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A conversation about the incapacity of direct action, the deferral of satisfaction, and statement in art between psychoanalyst and philosopher Alexander Smulyanskiy (Александр Смулянский) and philosopher and co-founder of the project TZVETNIK Natalya Serkova (Наталья Серкова).


Natalya Serkova: In art, a rather curious trend currently can be observed: artists and curators actively refuse clearly articulated public statements, as if consciously not wanting to take any particular aesthetic and, more broadly, political stance. Instead of this, we are offered either complete silence or a lengthy, semi-artistic text—as if called upon to cover the tracks even more—from the curator or the artist himself. It is specifically about the so-called emerging art[1], art that has not yet gone through the process of institutional legitimation. Its authors seem to oppose their own way of creating to institutionalized art, which consists of constantly trying to solve certain problems and thereby fix the existing reality. What can the emergence of this new way of producing the artistic statement indicate, in your view?


Alexander Smulyanskiy: As I see it, it is significant that in the field of discussions about art, we inevitably find ourselves in the realm of problems and concepts formed by the philosophy and publicism of the 19th century. This circumstance is often noted calling for a change in language and method, but the fact that this demand does not resolve the problem indicates the presence of some essential obstacle. Obviously, the latter is more powerful than all deconstructivist measures taken in relation to it, for the subject making or receiving art will inevitably conceive of it in terms of gesture, act, creation, reality, medium, and other respective concepts of the post-Hegelian fund.


In this regard, if not for art itself, then at least for commentary dedicated to it, there are not many chances to go beyond this limit: if the artist makes a radical gesture, more actively intervenes in the situation, we, even carefully avoiding voicing clichés, inevitably think of it as an intrusion into the territory of "reality," as a certain exacerbation of the question regarding the relationship between it and art. If the artistic statement is not obvious in meaning and stands on the position of this non-obviousness deliberately, then talks about evasion, avoidance, and refusal start—and the inertia of language that arises here inevitably leads to the need to speak about escapism, that is, about the postponement of the question of the impact of art. All of this is a consequence of the conviction that a relationship between art and the place of its realization must prevail, which, no matter behind what circumlocution hides, must ultimately be unambiguous. This unambiguity is not removed by the sum of implications, meanings, and interpretations that can be extracted from the work: either you intervene by means of the latter or not.


However, there are ways to suspend dependence on judgments of this type. Two years ago, I spoke at a conference dedicated to performance as a form of presence. The theme of the event itself suggested that the question of “reality”—even if carefully cleansed of purely metaphysical underpinnings, and specifically of the unambiguous opposition of the concept to that of “illusion”—would be particularly demanding and unavoidable. Therefore, in my presentation, I used the psychoanalytic apparatus, which has a special tradition of dealing with the concept of reality that has nothing to do with the philosophical tradition under the influence of which we think today. In particular, I resorted to the concept of symptom. I was talking not about pathological phenomena, but about the device of the functioning of the phantasm in the artistic field. Firstly, I insisted that “reality” in art is not external environment, but the Other—not in the ethical Levinasian, but in a more specific psychoanalytic sense, which implies that the Other is a field of impact where one’s actions can provoke either enjoyment (jouissance) or anxiety (anxiété). Accordingly, to describe the functioning of art, I proposed two symptomatic models. In particular, I defined the actionist type of aesthetic activity as hysterical. This makes us stop talking about it in such terms as “responsible position” or “protest”—not because the hysterical symptom does not involve these things, but because they are only a consequence of a particularly organized phantasm of solidarity that has nothing to do with the pragmatics of political solidarity fighting oppression. The hysterical symptom seeks solidarity, addressing the issue of lack and suffering not of the oppressed, but the Master. This is a disappointing fact of contemporaneity, which should nevertheless be taken into account.


At the same time, another type of art, going in other directions and groping the category of reality differently, is very popular today. It is manifested in the form of documentation, event fragmentation, a focus on “daily life” not involving a “big idea” (the examples of it are documentary filmmaking with a rejection of montage, doc[2 ]theater, photofixation on everyday life in contrast to “historical events,” and so on), all of which I attributed to the perverse mode of display. From this point of view, both the young type of art you submitted to discussion and the institutional trend you oppose it to perfectly fit into the proposed nosology. This being said, there is no longer a need to talk about “intervention” or, on the contrary, “avoidance,” because we are dealing with two different ways of symptomatization that do not necessarily oppose each other. The direction of art you are indicating is interesting in that it shows a kind of historical failure of contemporary institutionalized art, which technically implies the expansion of means of direct impact and ethically, the correction of social reality. The perverse fantasy returns to the proscenium, the historical realization in the artistic field of which is much older than the hysterical phantasm. What is seen in such art as a rejection of position is, in fact, the establishment of more than certain relations with the object—in particular, with the object of the scopic drive, which is well traced in the direction you mentioned. The political consequences of such art are located precisely in the field of drive.


