an institution that was corrupt by default), to participate in the entertainment industry, to commercialise works of art, and all sorts of “rupture” – from torn canvases to posters demanding various changes. All this might be described as a kind of artists’ strike, one that has been going on for more than a century. All well and good, you may say – this negativity is the fuel of art. But what we are actually looking at here is a workaday routine – for a contemporary artist artistic protest, evasion, self-critical reflection, baring the device, etc., is like dropping by the filling station and choosing a fuel. I am reminded of Daniel Buren’s response to Goran Djordjevic’s letter of 1979 asking him and other leading artists to take part in an artists’ strike.[1] The Frenchman, like most of the other addressees, declined the invitation, but his justification expresses the essence of the dilemma very accurately. Buren said he had already been on strike for nearly 15 years, because he hadn’t produced any new forms in that time. So for a real strike you need something like a strike within a strike.

Awareness of this paradox of art production was a stumbling block for many. Djordjevic later proposed his own solution to the problem. Radical criticism of the art project as progeny of the capitalist system, anonymity, going outside the territory of art while at the same time appropriating its infrastructure, building institutionality. Factually, Djordjevic adopted the position of an anonymous researcher, like an anthropologist, studying the artefacts of art merely as evidence of a certain historical period. It is interesting that, for the unprepared viewer, such research can be hard to distinguish visually from what he/she sees on a visit to a regular museum exhibition. But, then, the icons in textbooks of art history do not differ from the icons you see in a church. Djordjevic has worked for several decades as a “doorman” or “technical assistant” of the Museum of American Art (Berlin), only occasionally returning to the traditional role of an artist.

Helvetia Park exhibition at Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel, Switzerland. 2009–2010 © Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel

This is just one example of a general and increasingly noticeable trend. There has been a shift of the agenda from the level of the individual artistic utterance to the level of the exhibition, the level of reflection of institutional organisation. Whereas, before, it was mainly artists who engaged in institutional criticism or trade union work within art, today, in campaigns led by museum unions, artists often seem to be on the other side of the barricades. Or, at least, their interventions do not have consequences that are as serious as those of an institutional protest. They remain on the ground of what is “art-ificial” and can therefore, for the most part, be ignored. Faith in artistic activism has been undermined, as have the promises of art in general. There is a sense, let’s say, of exhaustion of the resource of purely artistic innovation through criticism. As if everything that could be said in the framework of the “work of art” has already been said. The ball is in the court of more complex formations, where this utterance is included as one of several structural elements.

I hasten to qualify – what we are talking about here is primarily the USA and, in part, Europe. Russia and the post-Soviet space as a whole have to be bracketed. There, at this stage, people seem ready to forgive any injustice in labour relations or exhibition policy so long as they can have a normally functioning museum, they can work there, etc. Generally though, do you agree with my assessment and, if so, how do you explain the current institutional politicisation?

Maria Silina: I would say that the museum unions you are talking about, such as those at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in Los Angeles, are part of a global and diverse network of actors who are destabilising the supra-class status of the museum. Local activists and academic workers, together with museum workers and artists, are showing us that the museums themselves are only a part of a big social system that is developing towards ever greater regulation. It seems to me that this is the most problematic aspect of the trend: tight regulation of the aspiration towards greater flexibility and adaptability of the system.

I follow what has been happening as regards tariffs and copyright. There is a harking back to the experience of the 1970s, when the question of the material value of the non-material labour of the artist was raised in legal terms for the first time. The first contract where that material value figured was the Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement, published in the catalogue of Documenta 5 in 1972. The idea was that the artist receives a percentage from the resale of his/her works (by a dealer, gallery or museum). There are more and more independent initiatives of this kind nowadays, including some that come from artists, like Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), which was set up in New York in 2008.

Chris Burden. Shoot. 1971 © Chris Burden

The other actors in museum infrastructure who are now in the spotlight are sponsors, especially those who have made money in an ethically unacceptable way. Here, museum workers are tied by a loyalty policy, and the activism comes from artists and social groups. For example, we have actions by the Decolonize this Place movement demanding the removal of businessmen who provide sponsorship money to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that comes from the sale of weapons, from the operation of prisons for immigrants, etc. This is an attack on the supposedly apolitical and supra-class infrastructure of artistic reproduction. I have followed actions by public associations like the Boyle Heights group in Los Angeles, against so-called “art washing”, protesting against the routine multiplication of exhibition spaces. They are not against art and museums as such, but against their asocial role, which is judged to be antisocial.

