Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe reviews In the Flow

Boris Groys. In the Flow. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Verso, 2016. 208 pp. 

Review by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

The first two thirds or so of In the Flow aren’t so much about flowing as exploding, movement through dialectic inversion and reversal. The flow, if it is just one, doesn’t start until everything is electrical and quite recent. Boris Groys introduces Walter Benjamin’s distinction between divine and mythical destruction early in the book, and it is central to his argument. “Divine” violence only destroys, while “mythical” violence destroys in the course of leading from “an old order to new orders.” I’ll give more room to the exploding than the flowing in this review because it is there I think that his argumentation needs to be most fully described.

Groys compares the idea of divine violence to Leon Trotsky’s doctrine of permanent revolution and the idea of the avant-garde. However, in the course of the book we see this notion of permanence retained while the avant-garde moves or is moved first from divine to mythical and then further adjusted counterintuitively to serve another but related myth. This is the passage of the idea of the avant-garde from before the Russian Revolution to after it, and thence to Clement Greenberg.

Anticipating a revolution in Russia was important to the invention of the avant-garde, but art itself in the modern sense is a product of the French Revolution. Groys explains that before 1789 we only had design, works made to direct or instruct. The revolution invented art for contemplation. Once the past was declared politically irrelevant, aesthetic disinterest replaced the search for ethical or moral relevance or usefulness when looking at it. Groys quotes Immanuel Kant at the beginning of The Critique of Judgment (1790), explaining how all that might have to do with why a building was where it was needed to be put aside if one were to judge (one’s experience of) it aesthetically.

Groys does not say so, but the French Directory literally burned Raphael’s and others’ tapestries to get the gold and silver thread out. This could be seen as a precedent for Kazimir Malevich’s call to burn the art of the past, and it is in terms of such irreversible violence that he describes Malevich’s Black Square as revolutionary in a deeper sense than art that directly “criticized the political status quo or advertised a coming revolution.” Groys talks about a show in the 1930s in Russia in which Malevich was presented as predecessor to the revolution. One gets the sense that by the thirties, with Trotsky safely in exile, the attitudes attacked by Vladimir Lenin in his “Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” were okay when understood as belonging to the past. Comparably, Groys mentions that Joseph Stalin kept Lenin’s corpse on permanent display to demonstrate not permanence but that Lenin really was dead. 

Clement Greenberg’s definition of the avant-garde is counterintuitive; in his version the avant-garde doesn’t burn high culture but instead affirms it, while as in its previous incarnation marking an irreversible change and doing both in the face of that which does indeed threaten to incinerate, or dissolve, it: kitsch. Permanent revolution, declared prerevolutionary in Russia by the thirties (with Trotsky off in exile), becomes in Greenberg the condition, or more specifically the form of an avant-garde that permanently preserves high culture, by making art that contemplates the latter and its implications through abstraction, its syntax rather than its semantic content as it were. 

Groys’ reading of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which is at the center of his book and argument, is a brilliant demonstration and explanation of how Greenberg’s attitude to art links him both to T. S. Eliot’s elitist belief in high art and to “the famous Stalinist definition of writers and artists as ‘engineers of the human soul.’”

The sense of an “aesthetic self-betrayal of the modern ruling classes” that “leads to (their) lack of support for any ‘serious’ art” (as opposed to kitsch) that Greenberg shares with Eliot, also links him to Oswald Spengler. Groys devotes a lot of space to discussing Spengler, who was important to Malevich’s anarchism, and whose Utopianism had previously been the target of Marx and Engel’s unpublished A Critique of the German Ideology. Groys says A Critique of the German Ideology implicitly agues that were there a Marxist art it would be like the kind of contemporary installation art that is “designed to reflect on the contexts of art production and function,” while contrarily Max Stirner’s hero was attractive to Malevich because he was capable of artistic work that is “equal to pure negation.” While many if not most (perhaps not Stalin) would see a significant difference between Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism and Stirner’s individualist anarchism, Groys says their themes and figures “resonate, indeed, throughout his writings,” in joint opposition to modernity’s tendency to degeneration.

Groys describes kitsch as the new enemy that Greenberg invented for the avant-garde and reminds us of the influence Greenberg’s definition of kitsch had on Marxist thought through its effect on Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Greenberg defines kitsch as originally made by immigrants to the city from the countryside, who, away from their origins and accompanying folk culture, made a new art for themselves out of high culture minus the stuff in and about it that didn’t concern them. His and Eliot’s views of the stuff are roughly (or in this example, exactly) illustrated by Liberace’s explanation that his version of the Fifth Symphony was very short because he had left out the boring parts. The old enemy had been cultural values; the new one was indifference to them.

