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Texts

 

Looking for a Masterpiece

Natasha Tamruchi A Note of Explanation

Using the Russian word "шедевр" (masterpiece, chef d-oeuvre) in earnest has become impossible. The word is reserved for ironic contexts, and has to be substituted with such universally applicable clichés as “great work”, “powerful thing”, and the like for normal discourse. These expressions are less categorical, have more of an air of spontaneity and subjectivity. While praising the work, they don't try to heave it up above the others but leave it where it was. They imply that a work exists among other less successful works, and that some future creation by the same artist may be even more impressive. In other words, expressions coined to replace the tabooed “chef d-oeuvre” are inadequate: no artist’s life will take a dramatic turn for the better if he or she gets praised for a “powerful thing”. Such epithets cannot propel a work to the status of a select example good for all times. All they can do is keep the work in circulation, in the field of endless comparison and reevaluation. 

We have to ask: does the fact that language suppressed the word “шедевр” mean that modern culture does not need the concept? Is it true that the public and art community do not need any solid criteria for evaluation, or any clear and irrevocable manifestations of acclaim? I believe the answer is obvious. Of course, they need both, and of course, the existing need it satisfied, but not by professional art critics. While professional critics prefer to act as discreet observers of the art process, occasionally joining in with a thoughtful accompaniment yet never disrupting the existing order or lack thereof, the art market and consultant groups for various prizes have been busy building “proper” hierarchies. It should be noted that those decisive consultants are frequently the same art critics who’d never put a categorical assessment on paper or computer screen.

Should we think what the forced retirement of one term has lead to a general change in the style of criticism? Is it possible for the time-honored concept to come back to use?

How would the expression “chef d’oeuvre” be perceived today?

Artists who take part in the exposition titled “Looking for a Masterpiece” treat the term differently. For the classics of conceptualism like Andrei Monastirski, Yuri Albert, Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich, it is decidedly a bad word. For them it was forever tainted by the exaggerated sense of self-importance typical of the 1960ies generation of artists. A useful survival tool for those working in the noxious air of the underground, inflated self-perception became unbearably in healthier circumstances. It is no wonder that in their old project titled “The Fish Show” Makarevich and Elagina chose to play copyists and conservators not of high art, but of a booklet found on the ground – maybe the only legacy left to the world by some unknown artists.

Similar democratic feelings towards mundane “lowly” things are exhibited by Brodsky. He is ready to rehabilitate any piece of trash presenting it as a thing of absolute artistic value. Every time these transformations are surprisingly convincing.

Avdei Ter-Oganian does not like to reveal his feelings and or show his works figuring time-honored masterpieces as the only reality worth thinking about. Notably Ter-Oganian seems almost embarrassed about his own sizeable talent.

While mildly ironic about things of eternal value, Vladimir Smolyar tries to stick to “the grand style” himself, aided by Anton Batgov’s music.

MishMash team inherited such a healthy dose of antidote against the 60ies ambitions that scarier words than “masterpiece” are child’s play to them. They make a tower out of tea leaves and not only enjoy its evanescent beauty together with other viewers, but delegate some of the power over their creation to them: the more people approach the glass case containing the tower, the faster the fan blows inside, eroding the fragile walls.

Similarly, the “new” Kuzkin does not feel concerned whether he is creating a masterpiece. He will not be distracted by such small and unreliable things as evaluations. To him a “chef d’oeuvre” roughly means “finished work”. Any finished work, with no special emphasis.

With all the twists and turns in the fate of the word “шедевр”, an important issue almost got forgotten: are there contemporary works of art worthy of the term? Actual chef d’oeuvres couldn’t have obligingly followed the term that described them. They couldn’t have disappeared. Life doesn’t mimic the language quite as slavishly. So what is a “ш*д *вр* today? What does it look like? How can it be marked?