East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe: “On (Un-) Changing Canons and Extreme Avantgardes”

Europe is now building a kind of wall which functions as a united police force to cordon off Europe. There are, for example, some plans for a literal wall between the United States and Mexico, some kind of electronic wall.

So, there was this dream period where freedom was universal globalism. Now, walls are again popping up, which is why maybe such exhibitions can have such meaning.

So, I would like now, nonetheless, to say some small things in the praise of this poor, real socialism. The first one, I just have to refer here just a little bit to my book, “Welcome To The Desert Of The Real,” where I develop it much more in detail.

I think, but this is for me a criticism of it, I think that especially in the late decadent phase of it, if the term “happiness” has any meaning at all, people were happy there, because I think, and this came out of a discussion that I held when I was visiting Lithuania a year ago, we discussed when people were really happy.

And we came to the following conclusion. Somehow, and I think this will provoke some of you, the place where people were closest to happiness was in Czechoslovakia in the late 70’s. During the darkest part of the Husak regime. Why? Because I think, to be really happy, you need three things:

First, you must live relatively well but not too well ; like meat should be in the stores but once a month there should be no meat, no eggs, and so on, so that you are reminded all the time how happy you are that you have meat . If you have it all the time, you don’t appreciate it.

Second point: Democracy, even if it exists, definitely shouldn’t function. That is to say, if you believe it, you feel too responsible. This is bad for happiness.

You need some agent on whom you can transpose all responsibility. This was the big, Christ-like sacrificial role of the Communist Party. I remember when I was young. They were responsible for everything. If there was a storm, we thought about how the Communists screwed it up and so on .

We said, “Them. They did it again. They screwed it up again”; This is very important for happiness.

Third point: You should be stupid enough to believe that there is another place where things are really better. But this place has to have a very specific quality.

It should be at the right distance. If it’s too far away, your dream is not complete enough. I think that happiness and freedom do not go together. People were happy under Communism.

Even now, we’ll say, “But what about suffering artists?” Even with them, I claim it’s more complex. In what sense? Let me give you some anecdotes, starting with my own country.

Artists were incredibly privileged, in the period starting in the mid 70s-and especially in the 80s, at least in Slovenia, in my part of the ex-Yugoslavia.

It was this unique moment when, a certain kind of not too radical dissidence was quite profitable. You had to play a certain game to be anti-Communist, but in an abstract way.

Yes. Communism is a horrible idea. It necessarily led to Gulag. The reaction of the ruling Communists was, ” Things that do not criticize us by name too concretely are okay. But if you put them into general terms, perfect.” For example, three anecdotes. The best-known: Hate..

I’m sorry to pronounce these names. This is for me an obscenity to name these names. Take as an example the best-known Slovene poet; He took himself very seriously as a big poet and so on. Then with freedom, some private publisher was stupid enough to take his fame seriously and publish his collective poems and repress his dissident past. Four volumes. Six copies were sold.

No wonder that this, the most celebrated dissident, who under the Communist dictatorship got rewards everywhere, had a comfortable position. The same was true with the most celebrated writer, now a rabid anti-Communist who sustains this paranoia theory.

You know, as they literally put it sometimes, Communists were only a step down for power. Like Jews in anti-Semitic fantasies they were like invisible masters who could control everything more effectively.

Okay. This guy has the same problem. Now he’s not selling so well. He hates me. So, he tries to publish as many things as possible abroad. Unfortunately, because of him, the Slovene Ministry of Culture, to put it in a slightly exaggerated way, almost went bankrupt. Because at the same time, he’s complaining about how terrorized he is, while they’re financing his translations abroad. The problem is that he complains.

Okay. He was arrested, and imprisoned for two months under Communism. This was basically, a misunderstanding. But what he doesn’t mention is that, once he, a journalist, made the list, he literally received all the highest possible literary prizes under Socialism in all Yugoslavia. He got them.

But the point is, he was complaining of Communist terror. Then some journalist gently reminded him, “But didn’t you get all possible prizes under Socialism? Even the big monument to the Communist revolution created 30 years ago is your work ?” His answer was, “For this, I hate the Communists even more .”

So, this second point is more sensitive. It’s not just these cheap jokes. Take a director like Andrei Tarkovsky. Although he’s spiritually foreign to me, I appreciate him. You know that he liked to present himself in his memoirs like a martyr and so on.

