Corner Square Montage
Curator: Lu Mingjun
In 1976, American art critic and art historian Annette Michelson and Rosalind Krauss founded the journal October. The journal name was taken from Eisenstein’s film October in 1927, which commemorated the 10th anniversary of the “October Revolution”. This is also the year in which Trotsky was deported.
Eisenstein is the witness of the “February Revolution” and “October Revolution”. The film is full of his understanding and perception of these two revolutions. In an article entitled The Dialectic view of Film Forms, Eisenstein said that all new things are born in the struggle of opposite contradictions. The “October Revolution” is the turning point of the era that changes the history of the world and creates a new system. Montage can vividly reveal the belligerence of the revolution. The “February Revolution” is essentially different from the “October Revolution”. The former is the bourgeois revolution, while the latter the proletariat. And the “dialectic montage” on the screen exactly shows the break between the two.
Eisenstein’s October is a masterpiece of the Soviet silent films. It not only creates a new art paradigm, but itself can also be regarded as a political action. It is this moment of revolutionary practice, theoretical exploration and artistic innovation that has become the starting point for the thinking and action of Michelson and Krauss. For them, the art revolution that took place in Soviet Union more than half a century ago radiated to all areas of literature, painting, architecture and film. And the birth of this artistic revolution and historical movement is civil war, factional disputes and economic crisis. In the first issue of October, the two editors stated that their purpose was not to make the myths or Hadith of the revolution immortal, nor to share this self-verification sadness, but to revisit the relationship between several arts in their own culture at this time, and based on this, to re-discuss their meanings and roles at this important historical juncture.
In fact, before the publication of October, Michelson had published a paper on Soviet avant-garde film Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura in the Artforum (January 1973). The article mainly discussed the works of Sergei Eisenstein and Stan Brakhage in different periods, especially focusing on the film language of Eisenstein’s October. Michelson pointed out that for Eisenstein, film is the inheritance of philosophy. He embodied aesthetic principles as an epistemology and eventually led to ethics. Therefore, “montage thinking cannot be separated from holistic thinking.” October is a thinking paradigm that constantly repeats “Film Form” and “Film Sense”. Eisenstein’s active and profound involvement in his own consciousness (to attribute himself to the historical process of the revolution) makes us aware that his work is some kind of vector in the process of historical transformation. Here, Michelson has clarified the integral relationship between Eisenstein’s film language in October (or the “epic style”) and revolutionary politics. For Michelson, film is only part of it. She also mentioned in the article that Eisenstein was nourished by poetry, painting and drama at that time. These arts have successively appeared, following the complex path around Russia’s “October Revolution”, from futurism to cubism and to constructivism. Only by studying Tatlin and Rodchenko, and how they understand cubism, can we have a deeper understanding of Eisenstein. Three years later, the second issue of October in 1976 published Eisenstein’s notes for a film of “Capital” in 1927-28, as well as the introduction and commentary of Michelson. In her comments, Michelson also mentioned October, which reads, “October is Eisenstein’s most delicate and complicated effort in moving toward a thorough art film. …by changing the time flow of events and the surrounding narrative structure …it attracts new attention and induces inferences about spatial and temporal relationships.” Here, “the power of montage exists in the ‘primitive’ fact, and the ideal image is not fixed or ready-made, but produced. It gathers in the perception of audience.”
Until today, the top right corner of the cover of October still marks the four key words “Art”, “Theory”, “Criticism” and “Politics” as its basic positioning and value. And from the beginning, they made it clear that October is anti-commercial, anti-college and anti-institutional, which is also the difference between it and the abstract expressionism and formalism that has been commercialized at this time. But it is no coincidence that the revolutionary avant-garde in the early 20th century constituted their common narrative starting point. The first issue of October mentioned the Party Review, a left-wing publication with Trotskyism. The two editors did not deny the political nature of Party Review, but they felt that it was increasingly “ignoring innovation in art and criticism,” and even “encouraging the development of new vulgarism in the intellectual world.” It should not be overlooked that the Party Review is also the main theoretical position of Greenberg in the early days. In the early 1940s, he worked as a journal editor for several years, and his early most important commentary, Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939), was published in the Party Review. In this article, Greenberg clearly opposed the kitsch academicism, commercialism and socialist realism. For him, the real representative of the avant-garde is abstract painting. The abstraction here seemingly refers to formalistic painting, but in fact it represents the entire avant-garde art movement opened by the 1917 “October Revolution”, including Mayakovsky and the LEF group in literature, the formalism and constructivism genre in painting, Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovshenko in the film industry, Taïroff and Meyerhold in drama. The spiritual leader of the avant-garde art movement is Trotskyism. Pi Li has done a very clear combing on this background:
In 1924, Stalin assumed leadership over the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death. Trotsky was expelled from the party by Stalin in 1927 and was in exile. In 1928, in order to eliminate the influence of Trotsky, Stalin strengthened his control over the Third International. Stalinism gradually replaced Trotskyism, which also aroused the vigilance of many European progressive intellectuals who had supported the “October Revolution”. In the same year, Mussolini took office with the left-wing socialist banner. He ended the parliament in Italy and abolished all political groups and suppressed progressive intellectuals and the Communist Party. The rise of Mussolini made progressive intellectuals see the danger of fascism in Europe. From the late 1920s to the mid-1930s, intellectuals also tried to pin their hopes of eliminating fascism on Stalin. Even after Hitler came to power in 1933, they did not give up. However, Stalin and Hitler signed the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in August 1939 and then secretly divided Poland. The Treaty led to the complete disillusionment of European progressive intellectuals’ ideals of Soviet Union and Stalinism, which in their view was the confluence of fascism and Stalinism. When they thought of the exile of constructivist artists by the Soviet Union, they felt that Stalinism was almost synonymous with fascism. Thus, the honeymoon period of modernism and communism has come to an end at this moment.
