This weekend I went to Moscow’s Central House of Artists, which is a huge building stuffed with dozens of shows of contemporary painters and sculptors. It was a sad experience, except for one sculptor (not, actually, young) about whom I’ll write next week, after I talk to him this Friday.
I never stop looking for new talent among young (below 35?) Russian artists, but the more the country is descending into a soft multi-religious tyranny, the less interesting its art tends to become. Young artists don’t want to stand out, except for Pavlensky whose work is impossible to collect, because it’s mostly about mutilating his own body, which, for better or worse, is soon going to be tucked away into one of the famously comfy Russian prisons anyway.
I am sure you are aware of Pavlensky’s latest performance when he set the main door of the FSB (former KGB) building on fire and stood in front of it until arrested. With all the media buzz it generated it appears as a powerful political statement, but… It’s a protest against a symptom of a disease, not the disease’s cause. It is a pity the FSB won’t be auctioning the door, even though they could get enough money for it to refit the whole building.
I had hoped that as the freedom of loud speech was getting restricted (because anyone can still whisper on Twitter or Facebook as much as they want), creativity would boil up to the surface. I expected that as Russia gravitates towards the Chinese level of freedom, a Russian Ai Weiwei will pop up. It doesn’t seem to be happening now, and I ask myself, why?
Quiet dissent is not banned in Russia (it is true that loud critics of the government or its policies risk a lot, including their freedom), and atheists are not branded terrorists like in Saudi Arabia so where are those clever artworks that would be delivering a subtle punch at society’s ills and pains?
Why does no one want to stand out? Come on, it is universally acknowledged that it is good to be a black sheep in a white community (no racial references here), a green apple in basket of red ones, or a urinal among works of classic art.
There are two answers to this question.
Some young artists believe it’s great to stand out, unless you are not crouching in a trench under fire, which is how they see the state of the arts in Russia nowadays, metaphorically.
You may say this is cowardice, but I say it is all about the habit.
Great works of art, rich in metaphor and deep in meaning, do not appear in tightly controlled societies on day one. It takes some time for artists to get used to the trench, so that their initial fear is replaced by a dream to get out of the ditch some day. Living in the trench must become a dull habit first. Then, as the dream grows and becomes stronger than fear, they start being creative.
Other young artists say standing out is great, of course, but obsequious crouching offers immediate benefits like participation in state-sponsored shows, sales to local rich customers, and getting on boards and panels of a variety of art groups, societies or events. They say they know they will not secure a place in art history by playing conformist, but putting bread on the table today is a far more attractive option than having their own bronze statue opened posthumously.
The good thing is that I don’t believe a great artist can remain a conformist for long, because creativity can rarely exist without ambition. Sooner or later creativity either dies out or takes over conformity.
So, my question is, how many more years I have to wait until creativity takes over acquiescence or crouching in the trenches grows into a nasty habit!?