In Europe too it is not museum workers, but academic scholars who have shown up the structural problem of the museum in its fusion with aggressive state policy, the policy of colonialism. This has been facilitated by “Provenienzforschung”, the study of provenance, which is traditional work for scholars. What they have shown is that museums benefit directly from colonial goods and should reflect on this heritage. The positive activist programme of scholars is for legal regulation of relationships with former colonies. This is the logic of activism in the legal sphere. So the classic channels of expertise (archives, museums) are used by scholars not to strengthen these institutions, but to destabilise them and encourage them to play a more active public role.

In Russia, as you say, the museum doesn’t assume any functions other than the storage and exhibition of objects. I connect this with the Soviet tradition of museumification of the national heritage. The Bolsheviks in 1917 were quick to declare themselves protectors of heritage and they encouraged the opening of museums wherever possible. But by the mid-1920s. these museumified estates and mansions, which had been opened as small collections of nationalised treasures, began to be closed down, often in a barbaric manner. A lot was sold, a lot was lost. The dispersion of the collection of the Museum of Pictorial Culture in Moscow is one example (it was recently the subject of an exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery). In general, from the 1930s onwards it was as much as museums could do to cling onto their functions of preservation and collection, functions that state power constantly put in question. So, historically, even the function of exhibiting has been difficult for Russian museums to maintain. Remember the scandals at the Tretyakov Gallery, when the Gallery forbade independent tours. The museum restricts its visitors, even its most loyal visitors – lovers of art. It’s not just that Russian museums don’t assume social functions – they zealously reject them.

AZ: Speaking of the Tretyakov Gallery, there is something positive we could mention. I think you will agree that Aleksey Fedorov-Davydov was a precursor of contemporary critical museum institutionalism – a sort of “avant-gardist 2.0” – with his Experimental Complex Marxist Exhibition at the Tretyakov in the early 1930s. It didn’t nourish illusions about destroying the museum and returning to the pre-industrial, guild mode of production (a characteristic theme of modernism), but there was a clear understanding of the need to transform art production, the need for demonstration and distribution. Here, art is analysed as a part of the real relationships of production, and only subsequently as a form of existence of ideological content. And this analysis is not labelled as an artistic utterance. In a sense, we are again presented with a rupture, a black square; not on canvas, however, but in the form of an exhibition. The works of the avant-garde, which had declared themselves to be zero, are themselves zeroed, subjected to criticism and de-aestheticised . And, importantly, the institution itself acts as a trigger for this situation. The museum turns out to be more radical than the art radicals. Methodologically, this is a process of defamiliarisation of the history of art and of the museum as specific products of a political and economic development that has to be transformed in the conditions of the proletarian state.

I think that when most contemporary art activists, both in the domestic context and beyond, refer to the historical avant-garde and production art, they lose sight of the role of the institution. In his museum experiments Fedorov-Davydov is the successor of Boris Arvatov and Sergey Tretyakov, with their ideals, while the anarchist dreamer Malevich is better suited as a hero for the art activists. But then, Malevich was at the origins of the Museum of Pictorial Culture, so his anti-institutional impulse was not without pragmatic exceptions. You are currently working on a book about the museum experiments of Soviet avant-garde artists. Do you think that Fedorov-Davydov’s experience is relevant to the current situation?

MS: Experiments with Marxist art criticism attract growing attention today. I am writing a book about exhibitions in art museums in the 1920s and 1930s and I see this interest. It was the time when the modernist museum was being constructed on the principle of a white cube, which became the “standard” for museum spaces by the end of the 1930s. Attempts to find a non-easel and non-formalistic museum exhibition stand out on the background of this modernist tendency, are they are what I am analysing.

