Is Vladislav Surkov an Artist?

JAMES DIXON

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Introduction

In this essay I propose that the Russian politician Vladislav Surkov is in fact an artist. It has been suggested that in contemporary Russian politics Art theory informs both domestic and foreign policy at the highest level. I will explore the validity of these claims, through the actions and statements of Surkov (the doctrines purported architect), to build a theoretical framework that firmly situates his activity within the wider field of postmodernism.

Who is Surkov?

I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system…My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernisation, innovation, foreign relations, and… modern art.  —Vladislav Surkov 1

There are few more ambiguous figures in contemporary world politics than Vladislav Surkov. Portrayed by western media sources as the ‘Grey Cardinal’ or ‘Putin’s Rasputin’ much has been written about this complex character. A full biography is beyond the bounds of this essay, however an brief outline of his ascent to prominence is necessary to understand the polymorphic nature of his career and philosophy.

Born to a Russian mother and a Chechen father in 1964, Surkov was a ‘straight-A student, who wrote poetry, had hair like Pink Floyd and wore velvet trousers.’2 Growing up in a rapidly changing Soviet Union he ‘abandoned a range of university careers from metallurgy to theatre directing.’3 before doing some time in the Soviet Army’s counter-intelligence unit.4 He moved on to Moscow where he gained a masters degree in economics, taking a job as businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s bodyguard. Khodorkoysky, one of a number of emerging young business stars who would go on to become on oligarchs, saw potential in Surkov, promoting him to PR manager at his bank Menatep. Surkov would go on to become a successful television advertising executive and PR advisor to the Russian Government beginning a transition that would see him rise to become ‘Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist’. 5

Maintaining an interest in the arts throughout, Surkov may or may not be a published novelist and short story writer. He may also have written lyrics for anti establishment rock groups. His work, if indeed it is his, could be described as being satirical in nature, and ‘aimed at the very government he is part of.’6 A government which is perhaps his greatest project. With Surkov nothing is clear, which is exactly the point. As one journalist put it ‘[for ‘Surkov] there is no real freedom in the world, except through the arts.

Lyotard and Surkov

Many commentators have highlighted the parallels between Surkov’s activities and the theories proposed by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. It has been noted that the first Russian translations of Lyotard’s work entered circulation in the late 1990’s just as Surkov was making his transition from the private sector into government.7 For someone at the forefront of Russia’s transition from communism to a market economy the attractions of Lyotard’s most prominent work, his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’, are many. The books overarching theme is of an end to the grand or meta-narratives associated with modernism and a recognition of a subsequent atomisation of thought and with it society. Lyotard goes on to suggest that this new paradigm was created by the dominance of ‘liberal capitalism’8 which had effectively ‘eliminated the communist alternative’. This postmodern condition, he contends, is characterised by the recognition of multiple perspectives and micro-narratives. For Lyotard, in this diffuse situation, dominance of information is power.

Knowledge In the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to, be, a major perhaps the major-stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labour. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other.—Jean-Francois Lyotard 9

Lyotard suggests that the task of a true artist is to transcend this situation by creating works that are incommunicable and therefore cannot be processed and commodified by information systems, he cites Malevich’s Black Square (fig 1) as a key example of this. The assumption here is that an artist must operate from a position outside the system they seek to critique. However as artists such as Jenny Holzer (fig 2) and Barbera Kruger (fig 3) have shown that it is possible to achieve this from within. By subverting dominant forms of media representation through a process of defamiliarisation these artists reveal an underlying mechanism of control.

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fig 1. Black Square, Kazimir Malevich, 1915

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fig. 2 Protect me from what I want, Jenny Holzer, 1982
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fig. 3 Your comfort is my silence, Barbara Kruger, 1981

Every deal we make, every face we kiss, involves a politic—a politic which is constituted within the strictures of the marketplace. To say that one is located outside it—I simply don’t live that life. —Barbara Kruger 10                               

Every utterance should be thought of as a “move” in a game. —Jean-Francois Lyotard 11

Surkov’s media interventions represent an amalgam of these differing approaches. Though his frank dissemination of ambiguous and contradictory statements, fiction, humour, honesty, heresy. he swamps any existing narrative, defamiliarising the entire landscape and in the process and undermining trust in any existing information structure. To the spectator this total defamiliarisation has the opposite effect of Holzer and Kruger’s work prompting them to crave rather than question the stability of the established order, in this case Vladimir Putin.

