“Elementary,” he replied.
(Arthur Conan Doyle. The Crooked Man)
For those readers whose experience has its roots in the culture of the Soviet period, the words “elementary” and “Conan Doyle” will immediately call to mind the popular phrase “Elementarno, Vatson!” (Elementary, Watson!) from the series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, by the Russian director Igor Maslennikov. Although it seems that Conan Doyle himself actually uses the word “elementary” only once, in the story The Crooked Man, thanks to the film script brought to the Lenfilm Studio in 1979 by scriptwriters Julij Dunskij and Valerij Frid, and the brilliant acting by Vasilij Livanov (as Sherlock Holmes) and Vitalij Solomin (as Doctor Watson), the phrase has passed into folklore, since it so aptly expressed the essence of the duo consisting of the extravagant interpreter of facts and the naive doctor unable to draw conclusions from them.
The final two-part film in the series, completed in 1986, was called The twentieth Century Begins. It shows a reorientation of Sherlock Holmes’s activities from the criminal world of London to the unmasking of a German spy ring on the eve of the First World War. In accordance with the spirit of the new age, various technical aids were modernised, including the gas mask, which was actually invented only after the events described in the stories and which Mycroft, brother of the detective, had to wear in one scene. In the film, Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as a rural recluse practising beekeeping. The ironic view of the new century, contrasted with the passing Victorian Age, together with the brilliant interplay between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in analysing various events, seemed to me an appropriate model for reviewing the reverberations of the last century within the cultural space of Latvia. Accordingly, I decided against setting out my thoughts as a monologue, but made an effort instead to remember a recent conversation on this theme with my friend and translator from Russian, Vasilij Voronov, in the course of which he rhetorically exclaimed: “So, has the twentieth century finally come to an end?” (So much for the origin of the title of this article.) My choice was encouraged by the place where we had this conversation, namely Vasilij’s flat in Old Riga – opposite the Baker Street home of the famous detective. (This location in Old Riga, behind the former restaurant Put vejini, is immediately recognised by tourists from the former Soviet Union who have, of course, seen the film by Igor Maslennikov.) However, I do hope that the division of roles in our exchange of views will not be as obvious as in the case of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
Let me start from the beginning. Vasilij had fallen ill, and I went to see him after visiting an exhibition in the Riga Art Space. The exhibition included paintings of the most diverse quality (including very poor ones), grouped by decade and forming what was quite literally a kind of labyrinth. The subterranean exhibition space was crammed with works, which had even prompted someone to write in the visitors’ book that art isn’t firewood (evidently meaning that paintings cannot be piled up like logs of firewood). I recalled this comment when, trying to step back in order to get a better view of a large painting, I tripped on the steps directly in front of the painting. And so I sat in Vasilij’s living room with my sprained leg on a pillow and, while sipping tea, recounted my impressions. Our state of health prompted us to adopt a resignedly ironic view. At the beginning of the conversation I mentioned the guiding principle of the exhibition: to cast a look at the art of the Soviet period without ideological prejudices, something that may have accounted for the varying quality of the exhibited works.
“I didn’t know that ideological prejudice or the lack of it could serve as a criterion for quality in art”, said Vasilij scornfully. He continued: “An ideological prejudice would be the phrase ‘decrepitude in music’, used to describe, for example, all the works written for the viola by Hindemith in a document of the Conservatoire of Soviet Latvia, as I discovered in an interesting work by Sergej Kruk.” He vaguely indicated some books piled up on a chair next to the sofa. I added that actually this would be quite a good description for many works of art, so long as it was backed up by argument. Vasilij remarked that those who usually make judgements of this kind are incapable of arguing, because they’re used to relying on previous authoritative judgements. In the end, as far as I remember, we agreed that in assessing art, it is not only the criteria that are important, but also the ability to draw conclusions from them.
However, the exhibition also claimed to be a general retrospective of four decades of the last century in Latvian art (or painting, in fact, which, according to the curator, had also been significant for “broadening the concept of contemporary art in the cultural space of Latvia”). So our conversation turned to the written works that have realised this claim much better and that were to be found in Vasilij’s improvised sick-bed library. As I pointed out to Vasilij, he seemed to have deliberately chosen large-format reading material that attempts to give a comprehensive view of a particular decade of the last century.
“It is interesting that precisely ten years of the new century had to pass before several interpretations of the art and cultural life of the last century should suddenly be published,” said Vasilij and added, “I mean the decades of the second half of the century.” I ventured that this may be connected with generational change and the current activity – in art too – of a new generation that knows little even about the recent 1990s.
