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Photo: Karlīna Vītoliņa

What Is the Point of Art? 0

Interviewed Inga Bunkše

After our conversation, tolerance is an attribute that I'd like to dedicate to Leonid Bazhanov (1945) – an artist, art historian and the artistic director of the National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA) in Moscow. He is a huge authority on the Russian art scene; his words are heeded by both government officials and self-sufficient artists. Having studied painting at Boris Birger's studio, he graduated from Moscow State University's Department of Art History in 1973. In the years from 1965 to 1985, he worked at several museums and at the Советский художник publishing house; during this time, he also painted and organized nonconformist exhibitions. During the soviet era, his work was aimed at proving true the epithet that “culture does not belong to the state; it belongs to society”. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Bazhanov worked for the Russian Ministry of Culture, and since 1997 he has been the artistic director of the NCCA. Bazhanov has curated exhibitions both in Russia and abroad, as well as at the biennales of Venice (2001,2002), São Paulo, Istanbul, Cairo and New Delhi. He has given numerous lectures, written many articles, put together countless exhibitions, has made and directed several documentaries and short films, and has participated in scientific conferences and symposiums. Bazhanov is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), Russia's Association of Art Critics, the Russian Ministry of Culture's Art Consultative Council and Commission of State Experts, and the City of Moscow's Monumental Art Commission, in addition to being a member of countless other councils, juries and commissions. One would need several dozens of pages just to list everything that Leonid Bazhanov has achieved. As the following interview contests, this huge amount of responsibilities does not, however, overburden or stifle this eminent art historian. Actually, quite the contrary is true – he graciously and respectfully agrees to the interview. After meeting with Leonid Bazhanov in Riga, I had the urge to not only review my values, but to also revise those same values.

How do you like Riga?

I really like Riga. Even during the soviet years, I've always had less opportunity to be here than in Tallinn and Vilnius; that's just the way it's been, but I always like visiting here – I love the city. I used to have friends living here, and the city was different, but now my friends have left – they've emigrated to the US. I'm amazed at how delicately and intelligently Riga is being revamped. In comparison to Moscow, that is – which is being renovated rather coarsely and tastelessly. It's nice to see that in Riga, this is happening with the expectation that contemporary art will have fruitful ground to develop here – satisfactory exhibition spaces and a museum.

What sort of differences do you see in the way that art is developing in Latvia, as compared to Russia?

There are differences. But I don't think that these should create some sort of inferiority complexes about Latvian art being provincial, or lying on the periphery of developments in contemporary art. Quite the opposite, actually. Latvian art has its specifics. Of course, one senses a lack of infrastructure, and there isn't enough support coming from the state and society; but these things require time. Back when the USSR collapsed, my friends and I had the illusion that now we would immediately be able do what we had always dreamed of. That's a huge illusion that requires a great amount of time to actually bring about. It will probably happen sooner in Latvia. Latvia simply wasn't under soviet rule for as long. But just as in Russia, here you have your own cultural specifications. That's something that is hard to formulate; one could give a whole series of lectures on that.

Could you name at least a couple of differences?

I think that here, and overall, there is an erroneous view that contemporary art is absolutely international in nature; that there is no need to separate American art from that of the UK, Germany, Israel or Latvia. That's not true. Always, even in the most abstract or deeply conceptual artworks, one can tell from where the artwork has come, what its cultural foundation is like, and what sort of cultural connotations it contains. This can also be seen in Latvian culture – there's more sensitivity, more lyricism. These are strange categories in terms of contemporary art, but at the same time, no one has removed them; they are values in and of themselves, and for the viewing public that understands them, they are also of value. Even the most radical and toughest conceptualism is not forced to ignore the subconscious; it does not exclude the experience of the surrealists or expressionists. The postmodern movements have renewed many values that, it seemed, had been swept away into the wastebasket of history. They are once again becoming relevant to people.

Many of the works by Russian artists are linked to national identity – Marat Gelman organizes regional art shows; an exhibition scandalously titled “The United States of Siberia” was held in Moscow this spring. Is it important to be able to sense in an artwork the place – the space – from which the artist has come?

This may not be a fair thing to say, but it seems to me that the foundation of Russian art is kind of speculative. The artists don't have a basic education in art, and practically nothing in terms of an education in contemporary art. And so, the artists struggle on, inventing the bicycle from scratch every time – placing emphasis not on fundamental things, but on clever discoveries, like soc-art, for instance, or the romantic “Moscow conceptualism”. It seems like speculation to me; art is missing a cultural foundation. I think that in Latvia, the art traditions are inherited. In the soviet era, you already had Blumbergs, Freibergs, and the new artists of the 1980s. The new art wasn't repressed or forbidden; it grew gradually. There's a translation of traditions – one generation hands it over to the next; the next generation may then remove something, but nevertheless, it is still growing in fertile soil. Whereas in Russia, everything is invented from scratch, every time.

