The idea that follows is that in a “normal” society, various strata would get along independently of one another: large corporations would be independent of the proletariat working in their mines and oil fields, bohemia would be independent of the large corporations whom it serves, and so forth. At the same time, nearly every person (especially every artist) wants to be considered unique, separate, independent, disconnected from conditions of, God forbid, “the relations of production.” And the most important idea of all: that the current situation, whatever you wish to call it – “celebrity culture,” “capitalism,” “the Putin regime,” and so forth – is total, that there is no escaping it. These ideas, which seem natural, but which date back to concrete historical conditions, explain the almost absolute hegemony of the “right” in Russian culture and politics today. These are a set of specific, deeply metaphysical ideas about the unshakable foundations of human nature. In their extreme-right, reactionary form, they are manifest in perceptions of the eternal characteristics of ethnic groups, races, nations; in their more or less liberal variant: of the irrevocable expansion of the market, which is impossible to wholly describe, to which one can only resign oneself, and within which the best one can do is find a tiny little niche.
It’s as if, within this system, the artists were indulged as a vessel for a particular kind of political innocence: this is his social role. The artist represents the idea of timeless, “apolitical” categories, of great masterpieces, of existential freedom. A poet is even freer than others, because unlike the artist, musician, or theatre director, the poet doesn’t need any capital to create works. The conditions of production are so cheap that a poet can believe his work is connected directly to the fabric of life, that it prevails over its context and circumstances. On an individual level this perfection is perfectly reasonable and can be productive. In truth, the belief that your work can escape the stagnant social fabric is very important – it is a major stimulus to the production of art.
But when one idea comes to be shared by all poets, it begins to look suspicious. Right now, not only is the idea of the “private project” shared by all poets, it is also the rallying cry of artists, critics, and other intellectuals.
Some examples of the touching innocence that characterizes our leading cultural figures illustrates this: Vyacheslav Butusov, a former star of the punk underground, expresses genuine surprise that he should be criticized for performing at a rally for “Nashi,” the Putin youth brigade; the fashionable theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov criticizes the President in Aesopian language and is simultaneously the main guide of the Kremlin’s cultural politics: he lectures under the aegis of the United Russia party.
The theatre director Alexander Kalyagin signs a letter against the imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in exchange for which he receives a theatre in the centre of Moscow, where he will, of course, stage his incorruptible oeuvres, where he will even stage Brecht – ars longa, vita brevis!
I recently found myself puzzled by one poet and critic who wrote a sympathetic article on “leftist poets” for a pro-Kremlin website. He even expressed a kind of solidarity with the leftist poets, cheerily urging them toward direct political action! And he did this not only from the right (it would not be notable if this were in the pages of the liberal journal Znamya), but from a space that was created by the Kremlin expressly to strengthen its power via the smokescreen of “parliamentary polyphony.” When I wrote to say I was surprised, he answered” “What difference does it make where the article is published; what matters is what is written in it” – again confirming my worst fears regarding the condition of the minds of even the most advanced and talented representatives of the intelligentsia.
What motivates these people is irrelevant: whether it’s really political naïveté or just ordinary cynicism and prudence. It’s impossible to separate one from the other, and I’m not posing a question of moral judgment. Russian culture as a whole has acquired (very much at the wrong time) the possibility of palpable autonomy, and now each individual artist sincerely defends his or her innocence and independence. But it is precisely through this kind of “innocence” and “sincerity” that works of art become commodities – not because the artist believes himself a spineless, prostituted insect, ready to do anything for publicity, but for exactly the opposite reason: because he values himself and his work very highly and believes that media appearances won’t do him any harm.
- Kirill Medvedev, Literature Will Be Tested (2007)