Those who are already familiar with my writing know how preoccupied I am by art that breaks with "official" policy, either deliberately or without any premeditation by the artists. In my book Unofficial Release, this "official" policy was defined as a number of different things ranging from State-mandated guidelines for acceptable expression to peer-mandated guidelines for the same. Of course, each code of conduct had its set of repercussions if broken, and these repercussions seemed to differ more in their severity than in their intent (i.e. re-defining art as a means of paying tribute to an established ideology, rather than as a critical tool.) Within the Cold War era of geopolitical conflict, "unofficial" took on a host of meanings: there were the inoffizielle mitarbeiter ['unofficial collaborators'] or informers employed by the East German Stasi, and also "unofficial artists" or Soviet citizens who identified as artists without being granted permission to create. It still seems amazing that the latter, thrown into a modernity in which they were State enemies by their very existence, found any avenues at all to share their creativity with likeminded spirits (or even to locate those likeminded spirits in the first place.) Their collective story is one that cannot be told enough to the current crop of Western artists who wish to self-identify as "outsiders": if, for no other reason, because it forces the question of whether the outsiders-by-choice would be willing to maintain their status in a living environment where that choice is more likely to become a ticket to prison than a ticket to higher asking prices for exhibited works.
A recent trip to Prospero's bookstore in Kansas City rewarded me with a fresh stack of reading material which - true to my usual form - is not chronologically recent but is certainly relevant and certainly worth re-visiting. One of my newest acquisitions took me back to the subject of "unofficialdom" in a most unequivocal way: this was The Ransom of Russian Art, John McPhee's 1994 classic on the eccentric art collector Norton Dodge, who was essentially to the "nonconformist" art of the Soviet Union what the Medicis were to Renaissance Italy. It is not that much of an audacious claim; as few curators or collectors outside of George Riabov and George Costakis managed to amass as much work as Dodge. For those who want to see the broadest possible selection of such art - and it is indeed very broad in its thematic scope and in the techniques used - the real prize is the Dodge-assembled catalog From Gulag to Glasnost, previously packaged as Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986. However, for a sheerly unique 'human interest' / adventure story, McPhee's essay provides a rare look at the kind of obsessive personality sometimes needed to keep real art alive in its darkest moments. Dodge's story has surprisingly not been repackaged as some dime-a-dozen Hollywood thriller, but this is nothing to mourn: the kind of jingoism and one-dimensionalism that often infects those enterprises is nowhere to be found here. Dodge seems to act on a strange, ineffable compulsion to put himself at risk and shuttle suppressed artwork back to the U.S., and the point at which he transitions from an economics professor at the University of Maryland to an underground art enthusiast is difficult to attribute to any single motive.
Ransom's protagonist first entered the USSR in the 1960s during the Krushchev "thaw" in relations: a "thaw" that, while an improvement over Stalinism, nevertheless saw an intensification of the surveillance and harrassment of "unofficial" artists, and State attitudes towards art not too different from the years in which Andrei Zhdanov dictated cultural policy. Since at least the 1930s, an official policy had existed in which even avant-gardes sympathetic to the socialist ideal were dismissed as "bourgeois formalism," and some of the most ahead-of-their-time experiments conducted within the Soviet Union were assumed to have secret or perhaps subliminal anti-Soviet motives coded within them (see, for example, the Futurist forays into noise-as-music, or Velimir Khlebnikov's "trans-rational" Zaum poetry.) The death of Stalin, and Nikita Khruschev's subsequent 'Secret Speech' to the 20th Party Congress, were events that seemed intially to bode well for artistic experimentalism within the Soviet Union. Instead, the Soviet premier's vocal displeasure with the infamous Manezh exhibition in 1962 - where he reportedly refered to certain works as "dogshit" and its creators as "pederasts" - was effectively the cue for the KGB to start treating "unofficial" artists as a parasite class. Not a small number of artists from the 1960s on found themselves in the KGB's Lubyanka prison, or in mental institutions, or - as is strongly suspected of "unofficial" icon Evgeny Rukhin - murdered outright. Dodge's travels also put him in touch with the artists who the so-called "bulldozer exhibit" of 1974, in which a supposedly clandestine art show in a field outside of Moscow was ambushed by bulldozers and agents wielding firehoses. Such events, sadly not isolated, were indicative of a crackdown on artists that intensified once the State stopped focusing solely on dissident writers as objects of suppression, and only began to taper off during the Gorbachev years.
