Boris Groys, “Art Power” (Book Review)


“The notion of art,” Boris Groys writes near the start of Art Power, “is today almost synonymous with the notion of the art market.”(Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 4.) In less dexterous hands, this argument could swiftly slip into hollow polemic. But Groys continues with something surprising: “to perceive the critique of commodification as the main or even unique goal of contemporary art is just to reaffirm the total power of the art market – even if this reaffirmation takes a form of critique.”(Groys, 5.)

This degree of dialectical irony continues to mark Groys as being unusual among the politically-minded art theorists. Ever since his first monograph, The Total Art of Stalin (1988), upset many leftist art historians by insisting on a relationship of continuity and culmination between Stalinist socialist realism and the Russian avant-gardes, against the more comforting view of perversion and break, Groys has remained consistently sensitive to the snares of ideology. “Society runs on ideology,” Althusser once observed, “like cars runs on gas.”(Régis Debray, Media Manifestos, (London: Verso, 1996), 107.) But, noted Régis Debray, “the moment comes when one is persuaded that being satisfied to pump gas has its limits, and that it’s time to go about learning mechanics and opening up the hood to take a look at how to the motor of belief really runs.”(Debray, 107.) The latter statement provides a good summary for Groys’ career as a whole.

Art Power is a volume of essays containing fifteen articles written for various venues at different times. This makes the book hard to summarize, but the key inspiration clearly comes from Walter Benjamin. No less than three of the essays in this book derive the syntax of their titles from Benjamin’s canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Groys offers “The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction,” “Art in the Age of Digitilization” and “Art in the Age of Biopolitics”). The second of these pieces also offers a characteristically iconoclastic and counter-intuitive reading of Benjamin’s much-quoted original. The concept of aura, Groys argues, in fact is not superseded by the birth of mechanical reproduction, but rather emerges at exactly the same time, in the form of its sublime excess. Reproduction and aura are not opposed, but locked together in fateful collision.

A key argument of Art Power consists in a critique of the doctrine of pluralism. Groys sees this doctrine today as hegemonic. “The first thing one learns,” he writes, “by reading the majority of texts on modern and contemporary art is this: both modern and – even to a great extent – contemporary art is radically pluralistic. This fact seems to preclude once and for all the possibility of writing on modern art as a specific phenomenon… the art theoretician seems to be condemned from the beginning to narrow his or her field of interest and to concentrate on specific art movements, schools and trends, or even better, on the work of individual artists.”(Groys, 1.) But this condition of critical impossibility itself supplies possibilities. Pluralism itself confers a general rule.

This is an ideological rule: the visitors to contemporary art museums, biennials and fairs, Groys points out, are overwhelmingly non-buyers, searching for an “idealized, curated” image of “contradictory art trends, aesthetic attitudes, and strategies of representations.” “Our allegedly post-ideological age also has its own image: the prestigious international exhibition as the image of the perfect balance of power.”(Groys, 9.)

But it is also a critical rule. Because both fundamentally pluralist, and fundamentally pluralist, contemporary art is paradoxically pluralist. Thus: “this appearance of infinite plurality is, of course, only an illusion. De facto there is only one correct interpretation that they impose on the spectator: as paradox-objects, these artworks require a perfectly paradoxical, self-contradictory reaction. Any non-paradoxical or only partially paradoxical reaction should be regarded in this case as reductive and, in fact, false.”(Groys, 3.)

The assignment provides a corrective to more widespread practices of criticism as value judgement. The paradoxical critic appreciates that they hold no transcendent position, but rather remain at ground level, involved in the same system. “[T]he desire to get rid of any image,” Groys points out, “can be realized only through a new image – the image of a critique of the image.” The critic involves themselves in making images too.

On what basis should critics undertake image-productions? Groys proposes a general approach of “art atheism.” “To practice art-atheism,” he writes, “would be to understand artworks not as incarnations, but as mere documents, illustrations or significations.”(Groys, 48.) The model hails from a Turkish Sultan in Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red: “An illustration that does not complement a story in the end, will become but a false idol,” says the Sultan, “Since we cannot possibly believe in the absent story, we will naturally begin to believe in the picture itself…. This would be no different than the worship of idols in the Kaaba that went on before Our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, had them destroyed… You do understand that, eventually, we would then unthinkingly begin worshipping any picture that is hung on the hall, don’t you?”(Groys, 48.)

For Groys as well, artworks should cease being revered as heavenly artefacts, and be regarded instead as thought-provoking props for a profane imagination. What this implies in practice is a narrative turn in the status of art. Groys sees such a turn already beginning to take place, with one of its most significant symptoms being a shift in the role of the curator. Under the contemporary reign of “equal aesthetic rights” – brought about by the death of the transcendent power of God, and His aesthetic representative on Earth, the masterpiece – the curator ceases to be a distinguished arbiter of public taste and instead becomes a kind of artist: one whose own art unfolds through the medium of other art works. “The contemporary curator is the heir apparent to the modern artist,” Groys writes. “He is an artist because he does everything artists do. But he is an artist who has lost the artist’s aura [and become] an agent of art’s profanation, its secularization, its abuse.”(Groys, 51.)

All of this offers an excellent lesson in art criticism. But, given what Groys says about the dangers of reverence, it seems fair to point out that there remains a blind spot here. The fact that Groys conducts his crusade against pluralism from the point of a frustrated discursive faculty, combined with the stress found throughout this volume on issues of spectatorship and the function of art with regards to the public, indicate two assumptions that strike me as contestable.

These assumptions intertwine in the notion of public display. “Under the conditions of modernity,” Groys writes, “an artwork can be produced and brought to the public in two ways: as a commodity or as a tool of political propaganda.”(Groys, 3-4.) Groys goes on to contend that this market model has become over-dominant, and that more art needs to be made according to the logic of propaganda. This is undeniably thought-provoking – but the deeper question remains whether art in fact needs to be brought and displayed to the public at all, as icons or documents, commodities or propaganda. Put another way; is the fate of art to be mere illustration? After spending some months thinking it over, this increasingly seems to me a Hegelian prejudice.

For Hegel, as we know, the real art was the philosophy of art: art itself was a thing of the past that demanded docking at the mothership of his Logic in order to regain its truth. Groys never mentions Hegel in this volume but he remains ultra-Hegelian throughout, both in his pattern of argument and with regard to the premises in which he anchors it.

Groys may in fact be the most brilliant Hegelian art theorist writing today. But Art Power advances a political message as well: that “art has always attempted to capture the most absolute power” and that it is on this basis that it reconnects with society. Does the Hegelian system and its matrix of nodes, mediated by the protocols of phenomenonology and sealed with a kiss from the phemenonologist himself, still provide the best means for assessing the powers of the contemporary? I think not.

It strikes me that what Groys calls for at one point in terms of “a new difference… that does not re-present any already existing visual differences”(Groys, 42.) is perhaps best seen as no longer a visual difference at all but instead as something that would stage a departure from the world of spectatorship, an exit from conceptualism and its philosophical handmaiden, and exit from the comfort-zones of intellectual capture.

If there is today an absolute power, I propose that it is best captured by the fact that the single key concept in contemporary art has become, imperceptibly, the concept of negotiation: a concept theoretically limitless in extension, yet still mostly confined to intellectual and thematic registers. This could change and produce a post-conceptual practice, in which the artist, the work, and the recipient of a work can no longer be clearly distinguished because the parties no longer fulfil the neat roles of the art world. Groys argues convincingly for a new political art practice. But political art practice has to stop being art.

Daniel Miller writes about art for Frieze and Art Monthly.

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