Indeed, the objects of the art I am talking about often possess a very high degree of attractiveness, which is regularly consciously avoided by the art that bets on “criticism of everything existing.” In turn, both on an ethical and aesthetic levels, this art literally embodies the idea of perversion. In the case of ethics, it welcomes all kinds of deviation, as if nodding towards the post-anthropocentric, post-humanistic theoretical developments; in the case of aesthetics, it includes all that is “strange” (the weird[3] new philosophies), ugly, maimed, and repulsive in its orbit. What is the perverse phantasm with respect to art and how is its rejection of direct action and lucid, unambiguous statement resolved within it? 


Some clarification is indispensable here, as the mention of perversion is fraught with references to something piquant and simultaneously undermining all foundations. On the contrary, from my point of view, it is precisely in the aesthetic field that the perverse position should be stripped of its suggestive transgressive meaning, as in art this position is not only not close to any scandal, but rather, in practice, is embodied in works that require from the viewer special patience and an increased preparedness to defer gratification. For example, an extended shot or an emphasis on documentary elements in filmmaking will be perverse regardless of how well the displayed material meets the standards of decency. The extent to which the viewer can derive satisfaction from such a sight in no way depends on his personal perverse phantasm.

Here, it would be legitimate to ask what allows us to define this aesthetic regime as perverse if, at the level of content, it does not refer to anything close to the operating of a fantasy said to be deviant, imbued with eroticism. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the perverse position is defined as a special proximity to the object capable of replacing and presenting other desired objects. This universal substituting object is called the object-cause of desire in psychoanalysis. In this sense, the perverse mode is distinguished by its ability to point to this object, to highlight and formalize its role in the situation, including the remotest consequences of its presence. Looking at it psychoanalytically, perversion is what is in the most immediate proximity to the category of cause. It is precisely this that makes it causing-provocative even if it does not involve anything obscene.


This may be important from the perspective of the conjugation of aesthetics and politics, for the art of conditionally direct action, on the contrary, when it comes to cause, time and again reveals its own incapacity. For example, campaigns organized within its framework may aim at public mobilization and awakening of indignation concerning the repressive social order, but in and of themselves, they do not give an idea of what exactly should push to this indignation. What they reproduce serves as a pretext and simultaneously a model for collective action, but not as a cause, which, apparently, someone else has to report on. In this sense, art in this regime uses a resource it did not produce and which is to be found in the area outlined by the perverse position of display.


Successful illustrations of perverse replenishment of what is missing in the socially critical aesthetics you mentioned are to be found, for example, in the works of director Zosia Rodkevich (Зося Родкевич), who has now gained fame thanks to the genre of documentary political biography. Her earlier approach to working with material, realized in the film “Temporary Children” (Временные дети) [], is also revealing. To clarify the above-described nuances of the definitions of the perverse mode, the film proves to be literally a model, as what is shown in it purely at the level of content balances on the verge of perversion in the usual, pre-theoretical sense of the word. Essentially, the tape shows nothing but the details of the everyday life of a small family enclave populated by semi-dressed children and ran by a sullen and irritable foster mother. From the point of view of possible piquant sadistic nuances, the beginning turns out to be extremely promising, but, contrary to expectations, not a single example of real cruelty towards children is present in the narrative—looking formally, the tape does not allow any claims against the protagonist to be made: criticism standing on humanistic positions has nothing to cling to here. 


At the same time, the shadow of a more subtle sense of trouble that accompanies the narrative is felt in every movement of the plot. Without resorting to any of the manipulative techniques of arthouse cinema, or relying on prolonged intermediate inserts serving to create a meaningful and ominous atmosphere, the director nonetheless manages to achieve the desired effect by providing each scene with extra time, which forces the viewer to mentally affix the point of the plot before a scene ends. This protractedness is understood as insignificant and greatly irritates perception, initially creating an impression that the director got “lost” in the documentary material, but subsequently revealing itself as a deliberate and consistent method of reporting on what is happening to a child placed in certain conditions, where strict control is time and again replaced by condescension that liberates a mass of lost time.


