Heroes of our time

© Mykhaylo Kamenev
Alexander Volodarsky “No Europe for you here” Performance (2010)

In his key text “Applied Social Arts” (2007), which finally appeared in Ukrainian in the first Ukrainian issue of the magazine Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), Artur Żmijewski articulates principles that appear important to understanding Ukrainian contemporary art’s relationships with other intellectual practices and society in general.

He talks about the ignorance of artists – idiot savants: about the weaknesses of theoretical education in art schools as a result of which artists don’t have the “ability to translate intuition into discursive language” (Marcin Czerwinski), and the alienation of art from other intellectual practices through its reliance on the language of images, which remains unclear to experts in other disciplines.

Żmijewski outlines the alienation of art. On the one hand, art distances itself from interfering in and creating reality out of fear of responsibility for the consequences and the shame of the legacy of art’s collaboration with totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, hiding behind veils of muteness, and, consequently, the inability to communicate with verbalized practices: politics, science, literature, etc. On the other hand, representatives of other disciplines persistently reduce art to “aesthetic proposition” to protect themselves and society from the potentially dangerous knowledge that the intuitive nature of art may hold.

Żmijewski also diagnoses a certain status quo between art and other intellectual disciplines (and society) whereby nearly everyone is satisfied by the anachronistic image of artists as “shamans, demiurges, flamboyant, slightly mad personalities, as morbid and consumed by a fever caused by some chronic malady” because it “keeps society from having any real encounter with art, but it also stops artists from assuming genuine responsibility for their actions.” [1].

And when in the context of those most affected by the hidden (so as not to say extruded) shame of art’s role in supporting the totalitarian Soviet/socialist regime there are attempts to remove art from the golden cage of the “idiot savant” by problematizing the figure and role of the artist (Alevtina Kakhidze –), imposing open debates on social themes with other disciplines (“Revolutionaly Moments”, “Judicial Experiment”), through self-education projects (“On the Floor”), direct action (“Anti-Yolka”), etc., there is a genuine reexamination of art, when, according to Żmijewski, art finally stands before the choice of freedom and indoctrination.

As soon as s/he steps out of the “golden cage”, the artist encounters a reality that had no intention of meeting him halfway. The courage to finally go beyond the designated safe role of the artist is met with no response from either the non-artistic intellectual community or society. Moreover, a move such as this usually meets resistance from the art world itself, which starts to immure the hole in the cage.

By entering a dialogue with reality and declaring his/her intentions to meddle in it in an unusual and unexpected way for society, the artist, obviously, must be ready for the fact that there won’t be dialogue for some time and that by defending not only his right to learn about this reality, to change it, to form it, to intervene in politics, to produce knowledge, and in general the right to speak s/he will have the status not of an artist, not of a shaman, not of an idiot savant - but of an ordinary person.

If there is no cage, then there is no “colored bird” with all the privileges of the security offered by the status. This is the argument for freedom.

However, in a country where freedom is a very vague and uncertain concept, often dangerous, and if you write about it in quotes and in capital letters, it can sometimes have a totally opposite meaning - being free is scary. And being an artist outside the artistic system is even scarier. The temptation then appears to build another cage – one that is not gold in principle, but reliable; the temptation to create a safe area for art that will be politically and socially opinionated, and critical of reality, but protected from the absurdity and arbitrariness of this reality. It’s a sort of mandate of immunity, a grievance over the surgeon’s white gown bypassing the license of public trust in intervention. This is the argument for indoctrination.

The reexamination of art takes place not only through of the temptation to escape from one cage into another, one less glamorous but no less closed and secure. The main factor is that the artistic manner of interaction with reality and producing new knowledge lies in the impossibility of having a detached position. An artist can only live in reality - the position of an outside observer is an illustration.

The reexamination of art is total. You can’t be a bit free. You can’t have one foot in the cage. You can’t be half indoctrinated. It’s a reexamination of responsibility. A reexamination of fear of the social and political effect of art on a society that isn’t ready and doesn’t want it, that is actively pushing art into an aesthetic coral. It’s not a matter of eliminating the fear, but accepting and articulating it, and in doing so taking responsibility for the fear and results of artistic intervention.

