“Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism”

Ales Erjavec, Ed. Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.(Contributions by Boris Groys,Misko Suvakovic, Ales Erjavec, Peter Gyorgy, Gerardo Mosquero, Gao Mingli and a foreword by Martin Jay.)

Image courtesy of the author.Image courtesy of the author.Image courtesy of the author.Image courtesy of the author.

There is a world of difference between a collection of
articles, loosely associated by some common themes, or, more frequently, the common interests of contributors, and a volume, in which every article is written as a chapter in accordance to a pre-conceived plan.

The former may include some brilliant pieces; the best articles may be xeroxed, quoted, distributed to students, but only a reviewer will read this volume as book looking for connections (probably non-existent) between the so-called “chapters”.

The latter is written as a collective monograph, where the individualities of the contributors are restrained by the tasks set by an editor, where each article addresses not only ‘some aspects” of the given subject, but responsibly tries to represent the assigned segment as completely as possible.

Yet, the danger here is hidden precisely in the connections – the effect of the entire project depends on the fragile balance between the great and the not so great chapters, between the design of the volume and performance of its contributors.

However, I would definitely prefer the monograph, all dangers considered, to the “fraternal grave” of collected essays: pragmatically, the volume can easily replace a textbook in a course; intellectually, it sets the ground for further discussions of the subject, i.e. it becomes a fact of intellectual history.

The reviewed book is definitely designed as a collective monograph: each of its chapters outlines politicized postmodernism in different cultures of the former socialist camp: in Russia (Boris Groys), in Mitteleuropa and the Balkans (Misko Suvakovic), in Slovenia and former Yugoslavia (Ales Erjavec, also the editor of the volume and the author of the Introduction), in Hungary (Peter Gyorgy), in Cuba (Gerardo Mosquero), and China (Gao Mingli).

Of course, this list is not complete. One may think of similar chapters on postmodernism in Poland, former GDR, Ukraine, or Czech Republic.

The chapters on the postmodernist art in the former soviet Baltic and Asiatic republics (especially Kazakhstan) could have brought new, post-colonial aspects into the discussion.

Although, if the list of the represented countries would be longer, the size of the chapters would be smaller, and I do not think that this would be advantageous for the volume.

Seven chapters of Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition are large enough (40-45 book-pages each) to cover the area in sufficient detail and without significant omissions.

One may feel a contradiction in the title of the volume: where is this art located – in the postsocialist condition or in the late socialism?

Ales Erjavec directly addresses this issue in the Introduction building up (with the help from Zygmunt Bauman) a parallel between the postmodernism and postsocialism: both define themselves from within the paradigm, the crisis of that which they manifested.

“Late socialism is in this sense “postsocialism” – the proclamation of the end of socialism from within of socialism itself” (3).

This parallel is convincing; however, it does not automatically imply that postsocialist culture will necessarily be postmodernist (as the volume’s title suggests).

According to the Introduction, the collection focuses not even on postsocialist art that “followed or imitated somewhat fashionable trends imported from the West, such as the Trans-Avantgarde or the new classicism,” but on the one that “used postmodernist techniques and procedures but carried them out in more original ways, although these sometimes are still reminiscent of certain kinds of postmodernist – or even modernists – works of the First World” (25).

The former kind of art is defined as “uncritical postmodernism” and the latter as “politicized postmodernism”.

Politicized postmodernism, Ales Erjavec argues, combines postmodernist strategies with the “binary” artistic approach, which results in works in which two realities retain their mutual incompatibility.” (31)

This is a very accurate observation, and one may find more than a few evidences of its compatibility with the arts, literature and film of the postsocialist postmodernism.

Erjavec interprets this strategy as a vehicle for the desymbolization of political signification, as a tool of exhibiting the object’s materiality, and as a device revealing the striking similarity between the socialist and the consumerist (capitalist) utopias.

And again, these approaches are all very relevant and deeply connected with the chapters of the collection that follow.

Yet, while reading this volume, I was overwhelmed by the repetitions of the same “incompatibilities” that appeared in vastly different postsocialist cultures, ones unlikely to have influenced each other directly.

Once again the hammer and the sickle would be personalized, eroticized, and desacralized.

