1. Other's other
As the starting point, I will simply use the title of the conference(1): We and the Others. The phrase seems to be simple and symmetrical, but as soon as one reads the subtitle ("Russian Artists in the West - Western Artists in Russia"), it becomes clear to him that the relationship between "us" and "the others" is far from being balanced and equivalent. The title indicates that the contemporary world is basically determined by the experience of "otherness"; in such a world, Russian art is confronted to many "others": for example, the art of the Far East (like China or Japan), of the Islamic world, of Latin America and Africa, to mention just a few areas where one can notice a considerable artistic activity in the recent time. However, the title does not refer to these "others", but to one and very special "Other": to the West, Western art world.
But why is Western art understood not just as one of several, basically equivalent art idioms, but as the other, so to speak? The answer is obvious: within the global network of art, Western art seems to hold the position of a "commanding point". Institutions, capital, market and concepts are based in the Western world or essentially connected to it. With perhaps not too much exaggeration one could say that it is West which actually determines what art is and what is not. And even much discussed "transcultural" processes cannot avoid this determinant: a certain regional art phenomenon or idiom is first appropriated by Western interpretations, institutions and capital, and subsequently "re-localized" or "projected back" into its original context. This relationship, of course, gives a very different meaning to the notion of "otherness". It may be true that Western art is "other" for us, but what really matters is that "we" are "others" for the West. This relationship is global. South African and Japanese art are perhaps little known and difficult to understand to each other, so one could describe their relationship with the notion of "otherness", but this is not really important. Much more important is, to what extent they remain unknown, unintelligible and thus "other" for West. The perversity of such a situation is, that "we" in advance understand ourselves as being "others" for the West, that "we" look at ourselves through "other's eyes", so to speak. This is, of course, a phantasmatic view; but through it, "we" understand ourselves as "other's other".
Very similar issues are discussed, e.g., by Ekaterina Dyogot, who speaks about the problem of identity and representation in contemporary Russian art. She describes the situation in which an artist is in advance forced to function as a representative in the relationship Russia - the West:
In Russia, speaking about representation, about the "inward" and the "external", is inevitably speaking about Russia as opposed to the West, the West being the only reference and place to be represented, when mentioning the unrepresented. When unrepresentable, the reference is unavoidably to Russia.
What Dyogot is describing is exactly a world marked by otherness and demanding representation; but it is also a world determined by one special other, the West.

2. The Phantasmatic "Other"
Certainly, it is not only in art that we speak about a divided world, a world built of closed, mutually unintelligible units. As a matter of fact, this view corresponds exactly to the new paradigm in the global politics, a model which is supposed to serve as the basis for establishing the "world order". These views are, for example, developed in "The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order", the much discussed book by Samuel P. Huntington(2); and this book is certainly not presenting just a private speculation, but offers concepts for political interpretations and strategies. It is a paradigm which has replaced the modernist universalistic model. Huntington describes the world as a kind of patchwork of civilizations (based on ethnical, religious, cultural and other similarities). These civilizations are supposed to be in a conflict relationship with other civilizations. This is essentially a post-cold-war, but also a post-colonial model. The symmetry of political and ideological oppositions and the classical relationship between the colonial capital and colonies have disappeared; instead of this, we now have Huntington's paradigm, which, in my opinion, tries to ensure the civilizational unity of the Western world and, at the same time, to define and ensure its position in a world which cannot be directly controlled any more in such a way that it is still possible for the West to secure its vital global interests.
Why do I think that one function of Huntington's paradigm is to secure Western identity? We are repeatedly speaking about the West as a single and coherent unity, but in fact it is very heterogeneous: it has its own centers and peripheries, its own antagonisms and fights for the dominant position and hegemony (let us think only of the polyvalent relationship between European and American culture.) The strong evocation of Western identity can be further understood as a symptom indicating the fact that this very identity cannot be taken for granted any more. Western world is, as a matter of fact, itself heterogeneous in the cultural and even civilizational sense, and therefore itself a potential (sometimes even actual) space of conflicts. The role of the multinational capital and development of the new "global cities", centres of the global economy networks introduce important new factors, too.
