East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe. Introduction

East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, March 11, 2003

On March 11, 2003, between the daily UN Summits and in anticipation of the war with Saddam Hussein, New York City housed an international symposium East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe, arranged and hosted by the Museum of Modern Art.

The event was conducted in conjunction with and as an inauguration of the recent, seminal MOMA publication Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, edited by Laura Hoptman and Tomáš Pospiszyl, with a Foreword by Ilya Kabakov.

The symposium attracted broad scholarship and turned into a celebration of academic success. The threat of terrorism did not stop the distinguished American, Eastern and Western European scholars and renowned artists from gathering in the alerted city at the MoMA Gramercy Theatre for the remarkable discussion.

However, there was a sense of anxiety, as the Symposium was scheduled to begin at 6:30 pm. When my colleague and I arrived at the Theatre’s door at 5:45 pm, however, the entrance was locked. A clerk responded to the bell by asking that we not disturb him. When we came back at 6:15,the participants and a considerable crowd of guests were still waiting outside the building in an impressive line that reconstructed the memories of the same socialist past vividly introduced in the celebrated anthology

The Theatre was full, and the faces of respected scholars were among the audience. Glenn D. Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, opened the Symposium with an address that introduced the event and Primary Documents. He emphasized the role of ideology and sociopolitical narratives in East European art and indicated that the goal of the publication is to stimulate dialog around modern art and to build a continuing series of “texts essential to understanding the ideology and practice of the production of modern art.”

Mr. Lowry also referred to the next case study to be published in the ongoing series – modern art and artistic context in the geographic and sociopolitical environment of Argentina and Venezuela.

Laura Hoptman, the initiator of the publication, defined the impulse behind the book as a desire to provide translations to the seminal writings by the most influential modern art historians and artists from Eastern Europe. She also stressed the political character of East European and Russian art and highlighted the issue of popularity – the most influential artists in Eastern Europe are less known in the West than some of their mediocre Western colleagues.

Hoptman also noted that only with the end of Soviet domination, when Eastern Europe opened to the West, did cultural changes unfold.

It is a widely known conceptual statement that politics and art are enmeshed by the definition of politics. The very name is a political declaration. Of course politics is also in all art, which is why, while inside the context of modern art in the West, the artists strived for new formalistic discoveries and challenges, shaping the face of modern art, the artistic underground in Eastern Europe, and Russia within the matching time frame.

These artists struggled for artistic freedoms, as well as sociopolitical freedoms, under the controlling political pressure of the socialist government. Ultimately, they faced imprisonment, exile, or abandonment in mental institutions – practical methods favored by power structures and used for isolation of unwanted ideas across centuries of human civilization.

After an introduction, the speakers gathered alongside the conference table by Hoptman and Tomáš Pospiszyl. The co-editors of the publication pointed to the character of cultural identities, and to the extent of unified discourse on the artistic context in East European countries.

Pospiszyl also questioned the real character of cultural contacts and communications of the recent decade and reasonably stressed the definitions of exploring Eastern Europe from across international boarders.

The other speakers seemed to agree with his statements and to utterly support his point of view. In my opinion, however, the vital notion of controversy was missing in Pospiszyl’s presentation. The conflicting intensity of artistic life-changing concepts at the razor’s edge versus ordinary socialist experiences, including ongoing artistic irony as recalled from the memories of the patterns of everyday life during both the last socialist and the postsocialist decades, was completely absent.

The appealing presentation by Boris Groys, Professor of Philosophy and Media Theory at the Academy for Design in Karlsruhe, followed the speech of the editors, and instigated a debate on modernist identities in closed communist and post-communist societies.

Groys presented the renowned major approach to the role of art in the society, stating that art, as a part of society, visualizes and signals information about life in the society. East European and Russian art stagessigns of what Eastern Europe and Russia are by channeling cultural identities.

For me as an art critic, Groys’ essential insight into the utopian character of communist culture was extremely engaging. In his argument on post-communist society, not limited to only experiences of Russia and/or Eastern Europe, Groys suggested that Communism was a universal futurist project that strived to erase national and other traditional cultures. It subjugated other concepts to the generalist project and established an opposite monopolist cultural attitude – to a certain extent retracing premodern society.

The Communist project as a utopian model has nothing to do with any closed traditional or archaic society, but it contains modernist leads to closed societies and represents the future within the society. Communism was a closure, an erasure of the past, meaning the future, but not the past.

