A major, yet forgotten figure in the tradition of Marxist philosophy and art history, the Soviet philosopher and art critic Mikhail Lifshitz dealt with topics as varied as the philosophy of Marx and the pop aesthetics of Andy Warhol.
One of his most famous books, The Crisis of Ugliness from 1968 is regarded as one of the only intelligent discussions of modernism’s social context and overall logic available in the Soviet Union. An anthology of polemical texts against Cubism and Pop Art, it resists the dogmatic complacencies of Stalinist aesthetics.
The upcoming exhibition at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this infamous publication. Titled If Our Soup Can Could Speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties, the show uses the book as a starting point to re-explore the vexed relations between so-called progressive art and politics in the 20th and 21st centuries but also examines the author’s motivations and implications that his writing had.
With his book Crisis of Ugliness, Mikhail Lifshitz set out on a crusade against the modern classics. Tackling the crisis in twentieth-century art, he took a completely different approach compared to the standard attacks on modernism in government-issue Soviet art criticism, at the same time performing their direct critique.
In a constant debate with authors such as Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Levi-Strauss and other leading intellectuals of the West, he attempted to provide answers to the questions they posed, but from a perspective of someone with a unique inner experience of the Stalinist epoch’s revolutionary tragedy.
A philosopher, cultural theorist, and one of the most influential Russian intellectuals of the 20th century, Mikhail Lifshitz was a towering figure in the intellectual culture of the 1930s. After enrolling the avant-garde art school VKhUTEMAS, he was invited to teach dialectical materialism at the age of 20.
His first key work On the Question of Marx’s Views of Art from 1933 traced Marx’s coherent system of aesthetic opinions. The work was translated into English and published as The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx in New York, becoming his most celebrated work in the English-speaking world.
Living in the epicenter of intellectual life in the Soviet Union, he survived both terror and war to come back out of relative obscurity in the 1960s with a scathing critique of modernism. For decades, Lifshitz remained a symbol of the Brezhnev-era campaigns against the avant-garde and contemporary art.
The exhibition If Our Soup Can Could Speak is the result of a three-year Garage Field Research project. Initiated in 2013, the project seeks to give new perspectives on overlooked or little-known events, philosophies, places, or people relating to Russian culture. Addressing a variety of topics driven by the interests f the invited participant, the project combines academic fellowship with fieldworks and idiosyncratic artistic research to produce new interpretations.
The exhibition If Our Soup Can Could Speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties will be on view at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow in the East Gallery from March 7th until May 13th, 2018. It will be accompanied by a public program designed to provide a better understanding of the historic and everyday contexts of the late 1960s and encourage debates.
Special curator-led tours with Dmitry Gutov and David Riff will take place on Wednesday, March 7th from 7 to 8 p.m. and on Thursday, March 8th from 3 to 4 p.m.
Featured images: Vladimir R. Grib - Realistic fantasies (grotesques and caricatures), Capitalist progress-regress in the depiction of the Lifshitsian. Drawing (caricature). Courtesy The Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts; Notes by Mikhail Lifshitz in the book Hegel's Aesthetics (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1968). Edited and preface by Mikhail Lifshitz. Anna Pichikyan’s archive. Courtesy Dmitri Gutov; Left: Fernand Leger - The woman in blue, 1912. Courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel- Schenkung Dr. h.c.; Raoul La Roche / Right: Page of the publication by Mikhail Lifshitz and Lydia Reinhardt, The Crisis of Ugliness: From Cubism to Pop Art (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1968). Image Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending the Stairs, 1912. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art: Louise and Walter Ahrensberg collection. All images courtesy of the Garage Museum.