But we should pay attention to a very simple thing. With all the undeniable harassment to which he was subjected, I doubt he would be able to make wonderful movies like “Solaris” and “Stalker” now in Russia or anywhere in the West. That’s a simple fact.

Second, or another example. Let’s take Kieslowski. You might violently disagree, but I think his best movie is “Blind Chance.”

What interested me in the ex-Yugoslavia was how soon the Communist regime got the point intelligently. Until the late 50’s at the latest… I don’t know if you would agree, but at least in Slovenia, it was marginally dangerous … Okay, you could possibly get into serious trouble as an abstract artist.

I think that at least in Slovenia from the late 50’s to the early 60’s, it was, on the contrary, much better to be an extreme avant-garde artist. The reason was because as one Communist apparatchik put it, ” Abstract art is nice because nobody understands it. We just don’t want them to build concrete pictures of poverty, pain, and so on.” That’s what they wanted.

Next point. Some would say, “What about the role of the poets in the struggle for freedom?” Well, that’s where I see the real danger. People laugh when they mention Radovan Karadzic, the poet, as if he were a fake poet.

But I’m sorry to say that there are many … how to put it … poets, writers whom you cannot dismiss as bad writers in Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. There are probably others who were among the worst politically.

For example, in the city council of my own city, the capital of the Independent Republic of Slovenia, which my friends call Freedonia, there were many literary figures who were members of the city council. You probably wouldn’t know them. But they blocked the proposal for Muslims to get their own mosque in the suburbs sometimes after 1991. Some of this considerable Muslim minority of immigrant workers were even Slovene citizens.

The writers terrorized other members of the city council into accepting the point that a mosque would hurt the cultural, urban view of Ljubljana.

So no wonder a friend of mine claimed that if something characterizes the post-Yugoslav republics from Serbia to Slovenia, that the best way to recapture the danger is to twist the well-known term, “military industrial complex”. We have a “poetic military complex” .

This was personified in Karadzic, but it’s the same in Slovenia, in Croatia, and probably in Serbia. The worst thing is that militaries (sic) are okay with me. When militaries get in contact with poets, you have war; you have ethnic cleansing and so on and so on .

And this, unfortunately, is not a joke. It’s literally true. Another anecdote that’s interesting is how the most vocal support for Bush’s politics now comes from precisely these nationalist literary circles, at least in my part of Slovenia.

Interestingly enough, these are the same people who otherwise deplore Americanization. So we have … and maybe you can learn something from us. Maybe this is the best designation of President Bush. We have pro-Bushist anti-Americanism. That would be the attitude we have.

Let’s consider just a couple of more notes. I will try now to answer the final question which was posed at the beginning. How is it with the canon?

I remember reading a wonderful book by Richard Taruskin, the historian of Russian music who claimed that it is typical … and I think the same goes also for other Eastern European countries that , how shall I put it, even the biggest figures in Russian music … I mean the biggest, not the best, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky are a part of the big canon. But the price they pay is that they’re stigmatized by their nationality.

Mussorgsky is supposed to be the Russian soul. So the point is that does the context affect this idea? Yes and no. Because the point is the opposition is between mark and non-mark. It is part of Tchaikovsky to be Russian, but it’s not in the same way part of Mahler to be German. You are simply a great artist if you are a German composer. You are a great Russian artist if you are Mussorgsky .

And so my answer to the questions of the canon … an international canon which has offered this choice: Either you are not a part of the canon, or you are a part of the canon, but with a stigma. You’re not really a part of the mainstream, but it’s part of your identity.

Next point: How then does the canon work? What I would say is that it’s a very crazy thesis.

I remember in the old days there was a really a nice paradox. Even if the great, dissident artists were terrorized you can say fairly that I’m not underestimating the so-called Communist terror.

Nonetheless, I claim there was a kind of secret, unwritten but not a totally unwritten pact; there was a canon.

For example, all these big dissident writers in Slovenia, names that will mean nothing to you … maybe one name will mean something to you, Tomas Salamun, the poet who is also relatively known here, I think. Or these names that I mentioned before. They were somehow recognized.

The paradox is that the big canon didn’t change. Even more, before ’89, it was a more unified canon. The paradox is that today, the canon is totally … it’s totally divided. You have a nationalist canon, and you have an alternative canon.

