Just don’t think about it

Benjamin Kunkel

  • Introduction to Antiphilosophy by Boris Groys
    Verso, 248 pp, £16.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 84467 756 6

Marxism has thrived as a way of thinking about art and literature, especially at times – the 1920s or the 1990s – when Marxist economic and political thinking has gone into retreat. The headwaters of the stream lie in The German Ideology (1846), where it seems an oversight that Marx and Engels don’t name art and literature, as they do religion, metaphysics and morality, as ‘forms of consciousness’ to be stripped of their ‘semblance of independence’. A historical materialist aesthetics sees in art the distorted reflection of social relations past, present and emerging. The result has often been a somewhat paradoxical model of art-making, in which the deliberate creations of the artist passively transmit unsuspected historical meaning. So in a middlebrow survey like Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art (1951), Balzac could appear, in spite of his titanic energies and avowed royalism, as a cat’s-paw of historical progress, ‘a revolutionary writer without wanting to be’, whose ‘real sympathies make him an ally of rebels and nihilists’. And the Marxist emphasis on the basic passivity of the artist, as a sort of crossroads of historical traffic, could be greatest where the account of art was subtlest, as in Adorno.

A broadly historical materialist approach has united so many interesting critics of the past hundred years that its fruitfulness for considering art produced under capitalism can’t be denied. It has been less clear to what extent socialist theories of art could also serve as theories of socialist art. In practice, discussions of work by radicals in capitalist societies or by cultural revolutionaries in socialist ones have succumbed too easily to the idealism that historical materialism sought to overturn, as if the conscious politics of an Eisenstein, a Brecht or a Paul Robeson could secure the meaning and effect of his art. Critics have been more bleakly faithful both to materialist philosophy and to any future class-free utopia when they have considered all would-be revolutionary art as itself marked by the contradictions of class society (including socialism, which in classical Marxism is not the absence of social classes but the process of their dissolution). The Marxist critic might therefore prefer ostensibly apolitical work in which these contradictions rage untreated.

Adorno held a position like this. His posthumous Aesthetic Theory (1970) can be taken as the summit, with a corresponding barrenness and magnificence, of a Marxist aesthetics stressing the artist’s receptivity rather than activism. Far from imagining a revolutionary popular art, as Brecht and Walter Benjamin had in different ways done in the 1930s, Adorno elaborated an aesthetics of suffering, in the senses both of passivity and pain: ‘Authentic works are those that surrender themselves to the historical substance of the age without reservation’; for the audience, ‘specifically aesthetic experience’ requires ‘self-abandonment to artworks’. As for the substance of history disclosed by true art, it is little short of agony. Adorno meant to dedicate Aesthetic Theory to Beckett, and the few other modernists he singles out for praise (Kafka, Schoenberg and Celan among them) give off some of the same feeling of emotional irremediability and formal intransigence. Nor did Adorno craft a waiver for artists in self-described socialist societies, which were simply another department of ‘administered life’. East or West, all but a handful of artworks supplied only another dose of compliance and regimentation.

Adorno is worth keeping in mind while reading Boris Groys, who is one of the more interesting philosophical – he would say antiphilosophical – writers on art today. Groys never discusses Adorno, a striking omission in light of his temper and range: Introduction to Antiphilosophy, Groys’s latest book in English, contains essays on Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Kojève, Derrida and Benjamin; and Groys, like Adorno, possesses firm if abstract radical commitments and is a writer of relentlessly dialectical sentences in German. Otherwise they represent two poles of radical aesthetics. Adorno’s approach was historical materialist or Marxist yet anti-communist (at least where official Communist parties were concerned). Groys is more idealist in his belief that the radical artist can consciously understand and deliberately convey the meaning of his work – one reason, perhaps, why he has said he isn’t a Marxist – and yet more philo-communist. His recent Communist Postscript (2010) joins the efforts of other contemporary thinkers, notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, to revive communism as a slogan of the left.

