“The Promise of Autonomy”
About a hundred years have passed since the Great Artistic Revolution of the early 20th century, which proclaimed the autonomy of art and the artist’s independence from society. Artists refused to comply with the audience’s taste, to share its ideals or to serve its goals. Art was proclaimed to be the artist’s private affair, vested with the right to be incomprehensible to society at large. What is left of this declaration of art’s independence in our age? Not very much. As a rule, even after this artistic revolution, art still wants to please its audience. It still wants to be fashionable and to fit into artistic institutions. It still orients itself toward the market.
Then again, “not very much” does not mean “nothing at all.” The urge toward autonomy has not been muted. In our time, artists attempt to return to the ideals of autonomy again and again, ideals that have never successfully realized in full.
For me, one of the most consistent attempts to realize the principle of art’s autonomy can be found in the artistic practice of Vadim Zakharov. First and foremost, he has been exceptionally consistent in developing his own themes, without paying much attention to the rise and fall of changing artistic fashions. This is why any retrospective of Zakharov’s work simply cannot be unsuccessful. In our time, the majority of retrospective exhibitions – even those of very famous artists – provoke a feeling of embarrassment. The spectator gains the impression that the artist has either been repeating one and the same artistic pattern for all of his life, since it is this pattern that has afforded him commercial success, or that he has been reproducing current artistic fashions without being critical of them in the least. In contrast, Zakharov’s work reveals a purely internal, autonomous logic that governs the transitions from one piece to the next. It is interesting to follow this logic of transition, which is why any retrospective of Zakharov’s work is destined to be fascinating.
The question at issue, however, is not only how Zakharov follows the inner logic of the development of his themes and artistic devices. Perhaps most important to the observer is the will and consistency with which the artist subordinates all possible exterior conditions of his work to its inner logic. One could say that the primary reason for the failure of the early 20th century’s artistic revolution was that so many artists only wanted to be artists and nothing more. As a result, artists lost control over the conditions of their own production, becoming the suppliers of the raw artistic material from which art institutions manufacture their final product.
Zakharov understood this quite early on: in order to become autonomous, an artist needs to become an institution himself, replacing all functions of contemporary art institutions with his own activities. Of course, life in the Soviet Union considerably facilitated the understanding of this truth, since the Soviet Union had no art institutions whatsoever in the contemporary sense. In addition, Zakharov oriented himself toward a number of examples of autonomous or self-institutionalizing practices of the kind such as those evident in the work of Ilya Kabakov or Andrei Monastyrsky, for an example. But what seems crucial is that Zakharov did not change his strategy after he moved to the West, where there were plenty of contemporary art institutions to be found. Quite on the contrary, Zakharov has developed and even radicalized his artistic strategy of autonomy.
Contemporary art depends on its context more than ever: it depends on the context of its exhibition, perception, interpretation, historization, documentation, etc. And Zakharov consistently places all of these contexts under his personal control. He shifts from the production of individual objects to the organization of individual performances, to the construction of large installations that organize the space of the exhibition and impose the artist’s perceptual logic onto his audience. Zakharov begins by collecting an archive of Moscow art – first and foremost conceptualist art – creating a historical narrative into which he embeds his own art. He publishes the journal Pastor in Cologne, transforming his authors into his flock. He describes his journeys and encounters, his everyday life in Cologne, his family, and his children, thus writing his own biography. One by one, Zakharov takes up all of the vacancies that the system of contemporary art will offer: the artist, curator, critic, publisher, biographer, archivist, documentarian, historian, and interpreter. Here, the path to attaining autonomy is found in liquidating the art system’s internal division of labor. The artist needs to become everything if he is to avoid being nobody. Of course, very few are actually capable of this kind of self-institutionalization. It demands an exceptional strength of will, consistency in carrying out one’s artistic project, and even self-sacrifice. This is why I have always admired Vadim Zakharov, even if this is something I have never told him directly. For me, this text is a convenient occasion to give voice to this admiration. It has been said that “many are called, but few chosen.” The promise of autonomy was given to everyone, but only few took it seriously and realized it in their lives. Vadim Zakharov is one of the few.