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Conversation with Amy Kousnetsova of Sputnik Gallery about the differences in American and Post-Soviet Art

May 4, 2010

Being eternally curious (some would say nosy), when Amy first mentioned that her mission was to bring Post-Soviet art (specifically photography) to the American public because of the differences between the art created in the US and Russia, my head went flying up, my nose caught the scent, and I was off on a quest to learn what those differences were. Wouldn’t you do the same?

So what are those differences? Amy laughed at the question – then said they were subtle.

Hmmm. The start of a fascinating conversation which touched on politics, life in the Soviet era, concepts of art, and so forth.

What we came to was this:

1. Size matters: US art tends to be large.

Part of it is ego. American artists want to dominate a space; they don’t necessarily want to inhabit it. Think of it as a holdover from the Abstract Expressionists and the massive dimensions of their pieces.

Part of it has to do with price – the larger the piece, the more expensive it is. With galleries charging 50%, the artist’s share for the sale of a smaller piece makes the economic equation require large size.

Russian art is smaller and more intimate. Russian artists haven’t been thinking about their egos or about making dominance statements. They’ve been thinking about creating art with a dearth of materials.

2. Availability of materials: Russian artists, sculptors and photographers don’t have broad availability of materials.

In the Russia and the former Soviet countries, there are simply fewer art shops like Utrecht and fewer internet shops like Dick Blick, and those are concentrated in urban settings. All of which means using materials at hand and sizing the art pieces to the availability of materials.

In the US, we simply have tons of material. Lots of oil and acrylic paints, towers of pastel sticks, not to mention water colors, water color pencils, boards, canvas (prestretched for Bill Engel and in rolls for the rest of us), not to mention stone, bronze, clay, and so forth. And it’s available in all grades, from grade-school student through professional.

3. Boldness: US art shoots its mouth off.

We think it’s our right to say whatever we think. (Actually, it is, courtesy of the First Amendment.) Translate that into photographing whatever we want, painting whatever we want, sculpting whatever we want. It’s our birthright and we use it.

Sometimes, it would be nice if there were a little (quality) editing of those rights, but you could say that’s what the marketplace is for. Bad artists will fail, or so we hope, right?

Russian art is more careful. There still is a sense of approvals needed. Remember that it’s only been since 1989 that the Soviet regime fell – so only the youngest artists haven’t known Soviet culture, particularly Soviet artistic culture with its approved themes, depictions and media.

4. Cultural context: Hard to describe this one but let’s try.

Amy pointed out a photograph of a little girl. The Russian photographer shot a blond haired little girl without a shirt. To an American eye, the girl would have been assumed to be a poor kid from the Appalachians. To a Russian eye, the girl was exploring and having adventures. There is no common context.

Several months ago, Sputnik Gallery had a show with posed photographs. To the Russians: cutting edge; to the Americans: ennui personified. No common context.

5. Value of art: Russians value art differently

How do we acquire art in the US? We buy it, sometimes from auction houses, sometimes from galleries, sometimes from artist studios, and (ugh) sometimes from eBay, Etsy and places like that. We either want it very expensive (don’t we just love being rich) or very cheap (don’t we just love self-expression). Most Americans want art because it matches their décor, not because it speaks to them. Ask the average American what their favorite painting, photograph or sculpture is. It’s eye opening.

Russians are learning to buy art from galleries, since they’re becoming conspicuous consumers from a massively capitalist economy. Most are used to a piece of art coming to their home, carried unobtrusively in a bag, under a coat, or somehow quietly transported. Russians are extremely cultured people. They value art for its thought as well as its beauty – and I’m pretty sure the phrase “it matches the colors of my couch” would never be said aloud.

I’m sure there’s more and I’m hoping that Amy and I will continue this conversation as my eye gets more acculturated to Russia. But thank you Amy for this start.

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One comment

  1. Ralph,
    First time viewing your blog, and quite impressed! I can see following your blog is going to be lots of fun.



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