Octavian Esanu on Mashrou’ Proletkult

Octavian Esanu: I am interested in the relation between art and politics and prefer to look at this relation through the prism of ideology, or to put it another way, the work of art, or the institution of art, as ideology. How can we use the artwork to unveil, expose, deduce or understand problematic relations between classes, between artists and their curators or audiences, among artists themselves? Can art regarded in terms of ideology critique help us in this respect?

I have been invested in understanding the conditions of possibility for art, or what makes something art: how and why people make art nowadays, and under what social and political conditions something comes to be called ‘art.’ Mashrou’ Proletkult was a project that I co-organised with a group of students and artists in which we set the goal of making an exhibition with no curators, no juries, no prizes and no fees. It was a sort of Lebanese Salon des Refusés of the twenty-first century. Everyone and anyone who wished to display their work in the exhibition was not only allowed but encouraged to do so. The project was inspired by the revolutionary cultural policies of Soviet Russia. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 they also changed the cultural policy by raising the question of what constituted true proletarian art and literature. Until 1917 or before the Proletkult activities it was as it has always been in human history: art was the art of the rich and it was controlled by the institutions established and frequented by the rich. All exhibitions were decided and pre-selected by juries, experts and authorities under the authority of the Academy, as patronised by the king, aristocracy and later by the high bourgeoisie. These were the ones who chose which works of art were considered good enough to be hung in museums. The Soviet Proletkult practices set up a new radical system that did away with such class-based institutional structures of the old order.

Of course, this has happened before – one of the first cultural decrees of the French Revolution was to get rid of the jury who controlled the Salons. For some time, the Parisian Salons were flooded with everything from professional to amateur art. After one or two years, they realised, no, we cannot really organise an exhibition without a jury, or some sort of selection procedure. The same principle was applied during the time of the Soviet Revolution. The Proletkult encouraged farmers, workers, and people who hadn't been privileged enough to attend art schools, to express themselves through various media and artistic forms. The Soviets opened up art schools for workers, soldiers, and peasants, offering them evening art courses, and launched various journals and magazines, where peasants and workers could publish their own poetry and prose. Everyone had a chance to become a ‘published author’ in those few years; everyone could say ‘I’m a poet’ or ‘I’m an artist, not only the privileged.

For Mashrou’ Proletkult the idea was to draw on this historical precedent, and organise a similar project here in Beirut in 2016. I must emphasise, however, that Mashrou’ Proletkult was not what is now very fashionable in the mainstream art world: ‘re-enactments’ of past famous events (such as avant-garde exhibitions of the 1910s and 1920s, or performances from the 1960s and 1970s); our project was rather an enactment. The Soviet Proletkult program had a larger impact on literary and musical practices than on those from the fine arts. To put it in other words—there was never a ‘famous’ Proletkult art exhibition during early Soviet history that we were trying to ‘re-enact in Beirut’ in order to gain symbolic capital from it. We didn't have any clear expectations. We formed a committee consisting of students from AUB and other schools to discuss the principle for exhibiting, and we also invited people involved in various local artists associations (one of which, for instance, was the Lebanese Association of Painters and Sculptors, which has over 600 active members). We also organised a Congress-of-All-Artists where we invited artists to come deliver a speech on most urgent problems within the Lebanese or any other art scene. The Congress was very poorly attended because on that day it also happened that Ai Weiwei came into town, or into Lebanon. For the exhibition we ended up with over three hundred works (paintings, sculpture, ceramics, video art, installation, and performances from artists in Lebanon, Syria, Central Asia, Ukraine, USA, Russia, Moldova). The works were displayed according to the first-come-first-served principle in the salon-style filling in the entire space of the gallery.

There were some great moments that Mashrou’ produced. A Lebanese woman came in with her house worker, carrying a huge candle. She brought it to the exhibition, telling us, ‘this is art for me’. A colonel from the Lebanese army, who became an abstract expressionist painter when he retired, brought one of his paintings. It was interesting to find out such things existed at the margins of what we usually call the ‘art world.’ We had people coming from various outskirts of Beirut, both Shi’a and Sunni, Armenians, Christians and so on. There was a Druze guy from the mountains, who sculpts on the surface of chicken eggs, producing a sort of jewellery. He warned us, please don’t drop them – each egg is worth $250.

Polycephaly: I imagine that for many amateur painters and candle-makers, the exhibition was a very important moment for them.

