7Lecture15 min

Marat Guelman: “Art without competition is nonsense”

Art and market, cultural policy and artistic provocation

Experts: Marat Guelman

Text expansion for the Lecture

Marat Guelman: “Art without competition is nonsense”

Art and market, cultural policy and artistic provocation

01:16 — 02:01 How did the market influence 1990s art?

I must say that a lot of work was done, mainly in tearing down, not building up. You can't say there was nothing, there was something, but it was the Soviet system, the art funding then. It was a massive apparatus.

It’s may be the only case where the market can be said to play a positive role. Art outside of competition is nonsense. That entire system was meant to kill competition. In our country the Artists’ Union has 87,000 members. Yet that number won’t go down in art history. Only 50 will go down in art history. So, there should be some means of competition to filter these artists. Yet there wasn’t one. On the contrary, there was the socialist system.

It was three small galleries that did it. Me, Aidan, and Regina shattered that massive machine. Every artist dreamed of getting into these small galleries, but being a member of the huge Artists’ Union meant nothing. The market immediately gave different prices, appraisals, and a chance to go down in history.

We idealized the market. I wrote texts then, an ideal model for the USSR art market. That was still before ’91. We thought everything would be regulated, there was an ideal mechanism. It wasn’t just us. We were sort of agents of this new market, everything collapsed because of that.

02:01 — 04:49 Why did 1990s art seem so radical?

The art community must have its radicals. They may be only 2–5% of all artists, but they really make the community a community. They criticize the community and work for it.

Take three artists: Kulik, Brener, Osmolovsky. It’s interesting how they had three different strategies in relating to the artistic community. Osmolovsky was a patriarch: he felt he was already inside the community, he fought for leadership within it. Oleg Kulik sought to push the boundaries, to break the community open. “You think this art isn’t art, but I do things differently.” Brener simply rejected the community. Those were the three strategies. They proved to be very beneficial to the artistic community, and to the painters themselves, those analytical artists. It is important to have such artists on the edge. They don’t let things ossify.

If we jump ahead a bit: when rallies were held on Bolotnaya Square, the artistic community had ossified. It had settled into relationship with firms, with museums. It was doing great. Then, it suddenly seemed society was more avant-garde than art. Russia’s a country where art, if it isn’t avant-garde, is useless. Art as a decorative element, like in France, cannot exist in Russia.

Take the great formal discoveries of the ’90s. They came from being continually attacked from within. It was a positive attack. An attack that made things move forward. I would make a fat deal with Sberbank. There were such, e.g. we make modern art at all the large offices, etc. But later they’d read I had been at Red Square with Brener and wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I’m very worried. It’s a big deal that could be ruined. Sometime later, I realize that it was right. Say I make an agreement with another bank. I invite their experts over to choose art. I show them the art, talk about the artists. The only thing they ask is, “Can this be wiped with a cloth?”

04:49 — 08:21 What institutions did you manage to build?

Initially we thought all we saw in the West was eternal. That it was a standard. We actively studied it.

I had a few... rather whimsical ideas. One was that there are social classes of anticipatory consumption. That’s how the system was. In Russia there was no market, because there weren’t public collectors. It happens that some museum in Karakas was buying Koshlyakovs. For 10 years, people came from Karakas wanting Koshlyakov’s work in their collection. That is, they have the very model of a collector.

But among us it used to all be secret. In the USSR collectors were disreputable. If you look at collectors in Soviet films overall, it was a negative character. So, even those Russians who collected, hid the collections. We couldn’t launch that mechanism. Then, I thought I should become one myself. Me and my comrades started to actively buy art.

I was never a businessman. I didn’t buy for profit. I wanted to support artists or launch that mechanism where people would see that Marat bought himself a work… Somehow, collectors’ reputations would be restored. I considered that a huge plus.

The second thing was working with museums. I gave the Russian museum 50 works from my own collection. I think it was an important step to take, not only for me but our artistic life in general. The modern department got 50 works from Ludwig at the same time, so they decided to found a modern art museum. This movement maybe came later than other countries, but I think it was a very exuberant one.