Once again McDonalds (or Coca-Cola, or the Pope, or Jakkometti’s man, or any other brand) will be juxtaposed with Lenin, Marx, Mao, or Castro, or (less frequently) Hitler.

The deconstruction of ideology, which one can note just by looking at the volume’s illustrations, carries the imprint of an ideological inertia, creating a universal language with a very limited range of signs.

These signs are the following: those associated with power (political or economical) – political symbols, stars, swastikas, popular commercial brands as well as the mug shots of political leaders; and those representing powerlessness – the images of private life with strong autobiographic overtones.

Sometimes there appear avantgardist icons and citations as manifestations of symbolic power, alternative to the officialdom.

From this repertoire, a postsocialist politicized postmodernism (further: PPP) produces diverse, yet predictable combinations, which have some historical interest, but can hardly be exciting now.

Is there, in this art, something beyond this monotonous shuffling? Or does the diapason of the PPP reflect the boredom of the late socialist official culture?

Let’s look at the articles presented in this volume from precisely this perspective.

Boris Groys’ article “The Other Gaze: Russian Unofficial Art’s View of the Soviet World” evenly splits the problematics of power and the problematics of everyday life between Vitaly Komar with Alexander Melamid, on the one hand, and Ilya Kabakov, on the other.

Groys’s avid reader will recognize some familiar interpretations from his earlier works in this essay.

However, in the context of my question, it seems that the revitalization of the modernist-avante-gardist ambitions and utopia, rather than postmodernist strategies, is what makes these artists so interesting to the researcher.

According to Groys, Komar, and Melamid’s “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” series was an honest attempt “to remythologize Stalinism, so to speak, to integrate it into the broad, polymorphic mythology of the present and the past… The Sots Art artists searched for a totality and symbolic power greater than those the Soviet state possessed” (60).

In Kabakov’s art, the modernist drama of the unsatisfactory substitution of a dead God is being performed over and over again at the stage of the communal apartment: “Now that God, the intimate and all-seeing observer, is dead, only the communal remains as an observer interested in our intimate sphere” (75).

PPP is interpreted by Groys as a violent rite of re-appropriation, or privatization, of Soviet narratives and ritualistic strategies which represent a radical version of modernity.

Hence, the overtly ritualistic works of such performative artists as Andrei Monastyrsky, Pavel Peppershtein, and Sergei Anufriev, to preserve, albeit ambivalently and ironically, the project of modernity, rather than to deconstruct it, to mourn the discursive emptiness in the place of the avant-gardist utopia rather than to expose this emptiness.

Similar strategies of utopia-preservation, concealed under the mask of deconstruction, are displayed in the performances of the Vojovodina artist BalintSzombathy discussed in the next article of the volume by Misko Suvakovic.

This article entitled “Art as a Political Machine: Fragments of the Late Socialist and Postsocialist Art of Mitteleurope and the Balkans,” sketches a broad historical panorama of the non-official art of the region, “from the politically ironic to the politically nostalgic” (91).

The main dichotomy of this panorama is build by the opposition of the so called Sober Modernism, on the one hand- and “subversive, critical and experimental avant-garde, neo-avantgarde, an post-avant-garde art” (97), on the other.

The latter is represented in the article by the Czech artists Milan Knizak and Milan Kunc, as well as by the Serbian Rasa Todosijevic, Goran Djorjevic, the natively Vojovodian, but mostly nomadic artist Balint Szombathy, the Croatian Mladen Stilinovic, and the Romanian group “subREAL”.

In Kunc’s and Knizak art, it is their humor that goes beyond expected manipulations with predictable signs and symbols: “It is a humor that tends toward subversion of every institutional power and is at the same time also a Fluxus analogy to the Zen koan” (100), or in other words, “symbolic and retarded expression of the sublime” (106) – which again returns to, rather than diverts from the modernist tradition.

In Rasa Todosijevic’s works, the sublime expresses itself through the effect of “extant spiritual, intellectual, social, and political confusion, the chaos, and entropy” (111).

Similarly, Djordjevic’s play with the signs borrowed from different discourses of high art and kitsch, confront the viewer “with a consumption of … an entropy of experience and a destabilization of the stable metalanguage of history” (116).

