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Viktor Misiano: "The fact that the art prizes play such a big role in peripheral countries is a sign of an undeveloped infrastructure."

Viktor Misiano (2/2013)

KUNST.EE is happy to publish a translated transcript of the provocative speech that the famous Moscow curator and art theoretician Viktor Misiano gave on 15 February at the Riga Bourse Conference Room. Speaking before the award ceremony for this years' Purvîtis Prize, he commented quite harshly on the mechanism of monetary prizes in the art world. The transcript was made available online in English by on 15 April. It is published here below with the website's editors' kind permission.


"I was invited to speak about curating art. But in truth, all my life I have wanted to be a social philosopher. I have been, however, unsuccessful; and so I curate. And that's not all; it's actually much more complicated. I have come to Riga this time not as a curator, but as a member of a panel of judges. Overall, I've spent the last years not curating exhibitions, but sitting on various judging panels. And then there's my friend, Boris Groys (whose parents, by the way, come from Riga), who is a very famous philosopher, but dreams of being a curator and takes advantage of any situation he can to put together an exhibition. However, he also isn't satisfied – because he's always sitting on some panel of judges, he doesn't have the time to curate exhibitions and write books.

That is why I decided that, today, it would be more interesting to talk about prizes. About how, in his work, a curator comes into contact with prizes; their overall meaning in our lives; and their connection to art. I was speaking to my colleagues yesterday, the other members of the panel, and all of them asked me about the Kadinsky Prize: how can it be that the main prize was divided between two artists? First of all, I was surprised that people in Riga know of the Kadinsky Prize, and that they were aware that it was split between two artists in the same category. I didn't even know who they were. I don't remember, because it really doesn't interest me. Other members of the panel mentioned somebody nominating somebody else for the Turner Prize, and what that insinuated. I didn't understand any of this except for the fact that, in the context of Riga, a prize must mean very much.

Overall, a prize does mean very much, specifically in the post-communistic context, and especially in our countries; while in continental Europe, probably no one even knows who has been nominated for which awards, or who won the Turner Prize. That doesn't interest anybody in continental Europe. It is something for the young nations, and a country like England – which is also a new characteristic feature. England has always been an absolutely peripheral country, and in my view, it will also stay that way. And the fact that the Turner Prize plays such a big role in these peripheral countries – of which we are also a part – is, of course, a sign of an undeveloped infrastructure.

But what is interesting: when I sat on the windowsill here, contemplating my thoughts, I actually came to the conclusion that there is nothing more of a polar opposite than the job of the curator and the job of a judge on a panel. Because, in relation to the piece of art, they are completely different types of interpersonal relationships.

The word "curator" comes from cura – "care". The curator is a co-author to the artist. He is a person who enters a very intense dialog with the artist. For instance, there was an exhibition held in Moscow, and the daughter of an oligarch wanted to curate it... This young woman lives in London, but she decided that she wanted to organize an exhibition in Moscow. But she didn't want to actually go there and meet with the artists – so, she selected them through the internet. You're laughing, of course, because a curator who hasn't seen the artist – well, that's just nonsense. But in truth, when we were sitting and discussing the top nominees yesterday, the fact that I am not from Riga and that I don't know the artists, turned into a major plus. It was assumed that not knowing the person, nor the context, is a very important mission. And that's exactly why I was asked to be a judge – because I don't know any of the artists, and I look at their art from some sort of neophytish and removed (and therefore, overly-objective) point of view. That is completely in contrast to what I am used to. I did not curate here; here, I simply observed, with some sort of completely non-curatorial perspective.

When working with an artist, the curator must look for the best in him – what is the best way to present him. But a member of the judging panel, on the other hand, must see what is "bad" in the artists' works – so that the "bad" artists can be winnowed out and so that there is a reason for not giving them the Grand Prix. That is, one must look at the weaker aspects in an artist's work. Yesterday, all of us endeavoured to comment negatively on all of the nominees, so that we would have arguments as to why this or that concrete person should not receive the prize. We strove to identify the weakest traits.

The most important thing to a curator is, of course, his freedom of choice. In the case of a panel, the situation is different, because I had to choose from eight finalists who had been selected by other people. Maybe I would have wanted to choose somebody else, but I couldn't; I was put into a narrow framework: I had to choose from a preselected group. The most important thing, of course, is that a curator strives to see the significance in art. In creating the text for an exhibition, even if it is thematically defined in some way, the job of the curator is to show the material's infinite richness and significance. He sees the metaphors in art. Not an allegory, but a metaphor, i.e., a symbol, the impossibility of an unequivocal answer. But a prize, however, is essentially closer to athletics – because from a huge number of artists, one is chosen and proclaimed to be the absolute best one. And in this sense, it is more like sports rather than culture, because it is precisely in sports that one can precisely and unambiguously declare who has jumped the furthest or the highest, because everyone else has jumped lower. Clearly, this is essentially not possible in art, because we see art ambiguously – as the expression of very different individuals; but even from this viewpoint, a prize is reductive. It leads to something singular, definite and, under this definition, absolutely anti-cultural.

