"FRAMING" OF THE CENTRAL EUROPEPIOTR PIOTROWSKY
Some time ago I have travelled on the Inter-City train from Budapest to PÈcs with Katalin Keser, a Hungarian historian of modern art, who suddenly asked me what I thought about Donald Kuspit's book New Subjectivism.(1) I shrugged. We were talking about the study of East Central European art history, in which both of us had been involved, and Kuspit's considerations seemed to me totally useless as regards attempts at the revision of the methodology of such studies. Quite on the contrary, one might say that the method of the American scholar and his interpretation of the art of the eighties, which are the subject matter of New Subjectivism, as well as his categories of description stemmed from those tendencies in the methodology of art history which not only ignore the need for the revision of the artistic geography, but in fact petrify the so-called universal perspective. If we translate this perspective into the language of geography, it entails a hierarchical model of analysis formulated in terms of the opposition of center and periphery.
To give an example of a specific postulate of the universalization of language as a strategy of the appropriation of geographically "other" cultures, I will refer to a text by a very influential American critic associated with the "correct" magazine of the New York bohemia, The Village Voice. Peter Schjeldahl, whom I mean here, writes: "The world of the American [or Western - P. P.] art has been and is expecting from the former Soviet empire something new. On the one hand, this expectation stems from sound interest and good will, on the other, it boils down to the admission that our exhausted artistic resources need exotic transfusion. So far, however, the achievements seem rather modest, and the best instances - such as those of Ilya Kabakov and Miroslaw Balka - show us why it is so. Besides, they teach us how to adjust our expectations to what we will probably obtain. The "Eastern" artist must first acquire the artistic idiom of the West, since even the most sophisticated local art did not outlive the long era of darkness. Then the artist must try to speak this idiom and call painful things by their names; they must tell us, stuttering, about the truths so long untold that now they are covered with layers of mud like a river bottom. Only after uncovering all the layers of silence we will see the new face to face in our crazy Western sense."(2) Indeed, I don't know why the American critic believes that Ilya Kabakov has learned to speak the "Western artistic idiom." Perhaps he has never been to Russia and he does not know that the Russian "komunalka" is. Besides, I have no idea what the "long era of darkness" would mean in reference to the art in Russia (to stick to just this one area). Anyway, let's put these specific questions aside. A fundamental issue, which, I suppose, has been put forward in good faith, is the problem of the "translatability" or "compatibility" of language - a genuine trap, as it were. Language is the most sensitive instrument with which we can perceive the genius loci; which best expresses the artist's identity, and which may become the best starting point for the reconstruction of the artistic geography. Thus, it is not the recognition of similarities but of differences that may invalidate the hierarchical approach to geography. Contrary to the demand of the American critic, developing his or her analysis, a revisionist geographer of East Central Europe should reveal what is different or "other" from the "Western idiom," instead of coming up with the requirement of learning it as a necessary condition of being marked on the artistic map of the world.|
Schjeldahl's postulate stems from the belief that language is a transparent means of communication. It is grounded in a specific modernist utopia of language, best epitomized by various kinds of abstraction allegedly referring to the universals common to all people, that is, to reason with is geometrical order and to intuition with its emotional particularity. The utopia of the universal language claimed that if we used one tongue, we would understand one another better, yet the problem is that there is no language which is neutral. The universal or global language of our everyday use is English. The same relates to art. In fact, Schjeldahl is honest enough to call a spade a spade, by the same token revealing the mechanisms of the market of artistic culture.