An exemplary case in this regard is the “headache cure” scene [], which deserves a detailed analysis due to its temporal structure. One of the boys, who had been playing in the sun with his brothers for a long time, complains to the foster mother of a headache. She immediately seizes on this, offering him to master a “psychological technique” to get rid of the pain by assessing the level and color of water in an imaginary glass. Again and again, with unprecedented persistence, she suggests measuring these imaginary parameters aloud, asking the child about the extent to which his pain is beginning to yield to control due to these manipulations.


The scene is constructed to exclude any catharsis—the headache predictably remains unaffected by these dubious passes, although at some point, the glass shows a slight improvement, and the viewer begins to think the insane method has actually worked. Nevertheless, it soon becomes apparent that nothing has changed. However, the organization of the scene precludes any possible condemnation, since the child himself remains absent-mindedly serene throughout. The director even manages to postpone the mild horror that ultimately visits the viewer, seeing that the extremely prolonged game does not seem to bother the woman at all. While the true revelation of the scene only comes later, that is, when the boy tries to apply the procedure to his younger brother and, after the second attempt, as if acknowledging the cumbersomeness of the measure, hastily retreats with the words, “Now sit and say it twenty times.” The concession he makes to maternal power in that moment, the mother’s unmatched ability to take things by force, and her tireless and senseless enthusiasm paradoxically convey to the viewer the essence of power much more accurately than overt, vocal criticism of the tragic consequences of arbitrary rule.


In this sense, the perverse mode of transmission achieves something that cannot be accomplished even using the most radical means, employed, for example, by transgressive art. This is where the advantage of perverse storytelling lies, especially noticeable in the context of that unproductive polemic that, in contrast, art whose critical message is deliberately exposed constantly risks getting involved in. Exposing always provokes heated and unproductive debates about the degree—whether that of importance of the raising of specific problematic, the acceptability of the means used to display it, and so on. While art utilizing the perverse mode, thanks to its organization, wittingly discloses the ridiculousness of such debates—also because it absolutely does not hide its unfastening from practical ambitions. 


In a certain sense, throughout the 20th century, art consciously utilized this deferral of the viewer’s satisfaction, thanks to which it advanced “forward.” Each major artist, director, or writer can accomplish the task of deferral in their own way, but one way or another this task was set to them. I completely agree that the less overt the perversion is in your implied sense, the better it works. In this case, the mode of that same “magic of art” is activated—when something is done with the viewer or reader, and he in turn feels it, but cannot understand what exactly happened. But it seems it is precisely this way of functioning of art that is criticized by the left, driven by the impulse of total demystification, that is, a belief in the possibility of fully articulating, on the one hand, the content of the work, and on the other, its potential impact on the viewer. In your view, is complete demystification of the artistic object possible, and what might such a demystified object represent?


The thing is that what you call “the magic of influence” is transversal to the modes of art—this effect, whatever is meant by it, can arise in the wake of any artwork, no matter how secularized it is. It is so because the subject does not have a separate perceptual “organ” for reacting to works of art. The attempt to develop it, dating back to the Kantian formulation of the problem, represents an impressive adventure, the realization of which continued throughout the 20th century. Strictly speaking, the main aesthetic debate today is not an open dispute about the directions or methods of art, but an invisible yet persistent discussion about whether art can be worthy of a special channel of perception, constructed by cultural means and specified exclusively for works of art. One should not underestimate the importance of this question, because if a perceptual construct corresponding to this channel can be worked out, it promises to significantly increase the stakes made on art, including it as a political force. That is why the quest for this construct will not cease anytime soon. But the work on its formation and improvement—carried out mainly on the philosophical stage—is countered by the psychoanalytic conviction that even the most specific aesthetic proposal will be received by the subject only because it somehow touches his desire as a whole, making no distinction between objects of the so-called reality and the object proposed by the artistic act.