However much the organisation of the state may change, for all the uncertainty, the basic matrix is preserved of a consciousness [in which] synthesis predominates over analysis, intuition over reason, gathering things together and not dividing them. —Vladislav Surkov 12

It is interesting at this point to note that both Kruger and Surkov have a history in the commercial arts. The importance of which Kruger herself was happy to acknowledge…

…the biggest influence on my work, on a visual and formal level, was my experience as a graphic designer—the years spent performing serialized exercises with pictures and words.—Barbara Kruger 13

Self-Design

The introduction of aesthetics into the spheres of commerce and politics through design, advertising and public relations are part of a wider ‘aestheticisation of everyday life’14 that is characteristic of the postmodern condition. The actions of Surkov, Kruger and Holzer are linked by a recognition of, and response to, the growing significance of aesthetic perception.15 Recent developments in media and information technology have accelerated and personalised this process. Social media has engendered a commodification of the self by providing the individual with an aesthetic platform through which to construct an idealised persona, the process by which we do this Boris Groys terms as ‘self-design.’ For Groys self-design16 makes art works and authors of us all, creating, in the process, a world of total design and with it total suspicion. Here he invokes the Derridean notion of the Pharmakon. This duality, a contradiction within itself, suggests the ultimate end of postmodernism and presents the perfect stage for the art of Vladislav Surkov.

the ‘political’ and the ‘aesthetic’ are the inseparable, simultaneously present, faces of the postmodern problematic. —Victor Burgin 17

For self-design to succeed under these conditions Groys goes on to suggest that it must neutralise suspicion by affirming it. As we no longer believe in the purity and sincerity of the Modernist white cube we seek the cracks to satisfy our cynicism, only when we feel we have seen beneath the surface, and glimpsed the ugly truth is our faith restored. Works such as Cornelia Parker’s Pavement Cracks (City of London) (fig 4) and Rachel Whiteread’s House’ (fig 5) hint at this desire for negative space, while Joseph Kosuth’s deconstructive works reveal the floors in our implicit assumptions (fig 6). However it is in through expose and self-denuciation within celebrity culture that we see the most extreme and explicit manifestations of total suspicion. Clearly illustrated by the rise of reality television and ‘tell it like it is’ politicians such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.

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fig. 4 Pavement Cracks (City of London), Cornelia  Parker, 2012

 

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fig. 5 House, Rachel Whiteread’s, 1993
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fig. 6 Clock (One and Five), English/Latin Version, Joseph Kosuth, 1965

Confronted with a world of total design, we can only accept a catastrophe, a state of emergency, a violent rupture in the designed surface, as sufficient reason to believe that we are allowed a view of the reality that lies beneath.—Boris Groys 18

Surkov appears to understand this position perfectly, creating a unique brand of self-design by combining total disclosure with total design. The spectator, in this case the Western media or the Russian public, are confronted with a myriad of conflicting activities all seemingly linked to the Kremlin which prompt the inevitable suspicions and conspiracy theories. Surkov, assuming the role of puppetmaster19 not only embraces this cynicism, but actively provokes it. A clear example of this would be his actions following the Russian annexation of the crimea.20 When accused by the U.S. government of orchestrating the destabilisation of the Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent military intervention.21 Surkov responded by releasing a short story that seemingly confirmed many of the charges levelled against him. Set in a future fictional conflict, ‘Without Sky, written under the pseudonym Nathan Dubovitsky, is viewed by many as a manifesto of sorts.22 In the work Surkov uses the broad, Lyotardian themes outlined earlier to introduce his concept ‘non-linear war’.23

This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.

The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.—Vlaislav Surkov, Without Sky 24

Here reality and fiction, politics and the arts, suspicion and confession are all interchangeable. Through contradiction and an awareness of multiple perspectives Surkov lays the process bare. This allows him to dominate all potential critical narratives forcing the commentator to fall back to a stereotypical and therefore predictable position. Domestically this entails an acquiescence to a historically entrenched one party system, while in the West Surkov becomes the Hollywood Russian, a Machiavellian anti-hero, a roll that he wilfully embodies (fig 7).