In addition, the situation in Russia is politicized.

Yes. It's not simply a lack of education, but a lack of cultural unity. I work in a state organization myself, which is why it's not easy to talk about it, but our cultural politics have not been thought through; they are barely even there. Contemporary art has always had the status of being rejected. In addition, the list of unpleasant things linked to working with contemporary art is very broad, starting with a lack of elementary support from the state, to artists being dragged into a court of law because they were defending their independence.

In the festival “White Nights in Perm”, Vasily Slonov's satirical series, titled “Welcome! Sochi 2014”, was censored and accompanied by scandal. Is censorship increasing?

It is, although we're being told that it's not. It's not as if there's been an order from above. There aren't any direct laws, but the state's tolerance of the chauvinism that rules over society is obvious. The state doesn't do anything to defend art and culture, but looks aside when exhibition halls are invaded by aggressive religious fanatics who vandalize exhibits, or when incompetent people press legal charges against exhibitions in the Hermitage or elsewhere. [At the end of 2012, the group “The People's Church” sued the director of the Hermitage for insulting Christian values. The reason for the legal action was the exhibition “The End of Fun”, by the Chapman brothers, who are part of the Young British Artists (YBA) group. The St. Petersburg prosecutor investigated the exhibition, but nothing was found that indicated extremism or an insulting of faith – I.B.]

This course of action is taken advantage of by the Russian public, which leans towards chauvinism and pounces upon “incomprehensible” contemporary art with glee. Many of the people who sign these petitions haven't even seen the exhibitions in question. 

Nothing has changed since 1962, when Khrushchev called the works of artists “the smears of a donkey's tail”.

Sometimes it seems that way. But the public isn't at fault – it is unprepared, there aren't any satisfactory publications, there isn't any education being done, there aren't any public lecture series, the institution of critique isn't working, and so on.

This spring, the artist Viktoria Lomasko posted on Facebook that her works had been removed from the Moscow exhibition “International Women's Day. Feminism – From the Avant Garde to  Today”. Was that also an issue of censorship?

In terms of the incident with Lomasko's artworks, the conflict was due to something else. She didn't bring the works she had said she would, but others. It's the curator's prerogative to defend his or her concept of the exhibition and to refuse certain works. This incident was blown out of proportion. However, Lomasko is continually confronted by the resistance of the public and the state. She makes drawings during the court proceedings that deal with complaints being brought against artists, and that, of course, rubs various judicial institutions the wrong way. We recently opened her exhibition at the International University, so there's not such a powerful lobby against her as there is against other artists.

Which ones? Can you name one?

There were court proceedings concerning Alexander Savko; his artwork was prohibited, and even images of it were prohibited from being shown on the internet. It was absurd, medieval recidivism. Thankfully, no one has touched his person. [In 2012, the Moscow Ministry of Justice added Alexander Savko's artwork, “Sermon on the Mount”, from the series “Mickey Mouse's Travels in Art History”, to the list of prohibited “extremist” works. Publishing of the work can lead to a monetary fine, computer confiscation, and a 90-day freeze on the actions of the legal entity accused – I.B.]

The court process is still ongoing for the artist Artyom Loskutov from Novosibirsk, who printed onto T-shirts his ironic images honoring Pussy Riot. He's also being accused of slandering religious sentiments. The internet portal is also being harassed and sued for publishing the artwork. So, even information about these artworks has been prohibited.

Does the state support these prosecutions?

It's hard to pin down the state. You can't say – look, Putin gave the order. I don't know if he did. But it is a fact that he hasn't stopped this chauvinistic bacchanalia. And he should have. In Russia, as always, everything depends on the Tzar; everyone waits for his instructions. Even though there is a Minister of Culture, who could express his opinion. The Minister of Culture has said, however, that he neither understands nor loves contemporary art. I don't understand why he has this government position. The problems are many, but not everything is catastrophic. Just a lot of time is needed until the Minister will understand art, until the artists will get the appropriate education, and until the public will be instructed on what contemporary art, and its processes, are.

How can one tell a good piece of contemporary art from a bad one? Can you name some criteria?