And the very main, and paradoxical, thing... In working with an artist, the curator gives him money to do his work. Along with discussing the concept for the project, the artists asks: "Is there a budget for the new project?", and if there is one, the curator knows that his position, in a purely practical sense, is quite strong. A panel of judges does the exact opposite. It hands out money for a work of art that already physically exists, and is finished.

Overall, the problem of money and prizes is a separate subject that I would like to look at in more detail – especially in the context of Riga, where there really are very few institutions (my colleagues and I spoke about this yesterday, and again today). Really, a very paradoxical situation arises when money is given for art that has already been created. And both sponsors and public institutions (that deal with art), somehow, fail to realize that they are not handing out money to create this piece of art, nor are they creating an environment for creativity that is being financially supported. But they give money for a piece of art that has, in some unknown way, already been created. But how did it get made? For example, there is a monetary prize in Moscow called the Innovation Prize, whose sponsors happily distribute money to all of the innovators – to curators and to artists, both young and middle-aged – because they are so shockingly innovative.

But at the same time, there aren't any programs that hand out money for bringing about innovation. In addition, if we take into account that innovation, by definition, is something that is unexpected and breaks all norms, then, of course, it is always harder to find money to bring to realization something that is completely new (as seen from the middle of the road). Why do we think that the prize must be given to the best one? I don't understand this logic. Why do we have to give him money if he is the best one? He already has everything going for him. The money should be given to the weaker one; it is harder for him... I understand that this sounds offensive. But it is absolutely logical, because there can be no "best" of anything if there is no "worst". We have to support the weaker ones so that they can exist; because without them, there will be no "best".

Yesterday, I saw in the exhibition a piece in which the artist makes an appeal to Arthur Danto. In his famous 1964 essay, Danto introduced the term "artworld". The essay was mostly about what, several years later, the French artists would call "the death of the creator". In short, the idea is rather simple (it has already become a common philosophical subject): the individual creator has dissolved into the environment. Creation comes about from a system of communication, from dialog with other people – in every genius-minded person, the greater part of his genius has been created by other people. That's why, if you could imagine that Riga's art scene were to consist only of prize-winners, then, of course, we would have to come to the realization of how poor Latvia's art has become. That's why the idea of giving out money to the very worst artists doesn't seem all that bad to me.

And finally, there is one more problem: why do we even give out a prize (i.e., acclaim), fame and money? Doesn't a check for a certain amount discredit the social, spiritual, and intellectual importance that is linked to the awarding of a prize and the singling out of a person, specifically, singling out his creative achievement? Let us remember the European traditions – troubadours, the start of European culture, and the late middle-ages, when creativity was dedicated to beautiful ladies. Let us remember the knightly competitions, in which men went to their deaths for the sake of a woman's handkerchief...

I once had to give a lecture at a conference, and at the time, I had an allergic reaction and a broken tooth... I felt awful; I was terribly ashamed because I looked like some kind of monster. At the end of the lecture, a very beautiful young woman came up to me and kissed me. At that moment, that kiss was worth more to me than 40,000 euros. Later, it came out that the incident was due to the hand of the artist Anatoly Osmolovsky, who had hired a girl from an escort agency... But in truth, I wouldn't rule it out: if the weakest artist is awarded 40,000 euros, then, for example, the kiss of a beautiful woman could be just the thing to award to the winner.

And then there is another question: why do we give a prize to an artist for what he has, rather than HASN'T, done? And why don't we give a prize so that afterward, he doesn't do anything else? For instance, my friend, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, being very young in age, founded the Oblomov Prize. He collected money so that the person who receives the prize doesn't have to do anything for one year, and that he also promises not to do anything. Naturally, he won the prize himself and went to America – because the girl that he was in love with (at the time) had gone there for work. It was during this time that the Italian was invited to the Venice Biennale. I know that, in Riga, there already is a tradition of the prize-winner going to the Venice Biennale. And that's what happened to Maurizio – he was invited to Venice, to participate in the young artists' pavilion. What did he do? It was his famous project. He sold his space to a pharmaceutical company, who then put their advertising stand there, and Maurizio received money from them and lived in New York for another year.

