Mikhail Epstein


In the book: Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp. 105-112.



The THESES ON METAREALISM AND CONCEPTUALISM were read on 8 June 1983 at the Moscow Central House for Arts Workers (Tsentral'nyi Dom Rabotnikov Iskusstv) during an Evening of Poetry devoted to "Debates on Metarealism & Conceptualism." Since the Communist leadership banished the relatively free competition of literary groups of the 1920s and Socialist Realism became the only officially sanctioned method of Soviet literature (1932), this Evening was probably the first public event in the USSR in half a century where creative "isms" were openly proclaimed as theoretical grounds for new, non-conformist artistic movements.

The following is a quote from the invitation card:

The Creative Youth Section of the Central House for Arts Workers

cordially invites you

on Wednesday, 8 June 1983

to an evening in its seminar series


Chairman of the Seminar: Writer VLADIMIR TIKHVINSKY

Commencing at 6 pm




1. The opposition between Metarealists and Conceptualists is of a kind possible only between strict contemporaries. It is this polarization that allows an epoch to reach the limits of its possibilities.

2. In every epoch, poetry is the battleground of convention [uslovnost' ] and freedom [bezuslovnost' ], playfulness and seriousness, analysis and synthesis. In the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, the struggle was between Realism, based on vraisemblance or the lifelike, and Metaphorism, which celebrated contingency and play (the works of Alexander Tvardovsky and Andrei Voznesensky are exemplars of these two poles). This opposition, from which poetry derived its dynamics and its tension, acquired new forms from the middle of the 1970s onward — namely, in Metarealism and Conceptualism. Though the old battles still continue, they have lost their relevance.

3. Metarealism is a new poetic form which, freed from conventionality, opens up onto the "other" side of metaphor, not preceding it like a literal, lifelike image, but embracing and transcending its figurative meaning. "Meta," the common prefix for words such as "metaphor," "metamorphosis," "metaphysics," conjures up a reality that opens up beyond the metaphor, to a region where metaphor carries over or transfers its sense, beyond that empirical dimension from whence it took off. While Metaphorism plays with the reality of the actual world, Metarealism earnestly tries to capture an alternative reality. Metarealism represents the realism of metaphor, the entire scope of metamorphosis, which embraces reality in the whole range of its actual and possible transformations. Metaphor is but a fragment or remnant of myth, whereas a metarealistic image (a unit of metareal poetry) attempts to re-establish mythic unity; it is an individual image that tries to converge with myth to the extent possible in contemporary poetry.

4. Conceptualism is a new form of conventionality which denies mythic unity as something inauthentic and inorganic. A concept is an idea attached to a reality to which it can never correspond, giving rise, through this intentional incongruity, to alienating, ironic or grotesque effects. Conceptualism plays with perverted ideas that have lost their real-life content, or with vulgar realia, whose idea has been lost or distorted. A concept (Russiankontsept as a unit of Conceptualist art) is an abstract notion, which is attached to an object like a label, not in order to become one with the object (as in myth) but in order to demonstrate the impossibility and the disintegration of such unity. Conceptualism is a poetics of denuded notions and self-sufficient signs that have been deliberately detached from the reality they are supposed to designate. It is a poetics of schemas and stereotypes, in which form falls away from substance, and meanings become detached from objects. In Conceptualism, the naive mass consciousness serves as the object of self-reflexive and playful representation.

5.Within one and the same culture, Metarealism and Conceptualism fulfill two necessary and mutually compensating functions. They peel off the layers of conventional, false and ossified meanings that words have acquired (Conceptualism) and restore to them a new polyvalence and fullness of meaning (Metarealism). The verbal texture of Conceptualism is untidy, rough, shredded, artistically not fullyfledged. All of this is in keeping with the initial aims of the movement, namely, to show the shabbiness and doddering old-age impotence of the lyrical-ideological vocabulary with which we make sense of the world. Vsevolod Nekrasov, for instance, uses mostly interjections, subordinate and connective words, like "eh!" "that," "who," and "yet," which have not yet lost the ring of truth, as distinct from elevated, nominative words, such as "thought," "love," "faith," and "country," which have suffered from ideological corruption. Metarealism, on the contrary, constructs a lofty and sturdy verbal edifice, striving for fullness of meaning through the complete spiritual transfiguration of objects and their reunification with universal meanings. Metarealism seeks out true value by turning to eternal themes or the arch-images of contemporary themes, such as love, death, logos, light, earth, wind, night, garden. Its material is nature, history, art, and "high" culture. Conceptualism, by contrast, shows up the contingent and illusory nature of all designated value, which is why its themes are demonstratively linked to the present moment, to everyday life, political and colloquial clichés, to the "low" forms of mass culture and mass consciousness (such as the image of the "militia-man" in Dmitry Prigov's verse).

The middle ground between "high" and "low" is occupied by the world of technology and science. This technical lexicon has influenced Alexander Eremenko, who stands half-way between the Metarealists and the Conceptualists.