The problem lies not just in the internal strategy of adjusting the "other" cultures to the universal, that is, Western standards. My Hungarian friend, to whom I have mentioned at the beginning of this essay, is certainly not the only Central or Eastern European intellectual to be interested in the universalist view of art. One might even take the risk and claim that right here, in this "peripheral," as it were, region of the continent, the interest in universalism as an interpretive approach to art history is directly proportional to the absence of East Central European art from the European art history textbooks, with the exception of the art of Russia. A striking example in this respect is the Europa, Europa exhibition set in 1994 by Ryszard Stanislawski and Christoph Brockhaus in the Bonn Kunst- und Ausstesslungshalle as a comprehensive manifestation of the art from the eastern part of the continent.(3) The task that the makers of the exposition faced was extremely difficult not only in the organizational, but also theoretical and psychological sense. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the "iron curtain" allowed them to ask a question about the identity of the "other" Europe - the Europe shaped by the Yalta Agreement - whose ambition, however, is also the change of the Yalta order. The political context of the exhibition was quite obvious, but somewhat less obvious were its artistic premises: the eastern part of the continent was defined as the "other" in a retrospective manner, since it was distinguished not just in reference to the aftermath of the Yalta conference, but also to the pre-Yalta times. Moreover, the typical Central European trends, such as the Czech cubism which developed among local historical tensions referred to the far metropolis (Paris) and simultaneously to the closer one (Vienna), was combined within one and the same geographical area with the art of the Russian avant-garde. The art of Austria and Germany, no doubt the historical points of reference (at least in the first half of the century) for Central European artists, was not included. Excluded was also the art of the German Democratic Republic, a fragment of the German territory incorporated after 1945 into the political sphere of the East. If the geographical division of Europe into two parts was justified by the threshold of World War II, there were indeed few convincing arguments to apply it retrospectively to all of the twentieth century. Before World War II, because of the role of such centers as Berlin and Vienna, the internal divisions were much more complicated.|
Of course, it is perfectly possible to explain such a decision by the strategy of the exhibition. Had Stanislawski and Brockhaus limited its scope for the sake of descriptive precision to the second half of the century only, then, most likely, it would have been more coherent in the historical sense, but commercially less attractive. Unlike scholars and critics, curators cannot totally disregard this aspect, as they are inevitably involved in the dilemmas of promotion and financing. Still, in my opinion that was not the main problem of the Bonn exposition, particularly in the context of the artistic geography. At this point, the crucial question does not refer to the historical divisions, but to the identity or rather to historical significance of the art produced in this region. Of course, the makers of the exhibition were quite aware of this issue. According to Andrzej Turowski, a critic who was also its co-organizer, the question was formulated in a universal perspective or, more precisely, in the perspective of the "coexistence of many universal traditions on various levels of generalization, among which as the most important, even though directly incomparable, were two: the constructivist-avant-garde and the narrative-Judaic."(4) In fact, Stanislawski admitted that his basic intention was to show the universal character of the art of the eastern part of the continent.(5) Reading between the lines, and sometimes even listening to the curator himself, one could realize that the primary objective of the undertaking was to valorize the art of the "other Europe" in the context of its absence from art history textbooks. The same intent was expressed by the exhibition itself as well as by its monumental catalogue, and I don't think that there was something wrong about it. Moreover, I believe that the Bonn event showed the dimensions of the Eastern European art on an unprecedented scale. Regardless of all the particular objections raised in various countries of (mostly Eastern) Europe, its effects remain beyond dispute, but actually the problem lies elsewhere: as a matter of fact, Europa, Europa did not put forward any new aesthetic categories applicable to the discussion of the European art in the twentieth century. Expanding the range of material, it did not modify the paradigm of the artistic geography, and what's even worse, did not even articulate such possibilities. On the contrary, the question of European art was formulated on its occasion in terms of universalism, that is, of the common experience and repertoire of meanings.
However, history has undermined such an assumption. The experience of various Europes were by no means common, nor the meanings of their cultures analogical. The art of Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Hungary was developing in different semiotic and ideological spaces than the art of Italy or France, while the universal perspective understood as a methodological instrument prevents the discovery of the particular meanings of cultures and disrupts all attempts at defining their regional, ethnic, and local identities. One can easily understand the psychological background of the frustrations of art historians from Eastern and - in particular - Central Europe, caused by the absence of our cultural production in the canon of the artistic culture of the continent (with a few exceptions) and by its "peripheral" location. Yet, the point is not to reproduce the imperialist and hierarchical interpretive models, but to revise the paradigms, to change the analytical tools so that they would allow us to discover the meanings of cultures of "other" geographical regions.
What may perhaps facilitate a reconstruction of the hierarchical paradigms of art history by artistic geographers is, to borrow a term of Jonathan Culler cited by Norman Bryson, the "frame."(6) Replacing in Culler's/Bryson's conception the idea of context, the "frame" (which, of course, can be traced back to the Derridaean "parergon") is structurally an element of the text, although - and this is very important for our considerations - it is not given, but derives from the adopted interpretive strategy. Referring to the frame/context, writes Bryson, is then a "step back" from the work of art; from the "uncertainty" of the text (work) towards its anchoring foundation. However, once such a step has been made, it becomes irrevocable. The context is a text or, as Bryson puts it, "it is just more text,"(7) an active instance which we activate by our interpretive practice. The "frame" - to refer to Derrida's metaphor again - established by an interpretive gesture and not emerging by itself, discovers, as it were, a genius loci which turns out to be a research strategy rather than a kind of the metaphysics of place.
