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Open Access Publications from the University of California

What’s the Matter with Moscow? Developing a Field of Art in a Postsocialist, Globalized World

  • Author(s): Herrala, Elise Meghan
  • Advisor(s): Burawoy, Michael
  • et al.
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How has the field of art developed, evolved, and been sustained in Russia after socialism? This dissertation examines the challenges Russian art-world actors face in building a field of art in a society undergoing rapid and significant economic, political, and social transformation. As a result of this upheaval, Russian art since the end of the Soviet Union has had to develop and negotiate an identity with the simultaneous yet contradictory forces of a socialist history and a neoliberal present. Further, actors in the Russian art world are judged against a teleological notion of artistic progress that stems from a Western-dominated cultural hierarchy.

Russia’s art world grapples with both its Soviet past and its post-Soviet present in a world of fully developed fields of art. These conditions differ greatly from Bourdieu’s account of the genesis of an autonomous field of art in nineteenth-century France, in which he takes for granted the conditions that made the development of an autonomous tradition of art possible, namely a cultural and political legacy particular to France. Russian art, therefore, offers a unique contemporary example of how a field of cultural production must struggle to create itself as autonomous while outside the bounds of Bourdieu’s ideal field that bore Euro-American modernism in the West. I demonstrate the impact these differences have had on the development of a Russian field of art, by showing (1) how Russia’s tumultuous transition from socialism to capitalism has differently shaped two generations of post-Soviet artists; (2) the difficulty of establishing a strong market and the resultant limited community of collectors; (3) the impact of a powerfully constraining state on the lives and work of artists; and (4) the significance of entering into a world in which there already exists powerful field(s) of arts centered in the West.

While the development of the Russian art world has made significant and arguably rapid changes over the past two decades—such as the increase of arts education and institutions—it still faces numerous challenges, from the escalating censorship by the state to the falling number of collectors. Further, when situated within a global context of inequality, it becomes apparent that the Russian field of art remains on the periphery of the international art world, struggling for legitimacy in the eyes of foreign experts and collectors. By attending to the historical trajectory of Russian art throughout the twentieth century—taking seriously the contributions of Soviet culture and the impact of globalization on cultural production and practices on its own terms as opposed to just as “other”—I construct a genealogy of the contemporary field of postsocialist art that illuminates how Russians have come to understand the categories of “art” and “artist.” Ultimately, this dissertation argues that the combination of the cultural and economic isolation experienced during the Soviet period, the current government’s controlling presence, and Western capitalist economic and cultural hegemony has had detrimental effects on its understanding of itself and thus, the creation of its field of art.

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This item is under embargo until November 2, 2020.