I’ve just seen an engaging 2010 documentary entitled the “Russian Concept” (for a trailer see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-l66s2Fglk). Based on interviews with artists, art collectors and esteemed art historians, the documentary provides a short and entertaining survey of art little known to Western college students. Its subject matter is primarily unofficial – and sometimes persecuted – art from the Soviet era, much of it purchased by the art collector Norton Dodge (who smuggled 10,000 art works out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, earning him the nickname the “Lorenzo de Medici” of Russian art). But it also examines the fate of art in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As I watched this documentary, I tried to grasp the nature of the “Russian concept.” Being punished for rejecting the constraints of official artistic doctrine, it seems to me, was central to that conception. While Soviet era artists who did not toe the official line faced unemployment, or even worse, they were always potential martyrs to the cause of artistic freedom — an oddly empowering position.
And so, because of persecution, the Soviet era might be considered a golden age of non-conformist art. In those heroic times art occupied pride of place in the struggle for political freedom. Indeed, many of artists in the film seem almost nostalgic for the good, bad old days of the Soviet Union, when their art mattered so much that they were punished for it. What a bore the present age, by comparison, seems to be.
The documentary, meanwhile, makes an interesting point about the “logo-centric” tendency of Russian non-conformist art: the tendency to combine words and pictures. Perhaps the focus on telling stories with pictures came from the Russian religious icon painting tradition, which conveyed biblical stories through images. More likely, however, was that the practice followed official artistic currents, when propaganda art was accompanied by slogans urging Soviets to fulfill and over fulfill the five-year plan for widgets and pig iron. One wonderful example of that tendency is Aleksander Kosolapov’s “Lenin, Coca-Cola.” It combines the iconic image of Lenin with the Coca-Cola logo and the words in English: “It’s The Real Thing. Lenin.”
If there is one weakness in the documentary, it is the bias, affirmed in the title, to associate the “Russian concept” with non-official art. So what about all the conformist artistic production (socialist or capitalist)? Given the propensity of the modern Russian and Soviet states to view any art it could not control as suspect, one could argue that the Russian concept in art tends as much toward conformity as non-conformity. At the very least, to call non-conformist art the Russian concept, and to exclude the supposedly conformist variety from the Russian aesthetic tradition, is questionable. Besides, the two share much in common, to wit, the idea that art, whether the artist intends it to be so, conveys a political message. That is one of the points made by many artists in this documentary, and it was also one of the central ideas of art produced according to the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism. Of course, the political messages of conformists and non-conformists differed radically, but the notion that their art must be political linked the two. In this context, art for art’s sake was impossible; according to the Soviet art establishment all art was political, whether the artist knew it or not. Thus the more apolitical the intention of the artist, the more politically subversive his or her art would become — at least until the artistic dictators and tyrants croaked. When it came to politicizing art, everyone conformed.
Perhaps predictably, immigrant artists from Russia found it hard to adapt to an environment where the artist was not expected to address crucial questions, where the stakes, morally and politically if not economically, were so low. One artist, who prided himself on his sense of humor, recalled that it took him 15 years to tell a joke in America that would make people laugh. And making people laugh, through various ironic transformations such as the portmanteau of Lenin and the Coca-Cola logo, was his primary way of communicating. “Sometimes the language of culture is untranslatable,” lamented one Russian immigrant artist in New York. Non-conformist art, said another artist, was stopped twice: first by Stalin and then with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a commercial culture. “Two different dictators – Stalin and the free market.” But as I interpret the documentary, this claim seems far off the mark: it’s the dictators that make non-conformity meaningful. And there’s a new dictator in the global village: capitalism, which has replaced the state as the rebellious muse’s new foil and taskmaster.