Let us, then, realize that the mechanism of identity building of Eastern European intellectuals is mythologization. The mythological function of culture deprives it of its critical capacity, especially with respect to geographical relations. In other words, trying to develop his or her identity against the background of the universal culture, the East Central European artist would actually petrify the classic center-periphery order. No doubt, one of the most popular artistic trends in East Central Europe, which was also a strategy of resistance against the indoctrination by the socialist realism, was neo-constructivism. Particularly after Stalin's death, it was practiced everywhere except for Bulgaria, for the reasons which I have mentioned above. In Bulgaria there were no historical points of reference, not to mention biographical continuity which was observable in Hungary and in Poland. A Hungarian constructivist Lajos Kasak was not very active after World War II, but he was still extremely influential, while a Polish artist, Henryk Staªewski, before the war a member of many international groups, was not only influential, but creative almost till end of his very long life (he died in 1988 at the age of 94). Also in Czechoslovakia and in Rumania, where the ties with the prewar traditions were not so distinct, in the sixties and seventies the neo-constructivist tendencies were developing as well, represented by such artists as Hugo Demartini, Stanislav Kolibal, Jan Kubinek, and Zdenek Sykora, or the Rumanian groups "111" and "Sigma." All those artists were dedicated to the mythology of freedom expressed in the languages of geometry. However, the question, repeated after Rosalind Krauss, is: how was it possible to cultivate the sense of freedom by means of the "grid," a system of intersecting lines which is one of the most conventional visual devices allegedly discovered anew every now and then? What's more, claims the American scholar, the artists who started using the "grid" as their "own" means of expression brought their creative development to a halt, since in many respects (structural, logical as well as, simply, commonsensical) this figure may only be reproduced again and again.(11) What was, then, the justification of the discourse of freedom or, in fact, of its mythologization in the artistic practice of the Central European neo-constructivists? Most likely - and that was precisely the effect of "framing," of its negative function - the decisive factor was that under the specific circumstances, in a given historical context, neo-constructivism was directed against the socialist realism. It is the "frame," the context which determines the historical dimension of such a discourse. Yet, if we draw it somewhat more precisely, we will see differences: the Hungarian authorities practiced the local principle of the three "T" (T,rni, Tiltani, Tamogatni - Tolerate, Forbid, Support); in the most liberal period of political "thaw," that is, in the late sixties and early seventies (between Nicolae Ceausescu's coming to power in 1965 and his "July Theses" from the early seventies, and the "election" of the dictator for president of the Republic) the policy of the Rumanian communist party at best oscillated between tolerance and forbiddance; whereas the strategy of the Polish communist regime since 1956 till its end in 1989 was the most permissive - not only was modern art tolerated, but sometimes it was even accepted as official. In such a situation, the "frame" of a relationship between the "grid" and the discourse of freedom turns out changeable: in some cases, as for example in Rumania, it was rooted in the genuine practice of resistance, in others, for instance in Poland, it belonged in the first place to the domain of mythology.
This demythologizing perspective appears to be a result of the recent changes, of a growing historical distance from the artistic practices of the so-called "bygone period," of the access to materials, but also - evidently - of our more and more critical and self-critical attitude towards the past. Not so long ago, almost immediately after the Berlin Wall had been torn down, a former East German critic, Christoph Tannert, wrote on the occasion of a huge Metropolis exhibition shown in the Martin Gropius Bau, exactly where the two parts of the divided Berlin were coming close together, that what the East (by which he meant the culture of the GDR) might contribute to the Western "crisis of meaning" (please note a sort of reversal of the center/periphery perspective) was the tradition of a non-conformist culture, of the moral attitude of resistance against the structures and institutions of the Eastern European regimes.(12) Only a few years later, on the occasion of another exhibition shown in the same place, Der Riss im Raum, he was much more skeptical, putting into doubt the non-conformity of the artists from the Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, Dresden-Neustadt or Leipziger Osten. Tannert doubted whether the so-called alternative movement had indeed been authentic, but above all, whether it had been subversive and critical with respect to the official cultural policy. In fact, the critic suggested that the reverse might have been the case, namely that the secret police might have created a "rubber cell for the formalists."(13) After opening the STASI archives and revealing the actual scope of its power such a suggestion seems perfectly well justified.
Professor of Art History, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan. Vice-president of AICA Poland. Author of many books and exhibition catalogues, currently working on a book project concerning Central European modernism and neo-avant-garde. Lives in Poznan