6. In its fundamental logic, the debate between the Metarealists and the Conceptualists is reminiscent of the debate between medieval realism and nominalism. It was no accident that the moderate branch of nominalism, which was called "conceptualism," provided the contemporary Conceptualists with their name. The question for medieval philosophy was: Are general ideas, such as "truth," "love," and "beauty" endowed with reality in its fullness, or is their existence limited to the sphere of words (nominalism) and notions (concepts)? This scholastic debate, which was so difficult to resolve through logic, has found a resolution in contemporary poetic practice. Reality and ideas are both united and dissociated, depending on which side of reality one looks at. Metarealism consistently aspires towards unity, while Conceptualism is directed towards disunity and the separation of signs from their signifieds. The former manifests the creative potential of reality to fuse with an idea, the latter the corruption and falsity of ideas that have been separated from reality through a reductionist schematization. Contemporary culture would be incomplete if either one of these two principles were removed from it — the analytico-rational or the synthetico-mythological.

7. Metarealism and Conceptualism are not so much self-contained literary groups as poles between which contemporary poetry moves. There are regions in between, and there are as many transitional phases as there are new poetic individuals who have jettisoned the framework of the earlier opposition of Realism and Metaphorism. The differences between the new poets are defined by the degree to which ideas and realia in their poetry are either unified (seriously, unconditionally, mythologically) or separated (in an ironic, grotesque or self-reflexive mode). Metarealia belong to the sphere of unity, while concepts belong to that of separation.

8. An example of the most consistent and extreme Metarealism is the poetry of Olga Sedakova, whose images are pure religious archetypes and as such form almost transparent signs. The poetry of Ivan Zhdanov is more concerned with contemporary realia, and this gives dynamism to his images and dislocates their archetypal meanings. In the transitional space between Metarealism and Conceptualism we can further situate the systems of Presentism of Alexei Parshchikov and Ilya Kutik (see thesis 9 below). Alexander Eremenko is close to the Presentist group, but he combines the poles of Metarealism and Conceptualism by means of the grotesque rather than through a smooth mediation between them. He accentuates the very rupture between the two systems: using "serious" words to create a new, tangible reality for objects, he simultaneously deconstructs them through irony and grotesque use of technological jargon in landscape descriptions.

The shift to Conceptualism is embodied in the poetry of Dmitry Prigov, for whom reality is exclusively a playing-field for a conceptual game, even if this game is conducted according to the rules of traditional prosody. Vsevolod Nekrasov has moved even closer to the limits of Conceptualism, mainly using auxiliaries and parentheses, interjections, and other abstract elements of language. Finally, there is Lev Rubinshtein, who represents the most extreme and logically consistent form of Conceptualism. He no longer uses words, but ready-made verbal blocks, or constructions of the type found in catalogue entries, instructions in official memorandums, or commands of computer systems.

Thus contemporary poetry's entire field of representational possibilities is covered by the movement from archetype to stereotype, which passes through the subtlest shifts in the relationship between ideas and objects.

9. A special designation should be reserved for Alexei Parshchikov and Ilya Kutik, who are located at the centre of the contemporary poetic scale, equidistant from both poles. This tendency can be called Presentism, or "the poetry of presence," "the poetry of the present moment." Although based in the Futurist tradition, with its predilection for urbanism and the technical plasticity of objects, the poetry of presence is devoid of Futurist socio-aesthetic militancy and utopianism. Presentism is oriented not towards a future but towards an eternal present and the given fact as such. Here, between the extremes of poetic monism (the merging of object and meaning in Metarealism) and dualism (the separation of object and meaning in Conceptualism), a phenomenological approach to reality prevails. The poetry of Presentism affirms the very presence of the object, its visibility and tangibility as the necessary and sufficient condition of its signifying. The structural principle of the poetic work is based both on the succession of diverse perspectives on the object, and the methods of perceiving and describing it, which in their totality manifest the object's own "essence." The object is thus the appearance of the object, as postulated by phenomenology. The object is neither united with the idea nor opposed to it, but is itself "idea," or eidos . in the primordial sense of this word - a "visibility," something that represents or "presents" itself.

10. The problem of resemblance to life [vraisemblance], that is of the correspondence of the image to external reality, was treated in different ways by Realism and Metaphorism in the 1960s and 1970s, but it is sublated in contemporary poetry, for which the structuring and differentiating principle is the correlation of realia with ideas within the image itself. Such poetry is ideational in the most literal and lofty sense of the term — whether the idea be taken as a concept (kontsept) in the sense of its ironic withdrawal from reality, or as metarealia, mythically consubstantial with reality, or as presentalia phenomenologically equated with reality.

Thus a contemporary poetic style declares itself not by is adherence to one or another group or trend, but to the degree it partakes in the multiple oppositions that determine the dialectic of self-division, self-transcendence, or self-coincidence of the artistic image, designated as Conceptualism, Metarealism, and Presentism. These three designations outline the major concentrations or constellations of contemporary poetic culture, between which there remains sufficient free space to give rise to new gifted poets and influential styles.


