Mel Jordan and Malcolm Miles (Eds.), “Art and Theory After Socialism” (Book Review)


The cover image for Art and Theory After Socialism—a ramshackle hammer and sickle inscribed with the Russian word restoran (“restaurant”)—informs prospective readers know that the book’s primary focus will be on Eastern Europe. In fact, the essays it contains do touch on various points in the erstwhile Eastern bloc (East Germany, Serbia, Poland, and Armenia). As the book progresses, however, it becomes evident that the post-socialist landscape under consideration is an ideological rather than a geographical one. It is a bleak terrain indeed where after the collapse of communism, no “credible overarching emancipatory project” has emerged and capitalism in its current neo-liberal manifestation has acquired an aura of inevitability.(Mel Jordan and Malcolm Miles (eds.), Art And Theory After Socialism (Bristol, UK/Chicago, US: Intellect Books, 2008) , 67.) The demise of a once potent oppositional category is neatly encapsulated by a photograph accompanying Malcolm Miles’s essay. In it, we witness the word “Revolution” (the “e” reversed) serving as the brand name of a chain of vodka bars in Great Britain.

The authors whose work appears in Art and Theory After Socialism are politically engaged artists, critics, and curators, in several cases practitioners of the “counter-hegemonic” type of art activity they discuss. The book’s editors, for example, come to the project not as area specialists but as critically oriented members of the British art world. Their affiliations give the book its distinctive flavor. Miles, who holds a doctorate in architecture, is part of the Critical Spaces Research Group at the University of Plymouth. Jordan (along with Dave Beech and Andy Hewitt) is a member of Freee, an art collective that attempts to unmask the pervasive corporate presence in our lives—something they do by placing disruptive slogans and comments (“The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property”) in the public eye. An essay by Beech, Hewitt, and Jordan “On the Social Function of Public Art After Modernism” brings Art and Theory After Socialism to a close in an extended meditation on the debasement of the public sphere, the way in which “publics” are constituted, the limits of “institutional critique,” and the functionality of purportedly autonomous art.

As might be expected, given this background, the artists featured in Art and Theory After Socialism do not produce museum-oriented art; instead they eschew traditional media in favor of live action, videotaped encounters, and “intervention” in public spaces. In accord with the long-standing ethos of conceptual art, projects like Daniela Brasil’s proposed “vacation” for Weimar’s famous monument to Goethe and Schiller can achieve their impact without actually being carried out. The mere suggestion that a statue should be given its freedom and allowed to travel, Brasil writes, “stretch[es] the frontiers between reality and fiction” in a pleasing way. Viewers who attended the presentation of the proposal were encouraged in every way possible to imagine what seemed impossible actually taking place.(Jordan and Miles (eds.), Art and Theory, 95.)

What light can extended consideration of Eastern Europe shed on issues that preoccupy contemporary artists and critics? First, Art and Theory After Socialism makes it clear in both subtle and not so subtle ways that triumphalism on the part of Western critics and art historians is unjustifiable. The assumption that Eastern European art made before the fall of communism was inevitably second-rate (if not actually hackwork, then a feeble imitation of Western trends) is challenged in the very first essay, by Sophie A. Gerlach. She draws attention to startling success of Leipzig’s retooled Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. Once a state-funded East German art school, the Hochschule retained its emphasis on figurative painting even after reunification and immediately attracted students from the West. Artists of the currently prominent “New Leipzig School” have contributed, Gerlach argues, to a resurgence of interest in figurative painting. In short, even the apparently bankrupt cultural establishment of Communist East Germany has been able to compete in an expanded marketplace.

Alternatively, one might consider the hubris of Jerzy Bere?, subject of the volume’s second essay. Between 1981 and 1995 Bere?, a Polish sculptor, entered into a “dialog” with Marcel Duchamp. From a Western perspective, the idea seems pitiable. How can an obscure Polish artist engage in meaningful dialog with Duchamp by designating his own (naked) body as a readymade? Through discussion of the different phases of Bere?’s work, Klara Kemp-Welch makes a persuasive case for its seriousness and in doing so challenges comfortable Western assumptions of superiority.

One might also consider Malcolm Miles’s suggestion that the small groups of Western artists who attempt to create pockets of resistance in a bleak capitalist environment—the members of Freee, for example—have something in common with dissident groups in Eastern bloc prior to 1989, creating low-budget and ephemeral works that fall outside established cultural institutions. Several of the contributors to Art and Theory After Socialism also note that the current sensitivity of Western artists to the “artificial reality built through propaganda and ideology” that surrounds us was initially the property of Eastern European artists.(Jordan and Miles (eds.), Art and Theory, 29.) Is Western advertising so different from Socialist Realism in constructing placatory images of the good life? Of course, non-conformist art in the Soviet period took other forms as well; that same propaganda environment was conducive to the creation of private worlds that excluded politics in favor of pure creation. Oddly, the post-socialist landscape of Eastern Europe may have an analogous effect; in countries newly liberated from communist rule, critics of free market capitalism find themselves in the uncomfortable company of the opponents of reform; as several contributors point out, this unwelcome company creates an incentive for artists to avoid politics entirely.

All in all, the book’s ambitious title, Art and Theory After Socialism, is justified by its content, though its magisterial tone is potentially somewhat misleading. Art and Theory After Socialism is a slim volume consisting of ten conference papers derived from a 2005 collaboration of the Critical Spaces Research Group with the National Association of Art Critics in Armenia, and it manifests both the constraints and virtues of a conference publication. Offering a variety of perspectives and valuable on-the-ground knowledge, it suffers at times from the extreme compression of individual contributions. Accounts of specific events—the activities of the Armenian group Act, for example—are terse to a degree that can be frustrating, and summaries of events sometimes devolve into a dizzying accumulation of hyphenated terms (“In the context of neo-liberalizing post-Soviet Armenia, Act represented a group of individuals who confused neo-liberalism with neo-Marxism, thus, producing a type of neo-conservatism where Hayek and Adorno could be on the same side as critics of collectivization and the defenders of individualism”). Readers of ARTMargins in all likelihood will grasp the points at issue without difficulty, but a reader not already attuned to discussions of anti-hegemony will need time to tease out the meaning.

In a book devoted to theory, illustrations are not a top priority. However, the book’s extremely modest number of black and white images coupled with inconsistent editing and translations that fall short of idiomatic—give it a low budget feel that is at odds with its otherwise handsome production. These reservations aside, Art and Theory After Socialism can be recommended as a provocative and (for the most part) readable account of issues vitally important to contemporary artists and to their public. The Eastern European focus is a noteworthy attraction, but the intellectual project it represents flows across the East-West boundary, reminding us—if we need any reminder—how porous that boundary has become.

Janet Kennedy. Image courtesy of the author.Janet Kennedy is a Professor of Fine Arts at Indiana University and author of The “Mir Iskusstva” Group and Russian Art, 1898-1912. She has written articles on various aspects of Diaghilev’s World of Art group, Russian art of the Silver Age, and Russian non-conformist artists of the 1970s and ‘80s.