Groys’s shows how Greenberg’s definition of the avant-garde is the model for much that is popularly supposed to have invalidated and replaced his thinking.[1] For example, in contrasting the kind of performance art that he describes as what a Marxist art could only be with the (by implication kitschy) kind that is based on providing a barrage of sensation from all sides, which he describes as “all too common,” he shows how those who think they have abolished Greenberg’s terms have preserved them exactly. Where once it was that modernist painting was opposed to kitsch painting, now it’s that Marxist performance art is the opposite of kitsch performance art.

Groys sees the internet as the basis for the dissolution, and subsequent possible reappearance, of art and subjectivity as traditionally (that is, since the eighteenth century) defined. On social media, art as inevitably a certain sort of fiction is replaced by what is inevitably a document. On the internet, art and literature do not have a fixed institutional framing but neither do thoughts of any kind. Groys talks about how the internet searches for words rather than sentences and how the author is there not only as the writer of her books but also as everything else about her, as a CV and a record of what she’s bought, for example, and also as information about herself she may not be able to access while knowing that someone(s) can.

He discusses social media at both the art and political level, the use of self-exposure in the face of surveillance is considered in terms of both, and there is a chapter on Wikileaks. The party recedes somewhat while Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze take over. This is because we have been returned to a condition in which Groys sees possibilities for a utopian art again, a new Malevich as it were. The modern is “a time of permanent longing for the revolution—for the revolutionary moment of pure presence between the historical past and repetitive future,” and he sees the emergence of an “unhistorical” art. That would be the quality that separated Malevich from either Vladimir Tatlin or Jackson Pollock. The subject, institutionally conceived, is deconstructed by hacking rather than philosophy when it comes to the internet, in Groy’s view of things, but by the same token it is capable of reconstruction (self-generation) in a way that updates G. W. F. Hegel’s notion of how a self is dependent on its relation to its otherness or context.[2] It is the Heidegger who talks of language doing the writing and the Derrida who talks of infinite deferral as a condition of presentness who are most evident here; and, regarding Deleuze, one tiny question would be whether Groys’s title wouldn’t be more descriptive of what he says about the internet if it referred to “flows” rather than “the flow.”

In concluding, Groys returns (without saying so) to where he began, with a re-reversal of the relationship posed at the beginning between the contemplative and its alternative. Conceptual art, Groys says, has taught us to see form as a means of communication rather than object of contemplation. Here is Greenberg’s avant-garde and its preservative ambition set on its head and thus preserved of course. As to social media, there is no space here to do justice to the complexity of his argument, but one should note that here too kitsch is an operative feature. Walter Benjamin had already talked about how our dreams were made of it in the 1930s, and that is the subjectivity dissolved and reformed that Groys discusses so well here.

This is a very important book in my view for two reasons if not others. It is the best and most responsible general discussion of Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch and its implications that we have. Groys talks about how ideas become simplified, worn down as with spoken language, over time. His discussion of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is a relief from the rubbish versions of it to that we’ve become accustomed if not immune too, many of which are meant or imagined to be more systematic and also left wing than his. The other reason is that his discussion of the part or place of the internet and social media, generally in (the formation of) our consciousness, is convincing because it deals with it in an Hegelian way, as an ongoing condition, irreversible and also incomplete.

If there is one shortcoming in the book I think it is that at times its lack of cynicism gets in the way. Most glaringly (to me,) Groys describes the situation against which Eliot and Greenberg saw themselves opposed as one in which both totalitarian and democratic regimes “accept(ed) the cultural tastes of the masses to create an illusion of cultural unity between ruling elites and wider populations.” I feel one must insist that this cultural illusion was and is not an illusion. Andy Warhol gave collectors permission not to care about anything that wasn’t on television. Today’s ruling elites love him and Jeff Koons and the content of their work as much as do those they rule, while the vulgarity of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini is also well recorded. I find it a bit hard to believe, theory aside, that the modern ruling classes stopped supporting any “serious” art while experiencing a conscious sense of “aesthetic self-betrayal.”


[1] On the counterintuition side his treatment of Greenberg competes for the delightfulness prize with Richard Shiff’s suggestion that Jasper Johns is in fact the painter who most fulfills Greenberg’s ambitions for painting, from a certain point of view; see Richard Shiff, “Breath of Modernism (Metonymic Drift),” In Visible Touch: Modernism and Masculinity, ed. Terry Smith (Sydney, 1997).

[2] See Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life (Cambridge, Mass., 2008,), esp. chaps. 9, 10.