But first I’ll say something about the enhanced, intensified institutionality, which you described so well. It is true that analysis of the legacy of art institutions such as GINKhUK [the State Institute of Artistic Culture] or even the Museum of Artistic Culture in a recent exhibition at the Tretyakov observed a strict separation between the intellectual agenda and infrastructure, the morphology of cultural production. Or, as in the case of the Museum of Pictorial Culture or the Museum Office, which distributed the work of avant-garde artists across the country, the material history of these initiatives is ignored. The very concepts of the laboratory and of experimentation are dematerialised, and that represents a departure from the more complex conditions of an analysis of the avant-garde heritage. The case of Fedorov-Davydov confronts us directly with this new, reinforced institutionality. I want to emphasise that Fedorov-Davydov burst into the museum world as an antagonist and started work to construct the museum as an art-history laboratory. He was not a museum worker, he was an art critic who came to the museum, and he came as a bureaucrat and a Communist. He came as an employee of the Main Section for Literature and Art of the People’s Commissariat for Education, which was set up to enforce greater control over the arts, and he came as a committed Marxist and Party member.

Fedorov-Davydov worked under the banner of formal sociological art criticism. He analysed both the formal (visual) and also the material properties of the picture. He showed paintings functionally, indirectly, through their role on the art market, as components of the exhibition machine, as products of the philosophy of patronage and of the art market.

this conception of the progress of art through an overcoming of the easel, superimposed on the idea of a transition period from capitalism to socialism, created a time loop: constant relapses of easel art, a recursive movement.

The logic of his concept of art criticism came from the work of Boris Arvatov. Under Arvatov’s influence, Fedorov-Davydov treated the history of Western and Russian art as the development of easel painting, which had arrived at a state of self-denial by the time of the First World War and the 1917 Revolution. Here, for example, we have the famous photograph of the Tretyakov Gallery in 1931 with Malevich’s Black Square, which, according to Fedorov-Davydov, symbolised art “in the impasse of self-denial”. This experimental exhibition gets read as the forerunner of the Nazis’ Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, where paintings were shown in order to be reviled. There is a great deal of misunderstanding …

AZ: … Yes, it is extremely annoying. When I was only starting to work with the legacy of Fedorov-Davydov, I also quickly discovered that he is perceived in the English-language context as an equivalent of Nazi aggressivity. The one and a half publications that were available on the English-language Internet in the early 2010s were precisely about that. I was once at a conference in New York dedicated to artist-curators, where I tried to present Fedorov-Davydov’s practice in context. I don’t think I succeeded in convincing the audience, but perhaps my Russian English was to blame. Claire Bishop said that it really is impossible to find anything in English, but there was one French publication that tried to theorise on the topic. I never found the publication. And there weren’t many Russian-speaking authors I knew who were interested in the topic – just a couple of people. First, I communicated in New York with Masha Chlenova, who wrote a dissertation on Fedorov-Davydov, but she hadn’t come back to the theme until very recently and she interpreted the Marxist exhibition very tendentiously, in accordance with the “degenerate” line. The other person was Andrey Kovalev, one of our distinguished Moscow critics, who also wrote a thesis on Fedorov-Davydov. His judgments were free of international clichés, but were more of a historiographic nature.

The interpretation closest to me was that of Goran Djordjevic. He suggested that the inclusion of Malevich and other avant-garde artists in the Marxist exhibition, albeit as a target for criticism, paradoxically made it possible to keep them in the museum.

My version has always been that Fedorov-Davydov acted according to the logic of “criticism of criticism”. He criticised the avant-garde for a kind of fetishisation of the device, albeit of the critical device and albeit of a device that brought dividends and made an important contribution to the development of art. The new situation of the post-revolutionary proletarian state called for a new working method, which was born in debates about realism. I believe that the version proposed by Fedorov-Davydov can be interpreted as “conceptual realism”. The term itself was proposed by Ekaterina Degot’ to refer to the practices of Solomon Nikritin, particularly his famous pedagogical exhibition at the laboratory of the Museum of Pictorial Culture, and the experiments of painters who rejected any clear stylistic attachment, so that they could be ready for life’s changes. But it seems to me that the idea of “conceptual realism” as a kind of umbrella term was most fully realised in the practices of Fedorov-Davydov. He presented a panorama of aesthetic approaches, critically contextualising them in installation complexes and documentary information about the economy of their production. In other words, Fedorov-Davydov wanted to be more radical than the historical avant-garde that we know.