Octavian Esanu: A lot of people asked me to sign a paper for them, a document that would certify their participation in an exhibition at AUB Art Galleries. Maybe that was the artist moment of their lives, you know? Because AUB is a prominent institution here in Lebanon, providing legitimacy to so many things.

Polycephaly: I think it's interesting at a time where there's both so much rhetoric about making art absolutely accessible, and open to everyone, and yet so little money for prioritising the arts in schools and museums, that projects take responsibility for this directly. By removing curators and parameters, it becomes a reminder of the hierarchies and structures that affect visibility and connection to the art world today. It's an exercise in direct democratisation.

Octavian Esanu: We know from historical political events such as the French Revolution or the Soviet one that all of these gestures were based on the idea to radically democratise something. They did not really attain their goals, but they did change something. They have an impact, you know. With Mashrou’ Proletkult, though, I see it sometimes as a totally failed project…

Polycephaly: What would have made it successful for you?

Octavian Esanu: Well, it was supposed to fail because unlike Proletkult, or other revolutionary events of the past, which were products of radical political change, ours was still a ‘cultural’ enactment within a toxic political and cultural context of ‘market democracy.’ And even as pure culture its failure was due to distrust from the local art scene. If more contemporary artists had taken it more seriously I might have felt differently. One of the biggest disappointments was that contemporary artists who are serious about their work felt somewhat ashamed to exhibit next to ‘bad artists’ or to amateurs, which to me affirms a predominant belief today in the art world that the quality of one’s work is contingent upon the conditions of its display (name of the curator, venue, etc). In other words, if you believe yourself to be a great artist, you don't really need to worry about where, or next to what, your artwork is shown, because you think that the quality of your work doesn't depend on the context in which it is shown, but is rather somewhat intrinsic. I saw, however, famous artists worried. I also saw art-world-dressed people stepping into the gallery and then running out of it as if someone has stepped on their judgment of taste. But this I found to be the success of this project, not its failure.

If you read now the poems of those Soviet peasants who wrote in 1917 during the Proletkult programs, you may also say, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible. I can't read this next to Pushkin, or to the classics of Russian literature!’ But for them it was really important to be written and published. That was what it was all about, about equal culture and different conditions and forms of labour. You know Marx’s famous phrase about overcoming the division of labour or being a poet in the morning, a farmer in the afternoon and a curator in the evening (or how does that go?). In the end, what is art if not a form of non-alienated labour, that is, labour whose product belongs completely to those who make it.

Overcoming the division of labour will overcome the sharp divisions that exist between the peasants, the people who clean our shit in the streets, the famous artists, the foreign curators, and so on. This is what I mean by art as ideology, a form of art today divided by classes: “contemporary art” for the neo-liberal elites running the market and fine arts or kitsch for the remaining petit bourgeoisie, workers or peasants. And I will not talk here about sub-classes of illegal immigrants or house servants and their relation to what we call ‘art’.

Polycephaly: I understand your belief or desire for a work of art to be strong enough to speak for itself; and for the politics of the art world not to matter to artists. So much of the currency of the contemporary art scene is contingent upon with whom one is proximate – in terms of friendship, funding and exhibition, because the barometers for quality are so indeterminate and ambiguous. What of the politics of the institution in this case? How did you grapple with AUB’s particular institutional identity, given that its hardly a site of socialism or revolution, but rather an organisation embedded in the neo-liberal capitalist education industry?

Octavian Esanu: In my case it's hard to answer these questions, because I am working there, so I have to self-criticise. Of course, every place, every venue is a factor in your work. If you submit an article for a publication, you are aware of the context in which your text will be inserted. You make certain choices with that in mind. Interestingly enough, as many times as I tried to find a project to show at AUB which will be somehow critical of AUB, I haven't yet encountered someone who would be interested in addressing AUB as an institution or a political proposition. As far as how the place affects the work of art, it's a fact that it does. We know this from institutional critique. Artists have been working on that already so long and we also know that institutional critique itself has been institutionalised.

Polycephaly: But if we felt that relationships between artwork and institutions had been laid bare comprehensively, and resolved practically, this would no longer be a question. We do not seek to go over the old ground established by institutional critique, but to understand the dynamics that affect art-making, circulation and reception today. I suppose this project comes from the belief that art has the ability to make some kind of impact, and to understand the dynamics at play in that.

