Ukrainian Contemporary Art - Civil Society, International Organizations and Public Sphere

Master's Thesis, 2003

58 Pages, Grade: 87


Table of Contents:



Theoretical Background

Ukrainian Contemporary Art

Struggles for Professional Authority

Role of Social Capital

Art Establishment vs. Contemporary Art

Claims for Professional Identity

International Recognition Contingencies




The independence of the countries that have succeeded the Soviet Union in 1990s has created basic conditions for the institutionalization of the civil society in these states. Ukraine has joined these newly independent states with little reliance on the institutions of the civil society. The developments within the Ukrainian art reflect the implications that the failure of the civil society institutionalization has for this particular domain of Ukrainian society. Ukrainian contemporary art that is presented at the major international art museums and art festivals of the contemporary art is a post-Soviet phenomenon that occupies the junction between Ukrainian art, international institutions and civil society. As a field of artistic activity Ukrainian contemporary art strives to differentiate itself from Ukrainian art that originated in the environment largely formed in the pre-independence, Soviet period. The struggles for authority within the field of Ukrainian contemporary art have involved Ukrainian institutions that are outside of it. Both institutional and personal agency within the field of Ukrainian contemporary art is affected by the lack of institutionalized civil society in Ukraine. In the theoretical terms of Pierre Bourdieu it is the case of the lack of autonomy that the field of Ukrainian contemporary art has. The sought-for autonomy would allow the field of Ukrainian contemporary art to exercise control over the resources of artistic authority. How this finds its articulation in the personal narratives of the major Ukrainian contemporary art figures and in the conflicts that happen in the field of Ukrainian contemporary art is the topic of this research. The methodology of multi-sited anthropology adopted in this research makes it possible to trace the contours of the authority relationships among contemporary artists, art institutions and curators at the time of inquiry. The research draws on twenty in-depth interviews arranged in 2001 with the leading figures of the Ukrainian contemporary art, with the prominent art curators that cooperate with the Ukrainian contemporary artists, and with the representatives of the major contemporary art galleries and foundations of Ukraine.


In the early 1990s a number of newly independent states rose from the remnants of the former Soviet Union (Collins 1986: 195-204; Szporluk 2000: 415). What are the implications for the emergence of civil society (Ryabchuk 1991: 104)? How contemporary artists reach their national and international audiences in the post-Soviet era? Is the answer found in the nascent civil society or in interest groups that are external to both Ukrainian art and civil society? These questions are taken up in the context of developments in the field of art in post-Soviet Ukraine.

Ukrainian contemporary artists belong to a new generation of artists that has appeared in late 1980s and has made a statement of its presence in the field of post-Soviet and Ukrainian art throughout the 1990s. An early stage of their evolvement is epitomized under the name of Paris Commune that is both a street name in Kyiv where the bulk of their activity has taken place and a term that refers to period with formative influence on development of the Ukrainian contemporary artists’ community (Filonenko and Solovyov 2001: 154). After the Center for Contemporary Art founded by George Soros has brought its institutional presence to bear upon the field of Ukrainian contemporary art in 1994, the Paris Commune movement in Ukrainian art has ceased to be coterminous with the community of Ukrainian contemporary artists (Filonenko and Solovyov 2001). In the mid-1990s there have formed rival groups of Ukrainian contemporary artists under the aegis of such Ukrainian foundations and organizations as Institute of Unstable Thoughts, Charitable Foundation Center for Contemporary Art Founded by George Soros, and New Creative Association Foundation. The stakes that Ukrainian contemporary artists and art curators pursue in their dealings with non-governmental organizations, state agencies and diverse bodies within the field of Ukrainian art provide important perspective on causes that prevent civil society from institutionalization in the field of Ukrainian contemporary art.

To claim their artistic identity within the larger field of Ukrainian art the Ukrainian contemporary artists have to follow implicit rules that we claim to correspond to their position in the space of the strategic positions both in the international field of contemporary art and within Ukrainian art. Ukrainian art of the post-communist period lacks a public discourse on the representational canons it has inherited from previous decades that would establish a relation to public sphere that is mediated by civil society institutions. The lack of civil society institutionalization makes Ukrainian contemporary art into a distinct field of artistic activity that translates its means of access to international discourse on art and to the international art field into professional identity of its members. However, for Ukrainian contemporary art to emerge as an independent field there should be existing agents within it with autonomy from the art establishment. For these reasons the contours of authority relations between those seeking to establish Ukrainian contemporary art as an autonomous field and the art establishment serves as a window into the understanding of success or failure of civil society in Ukraine. Particularly, we will study the battle for artistic authority as it has taken place when Ukrainian contemporary art was presented at a major international contemporary art festival – 2001 Venice Biennial. The presentation of contemporary art in that and other international spaces is a post-Soviet phenomenon that allows insight into the workings of nascent civil society.