The modernist ideology of the Cold War and neo-colonial era was based on the idea that modern Western forms and values are the modern forms and values and therefore universally valid. Certainly, such an ideology can be understood as a tool for dominance and control. As such, modernist universalism was combined with a kind of ethnographic approach to the "other", basically pre-modern forms. The model of the "clash of civilizations", on the other hand, corresponds to a world where the West, with its will to power and control, is challenged by emerging new centers of power. According to this model, modern civilization is not necessarily Western and neither is Western civilization necessarily modern.(3) I believe that the intention of this theory is to ensure the essential interests of the West in the time when the West cannot aim at the universal dominance any more. But there may be another far-reaching aspect. Not only is power re-distributed territorially, it is becoming de-territorialized, global, fluid and abstract. The strong evocation of identity and differences can be, therefore, also understood as a reflex of the very crisis and disappearance of such an identity.
All this indicates that "the West" itself, together with its particular "Western identity", is perhaps just a phantasm; also "our" own phantasm, our own "other", the base on which "we" construct "our" own identity.
The paradigm of "the clash of civilizations", of the world all split in differences and conflicts, in "other" civilizations and cultures, is, in a certain sense, deeply occidocentric. Its function is to ensure the civilizational unity of the West and, at the same time, its political and cultural primacy. The logic which we can discover in Huntington's undertaking is, in fact, very similar to the logic of the title of the conference. In his approach, too, we first have a picture of the world as a patchwork of different civilizations; but, actually, his book is not only written from the position of a Western observer but also with the ambition to establish a system of explanation through which the West will be able to deal with "others".
The relationship of the Western world towards these strange "other" civilizations and cultures is exactly the one described by the title of the conference: "we and the others". As "our" position is not universal any more, it is necessary to "understand" and "explain" other cultures. Very often, these explanations follow the pattern, critically analyzed by Edward W. Said in his "Orientalism".(4) Just as "Orient" and "Islam" (concepts, discussed by Said), these "other" cultures appear as timeless phantasmatical entities, e.g. as "archaic", "irrational", "wild", "dangerous", etc.
From such a point of view, one would try to explain contemporary Russia and its contradictions not through an analysis of actual political and economical antagonisms, but through a phantasmatic "Russian essence". This eternal and unchangeable essence seems to be strange, dangerous and attractive at the same time, and it includes such issues as the Orthodox and mystic traditions, emotional, irrational and poetic Russian soul, etc.; it can, for example, also imply the idea that Russians "by their nature" prefer strong, authoritarian political figures to a fully developed democratic system.
3. Western Curators in Africa
The world of "others", or better, the world of The Other (the West) and (its) others therefore demands "interpretation" and "explanation", and only these can be the basis for a possible "dialogue". This relationship implies a construction of a system of identities and representations; the "explanatory" relationship with "another" culture means that all the products of this culture have to be understood as "representing" it and its "identity". In this inter-cultural relations, artists are, regardless of their own intentions, forced to function as "representatives" of their strange world. When "we" deal with artists from "other" cultures, "we" search for this "other" in their work; for example: how does a certain Russian artist (re)present the phantasmatical "Russian essence" in his work? This very "explanation" of the "essence" and "identity" which are "represented" in a, e.g. work of art, however, re-confirms our own "essence" and "identity".
If I return to the above mentioned text by Dyogot, I can, perhaps, say that one of her main points is exactly the problem that a Russian artist cannot avoid being such a representative:
The Russian artist perpetually finds him/herself between the Scylla and Charibdys of two representational mechanisms which are switched on automatically and ruthlessly. In Russia, [...] being "contemporary artist" means to represent Western culture [...]. In the West, on the other hand, a Russian artist must inevitably represent Russia.

We could certainly point to a number of examples when reception (and sometimes also success) of Russian artists in the West were connected with the fact that they could be used as representatives of the Russian (and earlier also Soviet) essence. The position of Ilya Kabakov, for example, is very interesting in this respect, especially because he has, as a "re-located person", for a long time obsessively talked about his experiences in the Soviet Union, about reality, ideas, fantasies, etc.(5) In spite of this, he did not want to accept the role of somebody "typical", of a "representative"; but this was, to a great extent, exactly what was happening to him. His public toilette/apartment at the 1992 Documenta, for example, is certainly using elements taken from the Soviet reality, but it is actually a very personal, poetic and ironic construction, a network of meanings, of fragments of realities and, arguably, of references to personal experiences and obsessions. But of course, it could not avoid the understanding in the style: to live in the USSR is like living in a public toilette.