Octavian Esanu: Well, I frankly don't feel that art can make an impact today. Maybe you are more optimistic than I am. I don't really see it. I mean, the last time that art really has had an impact, was during its alliance with the political avant-garde – I'm talking about High Modernism, where art was united and invested in a better future or ‘utopia’. In art history, since WWII, everything has been institutionalised, completely overtaken by the logic of the culture industry, the market and capital, making artistic production itself a form of exchange. There are some of those who argue today about art’s ‘double character’, as Adorno defined it: as both autonomous and social fact. But I am more skeptical about it, skeptical especially about its autonomy.

To be frank, I have more belief in the amateurs and Sunday painters or egg-sculptors from the countryside. He or she is not of course as sophisticated as professional artists, nor trained in the matters and discourses of Modernism, Post-modernism, or the Contemporary. But there is this naïve belief that art can still be an escape from reality and from ideology, even if into another reality or another very primitive or passé false consciousness. I’m not sure most of the contemporary art I see today in various venues can do that or even has such a scope, but I may be also uninformed or not integrated enough into the art world.

Polycephaly: Amateur art-making becomes a very individual pursuit?

Octavian Esanu: I would divide between professional art and unprofessional art. I was re-reading Marx's communist manifesto these days for a class, and he says everything the bourgeoisie touches turns into material profit, utility and interest, or transforms the sacred into the profane. Like everything that was, say, family relations now is called ‘partnership’ (like in business), and artists are now ‘emerging’ for consumption. Family, culture, science, art, everything has become professionalised, or made a venue for money-making. This is the bourgeoisie logic.

Marx wrote the Manifesto almost two-hundred years ago, and yet it is still so relevant. Everything that is professionalised, must be part of the circuits of exchange. It must be part of the market. Those that are unprofessional artists, I find they are really enjoying what we call art. It's not good art to us, it’s bad. But they may enjoy it more, perhaps precisely because they are not commodified, not taken into the exchange system (of course they are exploited by other means). For them art is still a ‘free’ domain, free of curators, and critics, and institutions and so on.

Polycephaly: Certainly the logic of the market is all-encompassing for the art world. It’s the basis of Suhail Malik’s call for an exit.

Octavian Esanu: I don’t know about that, sounds very weird to me. Exit without political change? What kind of exit is that? Or just empty words? Exit needs to be sought from systems like ours totalised by the logic of exchange and profit. These systems are always corrupt. Of course, art, as it was invented in the bourgeois age, as an autonomous realm independent from religion, church, and court, cannot really stay clean and apart from society to reflect it (or exit from it). Partially yes, but not completely. One cannot really exit individually, or by departments or apartments (like that guy in Kabakov’s installation who escaped individually into space). The exit must and can only be universal. This problem has been persistent and I'm sure all of these artists who lived before us, like Courbet and all the rest, may have felt exactly the same.

Polycephaly: Where do you continue to locate the latent potential or agency of art under such conditions?

Octavian Esanu: Stendhal said, ‘art is the promise of happiness’. It's not the happiness itself. It's the promise that there will be...that a work of art can give you hope. It gives you a promise of justice, beauty, whatever, which may or may not be achieved one day. A good work does not necessarily have to say so in words, but it contains this as a proposition.

Polycephaly: There was a conversation published recently with Alexander Kluge, where he used the metaphor of creating an oasis, in the desert.

Octavian Esanu: An oasis is there, right?

Polycephaly: And a mirage is not.

Octavian Esanu: Some people say exactly this nowadays, that contemporary art creates these spaces of freedom. An oasis of whatever, a shade from the sun. But I’m not so sure if the institutions of contemporary art can be called spaces of freedom or oases today. I don’t see much shade and protection there from the logic of capital.

Polycephaly: Your point about the work of art not necessarily saying something in words is crucial. Art can offer up examples of ways of thinking beyond language, and beyond the literal. By virtue of art’s privileged ability to engage every discipline, site, space, and mode of engagement in the world, nothing is off-limits, and such practice offers up different ways of amassing and relaying information and ideas, of producing knowledge or making change.

Octavian Esanu: How is that then different from algebra, let's say, or mathematical language? Algebra is a mathematical formula. It's also a reality, but it's not like this reality, you know.

Polycephaly: I think it's similar, absolutely. You can think of art and algebra as two distinct ways of seeing and understanding the world. But maths cannot (or does not) take on political injustice alongside notions of abstract form, as art might. We don't expect the masses to enjoy complex mathematics, or quantum physics. We don't expect the proletariat to express themselves with deep equations.

