Boris Groys

“There are no longer any real elites”: An Interview with Cultural Boris Groys

Boris Groys; © privatBoris Groys; © privatEverybody talks about elites – because they no longer exist. Of that, Boris Groys is convinced. With, he talked about the elitist omnipotence of money and the powerlessness of philosophers – and about art as perhaps the last bastion of the avant-garde.

Mr. Groys, if it were up to Plato, we would be ruled by a philosopher elite. In view of the smoldering financial and state crisis, would philosophers really be the better managers?

I don’t think so. Our society is unfortunately so organized that in it the decisive role is played not by knowledge and language but by money. And philosophers simply don’t have a real talent for making money.

The time of elites is over

Wall with crumbled letters „Spitzenklasse; © Thomas Köster

The traditional European elites came from relatively homogenous milieux, distinguished by a particular culture, education and social conduct. Thanks to this elite culture, they were able to distinguish themselves from the masses. Those who belonged to the elite could easily be identified by their language and manners.

Such homogeneous milieux, in my opinion, can no longer arise in our time. The careers that today lead to the top are simply too heterogeneous. We have successful athletes and TV stars, we have successful bankers, we have perhaps even successful philosophers, but their careers, milieux and cultures are very different. There are no elites in the traditional sense any more.

advertising; © Thomas KösterYet the concept of “elites” is in vogue in public discourse. What are we actually talking about when we talk of “elites”?

What does a successful football player have in common with an opera diva? Only the success, money and celebrity – and these in different areas of life. That’s what is meant when today we talk about elites: successful people who are financially well equipped and have political or economic power. These “elites” are quite as heterogeneous and plural as is society as a whole.

The avant-garde is dead

This development is accompanied by the erosion of the concept of an elite. Today an “Elite Personnel Service” provides temporary workers in East Germany and a dating agency called “ElitePartner” advertises “singles with class” ...

Advertising for ElitePartner; © Thomas Köster... the same applies to the concept of the avant-garde. There are even companies that boast they produce avant-garde furniture. These terms are so common in commercial settings precisely because what they referred to in the past no longer exists in practice.

We live in a capitalist, success-oriented society, and measurable success therefore always ultimately has something to do with money. Ultimately, it’s always about who earns the most. You can earn good money today, however, without being well-educated. This is true not only in sports and show business, but also for many entrepreneurs. Here education is often even a hindrance, because it deflects from the actual career.

Even mind is money

Cover of „Lob der Elite“; © C. H. BeckIn Germany recently the excellence initiative and its “elite universities” have crystallized an understanding that equates elites with academic excellence and education...

But here too “elite” has mainly to do with who acquires the most external funding for research projects. Here again economic considerations ultimately prevail.

But isn’t the basic idea that, through networking and with the help of funding, structures can be created which will advance science and scholarship, and so too progress ...?

That, like many others, is a nice idea. But you have to investigate exactly how it’s implemented. What is the underlying idea of progress? Where is this progress supposed to lead? And then, in my opinion, we come again very quickly to the idea of economic growth. That’s the logic of society as a whole, including science and scholarship.

The art of social utopias

How frustrating! Is at least the artistic avant-garde an exception to the rule?

I think so. Here some artists still attempt to circumvent the market and to make art a place that offers utopias of social organization. As heterogeneous as societies may have become, after the fall of communism we live in the homogenous political world of capitalism. Today’s art attempts to set into motion counter-processes and counter-models of cooperation that demonstrate social alternatives: this is much more important than creating individual works of art.

Website of “Fallen fruit”; ©; © fallenfruit.orgCould you give examples of this?

Many. There are projects in Berlin, London and New York: it’s a global trend of contemporary art. In California, for example, there is a now international project, “Fallen Fruit”, in which an artists collective produces maps for the homeless and illegal immigrants showing them where they can get fruit for free, where fruit literally falls from the trees – namely in places that aren’t privately owned.

In addition, there are many artists who aren’t only socially committed but also treat analytically the project of art as social organization, as, for instance, Francis Alys, Alfredo Jaar and Artur Zmijewski.

It’s most comfortable sitting between all stools

Map of “Fallen Fruit”, Römerberg, Linz; © fallenfruit.orgWith these utopian projects in mind, would you wish to see the return of elites in society?

What’s there to wish for? The return of elites is impossible. I don’t believe that our pluralist society will eventually be re-homogenized. Nor do I believe that such a homogenization would be good. Today’s heterogeneity isn’t bad, it creates scope for individuals.

Today you can sit between all stools. Because there are many stools –and plenty of space in between in which to make yourself comfortable. To return to the beginning of our conversation: the contemporary, post-Platonic place for the philosopher isn’t in an elite, but sitting between all stools.

The interview was conducted by Thomas Köster.
He is one of the two heads of Südpol-Redaktionsbüros Köster & Vierecke. In addition, he is a cultural and science journalist (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NZZ am Sonntag, Westdeutscher Rundfunk). He lives in Cologne.

Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
Mai 2010

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