Hedonism in Contemporary Art
Nature has placed mankind under the governance
of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.
It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do,
as well as to determine what we shall do.
Jeremy Bentham, XIX c.
The present article completes the series of our 2010 publications on the subject of hedonism in the art of Central Asia and the problem of utopia in the painting of Uzbekistan. The full version of these materials will be printed in a monograph.
Epistemology of Contemporary Hedonism
Causes that had given rise to new visions and thinking were embedded in both global and regional historical phenomena of the twentieth century. One should look for epistemological roots of postmodernism as a dominant social, philosophical and aesthetic trend of Western democracies in a kaleidoscope of incredible combinations, confrontations and intertwining of mostly tragic events of that era (world wars, global economic crises, social and political upheaval, genocide, terrorism, etc.). Nihilism, irony and desperation from perceived apocalypse provided a fertile ground for postmodernist philosophy as a form of sarcastic liberalism that opened the floodgates barring the last ethical constraints left over from the decadence Europe of the early twentieth century.
The postmodernist wave as an emanation or an invariant of globalization in the intellectual domain erases boundaries between countries, peoples, national identities and aesthetic strongholds of high and popular art, levels social distinctions, postulates the philosophy of no foundations, and, to a certain extent, reforms the aesthetics of ancient sophistry. Postmodernism, often a priori rather than outwardly, articulates opportunities for hedonistic worldview in general, treating the subject with a degree of aloofness and condescension. Hedonism is not included in the range of fundamental interests of postmodernist philosophy that could crash it in the stone mill of its sarcasm. Although a number of publications consider hedonism an attribute of postmodernist culture (1, pp. 54-58), the artefacts of contemporary Central Asian art do not support this.
Market philosophy as an alternative to postmodernism, being more interested in and particular about marketing, looked carefully into commercial potential of man's hedonistic desires and instincts, having created the entertainment industry that brings fabulous profits. Hedonism becomes a market instrument and a source of income. That is what spurred the development of hedonistic aspects of contemporary culture: entertaining film series boom, rampant development of video clip art with its aesthetics, various forms of show business, and the great multitude of appealing commercials - the aggressive symbols of hedonism.
These most radical, physical form of hedonism, or "brute hedonism" as the English philosopher J. Bentham put it (as opposed to "gentle and soft" or "ethical" hedonism), flourished in the market economy of the western world. They manifest themselves in ever-increasing human desire to spend money on new goods and services, and in the entertainment industry - on pleasures to compensate for monotonous job routine. At the end of the twentieth century this ideology captured one of the most ascetic regions on the globe - the former Soviet nations, where the transition to the market philosophy began in a varying degree of intensity. Popular culture has become a major supplier of hedonic goods.
As for "ethical" hedonism or a form of spiritual and sublime aesthetic enjoyment, it found its expression in elite arts: classical arts such as ballet, opera, symphony music, theatre, "designer" cinematography... In plastic arts, the status of ethical hedonism was claimed by the classical art of antiquity and the avant-garde phenomena of the early twentieth century. In the meantime, all Soviet art also positioned itself as a manifestation of spiritual or ethical hedonism. The ideology of soviet hedonism resonated with the Epicurean philosophy of happiness attained through ataraxia (freedom from pain and anxiety), not by means of greater consumption of worldly goods, but through concentration on truly essential spiritual needs, among which Epicurus counted friendship (the soviet internationalism and friendship are essentially a reproduction of these ideas of antiquity).
In the second half of the twentieth century, in Europe and the United States a non-profit postmodernist art movement emerges as a protest against commercialization of art and the expansion of "brute hedonism". The alternatives come in the forms of actual art such video art, installations and performances. Yet, eventually this noble mission of non-profit art ends in failure: video art pieces become commercial products purchased by galleries that specialize only in this segment of postmodernist ideas. The same fate befell commercial installations, which were originally meant to be set up as a one-time action. Today, Germany and other European countries open modern art museums that purchase installations for high price; parks in the United States have installations with quoted prices; installations by I. Kabakov who started as a protest artist are now estimated to cost tens and hundreds of thousands dollars.
