Maxim Kantor was heralded as the new Leo Tolstoy by some critics

By Victor Sonkin
The Moscow Times, November 23, 2007

This week, Moscow 's downtown club Bilingua hosted the presentation of Maxim Kantor's new book: a collection of short plays including the title work, "An Evening with a Baboon." Kantor, a successful artist whose works sell at major auctions in the West, surprised the literary community last year with the publication of "The Drawing Textbook," a huge two-volume novel about Russia 's recent past. He was immediately heralded by some critics as the new Leo Tolstoy.

In addition to presenting his new book, the author screened a 30-minute film based on one of the plays in the collection, "A Case in Practice," and held an auction selling his version of Kasimir Malevich's "Black Square," a work which, in Kantor's eyes, embodies everything that's wrong with modern art.

The book of plays is somewhat less ambitious than the novel, but many of the themes are the same. In "A Case in Practice," several intellectuals -- a gallery owner, a collector and a psychiatrist -- join forces to subdue a party guest who deliberately smashes a precious "installation" consisting of jars of human excrement. The trio try to force the man (played by Kantor himself in the film) to admit that his reluctance to acknowledge shit as great art is backward, naive, uninformed and even fascist.

Frankly, I side with Kantor and his stubborn hero; I find the argument especially compelling as it comes not from a kitsch official painter like Alexander Shilov but from an artist who's anything but "un-modern." On the other hand, the link made in the play between the grievous state of contemporary art and a general ideological and political decline seems less self-evident.

Kantor explores this connection in other plays -- "The World Conspiracy," where he paints a broad picture of all the major geopolitical forces, including Russia, and "An Evening with a Baboon," where some intellectuals are invited to a party by a major gangster and quickly start dancing to his cannibalistic tune in rather a literal sense. Meanwhile, "Echo of Russia" introduces the reader to the confusion of ideas that is today's Russia through the medium of a radio talk show.

I disagree with much -- actually, most -- of what Kantor has to say about politics and the world order, both in his books and in his columns on the web site His naming of "liberals" and "democrats" as the source of all Russia 's woes seems anachronistic today. But if all the participants in ideological discussions were as well-mannered, lucid and coherent -- well, then, we'd have a chance of actually reaching some kind of agreement.