Boris Groys

Boris Groys, Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Boris Groys (b.1947) is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, specifically, the Russian avant-garde. He is a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, a Senior Research Fellow at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe, and a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS. His work engages radically different traditions from French poststructuralism to modern Russian philosophy, yet is firmly situated at the juncture of aesthetics and politics. Theoretically, Boris Groys’s work is influenced by a number of modern and post-modern philosophers and theoreticians, including Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Walter Benjamin.

Born in the former German Democratic Republic, Groys grew up in the USSR. He studied philosophy, mathematics, and logic at Leningrad State University (now Saint Petersburg State University). While a student, he immersed himself in the unofficial cultural scenes taking place in Leningrad and Moscow, and coined the term “Moscow conceptualism.” The term first appeared in the essay “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism,” published in 1979, in the art magazine A-YA. During this time in the Soviet Union, Groys published widely in a number of samizdat magazines, including 37 and Chasy. Between 1976 and 1981, Boris Groys held the position of Research Fellow in the Department of Structural and Applied Linguistics at Moscow State University. At the end of this fellowship, he left the Soviet Union and moved to the Federal Republic of Germany.

In 1992, Groys earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Universität Münster, where he also served as an assistant professor in philosophy from 1998-1994. During this time, Groys was also a visiting professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by another appointment at the University of Southern California, also in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. From 1994 to 2009, Groys was Professor of Art History, Philosophy, and Media Theory at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe, where he remains a senior research fellow. In 2001, he was the Director of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and from 2003 to 2004, he spearheaded the research program Post-Communist Condition, at the Federal Cultural Foundation of Germany. He assumed the position of Global Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Science at New York University in 2005 and in 2009 he became a full Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU. Groys is also a senior Fellow at the International Center for Cultural Studies and Media Theory at the Bauhaus Universität (Weimar); a member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art (AICA); and has been a senior scholar at the Courtauld Institute of Art (London); and a fellow at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies (IFK, Vienna), Harvard University Art Museum, and the University of Pittsburg.

In the Anglo-American world, Boris Groys is best known as the author of The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), and for introducing the western world to Russian postmodernist writers and artists. His contributions stretch across the field of philosophy, politics, history, and art theory and criticism. Within aesthetics, his major works include Vanishing Point Moscow (1994) and The Art of Installation (1996). His philosophical works include A Philosopher’s Diary (1989), The Invention of Russia (1995), and Introduction to Antiphilosophy (2012). More recently, he has also published Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of the Media (2000), Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (2006), and The Communist Postscript (2010). In addition to these works, other significant works in art, history, and philosophy include: History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism (2010), Going Public (2010), Art Power (2008), The Total Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in Moscow 1960-1990 (2008), Dream Factory Communism: The Visual Culture of the Stalin Period (2004), Apotropikon (1991), and Thinking in Loop: Three Videos on Iconoclasm, Ritual and Immortality (DVD, 2008), which is a trilogy of video-text syntheses, wherein Groys reads the composed text superimposed onto a collage of footage fragments taken from movies and film documentations.

As a prominent contemporary art theorist and critic, Boris Groys has also curated a number of notable exhibitions, including: Fluchtpunkt Moskau at Ludwig Forum (1994, Aachen, Germany), Dream Factory Communism at the Schirn Gallery (2003-2004, Frankfurt, Germany), Privatizations at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art (2004, Berlin, Germany), Total Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in Moscow 1960–1990 at the Kunsthalle Schirn (2008-2009 Frankfurt, Germany; Fundación Juan March, Madrid, Spain), Medium Religion with Peter Weibel at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (2009, Karlsruhe, Germany), Andrei Monastyrski for the Russian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011, Venice, Italy), After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer, at BAK Utrecht (2012, Netherlands).

While Boris Groys teaches, lectures, and writes on philosophy, politics, and history, it has been his work in aesthetics, and his co-mingling of ideas through aesthetics, that has brought him the most recognition and where he has made his most significant contributions. Groys proposes and underscores the involvement of the Russian avant-garde in the Bolshevik movement as well as in the early stages of the Bolshevik State. Following this premise, Groys’s work explores the implications of this relationship. One of his fundamental theses is that these artists––like their political counterparts––tried to outpace the developments of modernity, and so, they, like the Bolsheviks themselves, attempted to skip the steps supposed to be necessary and constitutive of historical progress.

While it is widely acknowledged in modern Russian art history that an opposition developed among artists during the revolutionary period between those constituting an avant-garde and those complicit with the state sanctioned art of the Soviet Union, Boris Groys contends that this was the result of a split and not a continuation of a pre-Revolutionary division. More specifically, Groys posits a more refined understanding of the period such that these artists cannot be simply and uniformly grouped as having been in partnership with the state Party and then, slowly, over the period split off into an opposing position. Indeed, he contends that much of the avant-garde remained on the ideological side of the state Party well past its early stages. Moreover, these artistic developments entered the political field and thereby became its extension. Under the leadership of the state, Soviet realism helped fulfil the avant-garde’s dream of demiurgic power. It is in this respect that Groys then posits the relationship between romanticism and twentieth century Russian avant-garde art. The partnership between Soviet realism and the state Party’s ideology resulted in (authorized) artworks as understood as the realization of socialism, thereby abolishing the supposed boundaries between life, art, and politics. According to Groys, the Lenin Mausoleum stands as the embodiment of this achievement of synchrony. Complicating and pushing this position further, Groys finds this phenomenon not at all exclusive to the Soviet Union, but in fact points to its uncanny parallel in the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.

Much of Groys’s work has centered on exploring the consequences of this suture resulting in a particular framework in which to think post-Stalinist art. With the fall of Stalinism, and its “iron laws of history,” Russian artists, both of the post-Stalin period of the Soviet Union and the post-Cold War period, have had to confront the difficult task of overcoming a notion of utopia without falling out of history, or rather, how to dissolve the notion of teleology without falling into the abyss of the end of history. Within this framework, Groys investigates not only the historical, political, and aesthetic relations in the Soviet Union and Russia, but as well specific artistic and literary works such as those by Ilya Kabakov, Komar and Melamid, and Prigov.

Without pronouncement, Boris Groys’s work, in all its varied forms, appears to follow a sustained thesis: art is a symptom of society. While the majority of his work is within aesthetics, his thesis is not exclusive to aesthetics. Rather, Groys tends to think politics, and philosophy, with and through the medium of art. This idea is underscored in a conversation between John-Paul Stonard and Boris Groys while he was Visiting Professorial Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art Research Forum, which was transcribed and published in the Institute’s journal, immediations (Vol.1, No. 4, 2007). In response to Stonard’s question as to whether “philosophers have a naturally closer relationship with artists than do art historians?” Groys responded, “We can look at artists in two ways. First, as if we were biologists, trying to construct a neo-Darwinian story of ‘art species’; how artists developed, how they succeeded, failed, survived. In these terms art history is formulated a little like botany or biology. The second way of considering art history is as part of the history of ideas. We have the history of philosophy, the history of science, the history of cultural history, just as we can have the history of art. So the question is whether we define art history more like botany, or more like the history of philosophy – and I tend more to the latter, because, as I have suggested, the driving force of art is philosophical.”

––Srdjan Cvjeticanin