I think that both Osmolovsky, with his prize of a kiss, and Cattelan, with this, have come upon a very important thing... What do the bourgeoisie always accuse artists of doing? Of drinking, of doing nothing – and the state even gives them all of our money for that. Those are the usual accusations aimed at art. But they're right! An artist is lazy – a do-nothing, a bohemian. The sweetness of art – that is dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. It is also the primary feature of a bohemian life and a bohemian artist. A good, honourable tradition that comes from the... well, I know of it coming from at least the 16th century, when the artists of the late Renaissance, in proving their genius, boasted about not even touching their paints – the apprentices did everything. They don't do anything themselves; they just come up with the ideas. But what, then, is conceptualism? It's actually the same thing! What then, is Marcel Duchamp's ready-made? The dryer was physically made by a metalworker or factory worker – Duchamp just called it a piece of art. The principle of ready-made is at the core of the culture of the whole 20th century – that the artist himself doesn't do anything, he's an absolute slacker who does nothing. The foundation for this do-nothingness is purely theological. In truth – God's greatest joy is the rest that comes after having created for six days.

The Jewish Sabbath. I don't have to explain – in Riga, everyone knows what Jewish culture is. The famous sabbath during which it is forbidden to work. Being in the Near-East recently, I had a conversation with a member of a Jewish sect. We discussed whether or not one can make love on a Saturday. He explained to me which poses can be looked upon as work, and which ones – as dance. The ones that are like a dance, those are allowed, but the ones that are seen as work are forbidden. In the Christian tradition, it is also forbidden to work on a Sunday. And nirvana? If we distance ourselves from the Jewish and Christian traditions, and look at Buddhism – it also has "the greatest joy", "the greatest wisdom". The excellent modern-day philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has written a wonderful piece in one of his books, and it's even been translated into Russian. It is, once again, about fame. But fame is always linked to not working. In Rome's Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, there is a mosaic of a throne – an empty throne; since the throne is empty, it is a place of emptiness, a place of no work. I even wrote down the quote. It says that by not working, one has the opportunity to look at the fundamentals from many sides. And that is the highest mark of the divine. And at the same time, it is the highest act of creation when, standing aside, you look at what you have created.

Concerning poetry, Agamben has written: what, truly, is poetry, if such a form of linguistic action is directed at making language ineffective, at stopping its function of informative communication by opening it up to new opportunities and uses? In this way, not working is also the highest form of creative work, the highest resource of creative work. Looking at it from this point, the Soviet government's sending of Joseph Brodsky to a labour camp, for parasitism, was an absolutely correct and sequential decision, appropriate for his talent as a poet. And from this viewpoint, doesn't it seem to you that residencies, another modern-day institution, are undeniably more appropriate for the nature of art – when a person is given money so that he simply does nothing? In American and European universities (but probably not here, just like in Russia), there is a tradition of going on sabbatical, which is when every seven years, a professor can do nothing, and still receive full wages. It is viewed that during this time of not working, which is in no way controlled by either the university or scientific research center, the most important opportunities for creativity are achieved.

In summary. The absolute reduction of ambiguity in art to the level of a sport – to the point of "the furthest", "the fastest", etc. The cult of "the best", the cult of achievement. And finally, the degrading of fame and achievement to the level of money – of course, behind all of this stands capitalism, with its big ears. Capitalism, with its values of individualism, material success, competition, contests, speed and maximization of everything to the primitive... Now it is clear why, in a post-communistic context, prizes have come before educational reform. Precisely because this is a young country, with a [young] regime that has begun to pull towards its artistic territory and [wants] to subjugate art with prizes. I must mention, however, that the link between prizes and money also existed in the soviet/communistic era. It is, overall, a part of the culture of manufacturing. The Lenin Prize also had an equivalent in the form of a quite large sum of money. That's why during the soviet years, one of the forms of protest was to do nothing. I remember the thesis of the time: they pretend that they pay us, and we pretend that we work. And this collective "doing nothing" was a mass protest against the regime. Recall Moscow Conceptualism... these "collective actions" (Коллективные действия) of pointless strolls in the countryside, of trips out of the city; and just the same – the pointless discussions about God-knows-what. See, this is also not quite "not doing anything", but rather – "doing nothing". In soviet-era art, the artists who had the sharpest perception of the situation began to practice "not working" as a creative method. By the way, American Conceptualism, which arose even a bit earlier, was created on the same platform. The year of 1968 and all of the protest art – they discovered for themselves not the idea of an object, or a manufactured thing, but rather the idea of process, development, and creating a form of life full of joy. The idea of alternative forms of living that overstep the usual order of things.