Octavian Esanu: You know, one of the Frankfurt School thinkers used to say, which I kind of like a lot, that a work of art is a solution to a social problem or contradiction, but one that is symbolically solved, resolved on the level of artistic form. It is a solution but a symbolic one. And the problem is that it cannot do anything (produce real change, ‘exit’ etc.), you can only enjoy or hate it. You can look at it, and think about the contradiction solved abstractly. What I like about art, unlike mathematics, is that it has the potential to be more grounded in social and empirical reality. Unlike mathematics (as little as I know about math), art has a greater political potential. But art as symbolic resolution (and not all art but only some) was about modernist art; I’m not sure if this is applicable to contemporary art, which as they say is only the steam of the boiling historical modernism of the past.

I've been working recently with the concept of ‘anti-politics’. Anti-politics, for instance, may refer to Eastern Europe during the Soviet occupation when intellectuals and artists in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic were told by the state – you can make whatever kind of art you like as soon as you don’t make it political. Whatever you want to experiment with – your individuality, your suffering, your ‘right of expression’, your subjectivity, your right to exit – go ahead and do it, but just don't involve or mention us: the state.

So in Poland and Hungary and all of these more liberal socialist countries, artists were in the so-called ‘underground’ or ‘parallel cultures’ (they were not official artists like Socialist Realists and so on). They were doing happenings, installations, performance art and all of that ‘radical’ and new art that was taking place in the West. They were doing exactly the same as the West, but it was anti- or non-political because it was set by the state. The main ideology of the non-conformist intelligentsia under the socialist regime was to resist society by not being political, but being anti-political. Since the Soviet model was so politicised (everything was politics, the Party, etc.) to resist it meant to be non- or anti-political. This is of course only an Eastern European form of anti-politics; there are different kinds of anti-politics: in Latin American under military dictatorships, for examples, or the USA’s complete profanation of the very notion of political action (especially visible now under the current regime).

My belief is that one of the main features of ‘contemporary art’ today is its being anti-political: both in the West and East, the Middle East or globally. In the East this happened as a consequence of its ‘totalitarian’ or ‘authoritarian’ past, and in the West because of the market. Today we witness a global form of anti-politics, and this is in spite of ‘activist art’ or ‘artivism’, the ‘social turn’, and so on. Under the neo-liberal regime it is economics, numbers, money that matter. Politics and ‘democracy’ are only a façade for money- or symbolic capital-making. Anti-politics is about not being ‘mass politics’ like in the days of modernism, where artists were united in ‘-isms’ and parties (Communists, Fascists, etc.) in order to act in a common front for a common cause. Nowadays, it is identity politics (a form of anti-politics) and the ‘aesthetics of singularities’. Ask about a political agenda and you'll have a thousand answers.

So for me, to look for the so-called ‘exit’ from contemporary art is to see how to get back and be political again; and to be political means to find a form of universality (not singularity). And there are a lot of thinkers thinking about this today. In art this would be not through the singularity of the ‘emerging artist,’ who somehow always ends up at the art fair, but through some sort of enactment of something that may question the current status quo (or at least upset the current cultural elites). Make something that the current elites will not like or even hate – that I regard as a great cultural achievement today.

Octavian Esanu is currently Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and curator of AUB Art Galleries. In his artistic career he has performed many roles: from contemporary artist to art administrator, art critic, editor, curator and art historian of Russian and Middle Eastern art. He was the founding director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art, Chisinau and produced the first ‘contemporary art’ exhibitions in post-Soviet Moldova. He is the author of What Does ‘Why’ Mean? (J&L Books, 2005); Transition in Post-Soviet Art: The ‘Collective Actions’ Group Before and After 1989 (CEU Press, 2013); Art, Awakening, and Modernity in the Middle East: The Arab Nude (Routledge Press, 2017); and co-editor of ‘Art Periodicals Today; Historically Considered,’ ARTMargins 5.3, Special Issue (2016). In addition to working on the post-socialist transition to capitalism and the institutionalization of contemporary art in Eastern Europe, he has produce exhibitions and publications on topics related to contemporary and modern Middle Eastern art. Some of his most recent projects include: ‘One Hundred Years Closer to Communism’ (2017), ‘Contemporary Artistic Revolutions’ (2017), ‘The Arab Nude’ (2016), with Kirsten Scheid; ‘Trans-Oriental Monochrome’ (2015). He is part of the editorial collective ARTMargins. In his activities he seeks a common ground between his artistic and scholarly interests.