Now, Groys is questioning the contextual realm by referring to his perception of an episode during his recent trip to Russia. While watching a Russian babushka praying in a church, he was guessing that, in the past, she very well might have joined the others and burned those churches.

Current trends of reestablishing some kind of a new, traditional, cultural identity appears as a concept supporting this latest pattern of the cultural juxtaposition of values formulated by Groys as erasure of erasure. In that perspective, Dr. Groys dwells on the topic of how Eastern Europe distances itself from the phenomenon of erasure of erasure and points to irony as the responding universal attitude.

Suggesting that the collectivist, universalist irony reminds one of the possibility of heritage, he depicts the permanent presence of the aura of irony in East European and Russian modernist/postmodernist culture as an attitude illuminating the unwillingness of erasure. He implies the magnetism of the memory of the universal past as a notion of nostalgia used in everyday life.

The presentation by Bojana Pejic, a distinguished art historian and curator from Belgrade, started with the sound of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Peji used that effect as an optimistic musical accompaniment for her speech. These sounds later became associated with the sounds of heavy slave work, such as those that accompanied the construction of Siberian railroads by Gulag prisoners, or the building the Volga-Don Canal, or, later, of erecting dachas for nomenclature by stroibat soldiers.

However, she intended to recreate a feeling of contextualization from the debated exhibit she curated in 1999 entitled “After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe.” That case study became her master illustration of the concept of shaping the view of the new world.

Peji ironically referred to the popularity of the term “Yugo-centrism” under socialism, depicting the adopted inner perception of Yugoslavia itself the center of the Earth, located between Western Europe and Moscow. She recalled the declaration that “a museum is the Kremlin of Modernism”’ which directed me back to Groys’ universal concept.

Peji approached the term art context from the perspective of artistic identity and announced herself an opponent of absorbing the term as only in correspondence with Eastern European or colonial countries. The most imposing part of her presentation was her argument that works of art cannot illustrate the context.

Peji addressed the question of visual correctness and referred to the idea for the exhibition she organized as focusing on individual artistic strategies. She suggested a striking interpretation of the context, which I absolutely enjoyed, as a literary metaphor – “The contextis not the truth of reality, but a frame that activates your vision.”

She also enthusiastically quoted Ekaterina Dyogot’s talk at the 1999 exhibition conference by citing, “Artists do not criticize reality, they relate to it,” and interpreted that sentence as “Art relates to the sociopolitical context.” She declared Dyogot the most inspiring contemporary art critic, and then ironically asked Dr. Groys for forgiveness.

Peji did not explain her statements, but offered an account of ideas for further discussion. She illustrated them with the most remarkable examples from her curatorial experiences.

Another feminine figure among the panelists was Katarzyna Kozyra from Warsaw, referred to as one of Poland’s best-known and most controversial artists. She shared her dramatic artistic experiences suppressed by political authorities and announced that in actual artistic life, nothing thoroughly changed during the social transformations.

She presented her memories, focusing on the fact that she always wanted to be an independent artist. Under socialism in Poland, churches were the only place for independent exhibitions arranged by independent curators. For those church-exhibitions there were distinctions between believers and non-believers.

Kozyra recalled no connections to the West. To the artists, that gap instigated the development of their own artistic language and survival through social upheavals and political shifts.

She also vividly exposed the role of an artist as a fool used by politicians, and illustrated the idea by referring to the fact that today, in order to gain popularity in Poland, officials talk and pose in front of a contemporary artwork. However, a degree of visual pleasure is required -“ugly bodies” are not considered a subject of art, lacking “ethics/aesthetics.”

In the 1990s, a greater interest in art arose, but there were no funds to support its development. Therefore nothing changed in artistic life. In the finale of her presentation Kozyra demonstrated a fragment of art she filmed. Currently Poland this work is considered “an art offensive to the Catholic religion”. The piece consists of a beautiful deaf girl singing in a Catholic church.

Slavoj Žižek, a cultural critic and Senior Researcher at Slovenia’s Institute for Sociology at the University of Ljubljana, appeared as the most flamboyant, controversial panelist. His talk contained dramatic statements seemingly shaped as questions for further discussion.

He began his talk by creating a bridge back to Bojana Peji’s sound track, and traced his own associations with the walls to be constructed between Israel and Palestine, and between the US and Mexico.

Following the logic of a political account, he suggested a political anecdote from Czechoslovakia of the 1970s about how to keep people happy, and then questioned the meaning of the term paradox. This specific reference reminded me of the debate that unfolded back in 2001 at the conference East-European Art and Architecture in the Twentieth Century at the MIT Department of Architecture.