And another small suggestion: maybe this is exactly what everyone should be doing during the economic crisis right now, when this whole model of manufacturing and neo-liberalism has, decidedly, proven its ineffectiveness. In this situation, isn't it better to do nothing instead of creating some sort of objects that society can't make use of anyway? Correspondingly – isn't it better to decline these prizes, and to decline to participate in their exhibitions and judging panels? Among other things, during our discussion about prizes yesterday, somebody recalled that in Moscow, many artists are beginning to decline from participating in the exhibition for the Kandinsky Prize. This year, for the third time already, I declined to be on the panel of judges for the Innovation Prize. Is this a completely normal behavior strategy? I think it is.

There is one more remark that I'd like to make before I end. The problem is in the fact that, after the revolutionary upsets of the 1960s and 1970s, when artists began to actively make "doing nothing" a strategic art form, and when in our (at that time – unified) country, the working masses began to defy the regime by taking advantage of not working, secretly not working, sabotage, refusing to work... That is when capitalism contrived to appropriate this "not working", and incorporated it into the manufacturing process. For instance, all Post-Fordism theories (when I was in Riga two years ago, it turned out that these theories were not relevant here, but in Moscow, they were fashionable at the time) are the theory of non-material work, the theory of non-material manufacturing being the most prevalent type of modern-day manufacturing theory.

Truly, modern-day capitalism transfers all types of physical manufacturing to the periphery, while it itself deals with the doing of nothing. Financial profiteering, public relations, the tourism business, marketing, and other similar activities that do not create anything physical – just ideas, images... or, as the modern Post-Fordism theoreticians say, they "create effects" – emotional exchanges between people.

Among other things, the curator – if I speak as a curator – as an occupation, arose precisely during these years. A curator also does nothing. Everything that we see in an exhibit – he hasn't made that either. Although everybody says: I'm going to an exhibit curated by so and so. And what has he done in it? He, himself – nothing. Everything that is in the exhibit has been created by other people. Just as Duchamp didn't create his own objects...

And the final important thing to consider: situations in which the line between work and play disappears; when we are no longer working, but playing, and our politicians are playing – Vladimir Putin rises by taking fame away from Oleg Kulik, financiers create extremely clever financial schemes, marketing specialists come up with advertising projects that, in a sense, are also curatorial projects... When this line between work and play, between recreation and work, disappears – on one hand, it seems as if no one is working anymore, everyone is loafing around. But, on the other hand, the complete opposite can be true: everyone is working all of the time. And that's why a professor who doesn't do anything for a year is actually working all of the time – day and night – even when he shouldn't have to work. Ideas arise, and he puts them to use... We are constantly working. From this viewpoint, one can also see the main argument in favor of keeping prizes alive. Keep them as institutions. But without being dogmatic and orthodox. Everything that I have said today is veiled polemic with institutional criticism – which is something that has become very modern in the last few years. I want to say that prizes, as such, should not be criticized; rather, specific prizes should be criticized. Wrong selections for judging panels and wrong programs should be criticized. Instances of their being only one prize to award – should be criticized; there should be many and very diverse prizes.

Prizes, as such, shouldn't be criticized, but rather, the situation when a prize is the only leading and guiding institution. That is dangerous, that is harmful, and it creates an unhealthy environment. Prizes don't have to be the only supportive institutions for artists. They should be very diverse. And finally, it is dangerous when everybody starts acting too serious about a prize. One should relate to them ironically and accommodatingly; you have to understand their relative, conditional and situational character. A prize for prize critique should be established. I am prepared to nominate today's lecture for a prize in critiquing prizes, and if I receive a kiss from a beautiful woman, then I will take that to be the Grand Prix."



Viktor Misiano is a curator and art theoretician who lives in Moscow, Russia, and in Ceglie Messapica, Italy. He was a curator of contemporary art at the Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow (1980–1990) and the director of the Center for Contemporary Art (CAC), Moscow (1992–1997). In 1993 he was a founder of the Moscow Art Magazine (Художественный журнал) and has been its editor-in-chief ever since. In his freelance practice, Misiano was on the curatorial team for Manifesta 1, Rotterdam (1996) and curated the Russian section of the 3rd Istanbul Biennial (1992), the 46th and 50th Venice Biennale (1995, 2003), the 1st Valencia Biennial, Spain (2001), the 25th and 26th São Paulo Bienal (2002, 2004), the Central Asia Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005), "Live Cinema/The Return of the Image: Video from Central Asia", Philadelphia Museum of Art (2007–08), and "Progressive Nostalgia: Art from the Former USSR", Centro per l’arte contemporanea, Prato (2007, travelled to Athens; Tallinn, Estonia (Kumu Art Museum); and Helsinki).

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