The SocialEast Seminars: (Re-)Locating Eastern European Art

SocialEast Seminars. Manchester (Art and Ideology) and Budapest (Art and Documentary).

Recently the theoretical debate around art and visual culture in Eastern Europe has gained a new platform of discussion. Initiated by MYRIAD Manchester Metropolitan University, the SocialEast Forum focuses on regional art practices between the end of the Second World War and the fall of Communism in 1989-1991. The forum launched its program with a series of seminars during which scholars, curators, and artists from all over Europe contributed to a new understanding of art and culture in Eastern Europe. This review concerns two of the seminars that took place in autumn 2006. They were held respectively in Manchester (Art and Ideology) and Budapest (Art and Documentary).

Eastern Europe, as a concept in the discourse of art history, poses a major problem — especially for scholars from the region itself, since it has become more and more difficult to define. The geopolitical category that originated in the Cold War does not seem to correspond with any coherent picture of art developments in the countries belonging to it. So-called Eastern Europe appears to be much too heterogeneous to justify its conceptual existence. Advocates of this interpretation maintain that, Eastern Europe melts into an undifferentiated whole only when it is regarded from the outside. What is more, Eastern Europe does not possess any fixed place in the universal art history.

On the other hand, it is always tempting to define Eastern Europe in terms of Soviet domination and the imposed doctrine of Socialist Realism. In this perspective, it can be argued that the art of the Eastern Bloc developed a distinctive sensitivity and employed idiosyncratic artistic strategies to ensure its “otherness”and to build a common identity. The discussion seems far from closed. Related to this is the question of whether to approach artistic activities as indicators of a broader social and political situation. Should artists be seen as “representatives” of Eastern Europe, even if they themselves would rather avoid such identification? Since the fall of the Berlin Wall there were a series of exhibitions, conferences, and publications that aimed at disseminating scholarship focused on the art of the region. However, in the general art history this area is still being neglected and misconstrued or remains simply absent. The SocialEast seminars are intended to reflect on that situation, drawing conclusions from the research and exhibitions to date and bringing together new voices.

The main objectives of the SocialEast forum were outlined by its initiator, Reuben Fowkes, during the opening of the first seminar devoted to Art and Ideology. Fowkes asked how we should write a history of Eastern European art and what its relationship to the Western canons should be. Should we, as some have proposed, expand the existing canon by including Eastern European artists? In other words, should we amend the rules and conventions of general art history to encompass the recently re-discovered “other half” of Europe? This all-too-persuasive solution was promptly rejected by the speaker, Piotr Piotrowski (How to Write a History of Central-East European Art). In his lucid argument Piotrowski demonstrated how the two basic categories of the universal art history, namely canon and style, prove to be irrelevant in respect to Eastern European art, since works of art from different countries of the region may appear similar in terms of form or style but in fact have radically different meanings. These meanings are embedded in their local contexts which can differ considerably in various countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Subsuming them under generalized Western categories would suppress the diverse contexts and distort their original significance. It is precisely this procedure of undifferentiated inclusion into the Western canons that induced the depreciating judgment of Eastern European art as secondary and epigonic within the Western model. Such practice makes it impossible to grasp the significance of art production in Eastern Europe.

As an alternative solution, Piotrowski proposed building art histories on the level of locality, which he understands in terms of particular national, ethnic, or ideological contexts. His analysis of two cases of the Clara Mosch gallery in Karl-Marx-Stadt and the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw give an idea of such an approach focused on locality. As a theoretical tool Piotrowski advocated Althusser’s notion of ideological state apparatuses, which, according to him, opens up the perspective of local politics as reflected in the functioning of cultural institutions. It may also be used as a tool of critique of the European art history, which needs to be rewritten in order to include its marginal discourses. In this ambitious project, Eastern European art history can play a significant role in reformulating and deconstructing the monolithic narrative of the so-called universal art history. From his analysis it appears that the West needs the East in order to see itself better.

