Sots Art

Sots Art. The Style of  Mockery.

Two twenty-five-year-old Moscow artists working in tandem, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, invented the Sots Art style. In spring of 1972, at the deepest part of the Brezhnev stagnation, when it seemed that time stood still for the inhabitants of the USSR, no more wars, revolutions, or reforms, and the country was completely becalmed without a breeze or gust, “everything under control,” Komar and Melamid went to a Pioneer camp outside Moscow to earn some money, as it was called in those days, “doing hackwork.” They were supposed to decorate the paths of the camp by the summer season with bright poster stands with depictions of Pioneers, veterans, cosmonauts, and Party leaders. Komar and Melamid got an abundance of what they had required—paints, brushes, canvases. During the day they jointly worked on the stands, prepared cardboard for mosaics, copied Lenin’s profile, and wrote Communist appeals on huge fabric banners, and then in the evenings they worked on their own paintings. Each in his own corner elaborated his plastic images. Melamid endlessly varied the theme of thin, fragile, threadlike people tossed into corridors and shafts of strange buildings, while Komar drew surrealistic scenes with scary old women and characters squeezed into niches. At the same time, they were acutely aware of the need for a radical renewal not only of methods and stylistics but of the entire understanding of art and even of culture as a whole. A new worldview starting point was needed in order to build a large-scale artistic strategy. That became, as in Pop Art, common sense, that is, a collection of general perceptions of reality given to “ordinary people” and based on obvious facts. With the help of common sense, Komar and Melamid hoped to neutralize—and first of all in their own heads—the dissident doctrinarism of the intelligentsia at the turn of the 1970s (for example, the famous metaphor “Evil Empire”), which “made the most elementary things conditional and unobvious,” said Melamid.

Work at the Pioneer camp opened their eyes to one of these obvious truths that people in “good society” did not notice. To wit, the harsh division of the Soviet world of ideas, things, and people into official-permitted and underground-banned was an artificial ideological construct. People think and behave inconsistently. Their loyalty to Party norms and principles was relative, situational. Depending on their location people change their behavior and switch from one language of communication to another. They sing Communist songs and at the same time read dissident samizdat [literally, self-published, banned works circulated in typed manuscripts]. “At work, performing his state duty, a person did and said such-and-such. When he came home, he told [anti-Soviet] jokes. Absolutely everyone lived a double life and that was right,” said the poet Dmitri Prigov.

Komar and Melamid observed that split consciousness in themselves.  Adherence to only one of two worlds, aesthetic and ideological loyalty to one worldview did not correspond to the Soviet type of mind. Therefore, neither official dogma nor nonconformist discourse on it own was an organic and whole product of the local culture. They reflect the local beliefs of microgroups, but were not characteristic of the culture and society as a whole. The real artistic text representative of the given culture had to be eclectic and combine at least the two discourses. Subsequently, Komar and Melamid expressed their credo in this slogan: “We are grandchildren of the avant-garde and children of Socialist Realism.” From that statement came the project in spring and summer 1972 of a series of paintings and then a year later the project of a collective show that came to be called Sots Art.

All the works in the Sots Art Series are built on the idea of combining heterogeneous aesthetic phenomena that seemed incompatible to outsiders. For example, official subjects taken from television were realized in Cubist or Futurist manner. And on the contrary, private themes—a portrait of a father or a wife with a child—were executed in the style of an agitational poster. Here is a young woman in a Russian meadow, long braid, red smock, and high in the sky soar the hammer and sickle of the Soviet coat of arms. Now, after Erik Bulatov’s famous painting of the setting Soviet coat of arms, sinking into the ocean like the evening sun, the work of Komar and Melamid seem like a typical conceptual painting, but in the early 1970s, when no one had ever dreamed of hanging the coat of arms on a lyrical landscape and conceptualism did not yet exist, this combination of painting and state symbols was perceived as a blasphemous act by both the official and underground artists. The most laconic, radical, and completely incredible work was the montage of the commonplace Soviet slogan “Onward to the Victory of Communism!” and the signature “Komar and Melamid.” This object-slogan contains a mechanical joining of two types of culture—a fragment of the canonic and quoting state ideological culture, using an anonymous slogan that precludes authorial expression, was glued onto an element of the personalistic culture that assumes a personal view of the world and therefore a statement authorized by a signature.

The heterogeneity of these paintings is amazing. It eloquently witnesses the desire to avoid a definite personal manner, not seeking or elaborating one, but on the contrary, to multiply a number of possibilities, to build a tendency that would permit significant variety within the general framework. The idea of transforming a personal project to the status of a collective movement, that is, adding other artists, came to Komar and Melamid probably before they met actual and autonomous adepts of Sots Art, for example Alexander Kosolapov, who was doing similar aesthetic experiments independently in 1973.