In the theoretical terms of Pierre Bourdieu, we are interested in the lack of autonomy that the field of Ukrainian contemporary art has. The sought-for autonomy would allow the field of Ukrainian contemporary art to exercise control over the resources necessary for artistic authority. We look at this social process as it gains articulation in the public debates, personal narratives of Ukrainian artists and in the conflicts that happen in the field of Ukrainian contemporary art. The research draws on twenty in-depth interviews conducted in 2001 with leading figures in Ukrainian contemporary art, prominent art curators who cooperate with Ukrainian contemporary artists and with the representatives of the major contemporary art galleries and foundations in Ukraine. The methodology of multi-sited anthropology makes it possible to show the implications of authority relationships among contemporary artists, art institutions and Ukrainian state for civil society institutionalization. The interviews were collected under the condition of complete confidentiality to preclude the possibility of harm being done to reputation or wellbeing of the persons who were kind to be informants for our research.

Theoretical Background

The concept of civil society is connected to sociological theory and research on human agency through the question of social transformation. Civil societies may be treated either as historical formations that are inseparably rooted in the specific causes of their emergence (Bermeo 2000) or as normative theoretical ideals that though never achieved in practice (Alexander 1998: 1-2) provide important guidelines to how social matters of wide societal import should be treated individually and collectively. The post-Soviet societies pose in this respect a research case of policy making and social theoretical relevance that is about the conditions of social transformation defined both in terms of undesirable past social arrangements (Kubik 2000) and in terms of social arrangements that are worth striving for (Sztompka 1998). The discourse on civil societies has been revived in social sciences as promising cogent explanation of causes behind the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and eventually of Soviet Union itself (Arato 1991).

On one hand, sociological theorizing of human agency that is attentive to the relationships of macro to the micro level of social change has emphasized the transformational potential of contingent acts of freedom of individual agents (Alexander and Giesen 1987: 14). On the other hand, treatment of the post-Soviet transitions has given decisive importance to the macro level structural transformations that have been expected to bring in their wake changes in how both institutions and individuals behave and make their choices (Gray 1991). These constructivist and structuralist approaches respectively highlight civil society as desirable and conditionally achievable objective of social transformations of post-communist societies. But none of these approaches alone allows for critical perspective on the actual changes in the Eastern Europe that have happened over slightly more than the last decade of the twentieth century in the region. Here such theoretical tools of Pierre Bourdieu as capital and field (Bourdieu 1993a: 31-34; Bourdieu 1993b) when reconceived on the lines of the sociological reception of his “structural constructivism” that has occurred in the institutional sociology (Alexander 1996: 111-114; DiMaggio 1987; DiMaggio 1988) may provide illuminating perspective on how civil society institutionalization or lack of it influences and is influenced by individual agency in a given social field.

For out research of Ukrainian contemporary art we have used the definition of institutionalized civil society that Marcia Weigle (2000) has used for analyzing post-Soviet transformations of Russian society:

“[Civil society] refers to the self-organization of society in a public realm, bounded by a shared set of norms, whereby individuals and groups pursue personal or collective interests in freely constituted organizations in the context of a rule of law that regulates interactions and mediates among interests” (Weigle 2000: 28).

Were institutionalized civil society to have an influence on the conflict of interests that has occurred in the field of Ukrainian contemporary art, the public debate about the reasons for choosing one of the opposing artistic groups to represent Ukraine at 2001 Venice Biennial should have taken place before not after the event as it did (Ostrovska 2001). Since “a stable public forum for the expression and mediation of interests” (Weigle 2000: 28) does not provide a means for the field of Ukrainian contemporary art to state its interests in Ukrainian public sphere and to resolve its internal conflicts and authority disputes with Ukrainian state, the set of norms shared across the Ukrainian contemporary art field is lacking. The failure of civil society to institutionalize in Ukraine not only leads to pluralism of interests within the field of Ukrainian contemporary art running counter to the long-term interests of it members (Reis 1998), but also contributes to the situation where the value of artworks produced by Ukrainian contemporary artists is no longer determined within the Ukrainian contemporary art field as a consequence of its loss of autonomy.

Among the historical circumstances that have stunned the development of civil society in Ukraine is the demobilization of civil associations that has occurred after Ukrainian independence (Wilson 1997):

“From the very beginning of the state appearance a silent war began between dissident-patriotic and dissident-democratic wings of a formerly single opposition movement. Appealing to the urgent needs of maintaining the state in any possible form the dissident-democratic wing, which made emphasis on human rights and general norms of democracy, was removed from the political arena. “National patriots” were ready not only to sacrifice democracy, but started to collaborate with nomenclature. It caused their complete degeneration and, finally, loss of power, in which they started to play mostly decorative role” (Vozniak 2001: 50).

The demobilization of the civil society in Ukraine that closely followed the Russian trajectory of post-Soviet transition (Weigle 2000: 27-48) has as one of its consequences the failure of the civil society to institutionalize so as to successfully bargain against economic and political fields of power. Since field of Ukrainian contemporary art owes as much of its existence to the international institutions as to the agency of the Ukrainian artists and curators, the narratives collected in the Ukrainian contemporary art field are taken as a case-study for research into effects and unintended consequences of agency of international institutions on the local agency in a field the structural positions of which is where civil society is theorized to thrive. We claim that the authority relationships in the field of Ukrainian contemporary art are reflective of the lack of autonomy that it could have asserted through civil society institutions. However the agency of international governmental and non-governmental organizations in Ukraine has had as an unintended consequence of their activity the institutionalization of the cleavage between Ukrainian contemporary art and civil society.

