BY Boris Groys in Features | 13 AUG 16
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Issue 181

The Obscure Object of Eurocentric Desire

Boris Groys on 25 years of contemporary art in Eastern Europe

BY Boris Groys in Features | 13 AUG 16

Read the Chinese translation here: documents-groys-frieze181-cn.pdf

As the socialist states of the East began to collapse at the end of 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the majority of Western spectators believed that this process implied the emancipation of Eastern European artists from control by the state. I remember well what, at that time, many Western colleagues told me: now, the Eastern European artists will quickly learn the laws of the art market and shift from confronting state power towards making a critique of the commercial aspects of the art world – as their Western counterparts have. Looking back to that period from a distance of 25 years, it could be said that the transition from state patronage towards commercial exchange as a source of income for artists in Eastern European countries did not have the effect it was initially expected to – not only by many in the West, but by those in the East, too. Today, in all the Eastern European countries, this arena remains very weak. If an Eastern European artist wants to succeed in the art market, he or she goes West. And, of course, some Eastern European artists did become relatively successful in the West – think of Paweł Althamer, Sanja Iveković, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov or Anri Sala, to name but a few. However, for the majority of Eastern European artists, it’s not the market but state funding or private patronage that have remained the most important sources of financial security and cultural recognition.

The support of art and artists by private foundations, such as Garage (Russia) or Pinchuk (Ukraine), is important for artists’ careers. But, in general, in Eastern Europe, the state and its cultural institutions have remained the most significant framework for art production and exhibition-making. However, the official ideology of these Eastern European states has changed from communism to nationalism. Each of these states sees its most important cultural goal as building a social consensus around a specific construction of national identity, history and destiny. And, of course, art is supposed to play an important role in building this consensus. That, again, puts the artists under ideological pressure, and they react to this in different ways. Some artists willingly participate in constructing a new national identity. Some react with direct political protest, as in the case of Pussy Riot (Russia). More often, though, the reaction is an ambivalent one: an artist may contribute to notions of national identity but may also want to avoid the naive historicism and uncritical affirmation of national tradition. IRWIN group (Slovenia) and Polish artist Artur Żmijewski are examples of such (de-)constructive strategies.

The desire to construct, or at least address, regional cultural identity is widespread in today’s art world – not least in those countries where the art market remains relatively weak. This leads many observers to compare the state of contemporary art in Eastern Europe with developments in, for example, Latin America. However, applying notions of postmodernism and postcolonialism to the postcommunist situation in Eastern Europe can be misleading.

Anri Sala, Dammi i Colori (Give Me the Colours), 2003, video still. This 16-minute video tells the story of how, in 2000, the artist Edi Rama, then-mayor of the Albanian capital Tirana, initiated a three-year programme to paint the city's houses in vivid colours. Courtesy: the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Tate, London, and Hauser & Wirth, London

Western postmodernism was a reaction against the canonization, and academization, of modernism. Indeed, in the mid-1970s, the modernist canon, including its norms of art production and appreciation, dominated Western art museums, academies, art history departments, criticism and the art market. The goal of postmodernism was to rehabilitate everything that modernism repressed: a certain type of figuration (Italian trans avantgardism, German neo-expressionism), photography, cinema, performance etc. The same can be said about architectural postmodernism in reaction to the canon of modernist architecture, and also about literary postmodernism and the rehabilitation of literary ‘trash’. Reproduction was privileged over production, the secondary over the original, diversity over uniformity. The goal of this critique of modernism wasn’t the latter’s total rejection, however, but its expansion. Modernism thus remained not only accepted but dominant – even if its claim of exclusivity was submitted to sceptical revision. In Eastern Europe, the modernist canon had never been established as foundational and obligatory in the first place. That is the case even in those countries in which modernism had a stronger footing, such as Poland or Yugoslavia. That is why, in the East, the word ‘postmodernism’ implied not so much the expansion of the modernist canon as the return to the premodernist national, ‘humanistic’ past. This nostalgia for art from before modernism took hold is also intensified by a certain resentment against the ‘Leftist’ character of the historical avant-garde – especially in Russia. The avant-garde begins to be associated with communism and, thus, the ‘overcoming’ of communism seems to imply the rejection of the avant-garde art tradition in the name of one’s own national identity.