For example, the group whose name was already mentioned, Laibach NSK, they are part of this other canon. For nationalists, they don’t exist. They are junk, manipulated by Communists. They are simply not a part of the canon.

Another footnote I would like to make here is about the canon and conceptualization. Well, I’m not saying that I’m disagreeing with others, because it’s open to question if I assume I’m correct.

I would just like to make my point, which is that in order to understand whatever it means to be a work of art, you must have a precisely abstract form … forget the context.

I think that at a certain level at least, it says nothing. Let me give you an example. It’s cheating because it’s a great work, but it is also very problematic. Let’s consider The Parcival by Wagner.

I think the more you know about the context, the less you know about the work. At a certain level, at least you must “abstract”; you must abstract from it.

The second point I would say is that if anything, it’s not that the work of art needs the context. It’s the historical context. It is the work of art which is the context, which provides it.

What do I mean by this? If you visit the ex-Yugoslavia now, you will just see a country. I don’t know if you would get a lot out of it. But if you were to see some representative movies at least by Makavejev and others, I think that this would provide you with the context to get what you will literally, empirically see there. So I am almost tempted to turn it around.

The last paradox I would like to mention is that yes, I totally agree with you, East Europe is East Europe.

We should ask the boring psychoanalytic question, from which perspective does East Europe emerge as an object?

And I claim that the gaze is always secretly, at least I think, the Western one. And I would now like to make a final point about it .

There is no problem. I admire these works. Why did you accept them? You sympathized as I did with these fairly stupid trials and so on. Because you contextualize it as Eastern European.

Imagine nothing of this, but just these works being shown. Maybe not you. You are probably decadent enough. But for normal, sane Americans, not only would this create the same problem, maybe even more, but there was the same problem.

Don’t you remember, a couple of years ago was it, with Giuliani … that painting of Mary with elephant shit or whatever …

Ageism, sexism. You know, all these isms. They would say ageism, mocking old people, humiliating, invading privacy. All this politically correct machinery would have been mobilized.

So again, I think that yes, it is East European, but the perspective is already Western. Let’s get to the concluding point, which is also, I think, the underlying problem : What we should resist is a certain notion introduced by Jurgen Habermas, which is that of the catch of modernity.

It specifically comes from Habermas, the great preacher of communication who said that we are just late.

You’ll find it in a collection by Christa Wolf, the big East German writer of essays. There is a dialogue between Habermas and Wolf. “But nothing could be learned from the eastern experience. It’s not interesting. They were simply late, and now they are given a chance to catch up.”

Apart from another interesting dimension that maybe we should mention here, which for me is a fatal weakness of critical theory. The Frankfurt School, which was so interested in the dialectic of enlightenment how any analysis of so-called Stalinism was almost totally absent from their work. There almost isn’t any mention of it.

There is this mysterious quote from Marcuse in ’56 … His reading of Soviet Marxism is very mysterious, because you cannot even decide where he stands. Is he for or against it? Then you have some later Habermasians, like Andrew Arato who conceptualize civil society as a site of resistance against, but again, this is just a partial theory.

It’s not a positive theory of what Stalinism was. And this is a very strange thing, because again, I think Stalinism is much more enigmatic.

To simplify it to the utmost: Hitler was a bad guy who planned some very bad things. And look what happened? He realized many of these bad things. But you know, nonetheless, Stalinism was rooted in some kind of emancipatory project and it turned into the same kind of monstrosity.

So, if anything, if the Frankfurt School is interested in the dialectic of enlightenment, how the Enlightenment Project went wrong, why this total absence of any discussion of Stalinism in Habermas, and others starting with Horkheimer?

So I claim that this is precisely where we should resist. We should rehabilitate this old notion elaborated by Marxism and not march on non-contemporality, you know. Things can be at the same level, but not at the same historical moment.

It was already the insight of Marx and, before him even, Heinrich Heine, that Germans are the top philosophers because they missed the political evolution. So it was not that the delay, the political, economic delay, lagging behind England and France was an obstacle to their top philosophers. It was a condition.

So we should be very careful here, why is the very delay of Eastern Europe rendered visible to certain unique insights.

And I think here maybe, especially we in Yugoslavia were lucky. Because I claim that at least in Slovenia the majority of intellectuals that I know, even artists, if you were to ask them, “What is paradise?” would answer “’85 to ’88.” Because it was a kind of strange period where the Communists were out losing their strong code, and the new power was not yet in.