In the bid for transition to capitalism, Ukrainian establishment that shares power both in political and economic fields of power (Vovk 2001: 50; Vozniak 2001: 47-48, 51) uses the presence of international organizations in Ukraine as a tool for internal and international validation of its rule that has more to do with society of spectacle (Debord 1992) than with civil society. The implications of Ukrainian imperfect transition to capitalism for Ukrainian contemporary art is that it becomes another device through which Ukrainian state seeks legitimacy since the international field of art is the location where "the society of spectacle" (Debord 1998) comes to its own. In Ukraine the contemporary art field takes on the political property not through its representational space (Lefebvre 1991) but through its subordination to the Ukrainian political field:

“Unlike most post-communist countries including Montenegro, Croatia and Lithuania which have established national institutions for contemporary art, Ukraine still has no institution of the kind. The contemporary art gives an opportunity to communicate with other countries speaking with them the common art language” (Doroshenko 2001: 4)

The cultural diplomacy agency of Ukrainian contemporary art institutions is underwritten by the diffuse expansion of the purview of the international art institutions. While keeping their distinct institutional identities (Sorkin 2002), the international art organizations orchestrate their strategies of institutional action and artistic agency in response to the imperatives that are globally valid for all the players in the field of international cultural production. There art museums, galleries and centers for contemporary art are institutions that are frequently entrusted with production or preservation of cultural value. The logic of the international agency of international field of art follows from the new global situation where

“[t]he various nations and regions contain different proportions of what was thought of as First World and Third, center and periphery, North and South. The geography of uneven development and the lines of division and hierarchy will no longer be found along stable national or international boundaries, but in fluid infra- and supranational borders” (Hardt and Negri 2000: 335).

In Ukraine where the shift towards an open society was an orderly process controlled by the elite (Kuzio 1998; Wilson 1997: 24-25, 102-103), civil society that could provide checks and balances on redistribution of power has failed to institutionalize, which resulted in:

“[r]educed control of the state property, especially in traditionally profitable spheres, [that] led to its mass misappropriation all over the post-Soviet space. As a result, we have the situation in Ukraine when nearly two dozen families (clans) got hold of 4/5 of the so-called all-national property, leaving the rest only 1/5 of that property just for the personal survival fight. And there is no guarantee, that even this property would not be redistributed again in favour of those two dozen clans” (Vozniak 2001: 51).

While there were changes at the very top level, the bulk of the professionals in official art institutions remained in charge and the structures established by the communist regime experienced the break-up of Soviet Union as important but not fundamentally disruptive event (Kuzio 1998: 23-32). Cultural policy making and changes to the arts institutions, Ukrainian Artists’ Union among them, were worked out as the result of negotiations between competing elite groups without any serious participation on the part of the mass of population. The Artists’ Union in the communist period was an organ of the state, completely reliant on and subservient to the communist party. For the art institutions that have been inherited by the independent Ukraine the “institutionalization of roles into statuses, of power into authority, and of precedent into norms reduces the role of the calculated exchange and introduces instead accommodations to the structure as it exists” (Bierstedt 1965) or, in this case, existed previously. In other words, radical change of the general field of art in Ukraine, its role and function is unlikely because the existing political organizational structure has not been sufficiently transformed. Specifically, the governmental structure, a Ministry of Culture that oversees artistic production, still exists, as it did in the communist period. These circumstances reduce the ability of the field of Ukrainian art to assert its institutional independence.

Throughout the presentation of this research we make use of terms of field and capital (Bourdieu 1993a; Bourdieu 1993b) to discuss artistic autonomy and authority. These terms are helpful in the context of the research design that we have chosen for the reason of our interest in the interplay of authority relationships within different domains of Ukrainian society and narratives found in the field of Ukrainian contemporary art. The research question that has lead us to choose Ukrainian contemporary art as a case for study is about the constraints on the transformative potential of human agency that meso-level social arrangements have. We place the theorizing on social fields by Pierre Bourdieu at the level that has binding power over individual agency. From macro institutions social fields differ due to their relational character that makes position of each member of a given field dependent on its relation to the positions of the rest of the players that exercise their influence within the field. Therefore civil society and its institutionalization can be addressed in terms of the properties of human interaction that occurs within and among different social fields. This way social transformation from a state-dominated society to a one where civil society has a chance to take a position of influence can be rendered in terms of autonomy of a specific social field and authority that agents exercise over resources within it.


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Ukrainian Contemporary Art - Civil Society, International Organizations and Public Sphere
erg International School - Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel  (Helmut Kohl Institute for European Studies)
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Ukrainian, Contemporary, Civil, Society, International, Organizations, Public, Sphere
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Dr Pablo Markin (Author), 2003, Ukrainian Contemporary Art - Civil Society, International Organizations and Public Sphere, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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