Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Some Notes On the Experimental Marxist Exhibition

In the emerging canon of modern exhibition history, the Soviet contribution is usually represented by a sequence of elegant and innovative installations designed by El Lissitsky. In the Proun Room (Berlin, 1923) all six walls of the museum’s cube are activated to create “a way station between painting and architecture.” In the "Abstract Cabinet" (Hanover and Dresden1927-8) the viewer’s experience of the paintings on display is expanded three-fold by a wall of louvers that flicker from black to gray to white as the viewer walks past. And in the Pressa installation (the Soviet pavilion at the International Exhibition of Newspaper and Book Publishing in Cologne, 1928), a mural sized photomontage creates visual dynamism through the juxtaposition of the various camera angles and positions.1
But early Soviet museum policy was more diverse than Lissitsky’s transformative modernism, which in any case was more effective as an export commodity than a model for domestic consumption in the world’s first socialist society. During the 1920s, when cultural pluralism was still possible in the Soviet Union, one of the most successful alternatives to the avant-garde’s expanded white cube was the “museum of daily life” (bytovoi muzei), which placed works of art “in the setting that is most natural to them and most suited to their display”2 —religious art would be kept in the monastery-museum, the culture of the aristocracy in the palace-museum, and so on. (If this ideal of art preserved in its natural habitat smacks of Colonial Williamsburg, it also encompasses such terrains as Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Sigmund Freud Museum in London, both uniquely preserved archaeological sites.)
The brief extract from A. Fedorov-Davydov’s The Soviet Art Museum (1933) published here describes yet another alternative, the “experimental Marxist exhibition” that briefly dominated Soviet museum policy between 1929 and 1932. A largely forced response to the demand for a more politically literate population that accompanied the massive industrialization of the First Five Year Plan, the Marxist museum was designed to be in every respect the dialectical opposite of the bourgeois West’s “temple of art.” If capitalism maintained the status quo by preserving a strict hierarchy of the arts, proclaiming the cult of universal beauty, fetishizing the object, and equating aesthetic worth with market value, the Marxist museum must do the opposite. To reveal the social, economic, and political realities hidden beneath the myth of art’s universality, confrontations must be engineered, tensions unmasked, and artificial barriers removed. The history of art as a series of great individuals (“dead white men”) must give way to the history of art as a reflection of class struggle. The science of Marxist display must reveal, not self-sufficient and static objects, but the dynamic social processes of which they were part.

Fig. 1 - "French Art from the Era of the Decline of Feudalism and the Bourgeois Revolution." Installation at the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, 1931

What makes the Marxist exhibition of particular interest to museum history—and to contemporary art practice—is not its “vulgar socialism” (it was very soon rejected in favor of less strident and more conventional models) but its recognition of context and relationships as the principle source of meaning in the museum. Lissitsky’s attempts to activate the viewer by expanding and transforming the space of the gallery worked on the level of individual sensory experience. The Marxist installation was designed to fill that space with a pervasive awareness of the sociological conflicts underlying all art history, combining diverse artifacts—from “high” to “low” culture—to reveal relationships otherwise hidden. To function effectively, it had to take the form of an ensemble (kompleks), a carefully engineered environment in which painting, decorative art, mass media, text, photography, and architecture came together in a synthetic portrait of a particular class.
A strong resemblance can easily be seen between these early experiments and the work of a number of late 20th-century installation artists. Two examples come to mind. The first relates to the Hermitage Museum’s 1931 exhibition “French Art from the Era of the Decline of Feudalism and the Bourgeois Revolution.” [fig. 1] At the entrance to the exhibition the curator situates the viewer between the social extremes of the late Middle Ages. A mural-sized peasant tilling the soil (enlarged from a manuscript in the Department of Rare Books) is pitted against a mounted knight in full armor (from the Department of Weapons and Armor). Didactic wall texts—a major innovation of the new departments of political education—push home the broad ideological message implicit in the images.
Hans Haacke’s "Oelgemaelde. Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers," first shown at Documenta 7 in 1982, mobilizes space to very similar ends. Confronting each other across the gallery are a small oil portrait of Ronald Reagan and a gigantic photo mural of a peace demonstration in Germany, protesting the President’s lobbying for deployment of American missiles on German soil. The simple dialectic of might against right, of war and peace, is twice invoked: through the battleground layout of the images and through the choice of medium—for Reagan the oil painting, symbol of privilege, for the nameless crowd photography, which early Soviet culture had earmarked as the medium of the common man.

Fig. 2 - "Art of the Court Aristocracy in the Mid-Eighteenth Century." Installation at the State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, 1930.

