Russia Round Up # 2: The Bigger Picture of Russian Art

Monday, February 16, 2015

Russia sure has some bad PR. Aside from the current Ukraine crisis, one probably associates words like Putin, corruption, the USSR, maybe the tsars, with the country.  Largely political. While Russian politics is indeed fascinating, one of Russia’s most interesting fortés is its art.
This sign (taken on my commute right outside Winzavod Contemporary Art Centre in Moscow) says "Danger Zone" in Russian (ah-pahs-nai-ya tzoh-nah) accurate description for the current state of Russian art 

I am an art/design fanatic as much as I am a Russophile, so call me biased, but Russian art is hugely underrated. I think a lot of its discredited legacy stems from both Communism's "abolition of culture" (more a recreation than an abolition) and the fact that Communism barred the West from accessing this "culture" for decades. That, in addition to recent bad publicity, does not help Russian art from being heard at a whisper. While this is not entirely true (in the upcoming paragraphs I reference western media sources), Russia has huge potential as a visually aesthetic powerhouse. Remember when it was a literary powerhouse in the 19th century? That being said, much of this talent is getting displaced from its country of origin. That's right: Russian designers, artists, curators, and most importantly, MONEY, are moving away from Russia and creating art elsewhere. This "forced displacement" is very problematic for Russian creativity.  

Russia's flailing economy is to blame for much of this. The status of the devalued ruble touches all social strata of Russian society, including the uber-rich, many of whom are patrons, tastemakers, and creators of the arts. While the economic environment of the 1990s-2010s created a powerful class of oligarchs in Russia, Russian art, design, and artistic cultivation is peaking now. The questions for tomorrow remain: What will happen to Russian art? More concernedly, what will happen to Russia?  
International Fashion Weeks are a good measure of success-fashion is a leisure-driven industry as much as it is art. Russians were absent from Fashion Week under the USSR but have grown increasingly prominent both on- and off-the-runway since the 2000s. They don't call them flashy oligarchs for nothing: Russians love decadence, opulence, in this sense, the luxury associated with capitalism. This is indeed a paradox for Russian culture. Putin's current political agenda is hurting not only the government, the people, and the land, but also the creativity. And this is even problematic for the West: by severing political ties with Russia we're severing creative ties with Russian talent. And what does creative talent produce? Goods and capital....and a market. 

The USSR never eliminated Russian style; it certainly transformed it, but art did not disappear. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians' embracement of luxury is stylized capitalism; modern Russian style harkens to tsarist aesthetics. Mixed with globalization and the Internet, Russia has become an aesthetic tastemaker. Creativity may exist independently of capitalism, but displacement is disruptive to the creative process. Like the rest of the art world, Russian art is currently immersed in capitalism; Putin's disruption of this paradigm will hurt the inner-workings of the capital-driven art market.
All of these images are from summer 2013 Russian media, back when Russian fashion was peaking & very intersectional/influential in global fashion media coverage

Fashion represents the underbelly of the leisure is as internationalized as it is market-driven. The hit to the Russian economy has hit the Russian fashion elite this year; even western media has taken some notice of this. Paris Fashion Week for the AW 2015 collection accurately gauged this. The New York Times questioned and identified the whereabouts of the usually Russian-heavy audience at the most recent Paris Fashion Week and Refinery 29 predicted the dismal future of Russian fashion. One may argue that fashion is marketing, not necessarily art. As much as fashion is an industry and a sub-genre of the overarching concept of art, it is creative. The fashion industry is founded by capitalism; does art transcend this? In today's world, NO. Capital is needed for more than just production; it is needed for time (leisure), for innovation, and for creativity. 

Dasha Zhukova, the talent behind Gorky Park's Garage Museum, was recently featured on the cover of the WSJ Style Magazine with Rem Koolhaus. The article highlighted Zhukova's energy, optimism, and vision in collaborating with Rem for building the museum. Not to mention how sophisticated, worldly, and international she is. What will happen to tastemakers like Zhukova? Russia's artistic future does not look so bright at the moment. 
Having interned at a contemporary art institution in Moscow (Winzavod, pictured above), this issue hits close to home. I don't doubt that Russians will cease to produce great art, but today's situation is very unique. In today's transient and globalized world, what will happen to Russian art if it is created, exported, and incubated outside of its borders? Does this redefine the images that the rest of the world associates with Russia? What about what Russia  conceives of its own art- is true Russian art merely propaganda and/or historical art? If art is borne outside of Russian borders from globalized concepts, is it truly Russian? Is Russian culture exempt from globalization? If everything is globalized, where does the Russian government, the art world, and public opinion draw the line? 
xo  SFB