So, postmodernist art has not escaped the fate of a market commodity. Nevertheless, this contemporary art trend has been most successful in staying somewhat independent from the interference of "brute hedonism", unlike post-modernist painting that, despite the change in philosophy, still gravitates toward the traditions of a short-term commercial environment. The Russian capital that has become rich over the past 20 years and now claims to be one of the global art trade centres has a great number of art galleries. Covering the exhibition of commercially successful American artist David Salle in one of Moscow galleries, its critic acidly remarks that "the place has bourgeois and hedonistic flavour so strong that its sweet scent gets transferred to the displayed art - the large, bright paintings of western masters". Though reviewing an article in the exhibition catalogue the same critic notes that "it is full of scathing attacks on the socially concerned contemporary critics who prefer rational structures to the pleasure of simply contemplating a picture" (2). Thus, the postmodernist environment itself is rather ambiguous, with mixed and contradicting views on the problem of hedonism, which have split the art community into supporters of the aesthetics of pleasure and the adherents of intellectual non-profit art.
Hedonism if the Art of Uzbekistan
In the late XIX and early XX cc. easel painting, cinematography, theatre and other forms of European art make a strong entrance into the cultural life of Turkestan. At first, this new aesthetics did not concern all the society and was intended primarily for Russian-speaking urban population of Turkestan. Yet despite the wariness and sometimes very strong negative attitude on the part of local clergy the new culture gradually propagated among local Muslim population too. Hedonistic culture of the Muslim population of Turkestan encountered new forms of cultural entertainment.
Immigrant artists, struck by unusual lifestyle and customs of local people, discovered new emotions and dimensions in their own art.
Hedonism in the early twentieth century easel painting was represented most completely in the works of Alexander Nikolaev (Usto Mumin) dedicated to effeminate bacha characters - boys for men's pleasures ("Spring-time", "Friendship", "Dutar Player"). Unlike the Aristippus-style hedonism as physical satisfaction, in the works of Usto Mumin the emotional aestheticism and accentuated lyrical and poetic key soften the certain physiology of the subject that come across with closer familiarity with materials on the bacha institute.
Another type of "exotization" of oriental traditions and rituals is demonstrated in intense, picturesque and juicy-coloured painting series by A. Volkov created in mid 1920s ("The Dance", 1924; "Listening to a Quail", 1926; "Child-Musicians", 1926, "The Three Musicians", 1926), inspired by the aesthetic hedonism of traditional meditative oriental music and dance plastics.
The crown in the Volkov's hedonic series of paintings is the "Pomegranate Teahouse" (1924), where mystical hedonism is embodied in the master's virtuoso painting technique and fantastic spectrum of red.
Oddly enough, the soviet system with its harsh anti-hedonistic ideology of atheism, just as Islamic rigorism, opposed the philosophy of physical pleasure. First of all, it was due to the fact that both religious and communist doctrines, originally focused on absolute subordination of an individual to corporate community, considered hedonism as a way of expressing the freedom of a person's ego. Neither communist, nor religious doctrine could allow that. Secondly, the soviet-style ethical hedonism, in a sense, tied in well to the universally accepted notion of religious or disciplinary asceticism characteristic of the three world's main religions: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam (3, pp. 90-95). The term "asceticism" that originates from the Greek verb "to skillfully process; to exercise" originally referred to the methods of athletes' training, and later on, in the teachings of ancient Stoics it assumed the meaning of moral self-improvement or the practice of virtue.
Such goal was communism: according to the ideologists of the doctrine, it would be a society where all hedonistic urges of man are realized - the harmony between material and spiritual needs. This mythology is not new: it dates back to religious doctrines about the blessed land of paradise where people are free from the imperfections of earthly life and where they can eventually be happy (4, p. 25; pp. 83-92). This was consistent with the objectives of soviet ideology vivid expressed in the art of social realism - ascetic and focused on spiritual ideals. Since 1930s the fine art of Uzbekistan has been monopolized by socialist realism, and the monopoly lasted until mid 1980s, when the new policy of perestroika changed the style and content of the entire soviet art, and new intentions appeared in the painting of Uzbekistan as well. Over this entire nearly 60-year period hedonistic subjects basically never appeared in the Uzbek painting. Moreover, in the 1970s, due to intensified ideological pressure during Brezhnev's time, the art style gets even more ascetic, being symptomatically labelled as "austere style".