A second example turns on the way in which the materials of art provide a vehicle for unmasking the ideological position of a repressive ruling elite. The experimental exhibition “Art of the Court Aristocracy in the Mid-Eighteenth Century," shown at Moscow’s State Tretiakov Gallery in 1930, was a meager sampling of those artifacts that exemplified the class profile of the nobility. The shabby and makeshift result, the lack of dignity with which the assorted paintings, porcelain figurines, clocks, and cabriolet tables are treated, as if they are lots at an auction or the flotsam and jetsam of a second-hand store, is extraordinarily effective in destroying any latent glamour they might possess for the viewer.
The same strategy is used in reverse in the too-literal obedience to the conventional museum’s classification systems that Fred Wilson practiced in his “Mining the Museum” re-installation at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. The jarring presence of a slave’s shackle in a display case of silver vessels, under the pretext that all are classified by the museum as metalwork, is a device that the new generation of Marxist museum educator would have understood and approved. In Fedorov-Davydov’s words, “Peasant painting does not cease to be painting just because it decorates the base of distaffs rather than pictures.”
With its combative, dialectic, revisionist, and leveling strategies for unmasking the true nature of reality and art’s sociologically determined meanings, the experimental Marxist exhibition can be seen as the prototype for one of the dominant forms of post-modernist art—the ideologically engaged installation in which individual objects are always subservient to the ensemble they create. Whether the truth to be revealed involves issues of class, race, gender, or sexuality, the position of the artist-curator-designer is that of social reformer and educator. It is not coincidental that the profession of the museum educator, interpreting and explaining the social history of art for the public, should have been pioneered in the Soviet Union as an integral part of the Marxist museum. Young museum professionals of Fedorov-Davydov’s generation drew a clear line between the curators of the permanent collection—almost all “bourgeois intellectuals” trained under the Old Regime—and the new, ideologically savvy educators, with their wall labels, gallery tours, mixing of high and low culture, and general disrespect for the aesthetic values of the traditional museum.

Fig. 3 - "Art of the Industrial Bougeoisie." Installation at the State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, 1931.

Still, such comparisons with contemporary artists in the West are facile and misleading in one crucial respect. The Marxist method of museum display—and its intrinsic message of ideological struggle—must have a very different meaning for the viewer, depending on whether he lives in a capitalist or a socialist society. In “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” written in 1937 before the mystique of the Soviet Union had been entirely compromised by Stalinism, Clement Greenberg evoked the grass-is-greener yearning of the radicalized American intellectual trapped in the nightmare of capitalism and alienated from a proletariat that confused art with kitsch. The discontents of the avant-garde artist living under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat were more fundamental and less academic. In “Art of the Industrial Bourgeoisie,” an exhibition curated by Fedorov-Davydov for the Tretiakov Gallery in 1932, the museum functioned as a wall of shame or pillory where contemporary artists were held up to public ridicule and censure. On one wall examples of Suprematism and Abstraction are corralled by strips of quasi-Constructivist text that read “Bourgeois art in a blind alley of formalism and self-negation” (fig. 3) The similarity of this display to those of the Nazi regime’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937 shows better than anything else the perils of the experimental Marxist exhibition.
Problematic in a different way is the application of the Marxist exhibition’s gimmicks without any of its convictions or sense of purpose. The need to reveal a higher truth or unmask a bankrupt one has been the motivating factor behind sociology’s domination of aesthetics in much twentieth-century art. With no “greater good” to serve, the exhibition that reduces works of art to mere social manifestations exposes itself to the sort of scathing criticism that greeted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s "Made in California" exhibition in 2000. “Think of the giant flea market at the Rose Bowl, albeit sifted and sorted and endowed with pretensions,” Christopher Knight wrote of the LACMA show. “It classifies diverse and unrelated materials according to common subject matter, regardless of artistic content. Instead of dogs or food, the subject matter here is ‘California’s image’ as seen in art.” 3
This is precisely the extremism that Fedorov-Davydov cautioned his colleagues against as they dismantled the old bourgeois temples of art. “An ensemble for its own sake, the simple mechanical combination in one place of all the branches of art without dividing them into primary and secondary, turns the museum’s galleries into an antique shop,” he writes in The Soviet Art Museum. Intended or not, the zeal with which shows like "Made in California" expand art’s cultural context at the expense of the art itself recalls those early experimental displays at the Tretiakov Gallery when exposing the universal class struggle was the only game in town. Such an irony would not have been lost on the political education departments of the Tretiakov or the Hermitage. The inability to distinguish avant garde art from kitsch could legitimately be seen as the ultimate fate of bourgeois society under late capitalism.

Text by Wendy Salmond

1. This sequence is paraphrased from Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography,” October, 30 (1984), pp. 82-119.
2. Boris Shaposhnikov, “The Museum as a Work of Art,” Experiment, 3(1997), p. 233.
3. Christopher Knight, “Thematically Overwrought ‘Made in California’,” Los Angeles Times, 23 October 2000.
Wendy Salmond is Associate Professor of Art History at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is currently writing on the transformation of the Russian icon from cult object to work of art in the 1920s.

Source: X-Tra, Volume 5, Issue 1