Is Your Pop Our Pop? The History of Art as a Self-Colonizing Tool

The following essay is part of ARTMargins’ series of interventions regarding the state of contemporary art in East-Central Europe. It is based on a panel recently convened by Susan Snodgrass at the College Art Association’s annual meeting.

Repetition seems to be one of the key concepts in the theorization of the “postmodern condition.”(See most eminently Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1996). Others are, for example,. Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 151-170; Kirk Varnedoe, “Fragmentation and Repetition,” in A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern? (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990), 102-181, etc.) Some of the most influential essays, indeed, revolve around this formative notion in the construction of our contemporary, post-modern, experience not only of everyday life, but of the visual arts, as well.

Postmodernist theoretical works discuss repetitions that appear not just in the works themselves, but also in historiography in terms of both time and space, though these two never form the two axes of the same coordinates.

In her essay on the originality of the avant-garde, Rosalind Krauss challenges the traditional understanding of the concept of repetition by questioning the assumption of the intimate bond between the two (i.e. space and time).

According to Krauss, repetition takes place either diachronically (that is, a work or part of a work is repeated later in time) or synchronically (an element or motif is repeated within a given work, the most conspicuous example in Krauss’s essay being the grid).

Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real takes on a similar diachronic line and is based on the assumption that “in postwar art to pose the question of repetition is to pose the question of the neo-avant-garde.”

The dilemma Foster formulates concerns how to distinguish the repetitions and ruptures taking place in “postwar culture in North America and Western Europe . . . swamped by neos and posts.”

There seems to be, however, another possibility for a synchronically constructed coordinate that is not based on the way in which repetition appears within a given work of art, but which sees a body of work, produced in a geographically dispersed area, as repetition of the same ideas and, therefore, attributes them with the same terminology.

In our case, the art produced in Hungary in the middle of the 1960s received the label of “Pop Art” by this token. Yet the extension and the validity of this label, or of any other similarly founded terminology, have never been questioned.

All this is particularly relevant in the face of the post-colonialist approach to museology; Mieke Bal takes the Rothko legacy as an example. When any work-especially a modernist work-by Western artists appears in museums and exhibitions all over the world, a particular universalist understanding of the notion of art is imposed in a local context. In a semiotic sense, this is the realization of a certain technique, orrepetition, of cultural imperialism.(Mieke Bal, “The Discourse of the Museum,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, ed. Reesa Greenberg, et al. (London: Routledge, 1996), 201-218.)

This article has three aims: first, the reevaluation of a body of artwork produced in Hungary in the middle of the 1960s and of a corresponding artistic tendency, labelled unanimously by Hungarian art historians as “Pop,” secondly, the reassessment of the applicability of art history’s Western terminology to Eastern European art, and finally, a critque of East-Central Europe’s “self-colonizing” interpretative strategy in the field of art history.

On the basis of purely formal analysis, Hungarian art history characterizes the art works produced during the late 1960s and early 1970s by, for example, Sándor Altorjai, György Jovánovics, and Sándor Pinczehelyi, as belonging to Pop Art.

Yet these labellings obscure more than reveal; they cannot express the specific historical, cultural, and at times political meanings or significances of these works, for the term “Pop Art” itself and the work it describes were originally born under very different circumstances.

Taking the traditionally low number of publications on art and art theory in Hungary into account, it is not very difficult to establish the genealogy of the reception of Pop Art and the extension of this term into Hungarian art and artists since the second half of the 1960s.

Strangely enough, the Hungarian “history” of this term is closely related to the establishment of the genuinely Hungarian category of “sur-naturalism” with an exhibition in 1964. Sur-naturalism is fundamentally a figurative approach to, for the most part, painting-a combination of “realists’ details of surrealism” and naturalist academic techniques.(See Géza Perneczky, “A magyar ‘szür-naturalizmus’ problémája,” in Tanulmányút a pávakertbe (Budapest: Magveto Könyvkiadó, 1969), 78-102. The essay was originally written in 1966.) Géza Perneczky, the most innovative art critic of the period, mentions Sándor Altorjai among the artists belonging to this tendency.

The problematic usage of the term “Pop Art” is revealed by the inability of art historians, curators, and critics to deal with the discrepancy between the works of Pop artists, as they appear in the United States, and those works of Hungarian artists that ultimately receive this label in order to demonstrate their difference from both contemporary Hungarian official art and the abstraction of the 1960s.

Thus, the term Pop Art was used as a synonym for figurative art by one of the leading Hungarian art historians, Lászlo Bekein a catalogue of the first exhibition of the 1960s, which he co-curated, and which established an understanding and usage of the term that is prevalent even today.(See the chapters dealing with the art of the 1960s in Magyar képzomuvészet a 20. században [Hungarian art in the 20th century], ed. Gábor Andrási, et al. (Budapest: Corvina, 1999), 159-80.)