The respondent to Piotrowski’s lecture, Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, inscribed his project in a broader framework of revisionist art history. Such revisionism was pioneered since 1968 in the form of feminist or post-colonial art histories, which opposed the masculine, Eurocentric or homophobic biases in the discourse. Eastern European art history appears in this perspective as yet another proposition for rewriting the universal art history, one which presupposes and reacts to the existence of an “occido-centrism.” It contributes to the creation of a new, heterogeneous, and non-hierarchical narrative. According to Murawska-Muthesius, there is, however, a better theoretical tool than Althusser’s concept of ideological state apparatuses, namely that of hegemony and anti-hegemony by Antonio Gramsci. She points out that the term “Eastern European art” is an after-Cold-War projection. It presupposes a perspective from the outside. The inhabitants of the different countries within so-called Eastern Europe do not perceive themselves as members of such an entity. She found no justification for using the concept in art historical discourse. Instead, she proposed developing many fragmented narratives while abandoning the urge towards an all-encompassing picture.

Interestingly, two subsequent contributions dealt with such local contexts in practical terms, both focusing on the period directly after the Second World War which saw the inauguration of the Soviet model of culture. Ulrike Goeschen introduced the situation in the GDR (From Socialist Realism to Art in Socialism: The Reception of Modernism as an instigating force in the development of art in the GDR) and Alina Serban analyzed the Romanian version of Socialist Realism (The Lost Dimension: The Collectivization of Modernism and the Last Generation of Romanian Avant-garde). In both countries there were attempts to resist the ideological indoctrination of Socialist Realism by returning to typically modern and avant-garde traditions of the interwar period.

Goeschen argued that artists in the GDR were reluctant to apply the aesthetic rules of the new Communist regime because of their formal similarities to the art of National Socialism. The re-insertion of modernist elements into the official discourse proceeded through various stages. Development within official art history especially contributed to reappraisal of elements otherwise despised by Socialist Realism, such as expressivity, montage, allegory and symbol. In the 1960s, a reassessment of historical constructivism and new studies over Bauhaus led to a reformulation of the concept of realism. In this new perspective, it was understood as a way of designing the world and shaping life. As a result of this evolution, artists could gain more freedom within the rigid confines of Socialist Realism. It seems that around this period the so-called “continuity thesis” of Boris Groys took its shape avant la lettre as the art historical narratives were built in order to prove the lineage between the art of the 1920s and Socialist Realism. Goeschen stressed, however, that they were constructed with the aim of modifying the stringent doctrine of the official culture.

Serban traced an analogous continuity of the pre-war avant-garde in the Romanian adoption of Socialist Realism in the period of 1944-1965, mainly focusing on the example of the Romanian surrealist group (1940-1944) which bears similarities to the Integral group of 1925. Surrealism of the 1940s took over the idea of art as transforming the world. The opposition between the two periods is, according to Serban, based on a widespread yet unjustified prejudice. According to her, characteristics common to both movements are the disapproval of the idea of art as subject of contemplation and the understanding of the artistic activity as part of the social sphere.

Both Goeschen and Serban examined Socialist Realism in its national forms, defying the totalizing Western perspective in which it was a unified and homogenous official style of all socialist countries. Upon closer scrutiny, Socialist Realism proved to have many (local) facets. Although the common reappraisal of the heritage of the avant-gardes in the Eastern bloc has already been pointed out in earlier scholarship, these two contributions show the local tonalities of this tendency. They illustrate how a mild form of dissent was negotiated within the frames of the official culture.

Some artists of the Eastern bloc decided to work outside of the Socialist officialdom. An important representative of the Hungarian unofficial art, Tamas St.Auby, presented his project of a self-made database of artists working in Hungary outside and against the oppressive system. Ephemeral happenings and forgotten artworks are registered and digitalized in his Portable Intelligence Increase Museum (Pop art, Conceptual art, Actionism during the 60s in Hungary 1956-1976). Under this impossibly long and typically complex title he created an alternative version of the Hungarian art history of the Soviet period. St.Auby belonged to the unofficial art scene until his expulsion from the country in 1974, where he could return only in 1991. The fact that he has undertaken the creation of an archive is a telling sign. It evidences a shortcoming in the national and international art history. Strikingly enough, many artists included in the database are still being marginalized today. Due to the omission of their names in the discourse of art history, the general picture of the contemporary Hungarian art is still incomplete and subsequently distorted. St.Auby’s first-hand knowledge of most of the important figures makes this collection unique but also throws light on the particular engagement on the side of the artists in documenting and disseminating the neglected chapters of art history.

