“Communism Never Happened”? Transformations of Art in East-Central Europe since 1989

Andrzej Szczerski, Transformation: Art in East-Central Europe since 1989. Translated by Sabina Potaczek-Jasionowicz (Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press, 2018).

The title of one of the chapters of Andrzej Szczerski’s Transformation: Art in East-Central Europe since 1989 can, curiously, summarize the entire premise of the book. The chapter in question is titled “Communism Never Happened.” This sounds paradoxical, of course. Yet the title is fitting: not because Communism is being ignored in this two-hundred-page-long, ambitious overview of art made after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but because, for all that, it has virtually no impact on the identity of the East-Central European subjects discussed in the volume. And the category that seems to be most immune to Communism’s effects is also the one that is the most cherished in this book: the nation.

Szczerski’s goal is to examine the specificity of East-Central Europe as a region within Europe as a distinct and a constitutive part of the “Old Continent”, a “legitimate part of Europe.” Transformation is rich in claims of exceptionality as much terms such as “belonging” and “equality”—a tension that underlines its whole narrative. The book’s ambition, therefore, goes far beyond a simple focus on art production and reception. The art of the post-communist transformation, claims Szczerski, can speak to the involvement that East-Central European nations played in the formation of the contemporary European identity (22) by, among other things, highlighting the importance of regional histories for these processes. Art also helps us understand—such is the claim—that national cultures guarantee stability and subjectivity in today’s globalized world (173). Even though chapter seven is dedicated specifically to “National Contexts,”, the concept of the nation forms a backbone of the book’s entire narrative and keeps reappearing in multiple places.

 Szczerski argues that in order to best grasp the character of East-Central EuropeThe term East-Central Europe, used in the English version of the book, is a direct translation of the German OstMittelEuropa. The term Szczerski uses in Polish is “Europa Środkowo-Wschodnia” which often appears in English-language scholarship as “Central and Eastern Europe.” after 1989, one should follow the self-definition of those countries that see themselves as “members of the European community of free nations” and “are united by the most basic values rooted in Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Judeo-Christian religious traditions.” (20) As such, his definition includes not only the satellite countries of the former Soviet bloc and the former Soviet republics in Europe, such as Lithuania, Ukraine, or Moldova, but also the former Yugoslavia, and the newly independent countries in the Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The author asserts that the common point of reference for all these nations is their “rootedness in a historical tradition, in whose name the shackles of totalitarian Communism were cast off in 1989.” (20) The shared experience of Communism—compared here with slavery—is less important, asserts Szczerski, than having gone through the political and economic post-Communist transformation together. It is easy to see that his is a definition based on one simple exclusion: East-Central Europe is everything but Russia.

To further downplay the fact that the regional identity of East-Central Europe solidified during the Cold War era, Szczerski diagnoses the specific character of the local cultural identity as grounded in the legacy of the Jagiellonian royal dynasty of the 14th-16th centuries, in chapter 1. In their time, the Jagiellons sat on the thrones of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Bohemia, and Hungary, with their empire covering the territory from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Adriatic and the Black Sea. This anchoring of East-Central European identity in the most glorious moment of Polish history inadvertently reveals the grounds for the Polish-centrism of the book. The same orientation is visible elsewhere as well, for example in the strong numerical dominance of Polish artists over others in the following chapters (in some cases the ratio is as high as 14 to 3), and the fact that some art projects by Hungarian, Slovakian, or Macedonian artists are being discussed because of their connections to Poland. To put it differently: the author’s disavowal of the Soviet/Russian empire does not prevent him from sympathizing with other imperialist projects, such as the Jagiellonian one.

In line with the book’s concentration on the newly Central-European independent nations Transformation focuses on art as the cultural foundation for a nation. In this vein, Szczerski thematizes art that demonstrates cultural continuity with the past and that can be seen as an extension of a nation’s cultural heritage. His book presents a narrative about “contemporary art,” called that on account of its critical nature, rather than any “current art.” Consequently, Szczerski discusses major practitioners in the field, such as Deimantas Narkevicius, Dan Perjovschi, Eva Kot’atkova, Paweł Althamer, or David Maljković, to name just a few. And yet, his book is written specifically in opposition to those narratives that focus on contemporary art with a leftist political edge and that view art as an advocate for social justice.

This was the case for instance with Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (2010, English translation 2012) by Piotr Piotrowski, who serves as Szczerski’s nemesis. The author rejects this tendency, blaming Piotrowski and other art historians for only focusing on those artists who shared their “narrowly-defined ideological program,” i.e. leftist and/or anarchist sympathies. (21) The author also performs a peculiar rhetorical summer-sault by arguing that it was not the art itself but the critical language used to describe it that imposed onto many “benign” artworks the political categories of activism or social emancipation. Such “politicization” of art is, according to the author, “an obvious limitation that over-simplified the polyvalent message of the work.” (200-201). Transformation is thus meant to reverse that trend by providing a different set of analytical categories, including traditional art historical iconography and iconology, cultural anthropology, and heritage studies for the discussion of contemporary art.