That's a complex question. You state one criterion or characteristic, and in the very next moment, you understand that it doesn't work. You need the assistance of historical experience and competency. The value of an artwork is always connected to a certain ideological or spiritual context. The art created in antiquity was linked to mythology, and it is not correct to rejoice just in its aesthetic or resilient qualities. When one is ignorant of the associated mythology, one can't understand the content of these artworks. Medieval art was connected to religion, and without understanding or sensing that, one can only rejoice in the red or blue color in the icon, but its larger meaning remains pointless.

Later on, art cut off its ties to religion and mythology; it doubted European cultural values and announced its right to independence. Its own sort of aesthetics, visual quality, composition and plasticity arose around this independent existence – this was modernism. This new art was associated with the historical and social cataclysms of the 20th century; with human utopias – be they the cultivation of communistic or capitalistic happiness, or the achievement of scientific progress and our heading out into the cosmos.

But these values also lost their relevancy; they turned into academic practices and they did not portray all of the harshness of the world's experiences. Contemporary art took the place of modernism after the horrors of WWII, when millions of people perished just because of some insane dictators. What sort of aesthetics could art speak about after that? A powerful intellectual component was brought into art; art was linked to the newest philosophy, to intellectual constructs and concepts.

Of course, the young artists that study art in Western universities, as a rule, study philosophy just as intently as, for example, they study painting with watercolors. And of course, those who have not been “initiated” into this knowledge have a hard time following the nuances, the philosophical wisdom and the constructions of the mind, but one mustn't think that the viewer is stupid and won't understand anything. One needs experience. The experience of viewing is the most universal system used for gaining an understanding of art. The viewer doesn't have to do required reading of Jean Baudrillard [a sociologist and postmodern theoretician – I.B.], but it would be useful to be aware of some of the foundational ideas of modern civilization and culture. My nine-year-old son has probably seen more contemporary art exhibitions than most Moscow University students, and he can easily navigate the art world, even though he hasn't read any philosophical works, of course.

Can he tell good works apart from bad ones?

The issue of quality criteria is the most complex one of all. You can look for answers your whole life, and you'll still never answer it completely. As soon as you think you've found the absolute correct answer, you've overstepped the principles of art development and dynamics. As soon as you've recognized one quality criterion, in the very same second, another one appears – one that you had missed.

Post-postmodernism, altermodernism, transmodernism – art historians are looking for new terminology to label the period that follows postmodernism. But as these terms indicate, we haven't gotten very far away from modernism. For a new movement to appear in art, one needs philosophical substantiation. Where is the development of contemporary art heading?

I think that art is in a crisis situation right now, even though a crisis doesn't mean that everything has come to an end. A crisis means that, in the near future, new core ideas will come about – new constructs that will allow for art to develop further. The fact that contemporary art doesn't set its sights on just one concept or idea is totally normal. Pluralism exists. The ideas of Freud, moments of surrealism, and the hermeneutics of conceptualism all coincide concurrently. The viewer has the opportunity to chose that, for which he has an affinity; all you need are cultural institutions and the structure to give the viewer various options. There are very many parties that have to take an active part here – critique institutions, experts, institutions of higher learning, gallerists, collectors, museum staff. The gallery network is very important; in addition, the galleries shouldn't all be nicely lined up and dealing only with the mainstream, like they do in Moscow now. I've had a hand in creating that, and now I regret it, but there should be diverse galleries that cover the whole spectrum – naivism, conceptual art, postmodern works, and so on.

It's hard to keep a gallery like that going.

The world's best galleries are the ones that are very specialized and work with only a few artists. An audience that appreciates that will slowly begin to appear; society will evolve; there will also be consumers. Until that happens, the state should support such galleries, even though they are private and are labeled as commercial galleries; this would, nevertheless, be a major investment in development. There should be a law, or a support system, that would allow for galleries to at least avoid paying rent.

Are there any immortal values in art such as, for instance – truth?

Yes, but I think that in terms of fundamental categories, there are also other values that are no lesser in importance. There is the beautiful; there is fear. A person comes into contact with fear much sooner than he gains a comprehension of the beautiful. There are various deep complexes that control a person's life, and it doesn't matter what sort of categories – Freudian or post-Freudian ones – you use to look at them. The human brain, which is yet to be completely understood, is made up of a lot of things, and it is not necessary to separate out just one thing, label it as universal, and then force art to adhere to it.

In your work, have you ever experienced art making someone a better person?

I've always hoped for it, but I'm afraid that it doesn't work that way. An affinity for Wagner didn't make Hitler a better person. Unfortunately, terrible and deep negations can coexist with a high level of spirituality, and all in the same person. I'm afraid that art will not save the world.

