The book, which first appeared in 1968, was an anthology of polemical texts against Cubism and Pop Art—and one of the only intelligent discussions of modernism’s social context and overall logic available in the Soviet Union—making it popular even among those who disagreed with Lifshitz’s conclusions.
The result of a three-year Garage Field Research project, If our soup can could speak takes as its starting point Lifshitz’s book and related writings to re-explore the vexed relations between so-called progressive art and politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as well as the motivations and implications of Lifshitz’s singular crusade against the modern classics. His appraisal of the crisis in twentieth-century art differs fundamentally from the standard attacks on modernism in government-issue Soviet art criticism, and in fact can be read as their direct critique. All the while, Lifshitz is in constant dialogue and debate with the century’s leading intellectuals in the West (Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Horckheimer, Levi-Strauss, and others), searching for answers to the questions they posed from the perspective of someone with a unique inner experience of the Stalinist epoch’s revolutionary tragedy.
The exhibition unfolds as a narrative of archival documents, art works, and text fragments, which are situated in a sequence of ten interiors that could be seen as spatial forms for landmark moments in the evolution of modernism, or in Lifshitz’s thinking. It intends to provoke a discussion of art after the triumph of modernism and its contradictory position in a crisis-ridden world where Lifshitz's radical diagnoses seem more relevant than ever.
Initiated by artist-curators David Riff and Dmitry Gutov, the initial Field Research project (through which the exhibition was developed) involved a combination of archival mining, translation, and public discussions of the controversial themes and dramatic historical contexts of Lifshitz’s work. Since November 2015, the research team has reviewed more than 200 folders of documents from public archives, such as the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts, the Central Archive of Sociopolitical History of Moscow, and the State Tretyakov Gallery, as well as the private archives of Lifshitz’s daughter, Anna Pichikyan, and others. Retrieved documents include unpublished questionnaires, records of political purges, correspondence, manuscripts, stenographs of Lifshitz's lectures, personal photographs. These more conventional research methods were complemented by a large-scale visual study—both online and offline—delving into the references and sources of Lifshitz’s work and its institutional and everyday contexts, as seen in pictures and films.
Artists include Albrecht Dürer, Oleg Filatchev, Valery Khabarov, Larisa Kirillova, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
As part of the field research project, a first English translation of The Crisis of Ugliness has been made by David Riff. The book was published in February 2018 as Volume 158 of Brill's Historical Materialism series and was produced in collaboration with Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
Mikhail Lifshitz (1905, Melitopol–1983, Moscow) was a philosopher, cultural theorist, and one of the most influential Russian intellectuals of the twentieth century. After enrolling at the avant-garde art school VKhUTEMAS in the early 1920s, he experienced a creative crisis and turned to the classical legacy. Aged 20, he was invited to teach dialectical materialism. In 1933, Lifshitz published his key work On the Question of Marx’s Views of Art, where he demonstrated that Marx had a coherent system of aesthetic opinions. In 1938, this study was published in English in New York as The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx and subsequently appeared internationally in many other languages. In the 1930s, Lifshitz was at the epicenter of intellectual life in the Soviet Union. He lectured prolifically at several Moscow institutions and edited a number of classic works on aesthetic theory. He also briefly occupied the post of Assistant Director for Research at the Tretyakov Gallery and took part in the period’s most heated discussions on art. In 1941, Lifshitz volunteered for service at the front. After demobilization in 1946, he fell victim to the unfolding anti-Semitic campaign “against cosmopolitanism.” After the death of Stalin, he quickly returned to the spotlight when Novy Mir magazine published his article “The Diary of Marietta Shaginyan” (1954), which painted a satirical picture of the Stalin-era intelligentsia. However, his manifesto “Why Am I Not a Modernist?” published in Literaturnaya Gazeta newspaper in 1966, stirred up controversy: along with the new generation of readers, even those who had admired his boldness in the 1950s now accused him of obscurantism. For decades, Lifshitz remained a symbol of the Brezhnev-era campaigns against the avant-garde and contemporary art. This image was reinforced by the publication of his book The Crisis of Ugliness, in which he offered a radical critique of cubism and pop art. Burning his bridges, in 1976 he published an article titled “The Right Path” on the exhibition of young artists to mark the 25th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Lifshitz’s philosophy, centered on his belief in the tragic fate of art in modernity, was only partially explained in the writings he published during his lifetime, and remained largely unstudied in his archive of over 700 files. Most of his books were published after his death: the majority of them in recent years, which have seen a dramatic shift in the understanding of his legacy.