Transl. Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover



All Epstein's manifestoes were written in Moscow (the author moved from Russia to the USA in 1990).

To the best of this author's knowledge, this was the first open public debate on the new, postsocialist "isms" in Russian literature since 1920s. The participants were, in order of appearance: Mikhail Epstein with his theses, followed by the art critic Olga Sviblova, the leading Conceptualist poet and sculptor Dmitry Prigov, the Metarealist poet Aleksei Parshchikov, the Conceptualist poet and theoretician Andrei Monastyrsrkii, the art scholar and sociologist Iosif Bakstein, the Conceptualist artist Sven Gundlakh, the Metarealist poet Olga Sedakova, the poet and critic Aleksandr Aronov, the literary critics and scholars Samarii Velikovskii and Viktor Kamianov. The discussion focused on the concepts of Metarealism and Conceptualism presented in Epstein's theses.

These concepts were later elaborated upon in a number of Mikhail Epstein's publications devoted to the "new wave" in Russian poetry. These also contain samples and detailed analyses of Conceptualist and Metarealist writings. See also Select Bibliography in the end of this volume.

The following publications in the USSR offer the earliest introduction to the work of Metarealist and Conceptualist poets: Den' poezii-1988, Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1988, pp.159-165; Poeziia, almanac, 50 and 52 (Moscow, Molodaia gvardiia,1988 and 1989; Molodaia poeziia-89. Stikhi. Stat'i. Teksty. Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1989; Zerkala, almanac 1989, vol. 1. Compiled by Alexander Lavrin (Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 1989). See also Select Bibliography.

Later M. Epstein developed these theses into several studies of metarealist and Conceptualist movements:


Mikhail Epstein, Paradoksy novizny. O literaturnom razvitii XIX-XX vekov (The Paradoxes of Innovation: On the Development of Literature in the l9th and 20th Centuries). Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel', l988, pp. 151-175.

--------------Vera i obraz. Religioznoe bessoznatel'noe v russkoi kul'ture XX veka (Faith and Image: The Religious Unconscious in Twentieth Century Russian Culture), Tenafly (New Jersey): Hermitage Publishers, 1994, pp. 56-85, 90-95, 143-146.

------------------After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, tr. with an intr. by Anesa Miller-Pogacar, Amherst: Massachusetts University Press, 1995 pp. 30-43, 46-49, 60-70, 76-78, 193-195, 200-203.

Articles and essays: "Kliuchevoe slovo - kul'tura. O novoi moskovskoi poezii (The key word — 'culture'. On the new Moscow poetry). Moskovskii komsomolets, 1984, August 3, p. 4;

"Pokolenie, nashedshee sebia. O novoi poezii vos'midesiatykh godov" ("The Generation Who Found Itself. On the New Poetry of the l980s"). Voprosy Literatury, l986, No. 5, pp. 40-72;

"Kontsepty. . . Metaboly. . . O novykh techeniiakh v poezii" ("Concepts. . . Metaboles. . . On New Trends in Poetry"). Oktiabr' (Moscow), l988, No. 4, pp. l94-203, [also in Vzgliad. Kritika, polemika, publikatsii. Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1988, pp. 171-196;

"Exposing the Quagmire," Times Literary Supplement, London, 1989, April 7-13;

"Iskusstvo avangarda i religioznoe soznanie" ("Art of the Avant-Garde and Religious Consciousness"). Novyi Mir (Moscow), l989, No. l2, pp. 222-235;

"Chto takoe metabola? O tret'em trope" ("What is Metabole? On the Third Trope"). Stilistika i poetika: Tezisy vsesoiuznoi nauchnoi konferentsii, vypusk 2. Moscow: Institut russkogo iazyka AN SSSR, 1989, pp. 75-80;

"Zerkalo-shchit" ("The Mirror-Shield"), Poeziia, almanac , 52, Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1989, pp. 86-88;

"Like a Corpse I Lay In the Desert. . .," Mapping Codes: A Collection of New Writing from Moscow to San Francisco (special issue of Five Fingers Review), San Francisco, 1990, No. 8/9, pp. 162-167;

"Katalog novykh poezii/Ein Katalog neuer Lyriken" (in Russian and German), in Moderne russische Poesie seit 1966. Eine Anthologie. Herausgegeben von Walter Thümler. Berlin: Oberbaum Verlag, 1990, S. 359-369;

"Posle budushchego. O novom soznanii v literature.("After the Future. About the New Consciousness in Poetry") Znamia (Moscow), 1991, No.1, pp. 217-230;

"After the Future: On the New Consciousness in Literature." The South Atlantic Quarterly, Spring 1991, vol. 90, No. 2, pp. 409-444;

"Avant-Garde Art and Religious Consciousness." Vanishing Points: Spirituality and the Avant-Garde (special issue of Five Fingers Review). San Francisco, 1991, No. 10, pp. 165-180;

"Afterword: Memorphosis," in Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry. Ed. by Kent Johnson and Stephen M. Ashby. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992, pp. 271-286.


Mikhail Epstein's Virtual Library Catalog