At the root of this collection of essays by the professor of philosophy and art theory at the Academy of Design in Karlsruhe and global professor at New York University, seems to be a deep conviction that the power of art is underestimated in contemporary culture. The group of writings here, covering a ten-year period of critical output, take the opportunity to capitalise on the vantage point provided by the turn of the century, to reflect upon and examine some of the fundamental concerns informing the production and reception of contemporary art. His view is broad, taking in the impact of alarmingly nebulous qualities of global markets, the digitalisation of the image, the interface of art and life at a biopolitical level and the art theories of totalitarianism among other issues.
The book is divided in two parts. In the first the author offers a path through a constellation of thought that addresses the paradoxes of art-making at a radical level and the threat or potential invoked by the concerns of newness, originality and authenticity. By doing so, Groys strategically finds means to study the cultural epoch of the last 100 years and peer further back across art historical precedents to begin with the transition of the artwork from sacred to profane following the Enlightenment. Artfully, he travels forward to map the crumbling of authorship and the end of history via the classical avant-garde, postmodern theory and contemporary image-making that includes propaganda video of radical Islam and blockbuster cinema.
The second half of the collection is no less forensic in its enquiry, but its texts address more broadly the dramatic transitions of ideology presented by the political contexts of 20th century Europe. Discussion of Adolf Hitler’s dogmatic art theory illustrates a view that transposes analysis from discourse to the body in the representation of heroics.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union offers a context for examining the artificial imposition of a degree zero of culture and history in utopian exercises. As Groys goes on to articulate such a context’s impact on the terrain of contemporary art in post-Communist Europe the reader might be forgiven for thinking that a few more detailed contextual examples would have done no harm in elucidating his point.
Of particular note in the book’s latter section is the 2002 essay ‘Beyond Diversity: Cultural Studies and Its Post-Communist Other’ which details a bias on behalf of ‘dominating, pluralist, postmodern Western taste’ when responding to the contemporary art of the former Soviet Union.
The text is a remarkable unpacking of the artificial construction of taste when directed by intangible and elusive market forces and analyses the inefficiencies of dominant cultural theory to respond to the practices of artists working in Eastern Europe over the last 20 years. Again one feels that more examples of such practices would certainly not have been detrimental and the absence of reference to cultural theorists from post-Communist Europe leads one to speculate whether their insights might have gone some way to expand the discussion.
In Boris Groys’ book art’s power is scrutinised to extrude the means by which it addresses, constructs and contests the dominance of ideology in the museum, in politics and in the market. Rather than relying upon a weighing up of the dialectics of particular writers or cultural commentators in order to bolster his own theories, Groys’ texts are keen, methodical personal avenues of enquiry.
A brave move perhaps, but it is their bold and candid pith that steers these essays away from esotericism, alienation and dryness.
Giles Bailey is an artist based in Glasgow