The second SocialEast seminar in Budapest was dedicated to the topic of Art and Documentary. Lynda Morris presented her ongoing project on Picasso’s political engagement and its reverberations on two sides of the Iron Curtain (Picasso – Peace of Freedom: Sheffield Peace Congress 1950). It is generally known that paintings such as Massacre in Korea were criticized by Western art theorists, notably Clement Greenberg, Anthony Blunt, and John Berger. The reception of Picasso’s post-war painting in the Socialist countries is much less known. It can, however, yield important insights into the West-East relationships when we take into account the artist’s leftist commitment. The controversy around this central figure of 20th century art demonstrates the complexities of artists’ entanglement in politics. Morris’ project is not intended to be limited to rudimentary distinctions between Eastern and Western European perspectives. As she demonstrated, the case of Picasso offers an opportunity to present a broader spectrum of positions in different countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. By the same token, she confirmed the thesis of Piotrowski about the heterogeneity of Eastern Europe, Arguing that there are many more nuances to be shown between, for example, different countries of the Warsaw Pact or between Western Europe and the United States than a simple West-East division.

The following three lectures covered very diverse topics, referring in various ways to the questions of art and documentary. Anton Lederer turned to the issue of falsification of documents and the manipulative use of pictures (Don’t Trust Pictures. Some Examples of Manipulation in Art). This subject has been addressed by various Eastern European artists of recent decades. Sanja Ivekovic and Sejla Kameric both referred to the complex history of the Balkans and the role of images in preserving the past. Their subversive use of documentary material combined with the visual language of advertisement complicates the reading and understanding of the collective past. Lederer compared these art practices with projects by Joachim Seinfeld and the Graz collective G.R.A.M.

Éva Forgács addressed the much-discussed work by Ilya Kabakov entitled Ten Characters. In it, the Russian artist developed a new propensity to use discarded objects and garbage. Especially in the case of his Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, garbage becomes the central theoretical and aesthetical category. Kabakov questions the distinction between important and useless objects and puts forward an ordinary, insignificant, or discarded residue as a justified form of documentation. Especially in private memories everything can become a meaningful trace of the past.

Angela Harutyunyan approached the theme of memory in quite a different way, proposing an analysis of public monuments as tools for selective remembrance (Collective Memory Fragmented: Public Symbols and Political Power in Minsk). She focused on the case of Belarusian cultural politics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Belarus was one of the very few countries in which numerous Soviet monuments were not removed after 1991. She demonstrated how symbols of the communist past in Minsk are being redeployed by the current political policy makers, regardless of the fact that they have to coexist with the new, capitalist symbols which appeared in the public space after the fall of the Soviet Union. She distinguished disparate attempts at remembering only particular moments of the past while forgetting the others. This is clearly visible when comparing the conflicting spheres of the official culture (Lukashenka’s regime) and the opposition movement (nationalist tendency). Both sides try to enforce different versions of the past: Lukashenka favors Soviet symbols as tokens of his pro-Russian policy, and the opposition stresses national symbols as signs of the independence from Russia. As a result, there is no consensus about the common past and the shared symbols that could help construct a shared identity.

Complementing the theoretical propositions of various speakers, the seminar ended with a film screening. It included Anri Sala’s Intervista (1998), Zbynek Baladran’s Working Process (2004), Arturas Raila’s The Girl Is Innocent (1999), Goran Devic’s Imported Crows (2004) and Johanna Billing’s Magical World (2005). Moreover, the seminar coincided with an exhibition curated by Reuben and Maja Fowkes which related to the theme of a particular currency at that moment in Budapest, namely the commemoration of the 1956 revolution. Several contemporary artists from all over Europe showed their work that reflected in diverse terms on political and artistic insurrections. The Revolution is not a Garden Party was a way of engaging with the past and relating it to the present.

The two SocialEast seminars represented a starting point for a long awaited debate on the legacy and the future of art historical discourses stemming from the Eastern European paradigm. By creating a platform for collaboration between different actors from the region and outside of it, the SocialEast forum provided (and hopefully will continue to provide) a valuable and lasting contribution to the understanding of the intricate relationships between the Western and Eastern European art history. SocialEast prompted an exchange of experiences and expertise that will hopefully help to overcome lingering misconceptions about the region’s cultural and artistic practices. The various presentations demonstrated, among other things, the importance of reconsidering some modernist notions in the post-war discourse of art history, such as the autonomy of art and its social engagement. They manifested that the questions of documenting the past and writing history have gained particular urgency both in artistic practices and art historical narratives developed in Eastern Europe.

Katarzyna Ruchel-Stockmans is a research fellow of the Research Foundation-Flanders (F.W.O.-Vlaanderen).

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