Greenberg published the article Avant-Garde and Kitsch in 1939, which should not be a coincidence. Although Greenberg criticized socialist realism and fascist art, he did not give up revolutionary politics and modernism. In other words, Trotskyism is the background of his theory. At the end of the article, he said: “Today we no longer look toward socialism for a new culture-as inevitably as one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.” Socialism here is not Stalin’s socialism, but Trotsky’s socialism. About 20 years later, in a footnote in New York Painting Only Yesterday (1957), Greenberg wrote: “Though that is not all, by far, that there was politics in art in those years; someday it will have to be told how ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.” This has already clarified his relationship with Trotskyism, and the reason why it was placed in a footnote may be to “deceive the public”. After all, the entire United States has not yet come out of the shadow of McCarthyism.
As mentioned earlier, Trotsky was deported in 1927 and began his exile. In the same year, Eisenstein completed the film October which was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the “October Revolution.” It is worth mentioning that Trotsky published an important long essay entitled Lessons of October in 1924. He systematically combed and reviewed issues like “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants”, “July Days, Kornilov affair” and “Soviet’s ‘legality'” since the 1917 “October Revolution” (including the “February Revolution”) in the essay. On this basis, the need for the “Bolschevization” of the Communist International was reiterated – an indisputable and definitive task. He said: “The Bolsheviks are not just a doctrine but a revolutionary education system for the proletarian revolution……’This is Hegel, this is the wisdom in the book, and this is the whole meaning of philosophy! ……'” Trotsky finally mentioned Hegel. Coincidentally, Eisenstein’s so-called “dialectical montage”, that is, “contradictory opposites” and “natural unity” are consistent with Hegel’s dialectics, which both enters a new “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” by the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.” By analogy, contradictions spiral up and develop in constant conflicts. I don’t know if Eisenstein’s October comes directly from Trotsky’s long essay, but there is indeed an intrinsic connection between the two. Half a century later, Michelson and Krauss chose it as one of their motivations to found the October journal.The “October Revolution”, Eisenstein and (early) Greenberg together formed the starting point for their actions. At this time, the United States and the Soviet Union are in the cold war. But it is clear that October doesn’t favor either of them. What it truly recognizes is the Fourth International: “Trotskyism.”
Although Greenberg also mentioned the practice part of modernism, from the end of the 1940s to around the 1960s, he rarely mentioned how modernism could be a revolutionary political movement, nor the criticism of the bourgeoisie and kitsch. An important reason that can’t be ignored is the cleaning of McCarthyism in the early 1950-54. In some sense, it was McCarthy’s purge that forced Greenberg to abandon revolutionary politics, but only committed to constructing a set of “closed” formalist discourses, which evolved into a set of monopolar hegemonic narratives. However, this discourse quickly colluded with the rising art market and somewhat echoed the neoliberal ideology that dominated the mainstream and expanded globally. It was also during this period that the voices of anti-formalistic hegemony accompanying the wave of civil rights movement, anti-war movement and anti-cultural movement were upsurging. In particular, the rise of conceptual art and its “dematerialization” movement eventually led to the withdrawal of formalism. The art world was looking forward to a new revolution, and October was undoubtedly part of it. As Greenberg said in the article Avant-Garde and Kitsch: “Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard.” This sentence can also be said: where there is a guard, there is avant-garde.
Michelson died of illness at the age of 97 in September 2018, while old Krauss is still very sprightly. The October journal has gone through more than 40 years of history. Although today’s art criticism, art media and even the entire art ecology have changed from the past, October is still outstanding, as it’s not only a revolution in art criticism and art cognition, but also a political movement itself. If this is the meaning of the birth of the October journal, then today’s question is, can we find an identical or similar (or can we return to the) starting point for action? Perhaps we must also reiterate Trotsky’s question 90 years ago: “What is permanent revolution?”
At this new historical juncture today, our exhibition “Corner Square Montage” hopes to return to the avant-garde moment again. The exhibition was curated by the art director of Surplus Space, Lu Mingjun. We specially invited Tang Xiaohe, Wang Jianwei, Chen Chieh-Jen, Xu Zhen, Zhang Ding, Shi Qing, Gong Jian, Li Yu + Liu Bo, Lang Xuebo, Li Liao, Hu Wei and Wu Hao etc. hoping that through the collisions of their works with different medias, languages and styles from different periods, a new kind of montage and political power will be generated.