The art of going further

A fragment of a painting by Oleksandr Bohomazov, The Dust from the Sawmill Triptych, 1929, became the cover of The Art of Ukraine
A fragment of a painting by Oleksandr Bohomazov, The Dust from the Sawmill Triptych, 1929, became the cover of The Art of Ukraine

In the field of culture, as in other spheres of life, it is necessary to reorganize from a victorious sprint to a grueling marathon.

Ukrainian culture has never been more recognized than it is today, neither in the international arena nor in Ukraine itself. Because of the war, our country and society have ceased to be an indistinct gray spot somewhere where Europe turns into the vast continental steppes that stretch all the way to the Tien Shan. Ukraine is being recognized, people are a little more interested in its culture, and large institutions are cautiously taking the first steps toward embracing it: experimental, and therefore small, purely Ukrainian projects appear in the Louvre in Paris, as well as Carnegie Hall and MoMA in New York. This is still not a wide-open gate, but a clearly visible one.

In Ukraine itself, there is finally an understanding between the elites: local economic and political elites are gradually establishing contact with cultural and scientific elites. What is so surprising? This has not been the case for more than 30 years of independence. It was believed that real ideas and their carriers could only be touched in the old metropolises- if not in Moscow, then in London or New York. It is now evident that important ideas are also being developed at home.

This is great, but everything has its dark side. The Ukrainian cultural scene is barely able to cope with this growing interest. Many artists and cultural professionals are now abroad because, until now, it was an unprestigious sector primarily for women. In the first days of the invasion, Western European institutions offered many opportunities for Ukrainian cultural workers, saving people and having a remarkable effect. All these institutions increased their knowledge of Ukraine. But simultaneously, it took specialists away from our scene, where the demand only increased.

This will weaken the Ukrainian voice

For example, we often talk about the security of museums and collections. This requires qualified specialists in the areas where they are located and are most threatened, in those closest to the front line. Similarly, the needs of public work of various cultural institutions for their audiences has increased: to support and patch up the educational deficit for our children caused by the war, to artistically and academically process the world-changing experience Ukrainians are going through, and - again - to promote Ukrainian culture in the international arena at a time when the gate of interest is still open. Someone has to do it, and it is desirable to do it well.

Another thing is the creative deficit that arises from the increased interest and need. No Ukrainian museum can publicly present museum heritage in its galleries; at least, it shouldn't. But cultural institutions have a mission during the war, which we have just discussed. How can they achieve it? By attracting and presenting contemporary art, literature, new opera, etc. This is precisely what happened for the first year and a half after the invasion. However, the pressure on artists, writers, curators, and composers, the expectation of new works, involvement in a million Ukrainian and international events, and the need to produce a large number of artistic works to fill this need, is incredibly exhausting.

It is impossible to "produce masterpieces" at this pace, so the pace or the quality of work will decrease. Even now, literary critics sometimes complain about the large amount of bad literature.

It's the same story with academics. For example, in Ukraine, people are often outraged by the incorrect international attribution of many avant-garde artists as Russian artists. They are rightly outraged. However, reattribution requires serious work by Ukrainian scholars, which requires time and minimally acceptable working conditions. The latter is better because of the readiness of the world academy to provide some opportunities. Still, these scholars must work in Ukraine for a solid and sustainable process that will lead to convincing reattribution. And for a long time.

So, what are our prospects?

The critical challenge is the quality of Ukrainian cultural institutions. It is they who could, if not cope, then amortize the adverse effects, but they do not have the capacity to do so. Therefore, the pace of international representation may slow down. There will no longer be the energy and "blanks" for high-quality projects, and our foreign partners will not be interested in low-quality ones. This will weaken the Ukrainian voice on the cultural, humanitarian, and academic scenes, and therefore, there will be some frustration with "not being heard" in Ukraine itself.

It is crucial to understand its causes and not give up because this will only mean we need to invest more and longer - financially, in time, and intellectually. It also means that thinking in terms of blockbuster movies with a wow effect must give way to routine hard work: scientific, research, communication, and experimental work at the level of small projects. This work will build the foundation under the shimmering castles in the sand of mega-projects - which are also needed - of course! However, they must stand on a solid foundation.

In other words, as in all other spheres of life in Ukraine, the cultural sphere has to change from a victorious sprint to a grueling marathon. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and it will not do itself.

The text was published in the special issue of NV magazine, “The World Ahead 2024,” under the exclusive license of The Economist. Reproduction is prohibited.

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