In a recent public discussion, an artist was asked what sort of problems does he solve in his art; he answered that he's never had any problems that should be solved through art, and that art, like science, does not have an objective or an assignment. How would you comment on this? What is the point of art?

That was an artistic declaration. Most likely, he was deflecting away from the counter-assertion that art and science do have a point. You really don't have to look for direct significance. What's the point of proving a mathematical theorem? Will it make life any better? I'm not so sure. But indirectly, yes, it will. You'll be able to calculate the trajectory of a rocket, for example. But if the rocket is intended for bombing Syria, was there a point to proving the theorem? That's an unanswerable question. In any case, humanity has a preordained path leading to development; we can't go back. Those are the rules of the evolution of the Universe.

But still – is there a point to art?

Contemporary art does not exist without context; it is contextual and conventional. Art is dependent on the place where it was created, and on where it is located – be it an exhibition hall, a museum, or on the street. And at the same time, art is conventional – it is an agreement with the public. It is impossible to understand Malevich, no matter how much we may rejoice in the aesthetics of the black square. [Kazimir Malevich, 1878-1935. A Polish-Russian artist, scenographer, art theoretician, and originator of the suprematist movement. His famous painting, “Black Square”, was created in 1915 – I.B.] A specific convention is needed; the public must understand why it was created. One must know the historical correlations, the connections to icon painting and utopian constructs; one must have a notion of cosmism, of Fyodorov's philosophy, of Tsiolovsky. [Nikolai Fyodorov, 1828-1903; a Russian philosopher whose collection of works, “Philosophy of the Common Task”, initiated the cosmism movement in Russia. Konstantin Tsiolovsky, 1857-1935; a Russian self-taught scientist, pioneer of astronautic theory, and philosopher – I.B.] If we accept this convention, then the “Black Square” is an unbelievably radical and very important historical event. If we don't accept it, then it is simply a piece of canvas that has been painted black.

This summer, there was an exhibition in the countryside in which an artist had arranged some rocks and driftwood that she had collected at the beach. Some of the locals asked – if they had done the same thing, would they also be considered artists? How would you answer them?

Yes, that's a problem. The public often says: “I can also do that, there's no art to it.” Contemporary art legalized the fact that anybody can call themselves an artist. But then the person also has to take on the responsibility of an artist. He can do it once. It's not hard to paint a black square, but you have to have lived the life of Malevich for it to become art. Half of all people can be taught to paint a realistic watercolor, but that doesn't mean that they have become artists.

What does the responsibility of an artist consist of?

An artist wants to say something with his art, he wants to give it a point for existing, he wants to give society a message – and not just make fools of them. Yes, there are people who make fake, or phony, “art” [not to be confused with making forgeries - ed.] for money, but what can you do? Professional experts should unmask them, ignore them; but if they don't, then it lies on their conscience. Phonies, although they sometimes may be brilliant, or even shocking, don't have a message. A real artwork, at first glance, may seem simple; it may seem like a child could do it.

Children, by the way, are all geniuses, without exception. Until around nine years of age, which is when they start being schooled – then a sudden change occurs and it's the end of everything. Adults think that children only scribble, and that anyone can do that, but that's not true. Because there's a message in the drawings of children.

Must an artist be socially responsible?

Social responsibility is mandatory in artists, and this is even more true for contemporary art – that is, compared to art that is more traditionally oriented. Cultivation of just the aesthetic categories can lead to social amorality. How much, and at what level one includes social and aesthetic moments, depends on the genre. Street art, politically-oriented art and graffiti will be socially acerbic, but there can also be aesthetic versions of them, and they can exist next to each other. Once the graffiti artist Bansky arrived on the scene, Chagall didn't suddenly loose his relevance.

In the soviet era, those who cooperated with the government were called conformists. Is there concession going on in art today?

I think that there is always concession. In the various stages of art development, it can be seen either on a larger or smaller scale. Right now, concession is being very powerfully shoved upon artists; it tempts artists by way of the art market, by kitch, by fashion, by the cult of international recognition, by the society that is featured in glossy magazines and on TV. An artist without a strong backbone and strong inner conviction has a difficult time holding back against temptation. Galleries and art fairs are full of second-class, outwardly-effective contemporary art. The artists get stuck in all of this and die off. It's very hard to recreate the kind of heroics seen in the soviet era, when an artist could decline to follow the ideology and then dared to do only that which he wanted to do. You have to make a living now – support a family, etc.

If an artist knows that the state funding commission gives financial support to a specific type of art, and therefore, begins to work with this type of art, could this sort of situation lead to conformism?

