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Brener & Flash Art: Terrorism & Naiveté
Rainer Ganahl

After Flash Art's accumulating articles on Alexander Brener, little further explanation is necessary as to who he is. He is the artist who sprayed a Malevich painting in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. What is interesting and depressing in this story is not so much the destructive act--though that alone would do--but the reactions and arguments published by Flash Art. In particular, the arguments by the magazine's chief editor about the freedom of expression, and the inability to place this destructive phenomena in a more sophisticated context made me wonder how their opinions might change if Flash Art were victimized in a similar way under the guise of "freedom of expression."

Now, let's look at it more closely. When Russian contemporary art became fashionable, mediated and commoditized just around the collapse of the Soviet system, art in Russia became as lucrative, attractive, and misunderstood as capitalism. Precisely at that time in 1991 and 1992, I spent almost five months in Leningrad and Moscow, living with artists who were young, starving, fatalistic, and in respect to the ordinary, "rich." When nobody had any access to Western contacts and starvation was a bitter reality, a lot of artists were selling something, or had some kind of contacts that allowed a comparatively exciting life. Art was a career, which explains why some people from neighboring fields--music, entertainment, film, literature, academia--turned their interest to art. To write an article or sell a drawing to gallery and museum people who came en masse to visit from the West in order to search and discover "unofficial art" paid far more than six months' salary at an ordinary job. I was amazed by the energy and the naiveté with which works were produced and purchased. Of course, there was nothing more exciting and attractive than the Western art scene, with its color magazines, its money and distribution systems. Though I was an artist and always made that clear, I was constantly dragged through studios as if I were a representative of the art market. So the first few years went by, and quite a few exhibitions and articles on Russian art appeared. Some careers--Kabakov's, a former writer, for example--became well-established. The ones who "made it" left for the West, and a second post-Perestroika generation was left behind, but commanding only a fading attraction to the West, since the Russian fashion was soon over.

So when I returned to Moscow for more than two months in 1995, a new scene had emerged. The major term was "Actionism," and the prime figures were Brener and Kulik. I became very good friends with Brener and was able to experience this kind of climate firsthand. By that time, a dollar was no longer worth one week's salary like in 1991 and 1992. Prices had skyrocketed, and the social and economic scene had been aggravated as the Russian Mafia made itself world famous. Next to the art center where I held seminars and discussions with participants like Brener--he came regularly, and his interest, energy, and charisma impressed me--a Mafia restaurant with "Mercedes valet parking" was booming. It went without saying that we couldn't afford anything there and didn't always know how to eat. Most remarkably, I was surprised by how aggressive personal interactions had become in the city (i.e. not just in the newspapers about daily shootings). Killing and terror became the main currency in economic and political life. So it wasn't too surprising to see an art scene that also had exchanged its brush for direct actions and aggression. Brener at that time was well known and respected for his verbally aggressive and Expressionist writings and poetry on women, sex, and the Moscow art world. His actions, which I attended while I was there, were harmless, but drew attention in Moscow, and later on, also in the West.

From the many discussions I had with artists including Brener, it became very clear to me that the Western media--in particular Flash Art, which was the first foreign art magazine I encountered in 1991 in studios where people weren't eating for days--and the New York art scene had turned into a kind of capitalist Fata Morgana of absolute desire, a place people wanted to be at any price. The reception of Western art and discourse in Russia was mostly superficial and reduced to iconism, tokenism, and name-dropping. The interests were as old as the latest information that made it more and more instantly obsolete. Flash Art even produced issues in Russian.

Now let me talk briefly about another phenomena that is increasingly problematic, less so in Moscow than in Los Angeles--stalking, the attacking of celebrities to associate one's name with the name and the fame of the victim that is not hated but adored, fetishized, and who serves as an obsession. This phenomena is much more applicable in characterizing the aggressive behavior of Brener than any empty discussion of freedom of art. It shouldn't be ignored that there is also a parallel phenomena where, for example, women will let themselves be abused in front of a camera in order to become published if the photographer is well known. I am inclined to say that people today do everything for publicity and media impact. As an artist, I am more interested in those that resist this spectacle, which has already become the operative method of art production and reception.

Brener also understood that (hetero-) sexual provocation or the kind of actionism that worked well in Moscow wouldn't necessarily excite anybody in the West anymore. Later on, when he was included in international shows, he started to cross boundaries that were also very sensitive in the West--the destruction of other people's artwork. When he first did it in Scandinavia, people started talking about him. He was successful in forcing himself into the media (Flash Art, fall 1996). So it was only a logical consequence for him to continue this path. There were never any serious reflections about the implications of his destructive acts. When he came to New York this past winter, we met several times. He talked to me about destroying masterpieces in big, prestigious places, but places he wanted to end up himself. It was part of his logic of accessing attention and media. I tried to talk him out of committing such an act here in New York at the Guggenheim Museum or the Museum of Modern Art. I have videotapes of these discussions in Russian. All my arguments about the repetitiveness, gratuitousness, the value of this symbolic intervention and the implications of his action on a social and symbolic sphere didn't really convince him. Only the descriptions of the situation in American jails and its conservative legal system had a persuasive effect on him.

