#10 PoSo/PoMo

(Post) Socialist Postmodernism / Sots Art / Soviet Pop!

Kosolapov, Venus (1984)

With the help of our presenter, Jonathan, we’re going to approach this class on sots-art and the late-Soviet avant-garde as we did our meeting on the Russian avant-garde of the revolutionary period–by reading a few explanatory/theoretical texts together (Epstein, Tupitsyn and Komar & Melamid), and then focusing on a few artists in the following pairs or trios:

Jonathan, Kevin and LucSokov and the duo Komar and Melamid. (Their post-Soviet “Most Wanted” series is of special interest to this class.)

Maddie and KatherineKosolapov (see Groys article), The Blue Noses Group, and Yuri Albert (check out his early and recent explorations of art and disability).

Dan and AbbyKabakov (see Boym), Sergei Mironenko and Bulatov

Erica, Kyler and ParkerMamyshev-Monroe/Hitler (see videos), Dubossarsky-Vinogradov and Boris Mikhailov

You will find many of these artists and others from their late-Soviet cohorts on the websites for the Tsukhanov Collection and the Saatchi Gallery.

Jonathan’s Post

Ok, so we’ve named-dropped Hegel a few times in class, and with good reason. His dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) was totally drilled into my head in high school, and it for a while, it seemed to do a good job describing the bouncing around of ideas we’ve talked about, their tendency to reject and define themselves by what they are not. Postmodernism tries its best to stop the dialectic, finally, once and for all. Postmodernism supposedly encompasses everything in the name of pluralism. It values diversity and tries its best to prevent a “dominant” culture from blanketing those who feel and think otherwise. Dominant culture is meant to be deconstructed and thought about skeptically.

It turns out stopping the dialectic is a lot harder than it looks, and so postmodernism failed, and therefore can be placed in the dialectic along a “pluralistic landscape” as Epstein calls it, of other movements. Postmodernism is the antithesis to modernism’s thesis, and therefore rejects a lot of the ideals associated with modernism including individuality. Although the first half of the term itself would suggest otherwise, postmodernism seems to look backwards, and return to something that in a way, is premodern. “The modernist myth of originality was replaced by the myth of returning origins” Tupitsyn 148

There are parallels to be drawn between post-modernism and the preceding period of socialist realism and communism. Epstein uses the phrase “militant eclecticism” to describe the transition to post modernism, and while this sounds sort of funny, socialist realism, with its vow to be socialist in content nationalist in form, also seems to utilize this eclecticism.

But what about Sots art? The supposed antithesis of socialist realism that emerged during the USSR’s twilight?

The Sots artists concerned themselves with what Tupitsyn describes as the “metaphysics of presence” of socialist realism. They aimed to deconstruct a dominant culture, without destroying it completely. The postmodernists employed a lot of the same techniques as socialist realism, perhaps without even knowing it. Sots Art seemed to work within the framework of Socialist Realism and thus ended up mirroring socialism more than it perhaps wanted to.

“While socialist realism is communism at the moment of its break with its modernist past, sots art is communism at the moment of its recognition of its postmodern future” Epstein 27


Was the “failure” of Sots art really a failure? Can American pop art be seen to fail in the same way?

Does postmodernism feel like “an end” to anything? A resurgence of something?


10 thoughts on “#10 PoSo/PoMo

  1. Yes, the image was meant to wink at you, Katherine! I’m so glad you’re enjoying Kosolapov and company. Stay tuned for the official reading for Tuesday’s class.

  2. In our previous readings about Nazism and kitsch, the role of nostalgia in harkening back to a “better day” or more perfect time is somewhat straightforward. I am a bit more perplexed by the role of nostalgia in Soviet kitsch, since communism so adamantly points to the future. What collective mental shifts occurred between the era of socialist realism and the development of socialist postmodernist and pop art to allow Russians to look backwards, and not only towards a bright socialist future?

    • A tribute to you that the question came up and was answered by one of the most esteemed Russian culturologists, and a tribute to the syllabus, too!

  3. With respect, I have to disagree with Jonathan’s claim that postmodernism failed in stopping the dialectic by it being the antithesis of modernism’s thesis. As the post quotes: “While socialist realism is communism at the moment of its break with its modernist past, sots art is communism at the moment of its recognition of its postmodern future” (Epstein 27). A dialectic typically implies a dichotomy in the argument. With postmodernism implying a “pluralistic landscape”, its crucial to account for, like Epstein did, that postmodernism formed after at least two modes of aesthetic understanding distinct though connected with modernism and postmodernism: the socialist realism and sots art mentioned above. Postmodernism does not oppose modernism, but rather logically extends developments conceived from modernism, making modernism and postmodernism non-dialectical. Take the example of individuality. Postmodernism does not refute the notion of the individual wholly, but rather ideas of individuality from a modernist sense. The individual is mediated by social forces; though not ontologically of itself, the individual is still has individuality based on the mere variety of how forces intersect to define the subject.