The somewhat tense relationship, in this study, between its material—the artworks analyzed—and the author’s underlying goal speaks to the particular position of its author, a professor of art history at the Jagiellonian University, an active curator and a recent appointee to the position of the Director of the National Museum in Kraków (MNK). Szczerski is one of those rare Polish conservatives directly involved with contemporary art. While he is of the opinion that post-1989 art has been the agent of social liberalization and leftist ideologies, Szczerski still sees it as a potentially positive instrument for changing reality (38).His 2017 exhibition at the National Museum in Cracow was titled “#heritage.”) Instead of rejecting contemporary art altogether, the author speaks out for those practitioners who use progressive/experimental formats and methods, but explore topics closer to the political Right. Or, at least, whose work can roughly fit into the conservative universe—as is the case with this book.

 The set of issues that fall into Szczerski’s scope of interest include: the redefinition of European center and peripheries in chapter one; the appreciation of participatory events that accompanied the fall of Communism in chapter two; revealing the totalitarian evils of Communism in chapter three; the affirmative use of the historical heritage for creating identities for the future, in chapter four; the grotesque and Surrealism as characteristic for art from the region in chapter five; the creation of alternative histories as a space for ideological discussion in chapter six; the exploration of national and religious identity in chapter seven; and the demonstration of East-Central Europe’s rightful place inside the “Old Continent” in chapter eight. Values such as freedom, independence, equality, dignity, and national pride are the leitmotifs of the whole narrative.

The most powerful, if also the most contentious, part of Transformation comes in chapter two, “Political Art: Two Models,” where the author uses the participatory art model proposed by Claire Bishop to argue that multiple public events in East-Central Europe, starting with John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Poland in 1979, can be seen as de facto participatory art in the public space (44). This includes the “Baltic Chain” of people across Lithuania, Lavtia, and Estonia on the 50thanniversary of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, in 1989; the “Singing Revolution” in Estonia in 1988-1991; the protests against Slobodan Milosević’s regime in Serbia in 1996-1997; and various cultural events that took place on the Ukrainian Maidan in Kiev, in 2013. Each of the actions examined by Szczerski was directly related to each nation’s fight for independence/freedom.

The boldness of the thesis is compelling. Instead of offering events that existed within the art realm, e.g. the church exhibitions that took place in Poland in the 1980s, the author appropriates religious and social gatherings that did not have art status when they happened, and proposes to see them as such. Reaching outside of the art world allows him to find cases that address nation-building in a more progressive way than visual art in East-Central Europe actually did at the time. There is a history to this somewhat problematic approach. In the absence of much right-wing contemporary art, Polish curators have in the past expanded their purview to include folk and religious practices by framing them as collaborative and participatory actions in an artistic sense. Such was the case, for example, with the much-debated exhibition New National Art: National-Patriotic Realism in 21st c. Poland, at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, in 2012.

The strategy releases Szczerski from the need to discuss the kinds of religious paintings, executed in the neo-expressionist style that nationally-inclined artists actually exhibited, among other things, around 1989. Furthermore, it allows him to offer his readers a truly progressive, socially engaged art that none of the leftist, political, but also gallery-bound art-making of the 1990s could match. He writes, “the events surrounding the 1989 watershed revealed a completely different level of engagement, one that institutionalized political art had been unable to attain, and probably never will.” (59)

This seeming checkmate to his acknowledged adversary, Piotr Piotrowski, and multiple unnamed artists has two significant foundations that are not explicitly acknowledged by Szczerski: first, that the measure of success for contemporary art is its political usefulness. This is somewhat confusing, since Szczerski uses the term “political art” throughout the book in a pejorative sense. Yet it turns out that for him the phrase is shorthand for: “in support of the leftist project.” In one of his three concluding theses the author calls for a revision of the “universally accepted precept” that the main value of contemporary art from East-Central Europe lies in its political dimension and its engagement for social change (200). His own model proposes instead to see post-1989 art as updating a historic artistic legacy for the current moment, with a different political goal in mind: to support the nation. (201)

The second foundation, directly related to the first, is that nation building was the ultimate goal of any social activism, of any political protest in East-Central Europe around 1989. The nation as the only sovereign is presented here as the sole alternative to Communism. Any examples that would work against this thesis are excluded. When discussing the anti-Milosević protests in Serbia, for example, Szczerski completely ignores Women in Black (Žene u crnom), a group of feminist, antimilitary activists who have organized numerous actions across the former Yugoslavia since the 1991, and who oppose nationalism.

 The divisions regarding these two models of political art run much deeper than methodological debates in art history: the discussion is a symptom of the culture wars that take place in East-Central Europe—most visibly in Poland and Hungary—today. Transformation is, on a certain level, a weapon in that war. For example, Szczerski’s proposal to consider the pilgrimage of the Polish Pope a piece of participatory art is designed to construct a new, alternative narrative of East-Central European art, and one in which heritage-oriented artmaking plays the main part. This becomes clearer in chapter four, entitled ”Looking into the Past,” where the author takes up Polish historian Ewa Domańska’s idea of “affirmative history”, whereby a tragic, traumatic past is used affirmatively to create a new individual and collective identity (103). Domańska’s concept is based on the critical theories of historical narrative proposed by Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White, and serves to support social coexistence of various conflicted/disagreeing subjects. In Szczerski’s reading, however, this idea is transformed so that it now speaks specifically to the trauma of the totalitarian (Communist) past. There is no conflict here, since in the place of multiplicity—gender, ethnic, class—there is only one specific, i.e. national, identity.