MS: In my opinion, Fedorov-Davydov’s achievement was to articulate the panorama of aesthetic approaches through Arvatov’s idea of easel art. He did not have time to do more. The devices he used in exhibiting contemporary art show Malevich as the pinnacle of painting mastery, as the conceptual limit of the development of easel art, where it reaches the point of self-denial. From that point onwards, Fedorov-Davydov says, a new class – the proletariat, the worker-artist, the self-taught artist – will adopt Malevich’s formal methods in the new economic conditions. In 1929, Fedorov-Davydov showed two exhibitions side by side at the Tretyakov Gallery: works by Malevich and works from Leningrad’s Izoram [Young Workers’ Art Studios]. His curatorial idea was to show clearly how formal devices in Malevich’s works could be used in new, non-easel art forms by new agents – self-taught proletarians. For him, however, neither Malevich nor Izoram are yet proletarian art, because the socialist base of art production has not yet been established. Their work still only represents approaches to the new. This is what is particularly subtle in Fedorov-Davydov’s thought: contemporary art of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s is a relapse to easel art, and all that is new in it is the search for socialist themes and a few stylistic elements. In this Fedorov-Davydov follows the ideas of Alexander Bogdanov, who believed as a matter of principle that new art can only be developed by a new class, the proletariat, and he is also close to the positions of Leo Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin on the possibility or impossibility of creating proletarian art in the conditions of transition from capitalism to a classless society. Fedorov-Davydov postulated that he was, in fact, working in a suspension of time: his contemporary history hovered between capitalism and socialism. This conception of the progress of art through an overcoming of the easel, superimposed on the idea of a transition period from capitalism to socialism, created a time loop: constant relapses of easel art, a recursive movement. An inability to have done with capitalism. This timelessness is the key and the main difficulty of such a prognostic model of the history of art.

AZ: People often forget how productive this period was. Even at the level of the use of words. My colleagues have often corrected me when I discarded the word “opytnaya”, which basically means “experimental” [“eksperimental’naya”] from the title of Fedorov-Davydov’s “complex Marxist exhibition”. Tell me in more detail how Fedorov-Davydov’s methodology worked in practice, what was “experimental” about his approach?

MS: In 1930, Fedorov-Davydov organises an exhibition of works with revolutionary and Soviet themes. The criterion for inclusion of works in the exhibition was that they should contain elements of the movement towards socialist, non-easel art, i.e., new genres and themes, new types of art – the “components of everyday life”. He actually said, regarding this exhibition, that he wanted an image of the future and that the choice of works was almost random. Of course, the works were not random, but he had no formalistic visual obsession with only showing things that were excellently made. On the contrary, the near-randomness of unfinished sketches, children’s drawings, architectural projects were meant to hint that something was going to happen, something was ripening. The exhibition was visually and museographically chaotic, by all accounts, but it is important that it was presented as experimental. And yet, by inertia, it still gets interpreted as an exhibition of triumph, an exhibition of the progress of Soviet art. This is the fundamental difference between the ideas of Fedorov-Davydov and the subsequent paradigm of both socialist realism and “pogrom exhibitions” like Degenerate Art. Fedorov-Davydov predicts genres, themes and iconography – all of this was his material. He defines particular “slots” of art production – this was his work as an expert. He does not focus on specific artists: the museum is not for specific artists, but for identifying the class struggle and… methods of art criticism. This “Soviet-themed” exhibition ended, for example, with a stand displaying new Marxist literature, and not naturalistically, with bags of coal. Osip Brik said at a museum conference in 1919 that real artistic life takes place at exhibitions, but museums are research institutes, and Fedorov-Davydov embodied this. So, for him, the museum is a showcase of art history. He did not define what good museum art was. Instead, he used formal sociological tools to mark the boundaries of his competence, predicting genres and types of artistic production. He was normative in respect of the future proletarian art, but absolutely flexible in respect of current art processes, partly because they could never reach as far as the fundamentally new future.