There, during the round table discussion, a number of distinguished Western scholars who visited Eastern Europe for their research interests referred to a constant use of the term paradox by their colleagues in the Czech Republic and Poland. I did not understand those notes until listening to Žižek’s talk embellished with arguments on the phenomenon of paradox in Slovenian as well as in overall culture.

He suggested examples from world culture that illustrate the universal cultural paradox with statements such as: “Part of Tchaikovsky is to be Russian” (Does this also mean “Part of Mozart is to be German”); “Industrial military complex” (Also meaning “Poetic military complex”); “Pro-Bushist Anti-Americanism”.

Žižek translated the contemporary emotional drama – read paradox – as a question of identity. The paradox of the Big Canon (Communism) is that, now, the canon is totally divided. The artists previously influenced by Communist ideas are not part of today’s canon and have to be forgotten.

He also unfolded a set of paradoxical questions relating to previous speakers. Žižek argued that the more you know about the context (re: Bojana Peji), the less you know about the art, and suggested the historical example of Parcifal by Otto Wagner. He referred to the term of Russian identity viewed through Western eyes, and reclaimed the scandalous reaction of the municipal authorities to the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Žižek generously approached a number of topics of debate, speaking on timely delays in communications between the East and West, on dialectical enlightment, and on the concept of Stalinism. He rendered insights into the term paradise and stated that basically nothing can be learned from historical experiences in art. He completed his intense presentation by castigating the audience: “Not, ‘you are to teach us,’ but, ‘we are to teach you!'”

I was asking myself who could possibly retrieve? after the high degree of intensity of the paradox conveyed by Dr. Žižek in his vivid appeal. The next orator, the calm and brilliantly outspoken director of the MIT Press, Roger L. Connover, introduced the book itself.

Connover delicately touched upon the issue of art produced as a ritualization of the political context, art as a framing device, and disclosed a concern about what kind of Western address can accommodate East European materials.

He modified the phenomenon of interrogation of the East by the West with the reference that only recently has East European art been qualified as such in the West. By speaking in a polemical style, he suggested that for Western audiences there is no sense to place East European and Western art together to be evaluated, qualified, and understood only by visual qualities. East European art is out of a Western context from the ordinary perspective built on a compare-and-contrast principle. East European art can only be comprehended by reading it from within its own context.

During the discussion a number of issues were raised corresponding to the papers delivered at the symposium. Žižek responded to a number of questions, including the directions to learn from the East European art, and the consequences for art of September 11th.

Žižek actually referred to Chaplin’s films by saying that sound is parasitic. Similarly, he suggested that East European art is “forcing”(That was the finale of the presentation by the most enthusiastic speaker at the MOMA Symposium, Dr.Slavoj Žižek, cultural critic and philosopher, and Senior Researcher, Institute for Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.) the audience to see more beneath its surface. Because Eastern Europe today is in-between civilizations, there is no positive program to follow, but there is no need to nostalgically speak about traditions – the paradox is that hopelessness will “force” people to develop something new, and the key word in the case is despair. However, the oppression representing patriots of truth and suffering is “not the point to make the people produce something good.”

Successively, Groys talked about the generalist cosmic context, incorporating the notion of historical materialism into a universal dream. By creating new claims about uniting universalist culture, people become new believers and act correspondingly. Irony may suggest an artistic way of approaching these issues.

Groys also referred to the terms suggested by the previous speaker by implying more possibilities based on paradox. For instance, Communism is entirely based on a paradox. In this connection he quoted Rosa Luxemburg, “Freedom is freedom for those who think the way we do.”

He also selected the antithesis of revenge and pardon based on a cosmic unity of opposites with the emphasis on narrating the unity. If it is based on a paradox, it is a political statement presented to the West, and as such, enjoyed by the West.

Peji talked at the finale of the panel and distinguished another antithesis – the abstract universalism of the Communist party versus the abstract universalism of individual artists. She pointed out that the new book fits between these two universalist narratives, which offers an off-universalist perspective that belongs neither here nor there, but relies on the mission of the work of art “to address me and to speak to me.”

It was apparent to me as an art historian that because of its late development within the discipline, the field of East European and Russian art history experienced a trajectory of growth that differed greatly from the more established American areas of study. Limited scholarship has understandably sought to chart the unique set of circumstances that ushered their field into museums and the academy, and in the composite anthology, have demonstrated and analyzed the distinctive intellectual and cultural models which are less known in the West.

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