“Ortega y Gasset once suggested that a generation lasted thirty years but was active for fifteen. By ‘generation’ he meant people of the same type, characterised by a similar perception of life.” As so often in our conversations, Vasilij displayed his erudition. For my part, I recalled that Ortega y Gasset wrote of the late 1920s as a time when three different generations had existed side by side, and I asked what the present situation could be. Vasilij pointed out that it could be more complicated now, and, moreover, a “similar perception of life” does not mean that people have to be the same age. I commented that on the other hand there could be completely different generations among people of the same age, for example, conformists and “the uncensored ones”. Saying this, I nodded towards the largest of the books, which supported the rest of the pile. “No,” objected Vasilij, “if we accept the Spanish thinker’s idea of a generation, then it means that different strata of society, in spite of differences in views, are located in the same existential frame from which only individual geniuses can escape, and which only they can utilize.”
“Should this be understood to mean that you and I wouldn’t even understand the ‘uncensored’ generation (as they described themselves) of the 1960s and ’70s?” I asked Vasilij. “Yes, it’s difficult for us to understand the spirit of this construction, built on a generalised and somewhat mythologised notion of censorship,” he agreed, “Maybe we would do better to turn our attention to the ’90s or to the interpretations already written about them, which, once again, could be written by members of the same generation or by people from the outside.” I wanted to know what was meant by the words “from the outside”. Pondering for a moment, Vasilij answered: “This could mean, firstly, a view by someone outside a particular group. For example, censors could write about the uncensored, and vice versa.” He smiled and continued: “Secondly, these would be interpretations based on the assumptions of a different generation or a different existential framework.” I asked which of these interpretations should be regarded as the more objective, and Vasilij answered that the criteria of objectivity can vary between generations but that in every case it is possible to discover the arguments underlying the appraisal, how acceptable their premises are to us, and indeed whether there is any argumentation at all.
I went to the kitchen to make some more tea and we continued our conversation. I said that the 1960s produce in me a sense of nostalgia because only a few fragmentary moments remain in my memory. I pulled out The Uncensored from the bottom of the pile of books and looked up a picture showing vehicles carrying missiles. I remarked that before the parades, these would stand on nearby Rupniecibas iela where I lived at the time, as a boy just a few years old. “The word ‘nostalgia'”, Vasilij seemed to savour this word, “might be the key concept for this visually rich portrayal of the 1960s and ’70s. It is so unified in its existential feeling that the younger-generation authors who have commented the photographs, for example, explain that their locus of interpretation lies ‘outside’ of this feeling.” I agreed, and added that in fact I’m much more nostalgic about the 1990s and the café M6 than about the 1960s and Kaza. (Similarly – there’s a corresponding image of life at M6 where we see Olegs Tilbergs and Kristaps Gelzis playing chess, and in the background, at the next table, we see Gennadij Suhanov, now already departed.)
Having recalled the days of M6 I asked Vasilij how he – a person from approximately the same generation though with a different viewpoint – regards these cultural facts from which the picture of the 1990s was constructed a decade later. “The term ‘constructed’ really is apt,” Vasilij began with satisfaction, “since who, if not you, should know that even the exceptionally abstract facts of the Tractatus do not exist of themselves but instead, if one may say so, derive from the idea of the logical space of the Tractatus.” He continued after a short pause: “Only in this case, the cultural space in which the various concepts and developments in art life and organisations exist is not an apparently objective given, but instead has been constructed by the authors of various articles. You could even say that it is a construction formed from people who write and remember.” I asked how in this case he would regard the criteria of objectivity that we talked about previously. “Well, you would have to understand the argumentation in a wider context,” began Vasilij, “because it is not always the case that a paper presents an analysis of views that the author strives to compare, defend, rebut and so forth.” I said that the subjectivity of a viewpoint can also be emphasised, as done for example by Ilya Kabakov who wrote about the unofficial art life of the 1960s and ’70s in Moscow, and that there’s nothing wrong with this because the material that appears in these notes is very interesting all the same. Vasilij agreed but added that this sounds more like a convenient excuse. “In reality, every examination of phenomena in art is undertaken within a wider field, which provides the space for possible argumentation and is thus never entirely subjective.”
He took up the book The Nineties and went on: “In the limited ‘everyone knows everyone’ cultural space of Latvia there have been attempts to compare art with developments in the world. Yet initially this is done according to a simple principle: separating the ‘here’ and ‘there’.” I acquiesced since I’d observed that the writings in The Nineties utilise the pairs of terms “local” and “global”, and “original” and “borrowed”. “Yes, but what is most interesting is the framework of assumptions in which these concepts operate,” said Vasilij. “The number of articles in a collection of this kind should ensure that the ‘mythology’ – if we can call it that – on which they are based is placed in doubt. For example, the assumption that the Baltic States form the first broad context for considering any phenomena in Latvia.”
I remembered that in an interview with Ojars Petersons, also included in the book, he used in his replies a whole string of words characterizing a sceptical approach, such as “coincidence”, “mythology”, “suspicion”, “illusion”, “it can all be claimed as being”. For some reason not clear to myself I had written them down in my notebook. Now I took it from my jacket pocket and read them out to Vasilij. Having pondered for a moment, he nodded: “Yes, the use of language shows very well the things we do not or cannot say precisely, in this case the restrictions imposed by preconceived views of which one is not entirely conscious. Yet sometimes this kind of ‘showing’ is much more effective than actual ‘saying’.” Smiling, I nodded, as a sign that I’d taken the hint. However, I remembered that the concept of truth, seemingly incompatible with a sceptical attitude, was used in the interview in an affirmative sense, and that the interview itself, if I remembered correctly, was entitled “There is one truth”.
