Boris Groys, PhD in Philosophy from the University of Müenster, is Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU. Previously he was Professor of Aesthetics, Art History, and Media Theory at the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe. He is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and internationally recognized late-Soviet postmodern art and literature, and Russian avante-garde expert. He coined the term “Moscow conceptualism,” introduced Western audiences to Russian postmodernist writers, and curated and organized several international art exhibitions and conferences.
UPDATE: I didn’t get it. Well, I feel solid in a couple critiques, but I misread the single most valuable lesson in the book for me as a planner. I now update. (And am now finding a lot of lovely quotes. Let this be a lesson to me not to read the day after a long road trip.)
This book, a series of essays, is an explicit break from Kantian (Critique of Judgement ) tradition. Rather than writing about art in an aesthetic way, which assumes the educated art spectator, he prefers the poetic approach. He advocates for a reversal from the current interpretation of the aesthetic, which bears with it a presumption that there is a single image, a single best answer, in favor of the poetic. Media arts are visual, yes, but they add the dimension of time, a sense of narrative (or rejection), and certainly cleave to the notion that there is no single best image, no single best answer. Better still, Groys says, autopoietics, since engaging in our digital age requires crafting a public persona, so let us examine one’s construction of her public self.
Let us start with the positives.
In “The Obligation to Self-Design,” he notes that subsequent to Nietzsche’s avowing God’s death, concern shifted from the appearance of one’s soul to the almighty to the appearance of one’s form to the rest of society. Thus modern design, stripped as it is of adornment to express truth and transparency, “belongs not so much in an economic context as in a political one” (34).
In “The Production of Sincerity,” Groys advocates that artists commit “symbolic suicide” through collaboration, participation, and democratic practice, thereby sharing their authorship with audiences. And following the Nietzschean strand from the previous essay, “Religious community is thus replaced by a political movement in which artists and audiences communally participate” (49).
“Though the artist’s decision to relinquish exclusive authorship would seem primarily to be in the interest of empowering the viewer, this sacrifice ultimately benefits the artist by liberating his or her work from the cold eye of the uninvolved viewer’s judgment” (49).
“The Poetics of Installation” was my greatest reading comprehension misfire. I read “installation” to mean the art fair installation in particular, when he was referring to the installation generally, and its immersive quality. Aha. The installation, while ephemeral, isn’t immaterial because it’s spatial, in space, and in placing her work there, the artist democratizes her work, accepts public responsibility for it, and the “fluid, circulating multitudes [experience] … an aura of the here and now. The installation is, above all, a mass-cultural version of individual flânerie, as described by Benjamin, and therefore a places for the emergence of aura, for ‘profane illumination'” (63-5).
And the power and implications of context (along with strong shades of Burnett ):
“We are unable to stabilize a copy as a copy, as we are unable to stabilize an original as an original. There are no eternal copies as there are no eternal originals. Reproduction is as much infected by originality as originality is infected by reproduction. In circulating through various contexts, a copy becomes a series of originals. Every change of context, every change of medium can be interpreted as a negation of the status of a copy as a copy–as an essential rupture, as a new start that opens a new future. In this sense, a copy is never really a copy; rather, a new original in a new context. Every copy is by itself a flâneur–experiencing time and again its own ‘profane illuminations’ that turn it into an original” (66-7).
In addition, Groys’ point about art’s biopolitical nature is well-taken. “[I]t has begun to produce and document life itself as pure activity by artistic means” (79) and that documentation presupposes a divergence between the event and its documentation. In “Marx After Duchamp, or the Artist’s Two Bodies,” he notes the artist is a hired worker in late capitalism. Lloyd (2005) understands this but Groys pushes, averring that with the alienation of labor of the art product, the artist’s body becomes a readymade, as in performance, video, photography.
“The Comrades of Time” and “The Weak Universalism” work together well. The former’s purposeless acts conducted in the “time of rehearsal” join with the latter’s weak, avant-garde, quotidian actions to make up truly political acts. Process in planning, planning in process.
Now the whatevers, albeit modified.
In the introduction — yes, he lost me that fast [which really colored my subsequent reading, mea culpa], Groys’ divorces sociology from art analysis, arguing, he former is a science of the living” (19), and art that which makes “living and dead equal” (ibid). I don’t know. I think sociology handles different eras well, but I’d have been better served by attending to his past-and-future-corrupt-present proposition, and linking it to Lynch (1972).
He also says art exists outside any particular “real” milieu, thereby disqualified from sociological analysis. I still don’t get this. There’s a sociology of everything, especially the contemporary art world, in all its variegated colors.
“Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction” and “Immortal Bodies” are bad and silly, respectively. I call the former bad for two reasons. First, Groys guesses at why fundamentalism operates so well in the digital age despite the fact that Castells did the research for him in 1997. So the resultant guess is wrong. Second, and much worse, he says “religious fundamentalism” but writes only about terrorist Islamic fundamentalism. An irresponsible, xenophobic conflation. “Immortal Bodies” is silly because he says (1) art is the only technology able to overcome time and (2) that vampires are a body of complete biopower, “a communist community of immortal bodies” (165).