Boris Groys made a strong impression with his first book, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (1988)—but more so with its publication in French and English, as Staline, Œuvre d’art totale (1990) and The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), than with its German original. This belated impact undoubtedly has something to do with the larger role of English and French than of German as languages for the diffusion of discourse on art, but of course it has even more to do with the world-historical changes that had taken place in the intervening years; after the dissolution of the Soviet Union it became easier to read with equanimity a book showing Stalin as a kind of artist. And yet there is still a third reason why the book could be received differently in 1992 than in 1988: the entry of unofficial and conceptual Soviet art into the Western art system—thanks, of course, to the same processes that led to the dismantling of the ussr—but also, to a certain extent, that of Stalin-approved Socialist Realism; shortly after statues of Lenin were toppled all across Eastern Europe, exhibitions of official Soviet art began to appear in venues whose programmes normally reflect a taste for modern and postmodern avant-gardes: the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1992; the p.s.1 gallery, New York, in 1993; the Kassel Documenta Hall, in 1993.
There had occasionally been exhibitions of unofficial Soviet art in the past, primarily drawn from the collections of Westerners who had managed to smuggle it out of the country. Only around 1986 did state-approved exhibitions of it become possible. Soviet artists were quickly swept up by the Western art market and in 1988 Sotheby’s held its initial Moscow auction. Writing in 1990, on the occasion of the first major American museum exhibition of Soviet conceptual art, one of its curators, David Ross, observed that ‘Moscow in July of 1988 had a smell of land-rush fever to it, as a literal horde of American and European art dealers, collectors, journalists and carpet-baggers descended on Moscow for the auction.’ Whether this gold-rush ever amounted to a genuine reception of nonconformist art remains dubious. Certainly few of the artists whose works sold for astronomical prices twenty years ago are still considered major figures internationally. Nonetheless, an acquaintance with this art remains the best preparation for understanding Groys’s work, both in The Total Art of Stalinism and since, despite the fact that it is not the subject of that book.
That a certain art became known as unofficial or nonconformist can be misleading if it is taken to imply that its makers were ‘dissidents’ in the sense that one uses the word of writers and activists like Andrei Sakharov or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They were not primarily protesting against a despotic order. Soviet conceptual art (and literature) faced social and political realities with neither dissent nor assent, but with an uncanny neutrality that endows its best works with a disquieting air of paradox. In this neutrality—evident in such well-known paintings as Erik Bulatov’s Brezhnev in Crimea, 1981–85, or Komar & Melamid’s I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child, 1981–82 (produced after their emigration to the United States, and now in the collection of moma, New York)—it is actually closer to the mainstream of American pop art than to the conceptual art with which it shares a name. Pop, the art that drove the critics of the early 1960s to demand whether one was supposed ‘to regard our popular signboard culture with greater fondness or insight now that we have Rosenquist? Or is he exhorting us to revile it—that is, to do what has come naturally to every sane and sensitive person in this country for years?’ One can easily imagine a follower of Solzhenitsyn reacting similarly to a painting by Bulatov, just as an admirer of the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century would wonder if Bulatov means the viewer to esteem or to revile his stylistic models in the work of Socialist Realist painters of the 1920s and 1930s like Isaak Brodsky and Alexander Gerasimov. And today, as Groys points out in his new book of essays, Art Power, ‘in Russia, the former dissident culture is dismissed for still being “too Soviet”’.
It is precisely this kind of sphinx-like neutrality that Groys displayed toward ‘his’ Stalin. Asserting that ‘Stalinist poetics is the immediate heir to Constructivist poetics’ insofar as it ‘satisfied the fundamental avant-garde demand that art cease representing life and begin transforming it by means of a total aesthetic-political project’, Groys contradicted every standard interpretation of Soviet art history. Yet he was hardly, as it seemed to some readers at the time, denigrating the utopian aspirations of the Russian avant-garde any more than he was extolling the author of the Great Purge as a model artist. The effect of his argument was to undermine the Manichean legend of heroic avant-gardists defeated by dictatorial power and contest the belief, still unquestioningly asserted by textbooks today, that Socialist Realism ‘conflicted profoundly with the already existing practices of the Soviet avant-garde’ and was merely
a historically and geopolitically specific variant of the universally prevailing antimodernist tendencies of the late twenties and thirties: the rappel à l’ordre in France, Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany, Nazi painting in the Third Reich, fascist neoclassicism in Mussolini’s Italy, and the various forms of social realism in the United States.
Groys, by contrast, denied that Socialist Realism was inherently alien to the revolutionary energies of Soviet avant-garde art. Instead he argued that it took from the avant-garde a sense of the aesthetic as a total project for the formation of society.
This sense of the aesthetic was a subject of fascination for the Soviet conceptualists of the 1970s—though in the absence, in their case, of any alliance with a power offering any possibility of realizing such a project—and Groys’s work can for this reason be seen as an offshoot of theirs. It is not surprising, therefore, that the roots of his project are not in academic art history or aesthetics. Born to Russian parents in Berlin in 1947, he grew up in Leningrad and studied mathematical logic at Leningrad State University before becoming a research fellow in the Department of Structural and Applied Linguistics at Moscow State University. He emigrated to Germany in 1981 and gained a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Münster (he has since gone on to teach in Karlsruhe and New York). His connection to art was forged through a direct involvement in the underground art and literary scene, dating back to his student years in Leningrad. ‘I liked the art of Kabakov, Bulatov, Prigov and some other unofficial artists’, Groys has said, ‘and began to write about them—partly because nobody else did at that time’. To understand that Groys is as much an artist as a theorist (let alone a historian) goes some way toward explaining why the apparent faults of his intellectual style—the weakness for breathtaking generalizations immune to empirical validation, the self-contradictions he always seems to resolve by sleight of hand into shrewd paradoxes, the florid originality—have their uses: he is a straightfaced comedian, a sophist whose aim is more to jar the reader’s preconceptions than to replace them with more securely founded views.