 Transformation doesn’t  deliver on the methodological diversity Szczerski announces in the introduction. While various artworks are discussed in anthropological terms, art is mostly presented as illustration for pre-existing theories and beliefs. Artists are given little intentionality and agency, and the reader hardly ever sees them quoted. The discussed artworks are found floating pleasantly, if somewhat tediously, in a social void. Deprived of exhibiting institutions or the responding public, they become ready for the author to describe and explain them to the reader. Szczerski does not argue for any interpretation directly, stating his points. Rather, he tells us that it was David Cerny who “demonstrated that national identities are an ineffaceable element of the modern world” (162), or that Petrit Halilaj’s art shows “the obvious needs to have one’s own home and independent homeland” (172), or that Adrian Paci demonstrates the senselessness of emigration (182). Granted, the absence of any first-person narrative is a general characteristic of academic writing in Poland, which tends to obscure authorial agency. Szczerski’s style consequently tends to be descriptive and plain, rarely trying to account for the aesthetic qualities of the artworks mentioned. He does not pose any questions. Even a reader who is tolerant of pedagogical overtones in books about art may find the endless cadence of descriptions followed by explanations somewhat monotonous.

For a book about the the East-Central European transformation that places so much emphasis on the political and economic aspects of cultural processes, there is surprisingly little mention of the political theory of postcommunism. Much has been produced by thinkers—including curators and art critics—from the region over the past two decades, though the majority of that discourse comes from the region’s intellectual left. And although I expect that Szczerski disagrees with, say, Boris Groys or Boris Buden—after all, Groys discusses Communism as a constitutive part of Western modernity, while Buden criticizes the very Habermasian identification of the sovereign nation with liberal democracy that is on display in Szczerski’s study— I had hoped that disagreement might at least become visible.

Yet instead of engaging with the recent discourse on postcommunism, the author proposes to return to the preceding moment, concluding his last chapter (“We Are Europe”) by promoting the concept of European identity formed by Polish historian Oskar Halecki in the wake of the Cold War, in 1950! (195) Szczerski is not ready to give up the Enlightenment project with its phantasmatic dream of European universalism; a strong, unified “Europe of nations” grounded in the traditional canon of Ancient Greece and Rome, and Judeo-Christian spirituality. (204) This position not only fails to account for the recent discourse on decolonization—successfully deployed in relation to the post-Soviet situation by scholars such as Madina Tlostanova—but for any scholarship that has been destabilizing Euro-centrism for decades.

Szczerski uses the term “postcolonial” only briefly wherever it becomes necessary for his discussion of artworks. He is more interested in what he considers “the auto-colonialist character” of much contemporary art in the region, by which he means artists using subjects and formats imposed by the global centers where they are popular. (118) He juxtaposes a model of the artist as a member of the national elite who pursues art’s civic mission, a “corypheus of a change,” with one whereby s/he succumbs to the pressures of the art market and to intellectual fads. (9) Yet, again, there is a tension here, for if borrowing cultural models from other regions in Europe qualifies as auto-colonization, doesn’t that mean that we East-Central Europeans are not equal European citizens after all? The local pride underlying passages such as these all too often reads like the brighter side of an inferiority complex.

As is already clear from his reference to a definition of Europe dating back to 1950, Transformation ignores Communism as a formative experience for East-Central European subjects. And even if this stems directly from the concept of a fixed, immutable nation, it is still curious to notice that Szczerski  does not consider Communism—four long decades in the lives of local peoples and their institutions—a constitutive element of national identity. The author follows the definition proposed by Anthony D. Smith whereby the nation is founded not only on ethnicity, but also on cultural, political, and religious grounds, such as shared values, traditions, memories, and myths. (158) Still, the shared experience of life in real Socialism does not qualify. Szczerski’s is a national identity defined by negation, just as his geopolitical definition of East-Central Europe is “everything but Russia.” The author’s use of the phrase “Communism never happened,” borrowed from an artwork by Ciprian Muresan, is thus ironic: Szczerski wants us to remember Communism, but only as an “unwanted,” even “shameful” heritage. Communism to him equals totalitarianism and terror, never to be repeated, and the historical truth about the Communist past can only be given as a “warning for our time.” (79).

Magdalena Moskalewicz
Magdalena Moskalewicz is an art historian, curator, and editor who specializes in art from the former Eastern Europe from the historical avantgardes to the present. Her academic research focuses on the art of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, while her curatorial practice examines the postsocialist condition and its parallels with postcoloniality. She is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches curatorial and museum studies as well as the history of modern and contemporary art. You can find her website at magdalenamoskalewicz.com.