*
Over the past few months there have been two very important discussions in Ukraine, in my opinion, on the role and place of art in the national cultural context and society in general. Their importance lies not so much in the specific projects and figures around which these discussions continue to develop, but in how they resonate in terms of the problematic aestheticization/emancipation of art and how they reflect art’s relationships with other intellectual domains.

One discussion revolved around Lina Kostenko’s novel “Notes of a Ukrainian Madman”, the other around blogger Oleksandr Volodarsky being sent to correctional center #132 outside Kyiv (for simulating sexual intercourse outside the Ukrainian Parliament in autumn 2009 as part of a protest against the National Morality Commission).

Retelling all the twists and turns of this epic debate around the novel is a monumental and thankless task [2]. I will briefly mention only the milestones critical for understanding the discussion: after 20 years of public silence, poet Lina Kostenko, one of the great figures of Ukrainian literature, wrote her first novel. The book got much publicity and a disproportionate reaction to any other literary work (a print run of 70,000 copies, unprecedented lines outside theaters in Ukrainian cities for meetings with Lina Kostenko, sold-out events); the criticism of the novel was quite cold, at times simply scathing. After one critical discussion regarding the novel in Lviv, the poet cancelled the rest of her tour and categorically refused to come to Lviv; people in Lviv wrote a letter of repent seeking collective forgiveness from the poet….

The discussion around Kostenko is interesting for two reasons: firstly, having quickly gone beyond the literary criticism of the work, it became a discussion about the Poet (poetess, in this case) and his/her role in modern Ukrainian society. Secondly, despite the unprecedented scale of discussion for an art project, which caught the attention of all Ukrainian media, all major literary and other critics, writers, journalists, social networks, and despite the relevance of the issue being discussed – the role of the artist in modern society – in the art world the discussion around LK had virtually no resonance for visual art (which quite regularly tries to explore this in various forms and projects) – neither public (at least in terms of reposts on Facebook) nor private (in terms of private discussions and questions).

Meanwhile, the case of Volodarsky sparked the latest wave of public protests after he announced on his blog on February 28 that nearly half a year after his sentence was handed down he was being sent to a detention facility. There is also no sense in retelling the details of this story because, firstly, almost all the information is on Volodarsky’s blog, and, secondly, for the art community this is a “personal” case, experienced from within - the lion’s shares of discussions last year about Volodarsky asked “does the artist have the right”. [3]

The current round of debate is interesting not only because of the expected support of Volodarsky from the art world and indignation among wider intellectual circles over a system in which thieves drive jeeps and and artisits are driven to jails, but also how it articulates the artist’s problematic relationships with critical art and society.

*

Relationships between Ukrainian society and literature are mixed up in the romantic Eastern European legacy in which literature mostly fulfilled the role of the politician. Meanwhile, the post-1960s post-Soviet intellectual legacy carries in it a whole spectrum of respect for the poet/writer-oppositionist – from collections of small unread volumes on shelves to dropping on the knees before the mighty sprit. It’s not by chance that a poet in Ukraine is sometimes “more than a poet”.

Generations of modern Ukrainian literature – from Andrukhovych to Zhadan, from Zhadan to Karpa, from Karpa to Sofia Andrukhovych – fought long and hard with their romantic “golden cage” of public expectations, but always remained more than poets. The most popular and demanded columnists in the media today are writers, who always enter the territory of politics and have their say.

The paradox is that 20 years after choosing literary freedom, if Kostenko’s insult and the cancellation of her tour hadn’t happened, it should have been made up for the Lviv community, followed by all other concerned citizens of Ukraine, to literally or virtually fall on their knees before the mighty spirit; “to wipe the dust off their soles and put on a new soul” so as to once again be able to say that “a Poet has come to show mankind the path to deliverance from dirt and fraud, cynicism and narrow-mindedness.” But instead he (she) was offended.

And so that there is eventually a clear mechanism for constructing a modern “golden cage” – the rise of the artist into a cultural Hero that possesses all the desired values in society: opposition to the regime but impartiality in politics, integrity, ability to mobilize society for a fair, but quiet (!) battle. The Hero’s artistic activities are not very relevant and so it can’t and shouldn’t be subjected to artistic criticism. The Hero is a Poet not because he actually once was, but because the position of Poet is again vacant in society. Perhaps because society can’t identify itself with current politics so much that imaginary politics (or politics of the imagination) again move into the sphere of literature.

