Art and corruption, part one: Curiosity and expectations before visiting an exhibition in Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Center

Later today, our group of students and scholars from Frankfurt Viadrina University and University of Arts and Design in Offenbach will visit a show on art and corruption, titled Сірий куб: мистецтво про корупцію (Grey Cube: The Art of Corruption) in Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Center.[1]

Now corruption, according to many political theorists, is a very pressing grievance in Ukraine and the sooner it will be eradicated, the better.[2] Thus, even before having passed one of the many border control desks at Boryspil International Airport, every traveler arriving at Ukraine’s capital will be reminded of that issue. Large signs and plaques call to action: Fight the problem of corruption! Stand in for justice and equal treatment of anyone in front of the law! Neither use your social status, nor any amounts of money or certain influential contacts to circumvent law’s authority for personal gain! Better you don’t even try to bribe! In ethical terms, corruption simply is not a good thing, while fighting it certainly is. Hardly is it possible to come up with a situation, where corruption could be—or even would feel—just.

The concept of corruption in general

Of course, the concept of corruption in itself can be diversified. We could speak of petty corruption, like paying a policeman to forget a fine that otherwise was more painful, or, we can consider hefty payments; Think of grease money flowing in torrents, of mass delusions or tax avoidances being performed. But all kinds of corruption use power (in many different forms) in order to gain a personal benefit. To qualify as corruption though, such an action also has to be in conflict with at least one general norm. Not necessarily does corruption have to be illegal, because many socially excepted norms never have been cemented into laws. Still, for this very conflict, we consider corruption immoral in all circumstances. That’s also why such behavior usually eschews public, and—often violently—assures a contractual relation between corruptor and corrupted person: To keep it secret.[3]

Having said that, to assume former soviet or economically less powerful nations more prone to corruption, thus less moral than western states, not only feels politically incorrect. Even factually, it sometimes is deceptive and often such a statement would be plain wrong. Did you know for example that Germany illegalized buying judges abroad less than twenty, and bribing business partners in another country only fifteen years ago? Hence still in 2002, handing a thick brown envelope to get a business contract signed abroad was considered a tax-deductible expense by German finance authorities.[4] Even today, speaking of encroaching trust by deluding millions of consumers, who would not associate such behavior with one of the German car making enterprises? Or look at Austria: It is using tax-payers money to amortize a twelve to seventeen billion euro debt for rescuing a private bank that few ‚populist‘ right wing politicians mismanaged for their own benefit.[5] 

Could art actually be corrupt?

Yet art and corruption even lesser sounds like a familiar combination. Despite all relativizations and explanations of the concept, is corruption—and let it be petty—so bad a problem in Ukraine, that even the field of visual culture is affected? And openly so, as matter of fact? Could such a sentence even make any sense? In order to interpret the title of VCRC’s current exhibition and learn more about the relations in between art and corruption, let’s slightly loosen up the copula and in between both nouns. By doing so, I came up with four options:

  • Artworks on the topic of corruption in society, maybe in form of genre pictures, perhaps with ethical implications: Educating viewers to abstain from being corrupt;
  • Or secret hints and tricks on how to be corrupt in a more successful way.
  • It also seems possible to use artworks as means of corrupt actions, like money laundering, as a tax avoidance, to make competitors who are unable to afford a work of art feel inferior;
  • Also, works of art might be petrified into stereotypes (that often are compatible with particular—commercial, institutional, curator’s, collector’s or national—interests) being turned against the artist’s intentions.[6]
  • And finally, art being corrupt in itself, thus art using its powers only for own benefits against someone else.

Soon, experiencing the relations in between art and corruption—as well as ways out suggested by VCRC—is up to us.

[1]               сірий-куб-виставка-про-корупцію/

[2]                         Umland, Andreas (2017), ‘Zurück zu einem patronalistischem Regime in der Ukraine’, Religion und Gesellschaft in Ost und West., 7-8 p. 13-15.

[3]                         cf. Miller, Seumas, „Corruption“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[4]                         Leyendecker, Hans (2009), ‘Korruption: Spiegel der politischen Kultur’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte., 3-4 (Korruption), p. 3-6.


[6]             Luis Camnitzer, ‘Die Korruption in Der Kunst / Die Kunst Der Korruption’ (presented at the Das Marco Polo Syndrom, Berlin, 1995) I would like to thank Anne Gräfe for refering me to Camnitzer‘s essay.

3 Gedanken zu “Art and corruption, part one: Curiosity and expectations before visiting an exhibition in Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Center

  1. Pingback: Kunst und Korruption Teil II – Die Ausstellung | viadrina goes ukraine. Exkursion 2017

  2. Pingback: Zwei Gesichter des Patriotismus – ein kritisches Fazit | viadrina goes ukraine. Exkursion 2017

  3. Pingback: Kiev – a visual recap of our journey 2017 | viadrina goes ukraine. Exkursion 2017

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