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Why should this be art?

Sandra Frimmel

I Hate the Avant-garde
A closer examination of a painting

Translated by Michael Turnbull

Published: 08.09.2019


I Hate the Avant-Garde. When an artist as self-ironic and self-reflective as Yuri Albert makes such a statement about art, then skepticism is called for. Like his overall series Elitist-Democratic Art, the title deliberately plays with simple affirmations and negations, and at the same time exhibits the inherent receptive dilemma of the series: a (large) part of the artistically trained viewers see these shorthand works as abstract forms, without understanding the text, and only the few who can read (Russian) shorthand perceive a text, which for them doesn’t necessarily have to be art. I Hate the Avant-Garde was created in 2017, after a sketch made in 1987 in reaction to a changed situation in the reception of nonconformist art. With the beginning of perestroika, unofficial art that had hitherto been excluded from the state-run art scene—that is, from the official infrastructure of museums and exhibition spaces, and from art scholarship and criticism—was suddenly shown in larger, publicly accessible exhibitions. Viewers who for decades had been used to socialist realism were now confronted with an art that was difficult to recognize as such and that they first had to learn to read. They said to the artists: “‘We don’t understand this. Why should this be art?’ Only a very small circle of insiders didn’t ask such questions,” is how Yuri Albert describes the situation. He continues:

“The questions don’t reflect my own opinion. They echo the opinions of possible viewers about what they see or would like to see in an exhibition. At the time, the unprepared Soviet viewer was confronted with a rush of modernism and postmodernism, avant-garde and neo-avant-garde, confirmation and confutation. Instead of a gradual increase in awareness, the viewer was given a mixed bag of everything. People discussed things that in other countries had long been settled: for example, whether an artist had to be able to paint and draw, whether abstract art is really art, whether Kazimir Malevich was a fraud, and so on. For the Soviet viewer at the time, and for the artists, everything came all at once. It was simultaneously new, and everything was avant-garde. This is why the sentence ‘I hate the avant-garde’ is very ambivalent.

“What does it mean? Perhaps it stands for an evaluation of the post-revolutionary avant-garde as totalitarian Bolshevik art, then a widespread view among anti-Soviet nonconformist artists. Perhaps it’s an expression of the dissatisfaction of the ‘ordinary viewer,’ because of the artists trying to fob them off with this incomprehensible art instead of the familiar landscapes and portraits. Perhaps it stands for the hostile attitude of experienced artists to the naive belief in the ‘new’ and ‘progressive.’ Perhaps I didn’t think up this sentence myself; perhaps it was the stenographer who wrote it down for me.

“And is the painting itself—this imitation of abstract painting—avant-gardist or conservative? The viewer should choose and decide, provided he can read shorthand. Anyway, they say avant-garde artworks should be incomprehensible.”

Perhaps the sentence “I hate the avant-garde” says more about the wounded vanity of the Moscow conceptualist Yuri Albert, whose elite genre of nonconformist art, restricted in the Soviet Union to an unchanging circle of viewers, critics, art historians, and curators, begrudges the existence—even for only 15 years—of the post-revolutionary avant-garde as democratic state-sanctioned art.

For Albert this very doubt is the driving force of contemporary art. It’s what keeps the discussion about art going, as a kind of perpetuum mobile, and therefore also drives its visual thinking. The question of the artificiality of art becomes an artwork in itself: “When a work, an action or anything else evokes doubt and discussion in the viewer, whether about art or not—then it’s undoubtedly art.”

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Sandra Frimmel

Sandra Frimmel

is an art historian and the research coordinator of the Centre for Arts and Cultural Theory (ZKK) at the University of Zurich. Research interests: Russian art, art and power/law/society.
Other texts by Sandra Frimmel for DIAPHANES