What Kind of Futures Artworks Open: In Conversation with Boris Groys

Back in 2016 you wrote in an essay for e-flux entitled “The Truth of Art” that “the central question to be asked about art is this one: Is art capable of being a medium of truth? This question is central to the existence and survival of art because if art cannot be a medium of truth then art is only a matter of taste.” That was published just months before Donald Trump was elected president, looking back four years later at the end of his presidency, one characterized by issues of objective truth (fake news, attacks on science, calling into question the validity of this election, etc.) how would you reflect on this question now? Where does art stand in relation to truth today? 

As I have spoken about the truth I did not mean the correspondence to the facts as criterion of truth. We experience an artwork as true when it corresponds to our desires or fears – to what we want to happen and what we have a fear of, to Utopia or Dystopia. In other words, art is always directed towards the future. And the future is not a fact.

You write in “In the Flow” about contemporary art activism that attempts to actively shape daily life, similar in a way to the historical avant-garde, but you suggest that art activists today differ from the artists of the historical avant-garde in that after the revolution those artists were not working against the status quo (the Soviet state) but instead affirming it through culture. In the context of late capitalism it seems there has been a paradox in that artists who attempt to critique capitalism must also deal with the fact that they are “brands” themselves, who are creating commodities for a market. Is revolutionary art possible in this context, or is all work possibly subject to recuperation?  

Here again it is not so important how the particular artworks function here and now but much more important what kind of future they open. The artists of the Russian avant- garde believed that their vision of the future coincides with the future that was envisioned by the Soviet political leadership. In fact, it was not quite the case – that is why since the late 1920s one could watch a growing conflict between the artists and the Soviet power.

Here it is important to see that the avant-garde artists did not merely criticize Capitalism. They wanted to define and maybe even to build the alternatives to Capitalism. One finds these attempts also now. But I do not have an impression that these strategies are or can be successful on the art market. We can speak here, for example, about the organization of communities around some specific artistic projects. But one cannot sell these communities on the art market as commodities. Of course, one can document the activities of these communities and exhibit the documentation. But one cannot speak here about production of the artworks as objects that can circulate on the market.

Another quote from “In the Flow” that really stuck with me is: “Art activists want to be useful, to change the world, to make the world a better place—but at the same time they do not want to cease being artists.” Why is this do you think? I know you can’t speak on behalf of others and there are probably wide ranging answers for this question but what do you think is the reason people want to label activism as art?

When we are speaking about a change that activism tries to bring about we mostly mean a social reform that is supposed to improve this or that aspect of the social life. Now let us imagine that this goal has been reached. The activist project was realized. Now it belongs to the past – and has no future. What remained of this project itself? Nothing.

There is a fundamental difference between political and artistic understandings of change. For the politics a change is a change of law. For an artist a change comes with placing in the world some new things that were not there before. It is a materialistic understanding of change. The world is changing because its composition is changing. People begin to live in new and different buildings, read different books, look at different images, listen to a different music. In this sense art is closer to technology than to politics. The ancient Greeks called art “techne”. 

Now art activism is an attempt to have it both ways. The possibility to do it was opened by the emergence of performance art. The documentation of the performances found its place in the art exhibition spaces and museums alongside the traditional art. Thus, if I consider my activism to be a specific version of performance I can get a real place in the future as an artist – independently of success and failure of my project of the level of the social practice.  My project will not be annulled by its results and remain accessible for the coming generations.

To borrow Peter Burger’s model, as the social role of art has changed over time from its function as 1. a cult object in sacral art, to 2. its role of serving the glory of the noble in courtly art, to 3. its role in bourgeois society as a site of self-reflection and understanding, would you say our contemporary understanding of art has been shaped by capitalism? Is the role of art separate from the role of other commodities in bourgeois society? (this is not in any way some new and original perspective but it can almost seem at times like in the age of mass media and celebrity that culture has replaced religion in our lives, what’s your take on this?)

Yes, I think that there is a basic difference between artworks and usual commodities. The usual commodities are consumed – eaten (food) or worn out (clothes, cars, houses etc.). But the artworks are not consumed. They are protected, maintained, restored. In other words they are supposed to survive our civilization – survive Capitalism. In the same way as the Egyptian pyramids survived the Egyptian civilization. Pharaohs thought that they built their pyramids for themselves – but, actually, they built them for us.

In the world after Duchamp’s Fountain in which anything can be considered art by contextualizing it as such, and in the same world in which every aspect of life could be considered political by contextualizing it as such, how do we separate the aesthetic from the ethical when making judgements? If cultural relativism teaches us that we come from a place of cultural bias and must be respectful of the validity of other cultural practices outside of our own, is a universal ethics possible? Where do we draw that line between the acknowledged subjectivity of cultural relativism and our desire for objectivity in ethics and politics? 

I do not believe in the universal ethics. But I also do not believe in relativism that respects all possible ideologies, political convictions and cultural attitudes. The world is not a peaceful place but an arena of conflicts. And we get involved into these conflicts even if we try to avoid them. So the only way is to defend what you personally believe in – and see what will come out of it.

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