But all this construction and deconstruction, glorification and emancipation takes place fully in the public field, in the social reality with which Ukrainian literature worked diligently in recent years. This is a critical intellectual public dialogue, formative for social reality (even if it sometimes turns into monologue or scandal, even if society doesn’t fully realize this). This is the key case brought into the multidisciplinary field of debate. The only thing missing are visual artists.

*

Meanwhile, the key case in the artistic field again becomes that of Volodarsky.

I understand that I’m entering very unpopular and dangerous territory because in the art world not supporting the support for Volodarsky doesn’t just set a bad tone, it’s a matter of not extending a hand (if it were actually possible to not extend a hand in principle). And this is what’s most interesting about the situation with Volodarsky.

It’s no longer about whether what happened outside the Verkhovna Rada was art or not (and by and large, this was never the issue), it’s not about the absurdity and corruptness of the Ukrainian judicial system (because what’s there to talk about – it is), or even about the fairness of unfairness of his punishment.

The unanimity of support and outrage over the unjust system, and, most importantly, the absence of a critical position demonstrates the separation of territory in which subjective and political art of protest, intervening in an unjust political and social situation, tries not to fall under its unfair laws and remain untouchable. Of course any threat of falling under the control of the Ukrainian penitentiary system must be opposed as much as possible. However, does this entail artists and the subjective art world drawing a line of demarcation: on the one side is support for Volodarsky and on the other – prisons for artists (in essence, collaboration with the regime)?

With great help from Volodarsky himself, first through his personal blog and then with the help of friends, he creates a system of support for himself, from fundraising to “acts of solidarity in the form of ultimatums, if communication with me is lost for more than a day (which under conditions of “limited freedom” there shouldn’t be”) the figure of the blogger-artist victimized by the system is glorified – with all the necessary attributes: untouchability, assignment of moral purity, power to mobilize the community in honest protests, dividing the community into friends and outsiders.

*

In an interesting way, the Hero-poet and Hero-artist today coincide. Glorification is always ghettoization – the ghettoization of certain social fears, defining a specific territory with special rules. The Heroes takes these fears upon himself and symbolically overcomes them, giving hope that the community won’t have to face these same fears.

It’s also interesting how different the reaction is from various intellectual communities to the sudden actualization of the figure of the artist-hero, that we must pay attention to, when Ukrainian art today must overcome the symbolic muteness and the active bias of its reality.

Because for now, carefully opening the door of the golden cage, Ukrainian art is looking back. The cage isn’t really that golden. However, engagement in politics in this country requires great courage. To let your arms down and take a step outside means becoming like everyone else, becoming ordinary, the defendant subject to criticism not only from inside, but what’s even worse – from outside, from the environments and discourses that aren’t just critical, but that traditionally don’t understand any form of art and now also don’t understand why they should. This means that the door to the cage behind you is closing and if you want to go back in, the others will actively push you outside so as not to spread the virus. This means forcing a dialogue in which for a long time there will be no actual dialogue, and coming face-to-face with intellectual domains that don’t consider you a (worthy) opponent or colleague.

But is there another way out of the role of the “idiot savant”? Were that question even on the agenda.


Notes:

[1] Artur Żmijewski: “The next revolution will take place in virtual reality”. Political Critique: Political Drugs, No. 1, 2011.

[2] I think the following texts are important for understanding the situation - here, here, here and here.

[3] For the act of protest against the National Expert Commission for the Protection of Public Morality in the form of imitating sexual intercourse outside the Verkhovna Rada, blogger Oleksandr Volodarsky was found guilty of group hooliganism (Article 296, Paragraph 2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine) and was sentenced to a year imprisonment. Oleksandr Volodarsky plans to appeal the verdict.
In his comment in «Telekiritika» lawyer of the Institute of Mass Information Roman Holovenko said that Oleksandr Volodarsky could have been given a longer sentence: “People are imprisoned for public copulation (even up to 4 years in prison, rather than restriction of liberty), it is considered a case of group hooliganism in the commentary to the Criminal Code, and, in my opinion, there is no difference whether it was an imitation or reality.”