And Communists who knew they were losing were terribly afraid; they were basically supporting everything. I mean, there were tragicomic scenes. I remember there was some gay Congress in Ljubljana, a Communist …

You can imagine what happened. The first thing that the new Right Wing City Council of Ljubljana did after the first free elections was, of course, to cut off the financial aid, claiming that this is not culture, but a lifestyle. And that they should support … … the Ministry of Culture should support culture, but not a specific lifestyle.

I claim that it wasn’t simply that we were lucky. It was also that, because of contingent reasons, which were that with these events, critical thought started in philosophical circles. This fact somehow invaded the entire debate.

The level of the debate was incredible. Before these early stages where dissidence was focused within intellectual circles, the level of the debate was incredibly high. I mean, it wasn’t Communist terrorist crimes, it was Heidegger versus Adorno versus Lacan and so on.

I recall one scene which is, even today, an unbelievable miracle for me. In ’88, there was a debate not in some small, private art gallery or university TV station, but on the central, first channel of the state. A debate on Slovene TV, between dissidents, Communists, and neo-post-whatevers.

And I remember the irony being that one of the people close to me who was identified as a Lacanian was attacked by a neo-Communist. In one phrase this is “paradise” for me.

You know what the Communist’s main objection was? That the Lacanian missed the point because he didn’t understand the phallus as the signifier of lack. I mean, where else was something like this possible? This was the magic moment. And also I mean, because it was this unique moment when you were “in between”. Things were visible. And this was, for me, the unique moment also of Laibach and so on.

Maybe I misunderstood you. I now expose myself so that you can attack me. I don’t know how to apply the term “irony” to Laibach. Because though Laibach could be vaguely neo-totalitarian, uniting fascist, Stalinist, Blut und Boden, brute Slovene traditional elements, the way people usually read them is “yeah, you see, they are deconstructing”.

As if Laibach is an artistic version of Judy Butler by performatively repeating and undermining. I think this view is totally wrong.

The first thing to get about Laibach is that they are deadly serious. There is no irony. Their claim is the opposite; that power is self-ironic, and that Communists are mocking themselves.

Because this was, I think, what was so incredibly insightful. That unique moment rendered visible how, not only the official regime didn’t take itself seriously, but also how in Slovenia, a small village really, everyone knows everyone else. I personally knew a couple of people who worked at the Central Committee. They actually lost their jobs because they were sincere believers in socialism.

And it’s incredible what kind of a slip it was for this message to get through. For example, 20 years ago there was a meeting of younger Communists and the central … I was there, I admit it … and the President of Slovene Party, Central Committee, came there to greet us.

He said, “Every young Communist should read both volumes of Capital by Marx, and should follow in his life the fourth visions of Feuerbach, which is “don’t totally interpret the world, but also change it.”

Then after Marx, there was Nixon. I approached him and said, “Isn’t this embarrassing? Like didn’t someone inform you that first, there are three volumes of Capital?” Like if you want to render the secret message that volume three is prohibited and this is a kind of criminology.

The sublime epiphany for me was when he told me, “Yes, of course I know. I’m not an idiot. But that was my point. That I don’t care.”

You can only understand Laibach against this background. And so I think that, at that point, some things were visible in a way. I think that what we get after the nineties is a kind of Systematic stupidization.

So what I ask is, why is East European experience so important? Because now the big opposition is First World versus Third World: build a capitalist metropolis versus undeveloped, exploited, economically colonized countries.

But I think we occupy an ex-dissenter space, from where things might be visible. Which is why, I think that the only … to use the fashionable term … site of resistance will come from here.

I don’t believe in American capitalism developing to some kind of liberal, digital Communism. I don’t believe Third World resistance will lead anywhere.

I think we need the eccentric position, which is ours. So my message is that we are not here to learn from you. Instead you should learn from us. We should be absolutely avant-garde. Thank you. (Applause)

March 23, 2003

Slavoj Žižek is a researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, Faculty for Social Sciences in Lujubljana. Žižek is the founder and president of the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis, Ljubljana. Select publications in English: The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989); For They Know Not What They Do (1996); Tarrying With the Negative (1993); Enjoy Your Symptom!, New York (1992); Metastases of Enjoyment (1994); The Plague of Fantasies (1997).

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