As a longstanding member of SHERA and scholar of Russian and Ukrainian art, I laud the Cooper Union in taking the courageous and professional decision to postpone the exhibition of VKhuTEMAS. To put on the show as scheduled in the time of a full-scale war initiated by Russia—a war meant to challenge the existence of Ukrainian art and culture, if not to erase it completely—would not only demonstrate an insensitivity on the part of our academic world but also a weakness at the core of our profession as historians of Russian and East European Art and Architecture. What SHERA calls an act of censorship on the part of the Cooper Union, we might rather consider a bold and responsible position that asks us to pause and reconsider our role in the profession and the way we identify ourselves as area specialists, and as humanists.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine is not just a breach of international law; the sheer brutality of the attack on Ukraine is intended as a final blow to a millennial culture that, bit-by-bit, had been appropriated into Russian history, creating a narrative that, for the most part, remains unchallenged—even by us in the West, who would have recourse to scrutinize its falsehoods and to rectify it. In some measure, the work that we as area specialists engage in—be it exhibition planning, catalogue publishing, or public teaching—feeds and nurtures the idealization of Russia and its imperialist claims. It’s the nature of the beast. However, at this critical historical juncture, as we witness the unraveling of the myth and the impending existential crisis for Russia, do we not bear some responsibility for not exposing the imperial and Soviet ideological fallacies that have underpinned much of the world’s understanding of Russia? Do we wish to remain at status quo, which means, to a large extent, being complicit with the unexamined narrative of Russian art on which our careers have been built? We are supposed to be the experts, yet, unfortunately, we often put out for public display, mostly through omission, information that unscrupulously carries the myth forward as we celebrate the “greatness” of Russian culture. And we keep passing on this information to our students, who unwittingly accept the formulation unquestioned. What can our students be thinking as they witness the war unfolding before their eyes? How are they to assess Russian art and culture, considering the brutality they are witnessing?
As area specialists who have dedicated our creative lives to artistic and cultural developments in the region, we should be close in our empathy for all Slavic, Baltic, Balkan, East European and Eurasian peoples who for generations have lived under the conditions of half-truths perpetuated by the course chosen by Russia. Hence, we should also be sensitive to the timing and location of the VKhuTEMAS exhibition. To present what is widely accepted as “Russian” modernist culture to which Ukrainian artists have contributed greatly makes us complicit in the war being waged on Ukraine. To present this “celebration of culture” in the neighborhood where Ukrainians live, either as immigrants who escaped the Soviet regime or as newly-arrived refugees, is a “real slap in the face”—to paraphrase the Ukrainian father of Russian Futurism, David Burliuk, who made the East Village his home in the 1920s.
Far better it would be for SHERA, by virtue of the signatories to its letter, to issue a statement strongly condemning of the war and the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage, addressed not to the Cooper Union but to all professional academic societies, and thus fill the sickly void of silence left by the world’s community of Russian intellectuals.
Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University
February 1, 2023