Some months ago the International Herald-Tribune in Paris coined the useful term “Gorbasm” to describe the mindless euphoria with which the Western media were responding to the public-relations initiatives of Mikhail Gorbachev. By extension, the word can also be used to describe the kind of amnesiac emotional transport that now attaches to every announcement—and nowadays such announcements come thick and fast—of joint Soviet-American art programs. The Gorbasm factor has indeed emerged as the dernier cri of the American art establishment, which has been quick to espy in the vagaries of glasnost and perestroika new opportunities both for extending its influence abroad and for launching new fashions at home.
Consider the show of American art that is currently on view in Moscow in the exhibition halls of the Union of Soviet Artists. With a cavalier indifference to or ignorance of recent Soviet history, the show is called “Painting Beyond the Death of Painting.” To the show’s American organizers, of course, a phrase like “the death of painting” now means nothing more than a profitable episode in an ongoing promotional campaign for new art styles. To many Russians, however, the phrase is likely to signify something quite different—the long dark night of Socialist Realism, which in Russia really did bring about the death of painting for decades. Moreover, as art of no other persuasion was legally allowed to circulate from Stalin’s day until quite recent times, this enforced death of painting also meant the Gulag (or worse) for those who either refused to conform to the official line or, misreading the periodic signs of a “thaw” in cultural policy, had the misfortune to get caught in the irrational reversals of the system.
None of this grim history is irrelevant to the present sponsorship of the American exhibition in Moscow. During those long dark decades, the Union of Soviet Artists served the Communist Party apparatus as an agency of brutal enforcement. The Artists Union was never simply an artists’ organization in the Western sense. It was an instrument of Party repression, an organization that inflicted immense suffering on whatever remnant of genuine artistic aspiration survived in Russia.
Why American artists should hasten to lend themselves to the rehabilitation of this odious organization of conscienceless political hacks is a question that remains to be answered. Certainly it would have been unthinkable for these same American artists—among them, Julian Schnabel, Alex Katz, Lucas Samaras, Mel Bochner, and Rudolf Baranik—to have collaborated with the agency that enforced Hitler’s doctrine of “degenerate” art. Yet the Union of Soviet Artists was no different in kind from its Nazi counterpart, and it held sway over the life of art in Russia for a much longer time than the Nazis ruled in Germany.
But in the West memories are short, where they can be said to exist at all, especially when new opportunities beckon and the future promises still greater Gorbasmic delights. So there is now assembled in Moscow this exhibition of thirty-three American painters sponsored by the Union of Soviet Artists. It is, in the words of the official press release— issued, for some reason, by a PR outfit in Beverly Hills, California—“curated by Donald Kuspit in cooperation with such galleries as Pace, Castelli, Marlboro [sic], and Sonnabend.”
As for where this prolonged art-world Gorbasm is heading, there can be little doubt. The show in Moscow is only a curtain-raiser. The main events will take place over here. On the New York art scene—and probably in the Western world generally—the early 1990s looks to be an era of Soviet chic. The mandate of heaven may have been withdrawn from the doctrine of Revolution, but this change in the political weather will only aid in transforming the hammer and sickle into the latest symbol of the cutting edge. And when the Artists Union in Moscow starts sending us their counterparts to Kiefer, Clemente, and company, the applause will be deafening and the sales brisk.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 2, on page 2
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