We didn’t manage to create a culture, where collecting went beyond museums and became an ordinary thing. My gallery partner did a study of collectors in 2007. She found that of collectors before 2005, 80% already lived abroad. So, the ones who could do this left, and the new rich are state officials. They are more focused on a backup: antiques, gold, houses hidden somewhere. They try to hide it. Modern art is something interesting when it can speak about you. This is my collection, and you can know something about me through it.

08:21 — 10:29 Why were you involved in politics in the mid ’90s?

In 1994 Gleb Pavlovsky and I started the Effective Politics Foundation. I had just one idea then: as a person, I would try to prove the power of art. Politics back then was so alien to me. I just wanted to say, “Art exists. Art provides strategic experience. Art provides expression.” There was a desire to show that art really is important, that newspapers should move it from page 16 to 3, etc. So, I didn’t get involved in politics.

Until a certain moment came. It was 1996, so the time of Yeltsin and Zyuganov. I think it the biggest mistake by me, my colleagues, all of us. We thought efforts could be made to prevent Communism’s return, that the press could be manipulated for that, it was OK to create a bankers’ lobby and turn a blind eye to rigged elections. We could do anything, because Communism was such a threat. It seemed like democracy was a procedure. If under the democratic procedure, free elections, a Communist is elected president, that’s better than the other way around, because there’s no leader who wouldn’t want to take further advantage of it. Take Yeltsin, who looked at us grateful that we’d win the election for him, and later, if the media could be manipulated like that, instead of fighting it, then let’s carry on like that.

10:29 — 14:43 What do you think of Russia’s cultural policy at present?

It is two different notions: art policy and cultural policy. Cultural policy is working with mechanisms, but art policy is about ideologists. There should initially be an art policy for every artistic institution. Any single institution should have its own.

If Medinsky were the Soviet Army Theatre head, and the Soviet Army Theatre had that policy, I think it would benefit that theatre. That theatre would be more impressive, it could really do something. It could make fewer compromises, be more open.

An official should not stand in the position of an artist. That’s a trap. If some artist says, “Russia is not Europe”, I care. Let him develop that idea. Or the other way around: Russia is Europe. If an official says that, then I understand this is not a full spectrum. It’s an organization, a fragment.

Today culture is a field of growth, including the economy, and so on and so forth. Instead of talking about serious things... We have problems with Russia’s industry, and this might be a unique resource for development. But instead we are engaged in ideological battles.

Finally, I must say that those cultural policies do really exist. They are undeclared, and they differ. For example, the Ministry of Culture has one cultural policy: departmentalization. It’s seeing culture as various departments under you, and running them like a Ford factory: this part here, that part there, etc.

There’s the Duma’s cultural policy, one much stronger than the Ministry of Culture’s. It thinks artists delinquents who must be outlawed: you aren’t allowed to do that, you can’t go there, fines, imprisonment. It is a strong cultural policy of repression.

The Church has it’s cultural policy: everything from the past is good, everything today is bad. Even Stalin can be good. Anything can be good if it existed in the past. It’s canonizing the past, disparaging the present. It’s an open cultural policy.

Finally, the Presidential Administration’s cultural policy which overall considers art to be the opposition. It would be better to have no art at all. But if there is art, hurdles must be put in its way. It has to be fought just like the opposition.

All these cultural policies exist together. They coexist, etc. The main harm is not that they’re wrong. It’s that due to them, the right things don’t get done. Take this new cultural policy linked to the fact that Saint-Petersburg lives by tourism. Tourists come to Saint-Petersburg for two reasons. For many reasons, but two main ones: the Russian Museum and the Hermitage.

You just think about that. You must realize that economy functions completely differently nowadays, and cultural instruments function differently as well. Really, we don’t talk about whether there are naked statues in the Hermitage, but about how to improve the economy. The Ministry of Culture ought to think about that.

The problem is, none of them there think about it.