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fig. 7 Vladislav Surkov

The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing. — Vladislav Surkov 25

A peculiar example of this postmodern rhetoric exists in the comedy of Stewart Lee. His television standup series ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ is punctuated by a series of confessional interview sketches in which he halfheartedly defends the process by which he performs. Here, the interviewer, Chris Morris, assumes the role of the critic, while Lee struggles to justify himself, seemingly confirming the audiences fear that his performance may be fraudulent. This ‘calculated self-denunciation’26 is then inverted within the main body of the show, where he vigorously defends his style by revealing a deep understanding of his audiences implicit suspicions. Here domination of the critical landscape is used to comic effect with the spectator finding humour through submission, however the technical parallels are striking.

Lee ends series 4 of the his comedy vehicle with a stark performance of a depressed and suicidal comic at the mercy of his audience, at times so convincing, that the audience begins to doubt wether they are witnessing an act. For Groys this total submission is an example of a ‘subtler and more sophisticated form of self-design’27, symbolic suicide. By implicating the audience in his apparent breakdown, Lee removes the final critical position, detachment. In this scenario the spectator becomes a participant in the work. In the words of Groys ‘When the viewer is involved in artistic practice from the outset, every piece of criticism uttered becomes self-criticism.’28 By relinquishing authorship through collaboration suspicion is nullified, Interestingly this is achieved through a reversal of postmodern atomisation.

Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (fig 8) is another interesting example, a hybrid of collective participation and political aestheticization. Surkov has employed similar tactics, though for rather less altruistic ends, through his support and sponsorship rival political groups in Russia (fig 9) he gives the illusion of a thriving political debate while remaining in total control of it. Outsourcing his philosophy into collective action to legitimise his concept of ‘Sovereign Democracy.’

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fig. 7 Battle of Orgreave, Jeremy Deller’s, 2001    
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fig. 9 Nashi Protest

The relentless criticism of democratic institutions is a natural sign of democracy. I’m not the one who said that—it was a famous European political scientist. If you criticise democracy in Russia, then that means it exists. If there are demonstrations, it means there is democracy. They don’t have demonstrations in totalitarian states.—Vladislav Surkov 29

An Oxymoron Sovereign Democracy is a clear example of George Orwell’s notion of Doublethink. Coined by Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) the phrase is defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘The acceptance of or mental capacity to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination.’30 I would argue that this state, which Orwell refers to as ‘collective solipsism’31 is an early example of postmodernism. The following excerpts highlight the similarities between Orwell’s fictional dictatorship and Surkov’s own feelings.

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal.—George Orwell, 1984 32

 However much the organisation of the state may change, for all the uncertainty, the basic matrix is preserved of a consciousness [in which] synthesis predominates over analysis, intuition over reason, gathering things together and not dividing them. —Surkov 33

Conclusion

In every century, the way that artistic forms are structured reflects the way in which science or contemporary culture views reality. 34

While science, today, limits itself to suggesting a probable structure of things, art tries to give us a possible image of this new world, an image that our sensibility has not yet been able to formulate, since it always lags a few steps behind intelligence—indeed, so much so, that we still say the sun “rises” when for three centuries we have known it does not budge.35

[Today there are] no privileged points of view, and all available perspectives are equally valid and rich in potential. Now this multiple polarity is extremely close to the spatiotemporal conception of the universe which we owe to Einstein. —Umberto Eco 36

It seems that the 20th century’s cold war was a modernist and scientific conflict as much as an ideological one. Breakthoughs in science proceeded developments in art and philosophy which were in turn the precusrsers to shifts in political and sociological norms. In the 21st century rapid developments in information technology have begun to merge science with society more directly through aestheticization. This confluence of apparently contradictory positions is perhaps the ultimate realisation of relativistic postmodern logic.

History tells us that the victor is often the last to learn the lessons of the battle. In Surkov perhaps we see the clarity of the vanquished, however disquieting his theories may seem, they do appear to reflect the contemporary condition in a strikingly visceral way. Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that the Russian system is not as far from our own as we would like to believe. By placing avant-guard art practice at the service of the state, Surkov breaks its last taboo. Shocking as this may seem it is surely just an extreme manifestation of capitalism’s increasing commodification of art through the market. It is quite possible that I overstate Surkov’s intentions here but whatever they may be it is clear that his actions hold a mirror to Western art and politics. By occupying the conflicting roles of avant guard artist and politician Surkov embodies the duality at the heart of postmodern logic. Whether we like it or not Surkov is an artist, perhaps the first truly Negative Artist.

