Stroll around Moscow, and soon enough you will come face to face with the post-Soviet avant-garde: Volkswagens emblazoned with the bold, quasi-constructivist logo of the Avant-Garde Bank, a corporate-finance outfit set up in 1994. Apparently, the legacy of Soviet modernism taps into a Muscovite social imaginary where commerce, Constructivism, finance and revolution have become entirely comfortable bedfellows. For Russia’s new business class, Pavel Mansurov’s 1920s design undoubtedly evokes a pleasing mixture of domestic cultural prestige and risk-taking audacity.
Outside Russia, the visual and rhetorical productions of the Soviet avant-garde have been invoked widely in the arena of business administration. Management texts such as Tom Peters’s Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution and Michael Hammer and James Champy’s Re-Engineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution have celebrated the transformation of the revolutionary political project into the jargon of neoliberal managerial strategy.footnote1 In their calls for organized anarchy and workplace insurrection, these writers have forged a crucial zone of corporate avant-gardism—one that surreptitiously conflates the libertarian, soixante-huitard sense of ‘revolution’ as permanent, ludic change with the ordered socialization of art propounded by Constructivism—within the global economy. As the management theorist Ève Chiapello writes, ‘Part of economic life is beginning to resemble the hitherto unique experience of the artistic sector . . . One can no longer posit the existence of an art world whose functioning would be the complete opposite of the economic world.’footnote2
Andrew Ross describes this terrain in No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs, an account of the turbulent dot.com boom and bust.footnote3 Ross tracks the fortunes of the New York internet start-up Razorfish, whose star employee is a part-time rave dj named Shel Kimen. A mid-level company manager, Kimen identifies herself as ‘an anti-corporate female from punk culture’, a ‘troublemaker’ and ‘rule breaker’. She describes her co-ordination of idiosyncratic office events as a ‘subversive form of corporate performance art’. By fostering such administrative antinomianism, Kimen’s avant-garde managerial style not only contrasts with customary images of the corporate executive, it also attempts to evoke the iconoclasm of the modernist temperament. More specifically, it calls to mind the interstitial subjectivity of the Soviet avant-gardist, forever poised between revolt and self-abnegation. As such, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s career as poet, artist, playwright and composer of advertising copy may provide a model for the activities outlined by Chiapello and Ross. Mayakovsky’s self-identification as ‘factory-worker of verse’ led him to submit willingly (sometimes enthusiastically) to the art of performance management. In poems of the 1920s such as ‘Bureaucratish’, ‘Lost in Conference’, and ‘A Factory of Bureaucrats’, the poet lampooned Soviet managers, yet he never disavowed his earlier odes to cultural administration, such as ‘Order No. 2 to the Army of Art’:
While we dawdle and quarrel
in search of fundamental answers,
all things shout:
‘Give us new forms!’
My proposal: what if we considered Mayakovsky not only as socialism’s poet-martyr, but also as an early avatar of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit? To do so might allow us to reconsider the transformations that proceed historically from industrial Taylorism, through the ‘humanized’ Skidmore, Owings & Merrill office, to the counter-cultural workspace of the go-go 1990s.footnote4 That is, what if we understood Mayakovsky’s career not only through the prism of revolutionary romanticism, but also as a prototype for the multi-tasking Organization Man (or Woman) of the twenty-first century? Perhaps Mayakovsky’s repulsion/attraction towards administration could then be reconceived as an early chapter in the last century’s contest between ‘artists and managers’—one that has been increasingly resolved by a tendency to merge, or even trade places, as the arts become more commercialized while business recuperates their discarded mythology of creative individualism.footnote5
In retrospect, perhaps it is only logical that the artists identified by Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh as the foremost representatives of the postwar ‘neo-avant-garde’ often played the roles of managers. Marcel Broodthaers’s museum-like installations, Yves Klein’s merchandising of ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’, George Maciunas’s archiving, packaging and promotion of the Fluxus brand, Andrea Fraser’s performances as roving museum contractor: all showcase the skills of the enterprising project co-ordinator.footnote6 Over the past forty years, we have increasingly seen artists act as business managers, while corporate managers have assumed the Mayakovskyan pose of the engagé artist, placing his or her energies at the service of the system.
With these observations in mind, I want to return to Russia, to the Moscow of the Khrushchev era, to the moment when ‘unofficial art’ first appeared in the ussr. Among ‘unofficial’ artists, those working outside the state system, Ilya Kabakov occupied an improbable position: he created unofficial pieces in his spare time, yet by 1965 had become a full member of the graphics section of the powerful Union of Soviet Artists. Due to this status, even following his emigration to the West in 1988, where he was hailed as a ‘dissident artist’, Kabakov shrugged off such comments, saying, ‘I was not a dissident. I did not fight with anything or anybody. The word does not apply to me.’footnote7