Katalin Keserü’s exhibition and book on the Variations on Pop Art added a further element to this confusion by extending the period of Pop Art even to those contemporary works that use “ready-made” objects and are inscribed into the playful, ironic, and figurative tradition of “Popism.”(See Katalin Keserü, Variációk a Pop Artra [Variations on pop art] (Budapest: Új Muvészet, 1991).)

The roots of this approach lead us back to Hungary and its political and cultural climate after the 1956 revolution, when the officials exclusively promoted socialist realism, the true expression of the soul and needs of this society, as opposed to abstract art serving the self-fulfilling aims of the decadent bourgeois spirit.

The tradition of discussing and judging works of art on ethical grounds, rather than by any other values or criteria, has its historical beginning in this epoch, but does not cease to exist after the political changes of 1989.(See, for example, László Beke, “The Hidden Dimensions of the Hungarian Art of the 1960s,” in Hatvanas évek (exhibition catalogue), ed. Ildikó Nagy (Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, 1991), 313-18. This is also formulated as a criticism by Géza Perneczky in relation to the exhibition Variations on Pop Art, curated by Katalin Keserü in the Ernst Muzeum in Budapest in 1993. (Géza Perneczky, “Ipics-apacs pop art,” Balkon 2 (1994): 9-15.))

This is why figurative artists quickly became suspicious either for unethically collaborating with the existing regime or for making easy concessions to the public.

The similarities between American Pop Art and its Hungarian counterpart, nevertheless, exist mostly in the recurring usage of certain techniques: Both Rauschenberg and Altorjai created assemblages, Segal and Jovánovics used plaster, Warhol and Pinczehelyi employed silkscreen.

Despite all this, the stakes of applying the stylistic category of Pop Art to a period, an artist, or a Hungarian work of art are the following: first, the artwork (and the artists) characterized in this way always fall short of the ideals in their American counterpart; second, the real qualities of these works remain invisible.

It might be possible to extend such categories as Renaissance, Realism, Modernism, and, for that matter, Pop Art, and to use them as shorthand for more complex phenomena, but as the historiography of art shows, this is bound to result in a lack of a complex and multilayered understanding of the works.

Why categorize an artwork as Pop at all? The answer seems simple: We do so in order to bring order to an otherwise chaotic group of objects. Since we don’t want to address each and every artwork individually all the time, it appears logical to group them in one way or another.

Not surprisingly such groupings were first practiced on a large scale by museologists whose main task is to facilitate the usage of their collections. As George Kubler pointed out, “The notion of style has long been the art historian’s principal mode of classing works of art.”(George Kubler, “Style and Representation of Historical Time,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 138 (1967): 853. Quoted by Svetlana Alpers, “Style Is What You Make It,” in The Concept of Style, ed. Berel Lang (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 137-62.) Stylistic grouping, however, has intellectual consequences and not only practical ones.

Svetlana Alpers, in her thoughtful and provocative essay “Style Is What You Make It,” gives an account of the consequences of art history’s generally uncritical application of stylistic categories.(Kubler, “Style and Representation.”)

Alpers arrives at the conclusion that art history’s system of style is incapable of treating each and every artwork equally precisely because it is based upon an Italian Renaissance concept of art.

Since this concept occupies a privileged place in standard Western art history (the discipline was founded at the same time as, and on the very ideals of, the High Renaissance, and, moreover, its greatest practitioners were Classical and Renaissance scholars), it functions as an ideal for artwork.

Those works that do not aim at the same ideal are treated as being of lower quality or, more importantly, are completely invisible. To give just one example, when Gombrich attempts to locate the rise of landscape painting, he explicitly dismisses Dürer’s works as being only “topographical watercolors [painted] for his own delectation . . . not institutional, marketable paintings [created in] the normative, Renaissance painting style.”(Ibid., 157-58.)

According to Alpers, “The study of styles and genres seems to me always in danger of extracting, by naming and singling out, the accomplishment of specific modes (broadly understood as the relation of the artist and the depicted world as it is manifested in the work) that seem by virtue of this nomination to have preeminence. But style is what you make it and the mode is in the making. . . .

Questions about style and iconography are appropriate for Renaissance art, but we want questions that are appropriate for all art. The main question, it seems to me, should be modal.”(Ibid., 158.) That is, it should reflect upon the specific relations among the artists, their physical/social/cultural reality, and their art.

Whereas the general approach of classical American Pop clearly tended to be depersonalized (and understandably so, especially after the highly personal, artist-as-creator/genius image of the Abstract Expressionists), progressive Hungarian art of the age was striving to be personal (again understandably, as a reaction to the ideology-motivated Socialist Realism or its weak alternative, a somewhat abstracted plain air painting).

In the machinelike production of presentations of commercial art, Classical Pop was adding to the existing “urban nature,” and was creating something “outside art.” In that sense, it was anti-art.

At the same time, Hungarian art tried to re-create the ideal of the autonomous artwork/art-world that is in no way regulated from outside forces and influence. Whereas classical Pop was happy to get into the art market, progressive Hungarian artists still feel at odds about the commodification of their artworks.