Note when he did it in Europe. As the Flash Art interview says, he committed his destructive act just a few days before their interview. So couldn't it be that the effect of the media was encouraging him to do so, as my talks had discouraged him? I am convinced that after this support from Flash Art, he was probably inspired to commit this act of aggression in Amsterdam and maybe again in New York, since he had now set a successful precedent. A spectacular action, a spectacular media presence, a spectacular story for a news-starved industry. They all succeeded well in this complicity, a logic that is already best studied in the context of terrorism.

A quote from the interview, done just before Brener's incident, indicated to me that Flash Art had been previously aware of Brener's plan.

Francesco Bonami: "What would you like to do?"

Alexander Brener: "As I've already met a lawyer, I am not allowed to say anything. For me it is very important to be understood in the right way. I do not want to be seen as a terrorist, as a person interested in killing himself and others. I am a person who wants to realize a big work."

Bonami: "Are you ready to shoulder all the responsibilities, even the most extreme ones?"

Brener: "I am a weak person, but if something is important to me, I can surely do it . . . ." (Flash Art, May / June 1997)

Now let's look at their message. Art is said to be contaminated by money and speculation. There is nothing new about this insight. An intervention such as Brener's doesn't add any understanding of it, and doesn't change anything except for his own promotion, which has converted him into an attractive capitalist exchange object. Malevich's painting was permanently frozen, taken out of the market in its position in this state museum. It is definitely not an object of speculation. All speculation of market value is done on the part of the artist supported by the magazine. But what is even more surprising in this respect is that no analysis is given either by the artist or by the magazine except some stereotypical formula about art and money. All they could talk about on four pages is romantic expressionism in a self-promotionally heroic tone: freedom of expression, of art. What kind of art? Flash Art, with its understanding of art and art history.
Yes, I am increasingly determined in my defense of Alexander Brener's gesture, which I consider to be the creative gesture of an artist . . . . I am in favor of freedom of expression, just as I am in favor of the freedom to breathe, the freedom to smile, the freedom to die or the desire to live. I defend the gesture of Alexander Brener because it pulsates with energy, because it administers mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a work of art that is dead, just as any work of art or culture buried in our memory, our conscience, our books, is dead . . . . Museums are obliged to exhibit works of art but they have the duty to protect them. Had I been presiding over the trial brought against Alexander Brener, I would have asked that the Stedelijk Museum be prosecuted for its inability to protect a work of art . . .

Giancarlo Politi, Flash Art, May / June 1997.

So far, Brener, his actions, and Flash Art have all completely failed to address any issues on the subjects of money, corruption, art, art history, terrorism, or democracy (which they have cited). But Brener's destructive intervention does raise a huge array of other issues worth discussing.

One is the issue of security. Likewise with democracy, security of people and objects also needs a culture of respect. The standards of our society are not designed to constantly provide full protection against any kind of attack. As a matter of fact, our quasi-liberal society is very vulnerable. It doesn't take much to terrorize a population, to kill unprotected people, like we saw recently atop the Empire State Building, where a gunman shot several people with a semi-automatic weapon. This person hadn't any concept of art, and therefore didn't claim his act to be art, but he had a bizarre concept of morality and society which he expressed very well in the killing of others and of himself. From now on, it will be difficult to keep museums and art works unprotected, everywhere in the world. And it doesn't require much reading of Foucault to imagine our museums--like our society--becoming "gated," screened, and made very inconvenient as a result of these aggressive interventions borne of a fame-eager disposition. Instead of preaching metaphysical rhetoric of freedom and art, I am interested in the materialistic effects such regressive, media-directed, opportunistic actionism has on the infrastructures of museums. Flash Art not only fails at any social and critical responsibility, but has become fully complicitous with a naive, exploratory, sensationalistic, tabloid attitude in the promotion of such irresponsible behavior.

This act of destruction could be called social terrorism for the sake of media attention and a misguided concept of art. Classical terrorist acts have an ideological structure well beyond individual promotion. Social terrorism of this kind is not just a reflection of Russian political and social contemporary day-to-day life, but has now also been exported into a sphere which I thought would still function according to discursive and reasonable rules. When violence, destruction, and blackmailing enters the field of symbolic exchange--and it is very easy, though it already has famous precedents everywhere in Europe, and Brener himself is a result of such a history of symbolic oppression during the Soviet era--the climate is soon poisoned.

Flash Art, like most contemporary art media, is on the forefront of the sensationalization of art. So after having crossed almost all expressive taboos, there seems to be only this kind of destruction left, which even they can not analyze properly. There are no references to contemporary Russian society or its psychological and social terrorism and opportunism, no references to security issues and its repressive implications on museum culture (Flash Art could only make the cynical statement that the director of the museum should be punished for not having protected the artwork properly), ignorance of the media factor in this story (since they themselves play the major role), no discussion of the concept of "freedom of expression," which they apply without further explanation.

I still like Brener as a friend, though he might beat me up even without flowers (as he did with Dan Cameron when he refused to include Brener in a show) after reading this article, in order to see some "expression" in my face. But I find his recent "Actionism" of destruction abject, futile, non-productive, and irresponsible on any level. I do not consider it an artistic act, but an interesting contemporary social, narcissistic, and media symptom we will unfortunately soon see more of. Ironically, the promotion of the destruction of artwork is attacking precisely those objects created to offer an alternative, and a site of resistance to destruction, violence, opportunism, the power of media, and tabloid journalism.

Rainer Ganahl

New York, New York

1997

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