Perhaps it would also be possible to understand the extremely negative reactions to the recent "scandal" with Alexander Brener and Oleg Kulik in Stockholm (and to Brener's action with Malevich's painting in Amsterdam), as well as the incredibly quick subsequent integration of these two artists into the "business as usual" of contemporary art world through these relations. The Stockholm project was (explicitly) about the East - West dialogue and (implicitly) about the dominant position in this dialogue. The Open Letter to the Art World, denouncing Kulik, Brener and Viktor Misiano as being against art, democracy and women (can a "politically correct" mind produce more terrible accusations?) because they did not take for granted, for "natural", the proposed terms of the "dialogue", was just a symptomatic "slip". Very quickly, both Brener and Kulik were re-codified and the role and meaning of their actions was determined. The art world found their place inside its normal discourse - exactly as representatives of "the other", in their case, of the wild, destructive, dangerous, naively critical, but also strangely attractive "Russian essence". Now they are supposed to behave aggressively, to break windows, etc. The paradox here is not only that by understanding them merely as representatives of the phantasmal Russian essence, we overlook exactly the dimensions that make their art interesting as art(6), but also the fact that two strategies we often meet in contemporary Russian art (violence on one side and a highly private, almost unintelligible language on the other) and which can be, among others, understood as an attempt to act against the system of representation/explanation(7), are eventually appropriated by the very same system and get the "representative" value.
But Dyogot also speaks about a contradictory double mechanism of representation: Russian artists are supposed to represent Russia for the West and, at the same time, the West for Russia. This insight turns our attention to the fact that there are, besides the game of representation, other structures active in contemporary art world. One of them is the idea that Western modern art is, in fact, the modern art, that modernization (in the visual arts as well as in other areas of cultural and social life) is Westernization. Other social and cultural forms are supposed to be essentially pre-modern, and they have primarily a folklorist value. So, in the world of contemporary art, we meet at least two systems. The older ("modernist") one claims that the history and development of Western modernist art has a universal value and are, as a matter of fact, the history and development of modern art as such; the more recent ("post-modernist") one admits that, in contemporary world, there exist very different "modern" cultures, that Western forms are not universal and that cultural products, such as works of art, function as "representatives" of their respective cultures and civilizations. Let me illustrate this very general issue with a small anecdote. In the mid-eighties, when not only Eastern European art, but also art from Africa and Latin America was becoming interesting for West, a group of curators went to Africa to select some artists for an international show. After they did the selection, however, they were surprised to hear from the local art people that they had left all really important artists aside and selected only the most horrible "African" kitsch. How could this happen? (After all, the curators were certainly professionals...)
I believe that the explanation could be roughly the following: in Africa, these curators met two types of art. One was the product of Western-influenced intellectual elites (one often calls the "modernizers" of "Westernizers"), of people who considered Western forms in society, economy and also art to be universal. The curators from the West, however, could hardly see "authentic" art in these works. Most probably, they understood them as provincial copies of Western originals; but for them, they were non-authentic not only because they were copies, but also because they were signs of loss of the roots, traditions and, thus, the very identity. To put it simply, they were not "other" any more, and this "other" and "different" was exactly what the curators were searching for. It is not a surprise, then, that they preferred artists who were openly using the "indigenous" traditions; for them, this was the genuine, real African art. Local intellectuals ("Westernizers") were, of course, shocked: for them, these works were extremely bad, non-authentic, folklorist art, a false, nostalgic image which does not correspond to the reality of the developing, modern Africa any more.(8)

4. United Colors of Multiculturalism
I believe that this parallelism between the position of the Second and Third Worlds in their relationship towards the First World is no coincidence. In both cases, basically the same strategy is active: "permitting" the "cultural differences" (on the background of the idea of primacy of Western cultural forms). In his criticism of the so-called multiculturalism, for example, Rasheed Araeen discovers exactly the same structure. The West, in his opinion, uses multiculturalism "as a cultural tool to ethnicise its non-white population in order to administer and control its aspirations for equality" as well as "a smokescreen to hide the contradictions of a white society unable or unwilling to relinquish its imperial legacies".(9) Araeen's description of the strategy of "cultural difference" corresponds almost literally to the problem the "representational" role of the Eastern (especially Russian) artists. As for the dominant discourse, it is so obsessed with cultural difference and identity to the extent of suffering from an intellectual blockage, that it is unable to maintain its focus on the works of art themselves. The obsession with cultural difference is now being institutionally legitimised through the construction of the "postcolonial other", who is allowed to express itself only so long as it speaks of its own otherness.(10) Araeen concludes his analysis with an alternative vision: the prevailing western notion of multiculturalism is the main hurdle we now face in our attempt to change the system and create an international paradigm in which what takes precedence is art work, with its own set of rules for production and legitimation in terms of aesthetics, historical formation, location and significance, rules not necessarily derived from any one or originary culture.(11)
Araeen's analysis introduces the very broad field of "multiculturalism", which, however, exactly corresponds to the system of representation/explanation I have tried to discuss above. But, since his criticism indicates also the question of the cultural imperialism, I will mention here a different document: The Letter of Support for Alexander Brener, written by Eda Cufer, Goran Eorevij and the IRWIN Group at the occasion of Brener's trial in Amsterdam.(12) Among others, the letter connects Brener's action, and his activity in general, with the criticism of the western strategy of "maintaining cultural, symbolical supremacy through the economical supremacy" by appropriations (in Brener's case, appropriation of the paintings Malevich left in Berlin after his exhibition in 1927); I believe that this "symbolical supremacy" is exactly the dimension which distinguishes the West from other "others". The letter then asks: "Is it true that the global capitalism is a new definition of the cultural colonization of the Western world of all the rest of the world?"
