East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe: “The Complicity of Oblivion”

Anyone wishing to speak about present day Eastern European art has no choice but to once again take sides on the inevitable question: Can this art be said to possess a distinctive character?

And if so, what precisely constitutes, in other words, its particularity (or singularity)? Whether and in what manner does contemporary Eastern European art differ from its Western counterpart? It’s really an important question: what is specifically Russian about Russian art? What is specifically Eastern European about Eastern European art?

I would like to start by clearly stating that I do believe one may, and should, speak about the particular nature of Eastern European art, whereby it issues solely from the fact that this art comes from Eastern Europe.

Although this claim seems somewhat tautological, it is actually not.

Contemporary art is to the utmost degree contextual. The times have passed when we were able to identify and clearly distinguish national schools of art or international movement according to precisely definable and immediately recognizable formal characteristics.

Today artists from all over the world employ the same forms and artistic devices by using them in different cultural and political contexts.

Subsequently, our knowledge about this context is by no means external or foreign to these works themselves. The artist making his or her works knows that, and actually takes into consideration from the beginning the place that his or her work takes inside this cultural context.

So that contemporary art works are not only the kind of art works that speak for themselves, being autonomous in the traditional modernist sense, but they are also, signs, symptoms, sources of information that instructs about the specific conditions prevailing in that part of the globe from where these works come.

The same incidentally is also true for Western art. If the world were not so much interested in what’s going on right now in New York and Los Angeles and if contemporary American art did not act as a source of information about the current state of affairs in American society, then this art would lose much of its attraction.

Likewise, Eastern European art is seen, and must be seen, as Eastern European; if the Eastern European artists like it or not-and most do not, you know.

But it doesn’t change things. They are looked upon as being part of their society, as being sources of information about their society in general. So Eastern European art is first and foremost an art that is subjugated to the external point of view, – and every point of view is an external point of view on art.

Being subjected to this external judgment on it, this art becomes Eastern European; becomes informative about what Eastern Europe is, what Russia is, what the Czech Republic is. So we can’t ignore that. And in this sense, Eastern European art is really Eastern European art and nothing else.

Now, regardless of how we conceive of this contextual cultural side of art, it is so strong for the international reception of art precisely in these years, be it called postmodern and “after modernism”, whatever, that it seems to me inescapable in any case.

Now, in general, these differences, these cultural differences and cultural identities, are reflected in the context of cultural studies. The language of cultural studies is extremely influential in the current art world and current art criticism.

Now, it seems to be that cultural studies, as they function now – as they were constituted historically, and as a discourse that actually functions – are not very well suited to characterize Eastern European art.

I will say, rather, post-Communist art, because we are speaking now about Eastern Europe and Russia. We’re speaking actually of a post-Communist cultural sphere. So I mean that it is difficult for cultural studies, as they are, to characterize it, to describe it, to formulate these cultural differences.

Why? Because the Communist ideology, Communism itself, was a universalist vision or a universalist project.

It actually erased very violently and very effectively the cultural differences that existed before Communism evolved out of the inner logic of these or those cultures-specifically a Russian culture-or was imposed on national cultures from abroad by violence. Or it was the terror that was the source of the Communist rule in the individual countries.

We must say that Communism is such a universal futuristic project that either eliminated those differences or subjugated the individual cultural attitudes and identities to the general logic of this universalist project.

Now, cultural studies emerged as a reaction precisely to this modernist, universalist project as an attitude, as the cultural attitude, opposing this universalist project.

So cultural studies started to attract our attention to the cultural differences that emerged in, let’s say, pre-modern society. And to how they can be recognized, or left traces, in the process of modernization.

So cultural studies are evoking cultural differences that are our heritage that were taken out of the past and transported into the present. The present, modern experience itself is generally thought of as being communicative, open, globalized- and cultural difference as inherited.

Now, the Communist project in itself was an extremely radical utopian universalist project, as I already said. And the self-isolation of the Communist nations, of the Communist states, of the Communist world, had nothing to do with a kind of a pre-modern way or mode of existence of a closed, traditional society. So that we cannot explain what happens to Eastern Europe and Russia now, by using this explicative model, the model of explanation, that is applied to the societies, that were the traditional societies, and now altering themselves and integrating in the contemporary, globalized world.

Because if you look at the modern era itself, we can see that the way of modernity is not only the way leading to openness, communication, globalization, democratization.

Modernization also leads to closed societies: Closed avant-garde movements, closed radical parties, who are closing themselves not to keep the traces of the past, but to, let’s say, represent the future inside the present.

So actually radical modernity is a closure; but not closure in the name of the past, but closure in the name of the future. Communism was such a closure in the name of the future, not of the past.

Now, what we are experiencing in the media and in the dominating cultural discourse? It is erasure of erasure; it is the erasure of this Communist intermediate period between let’s say the national identities of Eastern European states or nations or ethnicities in the 19th Century and some kind of reemergence or reappearance of these very traditionally defined cultural identities that we can see now.

I don’t know, probably not in America, but in Germany where I’m living, every second day I see the Russian babushkas weeping in the new open churches with a comment, “Oh, it’s eternal Russia.” Look at it, yeah? It’s eternal Russia, eternal babushkas weeping in the churches.

And now these babushkas are also all watching TV; they are all actually watching Russian TV, and that’s how they know of the Russian up-to-date babushka: How she should behave herself in the new open church, and how she can symbolize and practice the rebirth of Christian heritage.

So we have now, we experience now in Russia, in Eastern European countries, generally – and I would suggest also in the West – a kind of complicity of oblivion; complicity of erasure, precisely of this erasure of erasure that seems to be purely recovering something hidden, but actually is bringing to the disappearance something other.

And then I ask myself, how is it possible to escape that, and how Eastern European art actually tries to distance itself from this politics of erasure, of this oblivion of the Communist past?

So my feeling is that post-Communist art almost in every country of Eastern Europe, and especially in Russia of course, is doing that by using irony as a means of distancing itself from every kind of particularity, from every kind of cultural identity to which others try to submit this art.

This irony – this irony is also universalist; irony is a universalist attitude. Not this romantic irony, which kind of celebrates the individual’s subjectivity. No, I would say it is a very different kind of irony. It’s a kind of collectivist irony or universalist irony, as it was described maybe by the late Kierkegaard.

It reminds us of the possibility of the inhering of this universal project that now kind of recedes and is subjected more or less to oblivion.

So I would say that irony is here a context of self-realization; the order of irony is a way in which Eastern European art wants to evade being subjected to a culture identity. And I must confess I like very much this attitude, even if it seems very often to be cynical, even relativistic. But it is not.

It demonstrates a kind of allegiance; some kind of willingness of remember this erasure that I really believe we should keep in mind, to keep this memory of the universalist past, of the futurist past.

March 23, 2003

Boris Groys is professor for philisophy, history of art and media theory at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe. Select publications: The Total Art of Stalinism (English 1992); On the New (German, 1992); The Logic of Collecting (German, 1997); Under Suspicion. A Phenomenology of the Media (German, 2000).

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