    Maybe I am overly focused on semantics, but I think its important to not see Sots Art as an antithesis of socialist realism, and postmodernism as an antithesis of modernism. For socialist realism is considered by some as high modernism. Its distinction is determined differently based on cultural perspective (like Soviet’s viewing socialist realism as distinct from modernism, or sots art as the early stage of postmodernism). Viewing these aesthetic developments as different yet interconnected shows the overlap and commonalities of them–which is not permitted in dialectical reasoning–and crucial to understanding their conceptions.

  4. I wanted to comment specifically on the “From The Toilet To The Museum” piece! I found it really interesting how Boym tied in the concept of kitsch, and specifically post-soviet nostalgia, in to Kabakov’s work. As Boym explained, the toilet installation was found by many to be “soviet trash,” a gross and offensive jab at soviet culture. Yet, much of what Kabakov aimed to do with this installation was illustrate our common desire to return to our origins, in essence capturing the spirit of soviet kitsch itself. With Kabakov’s work, the viewers can interact with the emptiness and sense of displacement inherent in the work, subsequently allowing them a vehicle in which they can flood with their own nostalgia.

  5. I think the comparison between sots art and westernized pop art is really interesting. Although both seem to use irony to make a mockery of their societies, sots art comments more heavily on communism, while pop art mostly refers to consumerism. I’m not exactly sure, but I don’t really think American pop art necessarily failed the way sots art did, considering the content it commented on, and the fact that artists, like Roy Lichtenstein, are still adored by modern day western culture. I also immediately thought of Duchamp’s “Fountain” when I started reading the article on consuming Russia. Further along, the article discusses a comparison between these specific pieces, but I’d like to know more about dada art in comparison to the avant-garde.

  6. In my view, Pop art didn’t fail in the way that Sots art did because it attacked an intangible but yet more pervasive target: consumerism. While Sots art targets specific policies and communist beliefs, Pop art attacks an underlying characteristic of a culture. This is not to say that the two cannot be viewed as analogous––the use of juxtaposition by Sots artists is very clearly reminiscent of American Pop art. Furthermore, the two are not mutually exclusive. Along with Jonathan and Kevin, I was assigned the duo of Komar and Melamid, who are considered to be instrumental in the foundation of Sots art. The project I explored in-depth, however, was conducted after they had moved to the United States, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their project, which was entitled “Most Wanted,” was the result of extensive polling of citizens of different countries, who answered surveys about what kind of art they most and least prefer. The responses from the questions, which ranged from “Favorite color?” to “Prefer money or art?” were used by the duo to create the paintings that were “most wanted” and “least wanted” by a number of specific countries. Because of the project’s context, it is tempting to categorize it as a form of Pop art, even though consumerism is not Komar and Melamid’s primary target. The “Most Wanted” project seems to be an ironic parody of American democracy. Does this make it a form of new Sots art, Pop art, or somewhere between the two?

    • Wow! It thrills me to see how savvy and pointed your responses to our material are at midsemester. Yes, Luc, all fabulous points! K&M are definitely making art from their post-socialist perspective, and so they ironically recycle the images of their socialist upbringing in their Russian and Russian-American art. It’s worth noting, in agreement with the reading, that their move from the USSR to the US–and then the end of the USSR–meant they were both tangling with no less than three symbolic systems: (1) the Soviet socialist one of their past; (2) the post-Soviet post-socialist/inchoate capitalist one of Russia’s present after the fall of the USSR; and (3) the consumer capitalist one of their new home, New York city. One of the things that keeps Russian sots-art from collapsing flatly into pop art (which some would argue is deader than sots art, certainly more distant in time from us today) is the unique positioning at this ideological/epistemic crossroads, and the canny vantage point this grants the sots-artist making work on view from both shores for capitalist/aesthetic consumption. As you point out in your comments, this angle onto socialist and capitalist consumption makes manifest the points of contact between the two supposedly opposed ideologies. One might read the polls as illustrating the principles of democracy and/or socialism: as a kind of consumer survey/niche-marketing or a super populist dictatorship of taste. You make a terrific point!

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