In the second half of the 1980s decade the "social concern" in the art of several leading artists of Uzbekistan (Ikramjanov, Nur, Mirjalilov, and others) goes in a completely opposite direction and takes the form of a social protest. Hedonistic motives were not represented in this painting tradition. The situation changes dramatically in the early 1990s when the ideological paradigm shifted and the fundamental principles of the socialist realism art lost their former significance. Social subject-matter goes into background also due to the growing sense of national identity. With the heightened interest in the nation's own cultural heritage, poetic and metaphorical trend becomes dominant in painting. Reacting to the many years of compelled subordination to the requirements of academic painting, the artists rush headlong into new experiments with color and line. Now it is time for hedonistic aesthetics to become central to the national art of Uzbekistan in the 1990s.
These metamorphoses were experienced by many leading artists, including B. Jalalov, J. Umarbekov, A. Nur, L. Ibragimov, A. Ikramjanov, J. Usmanov, M. Isanov, Sh. Khakimov, H. Ziyahanov, G. Kadyrov, and others. Along with ideological reasons, socio-economic factors were also at play, particularly in connection with the country's transition to market-based economic relations. An artist, having gained the freedom of expression, now has the opportunity to market his works too. Since that was the time of a growing demand for ethnographic painting with a flavour of national romanticism, the artists chose the line of their creative pursuit accordingly. Perhaps this historical discourse explains the commitment of the 1990s and early 2000s Uzbek painters to socially indifferent lyrical/romantic aesthetics. With all the different intonations and plastic distinctions, the tendency of searching for hedonistic flavour clearly shows in the works of B. Jalalov, S. Alibekov, I. Mukhtarov, H. Ziyohanov, Z. Sharipova, and D. Rahmanbekova, and to a lesser extent, in the paintings of J. Umarbekov.
In Jalalov's "Bacchanalia" and "The Dance with Masks" hedonistic motive is communicated through geometrized, constructivist broken shapes and associated more with a modern interpretation of mythological themes of ancient mysteries. Here, the memorial idea comes to the fore, emphasizing the sensual element. But the artist's other piece, "Saeed, The Seeker of Silence", performed in a smooth, linear manner that is natural for oriental aesthetics, rather subtly conveys the air of affectation, poetic inspiration and sensual beauty.
Ethical concept known as questa dolce del vivere, the sweetness of life, became typical of the entire Renaissance period and was interpreted in a number of paintings by S. Alibekov. Hedonistic motive is present in his works and coloured in the shades of gracefully concealed sarcastic irony. Erotic element and sensual pleasures get aestheticized in the artist's paintings, but do not reveal any rapturous and elated perception of life as in humanistic philosophy of Antiquity and the Renaissance. The idea of enjoying life is communicated through the title itself, which Alibekov invented with his characteristic literary wit and finesse.
Love poems are the main motive in Mukhtarov's paintings that seem to be radiating an inner light: "Moonlight Peri" and "Oshik Anor" ("Amorous Pomegranate"), where the intonation represents the idea of that new, sweet Italian style, but now with some shyness and mystical understatement in gestures and looks, which is inherent in oriental ethics.
Different interpretation filled with associations with sensual Sufistic ecstasy can be found in Z. Sharipova's "Self-Portrait". More open in terms of hedonistic sentiment, her piece "Nude", where one can guess the image the artist, represents a kind of a fusion between sensual and mystical elements.
Another line of hedonistic painting is presented in the works of D. Rahmanbekova ("Oriental Orchestra") and J. Umarbekov ("Tahir and Zuhrain Their Youth"), where one can easily recognize stylistic paraphrase of Nikolaev's paintings, but with a greater degree of colouristic emphasis.
In the art of postmodernists hedonistic motives are rare; they are basically non-existent in installations and video art projects of recent years. As a kind of postmodernist response, with its intrinsic underlying irony, to the theme of oriental hedonism one can consider the part of a photo-collage diptych inspired by the verses of I. Brodskiy, "We lived in a city the color of petrified vodka", created by the group of artists led by the present author (A. Khakimov, Sh. Saidberdiev, Z. Nasirova, S. Babaev).
By and large, the pattern of manifestation of hedonism is closely linked with overall historical processes. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, hedonism today spans across a large segment of public and personal life and is reflected in art. Hedonism in the XIX-XXI cc. art of Uzbekistan had a fairly clear pattern and manifestation. Its trajectory was as follows: from a little splash in the early twentieth century due to the interest of Russian artists toward oriental exoticism, through the decades of silence during the period of socialist realism in art, to another vibrant resurgence in the late XX and early XXI centuries, triggered by the galvanized interest in more "private" aspects of the national history and lifestyle.
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