The differences go further. Where Adorno insisted on the artist’s deep passivity and independence from politics, Groys declares the artistic impulse identical to the will to power and advocates an ‘art functioning as political propaganda’. And where Adorno’s stringent conception of true art narrowed modern instances down to a few forbidding exempla, Groys’s idea of art is extraordinarily expansive: he is especially attracted to art projects that efface the boundary between art and life, and has a puckish admiration for the ‘life-building’ efforts of Soviet art.

Few later writers have shared Adorno’s anhedonia or snobbish tastes; today, leftist critics are happy to discuss the political symptomatology of Hollywood blockbusters or the shellacked sexuality of pop divas. But a sense that the interest of art derives above all from its unconscious embodiment of history is widespread among academic critics, most of whom share with the general public an aversion to expressly political work. As for work by artists with obvious progressive allegiances, the usual approach is to congratulate it for raising political questions but to fight shy of definite answers. In Art Power (2008), Groys mocks the solemn ideological vagueness of so many academic essays, exhibition catalogues and wall captions: ‘The work is “charged with tension”, “critical” (without any indication of how or why); the artist “deconstructs social codes”, “puts our habitual way of seeing into question”.’ Such language resembles a debased form of Adorno’s aesthetics: art exposes the contradictions of capitalism but leaves them to future history to work out. Apparently a summons to politics, it is in effect an evasion. Frustration with the political nugacity of the progressive-minded art world is the background to Groys’s strenuous emphasis on the ‘direct connection between the will to power and the artistic will’. At the heart of his work is a desire for contemporary art and criticism somehow to give up the autonomy of the royal fool – whose expressive freedom derives from practical superfluousness – for something more like the autonomy of the ruler, free because in command.

Born to Russian parents in Berlin in 1947, Groys grew up and was educated in Leningrad; at university he studied mathematical logic and linguistics. In 1981 he emigrated to Münster in West Germany, where he gained a PhD in philosophy. Today he teaches art theory in Karlsruhe and New York City. This unusual itinerary has been recapitulated by Groys’s intellectual trajectory and shows itself in his distinctive sensibility. After concentrating on Soviet art in The Total Art of Stalinism (1989), he has mainly written discrete essays in which he looks, with Eastern eyes, at Western art and philosophy. Art Power gathers pieces on the contemporary art world – on curating, the digitisation of imagery, ‘iconoclastic strategies in film’ and so on – together with backward glances at Nazi art and socialist realism. Introduction to Antiphilosophy discusses a dozen or so thinkers – most of them Western European, most of them unsystematic – since Kierkegaard. Only in The Communist Postscript, a short consideration of the relationship of communism to philosophy, does Groys return to the USSR, making a new case for a kind of ideally existing Stalinism. Indeed, the rare notes of romance struck in his otherwise unemotional prose are elicited by the idea (an idiosyncratic one) of the communism he knew in his youth, and by the Muscovite sots (the name a disrespectfully ambiguous allusion to socialist realism) and conceptual art scene of the 1970s and 1980s with which he was connected. His continual making and unmaking of conceptual unities and oppositions belongs to a German dialectical tradition. Yet there is no Hegelian (or Adornian) heaviness in someone who can write: ‘And so, the answer to the question: “How should we conceive the apocalypse?” has to be: “Just don’t think about it!”’

Groys’s many provocative formulations smack of an international art scene, centred on New York, in which flippancy and militancy can be hard to distinguish. The big question is how seriously he means to be taken, and how seriously he can be taken. The publication of The Communist Postscript as a little red book in Verso’s ‘Pocket Communism’ series is enough to suggest that Groys’s tonal fluttering between clever complacency and forthright provocation, joke and dare, is shared with others on today’s left.

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[*] I Live I See: Selected Poems by Vsevolod Nekrasov (Ugly Duckling, 576 pp., June, 978 1 933254 98 2).