Niki de Saint Phalle with her gun after having shot the painting. 1963 © Gerhard Rauch–Maxppp

The special value of Fedorov-Davydov’s method is that he tried to move away from formalism in the hanging of exhibitions, from an approach that only compares illusionistic techniques on the canvas. He opposed Darwinism in art criticism, which was very clearly present in the exhibitions of museums of art and painting, where works were displayed based on their authorship and the way objects were transformed on the canvas – from volume to objectlessness. That applies to Alfred Barr in New York and his idea of the development of art from realism to abstraction. None of that went beyond the illusionistic surface of the canvas.

AZ: We started by saying that we are now seeing a transformation of the role of the institution and a critique of the institution as such. But let’s talk about how feasible it would be to re-enact Fedorov-Davydov’s experiments in today’s reality. It always seemed to me that it is only possible to enact such experiments in full after a revolution. It is impossible to imagine a biennale or a large museum exposition today that would nullify art through its contextualisation in the specifics of the class struggle. If you believe that an exhibition is always a hybrid, that it always contains different levels of control and is not determined solely by a charter of the artist’s sovereign freedom, but also by the institutional freedom of the curator (limited by social consensus), you quickly grasp what the boundaries are. Although I would love to attend such an event. The only way forward, barring a change of the social order, is, paradoxically, a return to the level of the artist and his/her work, but represented by the figure of a researcher, somebody who sets up experiments in a laboratory in the hope that sooner or later they will go beyond its walls.

MS: If we take the strategies of art museums, where exhibitions are based on formal- genetic and stylistic derivations, there is nothing to suggest that such a systematic review is possible. For example, a new MoMA exhibition opened in New York in the autumn of 2019. The curators play with visual aspects of the collection as part of a diversification of gender and cultural variety. They have successful formal exchanges between types of art, they make full use of material and the juxtaposition of genres, but their slogan and general idea are conservative: “An extraordinary collection, remixed”. This visual remix, these stylistic juxtapositions reveal at once the conceptual weakness of art museum exhibitions: Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is put alongside a work by Faith Ringgold, American People Series # 20: Die (1967), which deals with race conflict and murder. It’s amusing to note that the curators have changed the source: Ringgold was inspired by Guernica, which was exhibited in the Museum from 1943 to 1981, but they are showing a direct juxtaposition of Picasso and his sex workers in Demoiselles d’Avignon and Ringgold’s interracial slaughter. Clearly there is a need here for the additional materials and expositions that Fedorov-Davydov used in art museums. They could do with a holistic critical framework like Fedorov-Davydov’s class struggle and his formal-sociological understanding of creative activity and artistic production. Additional exhibitions of that kind are feasible for small museums that build a narrative around a well-prepared critical canvas, for example, the history of American slavery, the history of Nazism. So the Worcester Art Museum transcoded its portrait gallery to reveal those subjects who made money from slavery in the United States, whereby the gallery inscribed itself in a wider social context. German art historians and museologists make exhibitions drawing on huge amounts of additional material (archives, texts, art reviews) and discuss the strategies by which modernist artists such as Emil Nolde and the Die Brücke group were adapted to the Nazi cultural bureaucracy. I think that Fedorov-Davydov would have been interested in these experiments.

Fedorov-Davydov had this freedom in experiments with contemporary art because of a strong belief in the possibility of socialist production in the context of the crisis of capitalism. This belief was reinforced by that elusive and, in his case, academic position of an interval of timelessness between capitalism and socialism, in which he lived and where modernity was a “relapse”. It seems to me that this crisis-relapse mode of expectation is still with us, but we don’t have the political base that potentially promises change, as it existed in Fedorov-Davydov’s time. In principle, though, museums themselves are now ready to experiment further with their own institutional sustainability. For example, a couple of years ago the Victoria and Albert Museum in London faced criticism of its acquisitions as a typical case of art washing. The museum had acquired a fragment of a demolished block of flats (Robin Hood Gardens), built in the 1970s in brutalist style. The point was that the Robin Hood Gardens development was another failed modernist experiment in the design of social housing. It’s a typical sad story: the social purpose of a project fails, and prestigious museums thrive on a topical agenda. But for the museum, this critical reaction was intellectual fuel for its exhibition: it made the acquisition of the fragment socially significant, and it was written into the exhibition programme. Yes, the museum will not directly affect social inequality, but some museums are now ready to articulate the problems of which they are historically a part, including by their very function of preserving and exhibiting these fragments of social failures.

Translation: Ben Hooson