Design and Art

Essays by Boris Groys

When first reading Boris Groys in the late 1990s, what struck me as a revelation was that he proved it was possible to write about contemporary art in a way to make it worth reading; that it had something to do with my world and reacted to my existential questions (those were the years of soul-searching in Hungarian art and art discourse, and all that you could find in national magazines, besides plain neglect of what contemporary in art might have been at the time, was crap).

More recently, his texts reflecting on the ontology of design and the relationship between design and life, design and art, felt they had been written for me. Reading and translating them have been a self-inflicted task for me ever since I started to teach at an “art and design” academy (for 8 years by now), often torn by the wicked tension between my job and my vocation as an artist.

I call this tension wicked because, on the surface, it is increasingly difficult to tell art and design apart; in certain aspects, design looks like contemporary art with a good PR, while contemporary art looks like design with a rather bad one.

Their boundaries are blurred; both can mean and include all kinds of theories and creative practices – but their all-inclusiveness has been achieved by following different paths: design has been actively extending its professional competence over ever newer fields of economic and social life, and therefore enriching its “portfolio”; on the contrary, by effectively dissolving all criteria of professional quality in artistic creation, art has been emptied out as a category.

Accordingly, design presents itself as a most expansive cultural field, virulent and omnivorous, unscrupulous and optimistic, while contemporary art keeps on ricocheting from crisis to crisis. This tendency does not seem to change anytime soon: art finds itself gradually excluded from school curricula, while design, through the obscure “discipline” of design thinking – a set of cognitive tools for problem solving, stolen in part from art's creative and collaborative practices – stands a chance of making it into science and technology based education.

Within such unbalance of forces, my personal strategy would be to indulge myself with contemporary art's claim to radical criticality, justified by its alienation from capitalist production. But, beyond the fact that this claim is as often compromised as it is confirmed, this strategy does not work when one is surrounded by students with an enormous ambition to succeed within existing conditions, with not much interest in criticising, let alone changing them.

To impose such binary oppositions might be entertaining, but is also a rather unproductive thing to do. What makes Boris Groys, a doyen of contemporary art theory, special in this matter is that he dares to give them a brutally wide, philosophical and religious perspective (he is very Russian in that sense).

The approach of his essays is dialectical; they are full of brilliant insights and (at times ambiguous) summary statements. As a point of departure, he often takes a paradox, having the effect of a punch in the face, which he then turns and twists around, exploits and leaves behind. There is humour and grandeur in his writing, but what holds it together, I feel, is some kind of controlled indignation (a possible residue of the revolutionary anger), with which he traces everything back to the crucial role of the historic avant-gardes.

The trajectory of the texts in this folder, with frequent reiterations and deviations, leads from the Nietzscheian moment (“the death of God”) towards the “transhuman” condition of our days. The narrative could roughly be summarised this way: when God was “alive”, culture was essentially design: an activity with the goal of embellishing, improving things. With radical secularisation, modern design and modern art were born, and their reaction to the new state of affairs was an attempt at self-destruction, reductio ad absurdum. Such apocalyptic deed was in retrospect canonised as a stylistic gesture – and this is the original sin, after which design was assigned the role of religion and art was assigned the role of the Messiah – with the entire tangle deriving from the famously complex relationship of the two.

While developing the story, Groys, as a good dramaturge, polarises his characters, altering their poles with high frequency. We hear him say that design proceeds in time face forward, while art does it turning its back to future; that design wants to improve things, while art wants to have them dead and preserved; design is reformist, while art is (post-)revolutionary; design is responsible for the survival of humanity, while art is so for the survival of the individuum; design is pro-progress, art is antagonistic to it, and so forth. Approaching the present, through its quasi-religious exercises like self-design or the “production of sincerity”, design becomes more and more totalising, while art evolves from a self-sacrificing avant-garde into a kind of melancholy, apocalyptic rear guard, a reminder of the end of all things and of our endless solitude.

The endgame still has some surprise in store for us; namely, when we step on the field of transhumanity and with the introduction of the theories of the Russian cosmists, we arrive at the possibility of an algorithmic prolongation of human life as a cosmic design project. The Philosophy of the Common Task of Nikolay Fedorov (that is, the technological realisation of human immortality as well as the resurrection of all the human beings that ever lived on Earth) is introduced by Groys in the framework of biopolitics and biopower as described by Michel Foucault.

The biopower of the future, says Groys, will of course not be democratic, since the ideas of ultimate modernity, self-annihilation and symbolic suicide are per se hard to align with the thought of a subject exercising her/his rights and deciding in public matters, but there is a goal that can justify the acceptance of a totalising regime of power: “The explicit goal for a new power must be eternal life here on Earth for everyone. Only then the state ceases to be a partial, limited biopower of the sort described by Foucault and becomes a total biopower.” (Cosmic Anxiety: The-Russian Case) The indigenous utopias of the cosmists, we learn from Groys, have played a bigger role in making Stalinism accepted by Russian intellectuals than Western Marxism. What he does not mention is that cosmism and Fedorov constitute the most important philosophical hinterground of Putin's regime, too, and therefore play a formative role in very political considerations – food for thought.

The first selection of essays focuses on the origins and the role of “self-design” in contemporary social life that has, in a substantial part, been transferred onto social media platforms. The main reference here is the early modernist Austrian architect Adolf Loos, whose work represents the transitory moment where the above-mentioned attempt was made to fuse design, art, religion and life into a powerful spiritual element to fill the vacuum left behind by secularisation.

The second selection will include texts more closely concerned with questions raised in contemporary art, with its relationship to the avant-garde heritage, manifested in various genres as participatory art or art activism. Nevertheless, this distribution might turn out to be somewhat forced, as basically all are efforts to disentangle the same problem as to what chances aesthetic stands in shaping our contemporary world.

Most of the texts were first published by e-flux journal, to which Groys has recently been a prolific contributor.

Erhardt Miklós