Komar and Melamid frequently proclaimed Sots Art to be the Soviet analog of American Pop Art. Both movements are built on an active interaction with the contexts of mass culture, which in America is packaged in consumer temptations and in Russia in ideological coercion. It’s a beautiful comparison but it does not take into account the differences in the interaction. In Pop Art the artist adores advertising images, lovingly transfers them from the fence to the space of high culture, ennobles and elevates them. In Sots Art the game with ideological blocks is built on their decisive, consistent, and visible destruction by the very method of comparison with images that are the opposite in meaning. Pop Art preserves current images for the ages; Sots Art demonstrates the friability and collapse of ideological constructs built for eternity. This is the difference between compromising and political art and the anarchist approach of Sots Art. It creates paradoxical, “explosive” artistic images that destroy the temptation of subsuming personality to any authority. Sots Art is characterized by non-programmatic, adogmatic, and non-utopian expressions.

The worldview of Sots Art is nihilistic relativism. It rejects faith in everything, whatever it may be. It tries to destroy all cults generated by an individual or imposed externally by political, economic, spiritual and other authorities; Sots Art does not tolerate anything that forces an individual into communication that is not on equal terms and that forces him to his knees and to uncritical obedience; it is aimed at all peremptory and unconditional phenomena. To fight cults, Sots Art uses laughter, mockery, travesty, and mystification, which adequately and merrily express the philosophy of “groundlessness” and mutability. Cults are personified in the figures of “bosses,” political leaders, their dissident opponents, spiritual leaders, outstanding cultural figures, and so on. Frequently these characters (among whom are not just Bolshevik leaders but also Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Repin, Christ, and Solzhenitsyn) appear in grotesque and silly situations. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to consider Sots Art the art of political caricature. It does not do send-ups, does not try to exaggerate features of political figures. It does not depict “nature” at all. Appearing “on the shoulders” of the Pop Art style and inheriting many aspects of its vision of the world, Sots Art does not react to reality per se but only to its “picture,” to an illustration of reality in some visual language. For Sots Art, to use the words of Jacques Derrida, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” Therefore its greatest foe is the stylistically perfect text, whose repressive function is veiled by laces of rhetoric.

The critics of Sots Art often called it “anti-art.” Not without reason, for this style not only distances itself from the artistically perfect “text,” but consistently destroys it every time. Apparently, the struggle with art is explained by the fact that art is the most effective distributor and inculcator of cults. The Sots artists break into the glossy finish of rhetorical figures with an entire complex of special skeleton keys. The first is the clash between different forms of describing the world inside one work, as for example, in the portrait of Karl Marx done by Komar and Melamid in Cubist and Social Realist styles simultaneously. Second is the intentional conflict between subject and descriptive language, when a homespun style (say, that of carved folk toys) is used to create formal portraits of Soviet leaders. Khrushchev as a huge bobble doll, Andropov with slowly turning radar ears—these amusing and incongruous idols created by Leonid Sokov look like parodies of their awe-inspiring protoimages.

Sots Art is far from aestheticizing its own discourse. On the contrary, its specific visual canon is built on self-parody and self-refutation. The artists of Sots Art programmatically rejected their own plastic system and replaced it with the concepts of “bad thing,” torn form, and the practice of appropriation. The aesthetic of “bad thing,” which returned to Russian art for the first time since the days of Dadaism, pushed aside professional perfectionism and was intended to serve as an indication of the disconnect and presence of gaps in the Sots Art project. The artist does not stop with his own work, he uses it to demonstrate other, external texts with which he plays combining games. The artistic image of a Sots Art work does not arise out of the process of making the work but from the ephemeral, speculative juxtaposition of contexts which the author illustrates in his work, sketched in very roughly and approximately.

The plastic inertia of Sots Arts works is compensated by the extreme activity of the artist who for the first time since the street actions of the Russian Futurists stepped out from behind the painting into social reality. All of Sots Art has a performance base, and all its works are documents or products of performance activity. The Sots artist appears in works not in his own name but that of a “lyric hero,” whose mask he wears in performances, too. The collective image of that character can be expressed by the concept of “Trickster,” that is a daring swindler and charlatan, a man with a double bottom, who uses games, simulation, switches, and avoidance in his activity. According to Jung, the “Trickster” is an embodiment of a youthful tyrant-fighting hero, who combats authority with cleverness rather than strength.

The political Fronde of Sots Art is based not only on parody of cult texts and their personification but also on a particular type of behavior that, no matter the plot, is outrageous in a social structure with regulated forms of conduct. This behavior, which can be defined by the word “mockery,” is programmatic for the adepts of the style, because it is a form of panacea and therapy for totalitarian social relations. Mockery is not mastered and used by the author himself. It is offered, in fact, forced on the viewer in the form of inevitable laughter that comes in reaction to the stupidly parodic or absurd images in Sots Art works.

The game-playing performance practice, often bordering on incongruous pranks and self-presentation of the authors as show offs and madmen, is interestingly combined in Sots Art with a deeper scholarship and use of actual scientific and philosophical knowledge. I am referring to structuralism, which in the early 1970s offered a new vision of individual creativity and the development of styles and entire cultures.  The turn to structuralism was well prepared by a thorough knowledge of the works of the Russian formalists and of Mikhail Bakhtin. The artists of Sots Art considered themselves researcher culturologists, and armed with the ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, they elaborated a universal reading of the history of twentieth-century Russian art as the triad: “avant-garde—Socialist Realism—Sots Art.”

Andrie Erofeev