This does not mean that the psychoanalytic perspective denies art’s ability to produce psychological effects the subject would have no chance of encountering through other paths. On the contrary, psychoanalysis is even more likely to allow for such a possibility, because it itself, as a certain practice, produces effects in the subject’s desire which no one outside the psychoanalytic clinic has access to, even in the case of the richest life experience. At the same time, philosophy, cherishing unique consequences produced by art, is in no hurry to report that, in its opinion, interaction with art produces something in the subject. Whenever this topic is discussed, one inevitably retreats to the territory laid out already by the representatives of the Frankfurt School, where art is spoken of as one of the means of prefiguring and, if possible, creating an alternative social reality. This approach, which has never been proven to be reliable, nevertheless has shown remarkable historical stability. At the same time, even the most novel ways of talking about these processes, for example, utilizing terms of “performativity,” do not add anything new to the program and thus mask the absence of theoretical advance in them. In other words, by immediately announcing the desired consequences, the question of what exactly happens in the territory of the subject during that restricted period when an artwork influences him is overlooked. Normative artistic criticism follows the same approach—highlighting the various symbolic connections created by the work, it passes over the fact that to justify the inevitably arising solipsistic dimension here, it is necessary to at least assume the subject’s agreement with the fact that the encounter with the work has occurred and has certain consequences.


On the one hand, we are quite far off today from the benevolent ideas of German neo-Kantianism, which imply it is always about the same event, triggered by the encounter of art with so-called “meanings” and “values.” While the concession in this matter to the dominance of situational perception of each individual work also leads to nothing. Without falling into culturalism or, conversely, yielding to the temptation to psychologize, it nevertheless makes sense to distinguish a universal operation the subject performs in relation to the displayed artwork. This operation, in my view, consists of the following: upon encountering the artwork, the subject asks himself to what extent he should reveal himself as a result of the impression.


This point should be understood correctly, as it is not about what the subject may be required to do upon receiving the work’s message. Confusing the two is extremely characteristic of the art supported by the left-wing political forces, that is, art that to some extent agitates, incites to commit deeds and draw certain conclusions. Likewise, the desire to “share impressions” that is characteristic of communication about art, stemming from the traditions of hermeneutics, is also not implied here. It is all about revelation as a degree of transparency of changes that have taken place in the subject’s position as a result of encountering the artwork. 


Of course, the result of this discovery will differ depending on the modes of art's functioning pointed out above. So, if you encounter a perverse artwork—for example, such as the ones you gave as instances—and it significantly affects you, the degree of your discovery will still be minimal. The subject choosing in favor of this approach and even sometimes capable of giving detailed art-historical commentaries on it hardly ever reports of the shifts—even the most significant ones—that took place in his position. This is precisely what irritates the adherents of the socially-engaged art, since the subject perceiving the perverse mode turns out to be inaccessible to them in their coordinates—it appears to be impossible to directly establish what art has prompted him to do. Despite that significant changes in the position of this subject also accumulate, it is impossible to define them ideologically: it is unclear, for example, in which direction his views will move on the scale of opinions on necessary freedoms, the rights of the minorities and oppressed, and so on—also because those changes will most likely be outside this scale. If it makes sense to talk about demystification in the context of art, it should concern this parameter: regardless of the degree of indirectness, veiledness of the means of the aesthetic statement—or, on the contrary, its directness—the degree of demystification will ultimately depend on the subject’s position on the scale of transparency of the consequences of encountering art.


A paradox can be observed here. On the one hand, the left discourse often takes an extremely critical position towards the modern internet as a technology that makes everyone transparent to structures of “desire and control production.” On the other hand, its representatives insist on an art that implies the greatest possible transparency of the viewer’s reactions. At the same time, art made to be seen on the internet (I mean not digital art, but art whose creators care more about photo documentation and subsequent online presentation of its results than the physical presentation of their work) cannot guarantee such transparency of the viewer’s perception at all. Perhaps, for this reason in particular, this art tends towards the perverse type of artistic language and does not strive to declare its claims and demands to the world. However, if the pathos of changing existing reality through art has never lived up to its promise, what potential impact of art can we still talk about, and what level can our pathos reach without risking resulting in an engaged type of speculation?


The thing is that the pathos of change failed to deliver precisely where changes were actively announced, pointing to them as a prospect of the near future on the condition that society has enough moral strength to adhere to a certain agenda. This is not about failure, but about the regularities that allow shedding light on the pretensions of the contemporary subject. This subject, originally a moderately reformist figure that emerged during the Enlightenment era, has evolved into a subject literally obsessed with the necessity for change, which for him is most closely connected with the category of “action.” Special designations such as “direct action” are invented for this category today, although it is the same old metaphysically justified action, only embellished with the expected reward in the form of more or less immediate consequences. 