This strategy is brought to the point of utmost radicalism by the Romanian group “subREAL,” which represents the postsocialist world “as a world composed of gaps and lost in the European unconscious (in “the other scene” of Europe), a world that exists not as a presence, but as an endless process of deferring (128).

How modernist or how postmodernist are all these strategies? In a way, they all epitomize themes of chaos and entropy that connect late modernism with postmodernism.

However, the strategies of representation, with the characteristic accent on shock value, they remind us more of the avant-garde rather than of postmodernism or conceptualism.

Ales Erjavec in the essay “Neue Slowenische Kunst – New Slovenian Art: Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Self-Management, and the 1980s” describes the unique cultural conditions of Slovenia (Ljubljana as the “Slovenia Athens”) and focuses on the artistic activities of the Laibach punk group that in 1984, along with two other artistic groups, formed the Neue Slwensche Kunst organization.

What distinguishes their art from other examples of PPP, is the substitution of the communist iconography and discourses with that of the Nazis’.

Of course, this enhances the avant-garde shock effect, yet, in some ways, reminds of some works by Vladimir Sorokin that appeared later, in the mid- and late 1990s.

“Were they Nazis? Were they anti-Nazis? Were they a totalitarian group, or were they mocking the extant system – and if the latter was the case, why everybody made to feel so uncomfortable?” (153) – asks the researcher.

The answer is the following: “Laibach… found a discursive tool with which it was able to overcome symbolically the deadlock between a social reality that had drifted into populist totalitarianism and the discursive reality of an official ideology in which the official discourse promoted an unlimited freedom. It overcome the deadlock by bringing the official discourse to its final limit.” (155).

As to the discomfort, it occurs as a paradoxical manifestation of the sublime: the group’s “ambivalent (or rather indefinable) position” eradicated “the distance between the representation and the represented”, created “the simulacra of the represented, thereby hindering or even destroying the power of the represented to react to counter such an attack” 148, 149).

The “Binary approach” transforms here too, since the group “appeared traditional and traditionalist, even volkisch, while on the other hand they were cosmopolitan and global, attracting fans and intellectual adherents in places as different as Seattle, Budapest, and Goteborg” (149).

The article “Hungarian Marginal Art in the Late Period of State Socialism” by Peter Gyorgy presents a strange case of resurrection of the radical avant-garde of the 1920s as part of the PPP project.

The cultural condition in Hungary in the 1980s, according to this essay, was much more liberal than in any other socialist country, with the sole exception of Yugoslavia: “The Party expected no one to believe in the ideas of Socialist Realism; it only expected the artist to abide the rules of the game” (179).

Basically, the same definition of “sincere cynicism” can be applied to late Soviet culture as well, but the rules of the game in Hungary seem to be much less restrictive.

Traditional versions of PPP (coca-cola plus the hammer and sickle, Pop-Art principles applied to Socialist Realism) can be found in the works of Sandro Pinczenhelyi, and there is nothing surprising about it.

Curiously, as it follows from the essay, this art was accepted within “the rules of the game.”

What frustrated these rules, were the works of the dissident architects, Lazlo Rajk, Gabor Bachman, Attila Kovács, Tibor Szalai and some others, who in their works directly were trying to reinvent “the legacy of Constructivism and Russian avant-garde, and the inheritance of political and agitprop art” (187), coupled with an interest in such symbolist gurus as Rudolf Stainer and strong mythopoetic inclinations in general.

Peter Gyorgy argues that their projects, re-presenting Constructivism anew, are as ironic as Laibach’s play with the Nazi discourse and symbols.

However, it is not clear from the article what the tangible manifestations of this irony are, besides the fact that these artists never belonged to the communist party.

Their works, at least those discussed in the essay, can be equally interpreted as the expression of the artists’ longing for a truly revolutionary spirit as opposed to the “sincere cynicism” of the late socialist stagnation.

Yet, this interpretation would not fit the PPP project; therefore it is ruled out. I believe this approach may be valid for countries and cultures where real convergence between the late socialism and early postindustrial capitalism was already occurring in the 1980s.

For these countries, the avant-garde tradition was not perceived as the scapegoat for communist terror and socialist degeneration, rather it was reinvented as a protest against the bourgeois establishment of the late socialism – something like this can be detected in the late expressionism of Vadim Sidur or in the official avant-gardism of Andrey Voznesensky.