Vasilij needed some time to formulate his answer, since he’d not read the interview yet. As far as I remember, his line of thought was this: “In one sense art can be compared with what is written about art. But not in the obvious, tautological sense that art is the object of analysis of these writings. The assertions made in the writings about something, including art, do, at least in terms of form, make a claim to be true. Moreover, what is important are the new and unexpected assertions rather than the repetition of universally known judgements and facts. It may be that these interpretations are subsequently regarded as erroneous, but their originality, in combination with their claim to be true, constitutes the aspect of truth in them. It is similar in art: there must be something new, rather than the unthinking repetition of previous artistic approaches (in whatever sense, be it simply the unthinking adoption of a medium, for example painting). And the new aspect claims to be more than just a whim or accident. Only in this way can we comprehend the application of the concept of the truth to art.”
I knew that Vasilij, when discussing contemporary art, usually emphasized that the division of art into different media has lost its significance. So I asked him whether he had read Helena Demakova’s recently published collection of writings They Wouldn’t Notice (and indeed I didn’t notice the book in the room), where in the afterword it is claimed that painting in Latvia in recent years has experienced a “mighty somersault of quality”. I added that perhaps this is a cyclical phenomenon, similar to that of the intellectual milieu where movements that have lost their significance regain it in a new quality. As an example, I mentioned a conversation I’d had with American literature researcher Kate Marshall over a cup of coffee during an international conference a few days before. We discussed formalism in art and literary criticism, and she said that over the past six or seven years, neoformalism had once again become topical in literary criticism, even though in literature studies of the 1960s, as in visual art, formalism had receded from the foreground of the intellectual arena.
Vasilij replied that he’d already read the book and put it back on the shelf, and added ironically that one article also mentioned my metaphorical, and in his view insufficiently analytical, remark – like the remark of mine about cyclicity – on contemporary art. Then, becoming serious, he went on: “Helena’s afterword is an interesting attempt to dot all the i’s of the current situation in Latvian art, thinking about future developments as well. Accordingly, it mentions almost everything – including painting – that is worth mentioning, worth supporting and worth defending against the prevailing line of ‘thinking’ in politics which is to ignore art and culture in the widest sense.” After a brief pause, Vasilij finished: “It’s a kind of political assessment of art, using the word ‘political’ in the most positive sense that it can possibly have.”
I didn’t entirely agree with Vasilij, but I myself had not yet formed an attitude towards the latest developments in Latvian painting. That is why I wished to know how he regarded Helena’s view in terms of the categories of the subjective, objective and “from the outside” that we had examined in our conversation. Vasilij smiled and said: “My dear friend, I’ve said everything necessary in order that the term ‘objective’ might be used, and it’s so simple to do, but you’re asking for a fully-formed assessment. As regards a view from the outside, then the attitude of artists towards the critics and curators has generally been, how to put it more delicately, somewhat reserved. And that,” he quickly added in a louder voice, “is regardless of their often very close personal friendship. As far as I know, the critics themselves have reflected on this situation, whatever it may have been, only in The Golden Book of Moscow Conceptualism.” Pondering for a moment, he continued: “The term ‘from the outside’ in connection with art criticism does not mean that the semantic space in which we place a phenomenon in art is in some way inferior or narrow. It is more likely quite the opposite. But you also have to take into account the different aims behind one art conversation or another.”
“And what could the aim of our conversation be?” I asked, reminding Vasilij of his rhetorical exclamation concerning the end of the twentieth century when we met. Vasilij did not need to think long: “You see, my friend, we have unwittingly examined several retrospectives of the last decades of the history of twentieth century culture and art in Latvia. The 1980s, as you should know, have also been the subject of a small CD format publication, but, this, of course, is compensated by the polyphonically saturated investigation of the 1990s. The conceptualism of Moscow in its self-reflection, in contrast to Western ‘neoconceptualism’, ‘global conceptualism’ and other terms, does not distinguish any periods. We distinguish too many. But, in spite of this, the twentieth century has not really even begun here. The younger generation, to which we no longer belong,” Vasilij smiled with resignation, “has, circumventing the old century, leapt onto, if I can use a worn metaphor, the train of the 21st century. Along with this, the division into what is or is not the art of Latvia belongs to the realm of cultural politics but not to the current interpretation of art, if we wish it to have the flavour of truth.”
The last phrase was one more parody of the usage of metaphors I sometimes permit myself in my statements. At the time, I was not convinced of the correctness of Vasilij’s assessment but, as is often the case in such situations, the paradoxical and rhetorical mode of expression of my conversation partner did not permit me to come up with any immediate objections, and I decided not to raise them now either, while writing down this conversation.