ESSAY: Artistic Juries Serve Up Bland Diet of Realism
- By Anatoly Korolyov
- Feb. 11 1998 00:00
Everyone in Moscow has seen the huge monument to Peter the Great on the bank of the Moscow River. Everyone has heard how artists, journalists and art critics have sharply criticized this gloomy, ugly colossus, which is higher than the Christ the Savior Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the capital. The sculptor Zurab Tsereteli is rumored to have offered the Americans this figure as a monument to Christopher Columbus. Then he supposedly remade Columbus into a Russian tsar. But no matter. What is important is that this giant was installed in Moscow without any competition, without competing ideas. The result is that a bronze-and-stone monster as frightening as a dinosaur from "Jurassic Park" prevails in the center of Moscow. Imagine if a monument to Washington higher than the Senate building on Capitol Hill were put in the U.S. capital. Absurd.
Moreover, a single sculptor has been given power over the entire Russian capital. His masterpieces are on Manezh Square and Poklonnaya Gora. He wins out everywhere, without competition from other artists. But the capital's appearance should not be the personal business of the authorities' darling, Tsereteli.
If in politics, the press, parliament and even television, there is a plurality of opinions, then in the realm of art, practically nothing has changed since the times when one party and a decrepit Politburo of Communist elders decided everything. Art has remained one-party. There is one style in painting and cinema and literature and architecture. That style, without exception, is realism. No Russian Andy Warhol, John Cage or Saul Bellow can attain fame here. We like only the style of Theodore Dreiser in literature and Tchaikovsky in music. A single taste, a single dish dominates here: meat and potatoes. The main thing is to make sure that what the cook has prepared is identifiable, so that there are no doubts as to what you are poking at on the plate.
I am a writer. My novels have twice been nominated for the Russian Booker Prize. Every time, I admit, I think of how to politely bow off of the list of candidates. Why? It's very simple. Because I have always considered the passions surrounding the prize an imitation of literary dispute that only gives the appearance of a normal artistic process in which there is aesthetic pluralism. But there is nothing of the kind. Writers like me have no chance of winning. All chances are given to one type of creative writing -- realism. And I profess a different approach to the novel. In my view, realism was good in the last century. The times are different now, and realism has grown old. My prose is rather like quail with wild mushroom and pungent herb stuffing or old salt fillet of sturgeon in champagne sauce. And it is judged by those partial to beer and Russian borshch made from sauerkraut.
Since the Booker Prize for Russian novels was introduced in 1992, only dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists have won. The jury is made up of people with the same literary orientations. Yesterday they were guardians of socialist realism; today they have turned into a stronghold of conservative aesthetics. The situation is practically the same as with Tsereteli. But the national prize is supposed to be independent and impartial.
Tellingly, the most popular novel of last year, "Chapayev i Pustota" ("Chapayev and Emptiness"), by Viktor Pelevin, did not make it to the short list. This novel has already been translated into several European languages. But Pelevin writes in the spirit of magical prose, with elements of Zen Buddhism. There are many thought games in it, which does not in any way fit into the Procrustean bed of realist language.
The dictatorship of a single method is continued in all other literary prizes. The Anti-Booker Prize, which is given out by the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, has given awards exclusively to writers of realistic prose for the third consecutive year of its existence. So we now have a motley and bright picture of artistic life. Not only are there potatoes and cabbage, but fleeting glimpses of cauliflower, oranges and even the occasional avant-garde pineapple. There is something to embellish the table besides pelmeny and vodka.
The Triumf prize for cultural achievement is awarded only at the end of a long life. Among the latest laureates is a man who is more than 90 years old -- let him live to be 100 -- who had been awarded two Stalinist prizes under Stalin. He has received enough laurels in his century. It is impossible for beginners in Russia to receive prizes as has happened on several occasions in France with the Prix Goncourt or the Booker Prize in Britain, to cite two examples.
The very idea of encouragement or incentive has disappeared. This is unfortunate. Even the Nobel Prize is less conservative than the Russian Booker, Anti-Booker or Triumf. Nobel awards are given in physics, chemistry and literature for innovators and people who have developed on the ideas of their predecessors. The Nobel Prize boldly supports discoveries rather than approving and repeating what has come before.
This unfortunate aspect in Russian aesthetics is not a recent phenomenon. During the '30s, when Moscow announced an open competition for the palace for the soviets of world communism, many European architects took part. Today, it is clear that the best project was put forward by the great Le Corbusier. But the building's fate fell into the hands of a Russian architect who modeled himself after mock-classical fantasies of Giambattista Piranesi. The tower, which was meant to be crowned by a sculpture of Lenin, would have been the highest building in the world. Only the weak foundation, war and the death of Stalin prevented this architectural nightmare from being built.
Only one taste prevails in Moscow today: love for buildings made of glass. Look at the city, from the Hotel Rossiya to the Gazprom tower. This is not architecture, but an eau-de-cologne exhibit. The same dictatorship of tastes can be found in the theatrical world, where everything is gauged according to the Stanislavsky method. Broadly speaking, the Bolshoi Theater's style reigns in our modern art. One and the same ballet is performed for export -- variations on the classical pas-de-deux. One review in America accurately described such ballets as a dance of bureaucrats.
During the '60s there appeared a huge cookbook that quickly became a best seller. The recipes were copied out among neighbors. But, strangely, most of the recipes were for kasha, strained soups and diet food for sick people with stomach or liver problems. Nothing spicy! The secret of the book's success was simple. It reflected the tastes and passions of the Politburo members as well as all the problems that the these elders had with their stomachs, nerves, livers, sight and hearing.
Alas, we are still on an aesthetic diet for diabetics.
Anatoly Korolyov's works include "Eron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.