The systems of power and domination as seen by Araeen and by the Letter, however, are not completely the same. Araeen's criticism describes multiculturalism as a tool of imperial ambitions, which still exist, but are not universal and open any more. The question of the global capitalism, however, indicates a different system of domination.
Here, I will refer to Slavoj Zizek, who has developed an interesting issue about multiculturalism and global capitalism.(13) For him, multiculturalism is "the ideal ideological form of the global capitalism". As the power of this global capitalism is not located in the colonial metropolis any more, the difference between the colonial state and colonies has disappeared; capital now treats all states as regions which are to be colonized.
The ideal ideological form of this global capitalism is, of course, multiculturalism, attitude which, from some kind of empty global position, treats every local culture the same way the colonizer treats the colonized nation - as "indigenous people" who need to be researched and "respected". With other words, the relationship between the traditional imperialistic colonialism and global capitalist self-colonizing is exactly the same as the relationship between Western cultural imperialism and multiculturalism: just as global capitalism includes the paradox of colonization without the colonizing state, so multiculturalism includes the Eurocentric distance and/or a paternalizing respect for local communities without being rooted in a particular culture.(14)
Very often we meet the idea that multiculturalism is not neutral, that this neutrality is nothing but a mask of an Eurocentric and Occidocentric position, continues Zizek; this idea is, in a sense, true, but he offers an interesting explanation. For him, this "Eurocentrism" is just a kind of blind spot which hides the obvious truth: that there is no local position any more, that the subject is abstract and universal: "The horror is not the (particular living) spirit inside the (dead universal) machine, but (dead universal) machine in the very heart of each (particular living) spirit."(15)
Here, we are confronted with two opposite assumptions: that the West, through global capitalism, culturally colonizes the rest of the world, and that global capitalism as a completely de-localised system colonizes the whole world, including the West.
In contemporary world, we do not meet a single system of power and domination, but different systems which can also be in conflict. This conflicts also take place on the symbolic level. The struggle against hegemony in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. indicates a fight between an older, patriarchal and colonial system in which these differences were functional, and a more recent one in which the differences are not useful any more and can even be an obstacle. We also can assume that this shift corresponds with the shift towards global, multinational capitalism. Through this shift, we can understand the difference between multiculturalism as described by Araeen (a tool to ethnicise and a "smokescreen") and the one referred to by Zizek - i.e., multiculturalism which indicates that all such differences are eventually inessential.
The famous Benetton's slogan, "United Colors of Benetton", and its advertising campaigns are a clear example of this process: regardless of their haircut or color of their skin or their sex (or culture they belong to, one might add), all the different people on Benetton's poster are basically identical, the same. It is interesting how Benetton's advertising closely follows contemporary critical art, i.e. art which questions systems of dominance based on territorial, racial, cultural or gender differences. I believe that this connection is not purely accidental and that Benetton only offers an especially clear example how new global structures of domination can even explore critical art in their struggle against those symbolic and ideological structures which are in their way.