Disappointingly, both the new Cuban and new Chinese art, as represented in the articles of Gerardo Mosquera and Gao Mingli respectively, do not transcend the blockade of the stereotypes inherent for PPP.

The similarity of the Cuban and Chinese PPP to one another, as well as to the Soviet Sots-Art or East European Ost Art, betrays the origins of the PPP in Socialist Realism as a universal style in which a national cultural tradition was responsible for minor adjustments only.

In the same fashion, the carnivalization of the socialist symbols in the works by Flavio Garciandia, Carlos Rodrigues Cardenas, or Tomas Esson appears as a Cuban coleur locale, and “a mixture of both modernism and postmodernism, understood according to their original Western definitions, … that promotes an iconoclastic attitude” (247) defines the Chinese PPP of the 1980s.

However, the most interesting aspects of both Cuban and Chinese PPP are associated with postcolonial rather than postsocialist hybridity.

Quite illuminating is the uncanny resemblance between “My Homage to Che” (1987, p.228) by the Cuban Tomas Esson and “Artist Condition I” (1981, p.156) by Dajan Knez from the Neue Slwensiche Kunst.

In Knez’s work, Margrite’s La condition humaine is superimposed on the background of a photograph depicting Hitler.

In Esson’s painting, Margrit’s landscape is substituted with two fornicating monsters painted in Rubens’ manner, while Hitler is replaced with an iconic portrait of Che and the Cuban flag in the form of sausage.

Ales Erjavec interprets Knez’s works as a brutally direct juxtaposition of “two social spheres of modernity [art and politics] … that Romanticism and anarchist aesthetics brought together again” (156).

Gerardo Mosquera presents Esson’s work as a sarcastic commentary to the “obsessive Latin American preoccupation regarding identity” (228): “Latin Americans have always had to ask ourselves who we are, simply because it is so difficult to know, We get confused between Western and non-Western, because we shared it both since the historical beginnings” (228).

What in the East European PPP appears as different aspects of the same cultural paradigm, in the Cuban art is reinvented as a “heterotopia”, or a clash of different models of cultural identity, European and non-European, although it is impossible to define who exactly represents what.

Analogically, as Gao Minglu demonstrates, the new Chinese art brings the central conceptualist theme of emptiness and/or nothingness to its origins in Chan Buddhism.

However if in conceptualism emptiness is a radically negative concept, “in Chan thinking a realization of the concept of “emptiness” is the moment of person’s experience when the mind is open to discover a richer realm of truth – enlightenment” (264), or rather “Sudden Enlightenment” – an epiphany compatible with modernism, avant-garde or Romanticism, but not with the endless questioning of postmodernism.

Xu Bing the artist who builds his installations in accordance with this thinking, is described by the critic as a conceptualist experimentator, similar to Ilya Kabakov.

However, equally valid would be an approach to his art as a synthesis between the ancient philosophic traditionand the new techniques, with no attempts to problematize or deconstruct the former.

In this case, the hybridity connects the traditional and the innovative, the new and the archaic into an object open for interpretations but distinct and original if compared with more conventional PPP.

To conclude, Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition is a provocative volume. Different chapters of the book present the postsocialist postmodernism differently: as a shadow of Socialist Realism, as a collection of stereotypes, as a return to the avant-garde, as the art of detachment from ideologies and as the manifestation of a fatal attraction to totalitarian aesthetics, as a search for the modernist sublime in chaos and entropy and as production of fluid heterotopia and hybrids.

Martin Jay in his foreword suggested that PPP reflects the global cultural change – “the most significant political transformation of the second half of the twentieth century: the transition from failed Communism to an amorphous and still-unsettled something else” (xvi).

Yet, the integral vector of the volume in its entirety is quite different: PPP appears here as almost impossible attempt to bring all the main tendencies of art and culture of the 20th century together – in one work, or one installation – not necessarily for deconstruction, sometimes for museification and loving preservation.

Postsocialist postmodernism emerges from this volume as a powerful epilogue to the avant-garde and its philosophical, social, and artistic utopias of the unseen magnitude, the epilogue that closes the book rather than begins a new one.