It must be fixed that the desire for change involves a significant flaw—so significant it should be considered a kind of negative categorical imperative of contemporaneity. This flaw initially manifested as a particular phenomenon in psychoanalytic treatment, and it is not a coincidence that the latter, for the first time in the history of the European medicalization, was oriented not so much towards the goal of relieving suffering, as towards achieving changes in the psyche and life of the analyzed. At the same time, the first clinical experiences in this field have shown Freud that the patient was least likely to unfold in the direction the importance of mastering which he speaks about during sessions. Trying to convince himself and the analyst that he intends to act in a certain direction and is undergoing treatment precisely for this purpose, the analysand in fact one way or another sabotages his plans or does something else. 


It is known how Freud explains this paradox: as he sees it, there is initially something greater in the intentions of the patient than what was stated by him, since he is driven by a phantasm containing the idea of retribution for the implementation of those intentions, making the movement in the chosen direction seem unsafe. Nevertheless, what is declared still retains its value as a guide, but due to the impossibility of approaching desire, the action changes its sign, and now the subject attacks his previous intentions, hindering their implementation. It should be said that this explanation was not accepted by Freud at face value, although he constantly used the implications that followed from it, thus reminding himself of what could be expected from analysands and what, on the contrary, one should not count on despite their fervent assurances and apparent enthusiasm.


Freud’s insight would have remained a private excess of the clinic of neurosis if not for the difficulties that the politicized intellectual environment later faced, making the possibility of achieving social change the only justification for its existence. In any attempts to create foci of activity within this environment, what comes to the fore is what is still tendentiously interpreted as inertia of the current subject, his unfortunate delay, insufficient loyalty to the idea, lack of solidarity where it seems necessary. It is precisely this that forces the representatives of activism—both in the artistic field and beyond it—to resort to a moralizing tone, that is, to the least powerful means. The subject is being reproached and spurred, inevitably reaching a dead end in this way, since what they are trying to exact is fickle and depends on this or that protest agenda, on the conjuncture of relevant signifiers accepted in it.


In contrast, in all projects where the efficiency of this method is called into question, a different path is chosen and it is suggested there—leaving the hope of direct impact—to insert between the subject and his suppositive goals something of the third. Depending on the specific theoretical solution, the instance of the unconscious, a linguistic or topological structure, a matheme, or something of the like may be interposed. The important thing here is that such an instance is inserted not for simple mediation, but to denote a radical splitting, whose common imperative reads: “The consequences of your actions will never take place where you address them.” Roughly speaking, according to this logic, the subject has to be prepared that something else may happen instead of what he aimed at. Thus, what was perceived by Freud as a neurotic resistance requiring working through and removal subsequently becomes the current situation in which the subject finds himself and from which he is fully capable of generating certain consequences. The logic at work here is based on the fact that something that could not have been initially counted on will be produced. It is this that will gain a status of consequence.


In connection with this, an engrossing illustration is Lacan’s discussion of marriage. In short, it boils down to the fact that marriages are actually “made in heaven,” that is, they serve the enjoyment of God. This statement is usually understood as if the marriage enterprise required a legal act of ratification, after which the previously illegal amorous interaction between spouses becomes permissible, since it falls under the jurisdiction of the legislative authority that gives the act a better, higher meaning. On the contrary, Lacan demands to recognize that the subject remains alienated from the symbolic law and the consequences of its affirmation no matter what: however legitimate your partner is, no matter what you do with him or her, you continue to perform exactly the same actions as prior to the marriage—they do not acquire any new meaning. Any consequences that may arise in the social sphere from the formal legality of your union, including very real family-wide and even social changes (for example, the recognition by the community of misalliance and interracial or “non-traditional” marriages), will take place exclusively on the side of the symbolic order, the consequences in which your marriage may serve to confirm, but which in no way arise from the love procedure you practice. This means the subject can only enjoy his partner in a perverse, illegal way, outside the law, even when married, while the main symbolically effective legal consequences will occur elsewhere. At the same time, the law itself without perverse practices taking place on its territory would have no meaning and consequences. 


The above also fully applies to art. Your described agent of direct impact, who bets on the coincidence of the goal of the statement with the consequences of its exposure, practices an expectation that, even in its most secularized version, continues the old tradition of the “higher purpose” of art. On the contrary, that perverse, private enjoyment the subject can invest in the artwork does not aim for any coincidence with the equally private enjoyment of the receiver, as the symbolic law that makes the statement a work of art stands on the other side with regard to these two excesses of enjoyment. At the same time, the work can have consequences, produce a certain shift, solely because these non-coinciding excesses exist. 


This conversation was first published in the Art Journal (Художественный журнал) No. 110 in 2019.


Translated from Russian by Ignas Gutauskas


[1] In English in the original.

[2] In English in the original.

[3] In English in the original.

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