Norton Dodge harbored a creeping fear that his secret collecting activity may have led indirectly to some of these crackdowns, made him famously reluctant to disclose information on how he smuggled works out of Russia. It is unfortunate, because this feat seems like a minor miracle the more we are told of Dodge's clumsiness and his talent for sticking out like a sore thumb: in addition to having a poor command of Slavic languages, Dodge was prone to seeking out artists' homes by flashlight in completely darkened town. Such an image makes him seem like a modern-day Diogenes looking for 'just one honest man' by torchlight, although at least one interviewee in McPhee's book humorously reminds us that few Russians ever carried flashlights in those times. The Ransom of Russian Art, focusing as it does on such quirks of the affable 'walrus' Dodge (as almost everyone interviewed describes his physical appearance), does not go into as much intimate detail about the unofficial artists themselves, save for maybe the defiant and dashing character of Evgeny Rukhin. It does, however, offer plentiful reminders as to the strategies they were forced to adopt if they wished to have any kind of (and sometimes even if they wished to obtain the raw materials for putting ideas to canvas.) Since only official artists were given access to 'proper' supplies, unofficial artists either had to strike up secretive friendships with them in order to share in these supplies, or simply had to rely on alternatives that were not widely seen as inferior: burlap or wall boards in the place of stretched canvas, picture frames assembled with a couple of tacks, older paintings were 'recycled' (read: painted over) and the backsides of previously designed artworks were also put into service.
The unofficial artists showcased in this book, and in Dodge's massive collection, also faced limitations on the size of works they could produce - typically relying on pieces that could be smuggled out in a suitcase. The gallery system was, of course, nonexistent, and private apartments became the exhibition spaces of choice: the so-called "apt art" forced exhibitors to open their apartment homes to possible informers or just to other uninvited guests, while also going through the trouble of converting every square inch of livable space (including ceilings, bathtubs etc.) into exhibit space. Nonetheless, the variety of artwork they produced under such lockdown conditions was staggering and indicative that numerous unofficial artists were either aware of such Western movements as Color Field painting and Pop art, or - more interestingly - achieved results similar to their Western equivalents without any direct knowledge of their work. Meanwhile, a direct line seemed to still connect the Russian avant-gardes of the early 20th century to the unoffical artists of decades later - the influence of Kandinsky and of the 'Cubo-Futurists' looms over many of the pieces in Dodge's collection. The striking monochromatic constructions of Baltic artists like Tonis Vint and Leonhard Lapin showed a particularly unique sensibility; somehow merging the style of fin de siecle decadence with a futuristic sensibility and a provocative eroticism.
It is illuminating, when reading McPhee's book, just how nostalgic one can get for a time period in which things were not even close to being the best of all possible worlds. Though there is little to envy in the experience of the Soviet nonconformist artist, there is a nagging desire to return to the very clearly drawn battle lines between the 'good' expressive freedom of the West and the 'bad' repression in the East (even if such absolute moral values could never be ascribed to either side in reality.) This nostalgia can be treacherous, though. We should not have to wait for familiar cosmetic aspects of totalitarian life to alert us to its arrival, since much of that is already with us, albeit in a more falsely friendly guise. The existence of things like the federal "no-fly list," meant to restrict the air travel options of potential insurgents, certainly brings to mind other measures meant to keep undesirable elements closer to home. While societies like the United States now tend to exercise control via the Brave New World method (i.e. the dilution of radical action with endless, trivial diversion) rather than the Orwellian method of brutal "boot stomping on a human face" repression, there is really nothing keeping them from using both control strategies at once. The federal government has all the tools it truly needs to begin cracking down in earnest: the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which sneakily codified indefinite detention without trial into law, is only one of them. To say that special repressive measures might not be taken against artists or designers within the current political climate is foolhardy.
So artists in the ill-defined free world would do well to envision a time in which the West will have its own "official" art, i.e. an art limited to a propagandistic and pacifying function. Such an art is not at all impossible despite the derision we now pile upon some of its previous manifestations (i.e. the leaden caricatures of Social Realist art.) Nor do I think the comparitively elevated position of artists in the present American economy will fully protect them - if anything, their being more intertwined with the country's economic fate may just make them all the easier to co-opt for "official" uses. Books like Ransom, while not instruction manuals on how to survive underground, are certainly valuable primers on what type of creative life can be expected when the State finally controls enough of the communicative apparatus to stop caring about the protests of the creative class. That time is going to need its unanticipated hero figures like Norton Dodge to facilitate things, but it is also going to need many more artists with courage to burn and with a drive to create that acts irrespective of marketability and social status.