In some sort of capacity, definitely. But you can't escape from it. Humans are sinners. There is no commission, no matter how democratic the judging process, that can evade each member's personal taste or influences that arise from making concessions. That's why the broader the cultural infrastructure, the better. There's one commission, but there's another one as well; there's one gallery, and on the next street, another gallery that works differently; there are several different funding foundations. Gradually, the viewer, the critic and the collector will find and select their own priorities.

Could you imagine a situation in which at the Venice Biennale, Russia's pavilion doesn't have any ethnically Russian artists – much like the situation at Germany's pavilion this year, which has switched places with France's pavilion?

Generally, I could. Division among the national pavilions is an old practice. Nowadays, many artists list on their CV's two or three countries in which they work; they could even have three passports. They don't represent a country, they represent themselves. When I was the commissar for Russia's pavilion at the Venice Biennale, I invited Georgian and Armenian artists to participate – it's a completely acceptable thing to do. Ai Wei Wei presented in France's pavilion, and Germany's pavilion presented the works of an Albanian who was born in France – that's normal practice nowadays.

But you said yourself that the place – the culture – from which an artist comes, has great meaning; it is reflected in the artist's works.

The places where he was born, educated and lived are reflected in his work. Klucis was and always will be a Latvian artist, even though Russia counts him as one of theirs; the same goes for Drēviņš. [Gustavs Klucis (b. 1895) and Aleksandrs Drēviņš (b. 1889) were both born in Latvia, and were well-known avant garde artists in Russia. In 1938 they were subjected to repressions and both were shot on February 26, 1938, at the Butovo firing range. – I.B.]

Doesn't the eradication of nationality fall under the making of concessions? Making concessions to the European Union?

Yes, I could agree with that.

You are both an artist and a curator. How are these roles divided in contemporary art? When the curator is putting together his show, is he allowed to influence the artist's creative process?

I think that he is. The artist has the prerogative of not agreeing to it; the artist can decline to participate in the exhibition. However, if the artist is of the same mind as the curator, they can form a partnership, which can then be very effective.

Sometimes artists complain that curators are too influential in the creative process.

That's true, but that is the developmental process of contemporary art. Art has become very intellectual; skill in doing the craft is no longer enough – intellectual effort is needed, and sometimes it is the curators who are cognizant of the intellectual base on a wider and deeper level. Nevertheless, the genius status of the artist is indispensable; a true artist is of the highest value.

In terms of Russian artists, one can tell by their artworks which political and social problems worry them. In getting to know the works of Latvian artists, can you tell what worries them?

I'm not that familiar with the works of Latvian artists, but I think that you don't have a heightened social orientation in art here. It could be there, but it's not as pronounced as in Russia, where, unfortunately, there is social hysteria going on. That is our sorrow, and it is based on social reality.

Leonid Bazhanov. Photo: Karlīna Vītoliņa

As a member of the jury presiding over the acquisition of works for the ABLV Bank collection of contemporary art here in Latvia, have you come upon any socially acerbic works?

No. As the commission of experts, we tend to take into account what the bank – which is oriented more towards the traditional and the aesthetic – would prefer. The remaining part of the museum's collection could then contain the more radical and acerbic works.

If you were to put together the exhibition for the ABLV Bank collection, what would you, as a curator, do differently?

I really liked the exhibition. I didn't even expect it to be as good as it was. The selection of works and their arrangement is interesting. With one exception; I, being connected to Russian art, would have chosen a different artwork in place of “The Era of Mercy”, by The Blue Noses Art Group. Although they are my friends and very well-known artists, and even though the piece is truly very effective, I'd choose artworks that wouldn't so greatly indicate the contrasts between trends in Latvian and Russian art. I liked the exhibition's low-key and confidant tonality. It is even and peaceful – it truly is a real museum exhibition.

Perhaps it is too peaceful; all of the works seemed so...

Inhibited. Yes; maybe it's simply a matter of taking that first step. The curators and organizers agreed upon the conditions, and these were the works that had to be put on view. There will be the next step to take; there will be other exhibitions, and maybe those will be more radical.

What, in your opinion, is necessary for Latvian art to become recognized internationally?

It's going to take a lot of work, and it's going to take several years. For American art to have gained the attention that in now has, extreme effort was required, and it was only the war-induced crisis in European art that helped America. France needed huge state support to open contemporary art centers around the whole country, and also to build their Pompidou Center. In Germany, there's a contemporary art museum in every city – now, that is powerful state support for art. Latvia is a good example of how the state, various business- and financial institutions, and art professionals/experts consolidated their strength to put together a collection of contemporary art. If this continues and develops, then Latvia will be in a rather respectable place.

Thank you for your time!