But even the global structures of power are not completely deterritorialized, completely "virtual". It is especially important that one effect of globalization is centralization of controlling and managing functions, and in this centralization, major cities in the highly developed countries (and their networks) gain a special importance.(16) Global power, thus, is not only connected to the West, but, through the importance of its major centres inside this global network, the West has re-defined its crucial role inside the global power system. The new centres are certainly not only abstract points; being "command points in the organization of the world economy" (Sassen), they are connected to the economical, political and also symbolical structures. (Here, we could mention a very recent example of how corporate economic power succeeded to construct an important centre of symbolic values using exactly the strategy of appropriation, as it was mentioned in the above quoted Letter of Support; I am thinking of the new Getty Center near Los Angeles.(17)
However, one could probably not say that the West is really the "subject" of the global capitalism. Through new global centres, the deterritorialized and abstract global power is somehow "anchored" into territory, although not necessarily completely integrated into it.(18) Around these points (and, perhaps, also in connection of locally existing power structures) new cores of domination are coming into existence.
This vision of the impersonal global capital, colonizing the whole world and collecting in its "command points" symbolic values, sounds very pessimistic. Is it at all possible to approach the new "international paradigm" in art, indicated, e.g., by Araeen?
We all secretly assume that the multicultural world of otherness is just a surface and that there is the other which is different from others in the sense that we are all different from it. But, is there a chance to stop understanding ourselves as "other's others" and to take the idea of globalism literally? Especially Russia, with its position, its political power and its artistic and intellectual potentials has, perhaps, a very real possibility of establishing a different, alternative international cultural network. But such an endeavour would demand a concentration of energies, and, in the first place, the escape from the game of representations, from the position of being "other's other".
  1. This text is the revised and partly extended version of the paper which I presented at the conference We and the Others (Russian Artists in the West), the Others and We (Western Artists in Russia), organized in the context of the Moscow International Art Fair ART MANEGE 97 on 6 and 7 December 1997.
  2. Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order". Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.
  3. Huntington, op. cit., p. 69.
  4. Edward W. Said, "Orientalism. Western Concepts of the Orient", Penguin, London, 1995
  5. Ilya Kabakov, XVIII congres de AICA a Stogolm (1994) "A Story about a Culturaly Relocated Person", M'ars (Ljubljana), 1996, n° 3/4, p. 35-45
  6. In his paper at the We and the Others ... conference, "We and the Different", Alexander Jakimovich has indicated an approach to Kulik's work which is essentially more interesting than the stereotype of the "Russian dog"; he understands his actions as a part of the effort to reach not only beyond humanistic, but also human art.
  7. In his paper at the conference Living with Genocide, Ljubljana 1996, Viktor Misiano spoke about the two strategies (used by Alexander Brener and Yuri Leiderman, respectively) which are a response to the artists' position in Russia (the proceedings of the conference will appear in M'ars). See also Dyogot, o.c.
  8. See also the reactions of the British reviewers to the Chinese avant-garde art, as decribed in: Hou Hanru, "Entropy; Chinese Artists, Western Art Institutions, A New Internationalism", in: Jean Fisher (ed.), Global Visions. Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts. Kala Press, in association with The institute of International Visual Arts, London, 1994, p. 83-84.
  9. Rasheed Araeen, "New Internationalism, or the Multiculturalism of Global Bantustans", in: Fisher, o. c., p. 9.
  10. Araeen, o. c., p. 9, 10.
  11. Araeen, o. c., p. 10.
  12. The letter is available on the Internet:
  13. S. Zizek, "Kuga fantazem, Drustvo za teoretsko psihoanalizo", Ljubljana, 1997, also the article S. Zizek, "Multikulturalizem ali kulturna logika multinacionalnega kapitalizma" ("Multiculturalism, or The Cultural Logic of the Multinational Capitalism"), Razpol (Ljubljana), no. 10, 1997, p. 95 - 123.
  14. S. Zizek, "Multikulturalizem...", p. 114.
  15. S. Zizek, "Multikulturalizem...", p. 116.
  16. Saskia Sassen, "The Topoi of E-Space: Global Cities and Global Value Chains", in: Politics-Poetics. Documenta X - the book, Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern - Ruit, 1997, p. 736 - 745.
  17. Martin Filler, "The Big Rock Candy Mountain", The New York Review of Books, 1997, no. 20, December 18, p. 33.
  18. Sassen, op. cit., also the article Peter Noller - Klaus Ronneberger, "Metropolis and Backcountry - The Formation of the Rhine-Main Region in the 1990s", ibid., p. 708 - 714.
Igor Zabel
Born in Ljubljana (Slovenia). Critic and theoretician of contemporary art. Curator of the Modern Museum in Ljubljana. Lives in Ljubljana
© 1998 - Igor Zabel / Moscow Art Magazine N°22 The Banner Network.