Now the question is why contemporary historical art research maintains the use of Western categories (including Pop art) without critical reflection or reassessment. How does this reinforce the peripheral position of Hungarianart and the usual center-periphery division between East-Central Europe and the “Western world”? How does this lead to the self-colonization of this region’s art and art history?

As Gayatri Spivak formulates the relation between historical narratives and the political: “We produce historical narratives and historical explanations by transforming the socius, upon which our production is written into more or less continuous and controllable bits that are readable. How these readings emerge and which ones get sanctioned have political implications on every possible level.”(Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Who Claims Alterity?” in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 1119-24.)

Thus the dilemma of Hungarian-or any other peripheral country’s-art history is twofold: how to apply terms that are coined locally in an international context without remaining unequivocally provincial, and how to embrace an internationally valid terminology in a local context without risking overlooking local specificities and thus colonizing our own culture, art, and thinking.(This dilemma is discussed among others by Miklós Hadas, “Bartók, a természettudós” [Bartók, the scientist], Replika 33-34 (1998): 21-33. See also Spivak, “Who Claims Alterity?” especially 1122.)

Bearing the newly born awareness of the differences of experiences in Eastern Europe itself,(“The post-Berlin-wall-fall epoque has different meanings and values in different possible worlds of Europe. There is not one post-epoque, as there is not one Europe. Europe is multiplying.” Miško Šuvakovic, Status and priorities: A pre-consideration for Manifesta 3, platforma SCCA (Manifesta in Our Backyard) 1, June 2000, 12-15. The same idea is formulated also by Piotr Piotrowski, “The Grey Zone of Europe,” in After the Wall: Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe (exhibition catalogue), ed. Bojana Pejic and David Elliott (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1999), 35-41.) some of the texts dealing with the problematic relation between the East and the West seem, paradoxically, to have relevance for the whole region.

What Alexander Kiossev, a Bulgarian philologist and literary historian, describes in his essay on self-colonizing cultures sounds like a highly plausible analysis for the Hungarian situation, too.(Alexander Kiossev, “Notes on Self-Colonising Cultures,” in After the Wall, 114-17.) For Kiossev, the term for what the East lacks and the West represents for the East is “civilization,” while for Igor Zabel it is “modernity.”

While calling these cultures “traumatic” (for reasons involving inferiority complex, humiliation, displaced production of national identity, rural patriarchal communities, etc.), Kiossev identifies three types of “sublime rationalizations” that these cultures engender “in order to suppress the memory of their own birth-trauma. These rationalisations are . . . substantial-because they belong to the structural-and-generative necessity of this cultural type.”(Ibid., 115.)

The third of these reverses the binary opposition of the “Ours” and “the Alien.” For “the non-traumatic collective the ‘Ours’, in its ideal essence, manifests itself . . . in terms of Presence, Good, Beauty, Truth, Purity, and Harmony-whereas the Alien is connected with Absence, Chaos, Impurity, Lie, Ugliness, and Formlessness.”(Ibid., 116.)

East European cultures (“the Alien” to the West) experience the lack of this ideal essence “in the mode of shame.”(Ibid., 116.) To subvert shame, the “rationalising national ideology” of these cultures transforms the lack of essence “into a faith in an essential organic kernel of the ‘nativeness.'”(Ibid., 116.)

In this way shame becomes pride, and absence gets to be presence, while risking becoming “a hidden re-enactment of the trauma.”(Ibid., 116.)

Does an escape from “the colonial project” (Bhabha) exist after all? Or is it true that an attempt “to escape, paradoxically, may prove the most colonial gesture of all” because “an uneasy alteration between opposites replicates its dynamic by inverting and thus perpetuating its antithetical terms?”(James D. Herbert, “Passing Between Art History and Postcolonial Theory,” in The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspective, ed. Mark A. Cheetham, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 213-28. See also Spivak, “Who Claims Alterity?”)

Neither would we, in a Spivakian manner, want to simply reverse the poles and “play the role of the colonized now assessing the colonizer and thus claiming the position of absolute Subject for the non-West.”(Herbert, “Passing Between Art History,” 223, Spivak, “Who Claims Alterity?” 1124.)

For Foster, this dilemma is both spatial and temporal. He maintains that “the question is. . . how to negotiate a distance not only from the colonial power but from the nativist past? . . . How to leave behind ‘the obscene narcissism’ of Europe ‘where they are never done talking of Man’ and not fall into the triumphal separatism of racialist reaction?”(Foster, The Return of the Real, quoting Franz Fanon, 216.)

On his turn, James D. Herbert’s understanding of the same dilemma remains within a synchronically conceived space when he positions the “ironic turn of postcolonialism . . . inside the ideological space of the colonial. It thereby opens up the complexities and ambiguities of that ideology; it recognizes a multivocality that allows for the possibility of resistance and disruption from within.”(Herbert, “Passing Between Art History,” 219.)

Foster’s account on the relationship between the avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde is partly based on a successful attempt to recode cultural signs, such as artworks and art historical categories, from part of the art world. Either from the inside or from the outside, multivocal recoding in the form of unconditional dialogue seems to be the only way out.

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