References

  1. Peter Pomerantsev. 2011. Putins Rasputin. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n20/peter-pomerantsev/putins-rasputin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. RICHARD SAKWA . 2011. Surkov: dark prince of the Kremlin. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/richard-sakwa/surkov-dark-prince-of-kremlin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  5. Ibid
  6. 2011. Surkov The Puppetmaster. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thehippocollective.com/2015/04/18/surkov-the-puppetmaster/…. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  7. Peter Pomerantsev. 2011. Putins Rasputin. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n20/peter-pomerantsev/putins-rasputin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  8. Lyotard, J F, 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1st ed. page 36 Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.
  9. Ibid (page 5)
  10. Barbara Kruger, Discussions in Contemporary Culture. Number One, 1987, p.52
  11. Lyotard, J F, 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1st ed. page 10 Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.
  12. RICHARD SAKWA . 2011. Surkov: dark prince of the Kremlin. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/richard-sakwa/surkov-dark-prince-of-kremlin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  13. Interview with J. Siegel, Arts Magazine, June 1987
  14. Mike Featherstone, M, 2007. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  15. ibid
  16. Boris Groys. 2008. Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/self-design-and-aesthetic-responsibility/. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  17. Victor Burgin, The End of Art Theory, pp.163-4
  18. Boris Groys. 2008. Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/self-design-and-aesthetic-responsibility/. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  19. 2011. Surkov The Puppetmaster. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thehippocollective.com/2015/04/18/surkov-the-puppetmaster/…. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  20. Bret Perry. 2015. Non-Linear Warfare in Ukraine: The Critical Role of Information Operations and Special Operations. [ONLINE] Available at: http://smallwarsjournal.com/printpdf/27014. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  21. Peter Storey. 2015. Vladislav Surkov: The (Gray) Cardinal of the Kremlin. [ONLINE] Available at: http://ciceromagazine.com/features/the-gray-cardinal-of-the-kremlin/. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  22. Bret Perry. 2015. Non-Linear Warfare in Ukraine: The Critical Role of Information Operations and Special Operations. [ONLINE] Available at: http://smallwarsjournal.com/printpdf/27014. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  23. Natan Dubovitsky. 2014. Without Sky. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue582/without_sky.html. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  24. ibid
  25. Maria Tadeo. 2014. Vladimir Putin’s top aide Vladislav Surkov mocks US sanctions: ‘The only thing that interests me about the US is Tupac, and I don’t need a visa’ for that. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vladimir-putins-top-aide-vladislav-surkov-mocks-us-sanctions-the-only-thing-that-interests-me-about-9200170.html. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  26. Boris Groys. 2008. Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/self-design-and-aesthetic-responsibility/. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  27. ibid
  28. ibid
  29. RICHARD SAKWA . 2011. Surkov: dark prince of the Kremlin. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/richard-sakwa/surkov-dark-prince-of-kremlin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  30. 2016. doublethink. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/doublethink. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  31. Orwell, G, 1949. 1984. 5th ed. New York: Signet Classic.
  32. ibid
  33. RICHARD SAKWA . 2011. Surkov: dark prince of the Kremlin. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/richard-sakwa/surkov-dark-prince-of-kremlin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].
  34. Eco, U, 1989. The Open Work. 1st ed. page 13. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  35. Ibid (page 90)
  36. Ibid (page 18)

 

Bibliography

1984 Orwell, G, 1949. 5th ed. New York: Signet Classic.

Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. Mike Featherstone, M, 2007. 2nd ed. New York: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Non-Linear Warfare in Ukraine: The Critical Role of Information Operations and Special Operations. Bret Perry. 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: http://smallwarsjournal.com/printpdf/27014. [Accessed 27 April 2016].

The Open Work. Eco, U. 1989. 1st ed. page 13. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Lyotard, J F, 1984. 1st ed. page 36 Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Putin’s Rasputin. Peter Pomerantsev. 2011.[ONLINE] Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n20/peter-pomerantsev/putins-rasputin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].

Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility. Boris Groys. 2008.[ONLINE] Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/self-design-and-aesthetic-responsibility/. [Accessed 27 April 2016].

Surkov: dark prince of the Kremlin. RICHARD SAKWA . 2011.[ONLINE] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/richard-sakwa/surkov-dark-prince-of-kremlin. [Accessed 27 April 2016].

Surkov The Puppetmaster. Unknown. 2011. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thehippocollective.com/2015/04/18/surkov-the-puppetmaster/…. [Accessed 27 April 2016]. 

 

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