Today, the old line between the West and the East re-emerges in a different form. The West is not supposed to subtract certain periods of its history from its cultural capital. (Maybe the only exception here is the German art of the Nazi era.) But, in Eastern Europe, communism is largely understood as a mere interruption, interval or delay in the ‘normal’ development of these countries – a delay which, once it was over, left no traces other than a certain appetite to ‘make up for lost time’ and build capitalism of the Western type. From the Western point of view, the artists and intellectuals of Eastern Europe lost several decades in which they had no chance to capitalize on their cultural activity. The project of building capitalism through the erasure of the leftovers of communism recalls the well-known politics of erasure of the leftovers of capitalism with the goal of building communism. One can say that this is the anti-communist perspective on Eastern European ‘real socialism’ shared by many liberals and conservatives, as well as nationalists. 

Western Leftist intellectuals share this perspective too, even if for different reasons. Looking at the Soviet Union, many of them became convinced that they understood Marxism much better than Russians did, and this insight was enough for them to see the entirety of Soviet culture as a historical mistake. For them, any further investigation of Soviet culture made no sense because it was clear from the beginning that this culture was based on an interpretation of Marxism that was simply wrong (dogmatic, primitive, etc.). State socialism of the Soviet variety was seen as a perversion and betrayal of the communist ideal, a totalitarian dictatorship that was more a parody of communism than its true fulfilment. 

From the position of the Western Left, socialism in practice also appeared to be a mere delay in the actual development of the communist ideal. Thus, there is a consensus between the Left and the Right in the West that the Eastern European communist experiment should be forgotten. Both camps reject what is called ‘historical communism’ because it offers a peculiar mixture of particular national traditions and the universalist communist project. The conservatives hate communism for contaminating national traditions: they want to purify everything of communism. The neocommunists, on the contrary, want to remove all the elements of Russianness, Chineseness, etc., in order to restore the communist idea in its absolute purity. In other words, it is the Stalinist idea of ‘socialism in one country’ or, rather, socialism in one state and the hybrid identities historically produced by this idea’s implementation, that is attacked from both sides of the political spectrum.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the majority of intellectuals and artists from Eastern Europe looked to their precommunist past with the goal of finding their cultural roots.

The search for national identities and roots is, of course, not an Eastern European specialty. Identity politics was in vogue at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. So, postcommunist nostalgia for national identity can easily be misrecognized as a special case in postcolonial discourse. If the core of standard postcolonial discourse is the struggle against Eurocentrism, in Eastern European countries the core of the dominant postcommunist discourse is the affirmation of Eurocentrism – the celebration of the return to the West. The time of the socialist regimes was experienced as a time of separation from Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Eastern European nations wanted to become European again. The majority of intellectuals and artists in these countries looked to their ‘European’, precommunist past with the goal of finding their cultural roots. In other words, they looked to the Europe of the 1930s, or even, in the case of some post-Soviet republics, including Russia, that of the 19th century, to find a time in which they were still truly European. These were the eras of the nation state, the time of the nationalist politics and ideologies that lead to both World Wars.

The newfound Eurocentric attitude led many Eastern European intellectuals to criticize the contemporary West. Mostly, though, they criticized the West not for its exclusivity but for its lack of exclusivity – for its naive belief in globalization and cultural mixing, for the alleged readiness with which it abandoned its own cultural identity. To Eastern Europeans, the West revealed itself as an obscure object of desire: elusive, treacherous and unfaithful to its own identity. (This clash of postcommunist Eurocentrism with the liberal ideal of global diversity was, and still is, well demonstrated by the current conflict between the European West and East concerning the refugee crisis.) As a result, the majority of contemporary Eastern European artists and intellectuals feel they are misunderstood – and without a well-defined place in the international cultural-political landscape. The rise of the nationalist Right is another effect of this feeling of isolation and cultural exceptionality. But what about the neoliberal version of globalization that was practised by the West in the recent decades? Does this version of globalization function as an effective alternative to rising nationalism? It’s doubtful.

The initial promise of the post-Cold War period was the rejection of rigid identities – in favour of flexibility, mixing and hybridity. We were supposed to live in the age of globalization and the internet, with their promise of flows of information freely crossing the borders of nation states. However, cultural globalization also became something different from what many people initially expected it to be. The reason for that is not only the fact that the internet exposed us to the almost unlimited power of algorithmically organized surveillance and control – primarily, again, by the state. Neoliberal globalization as such revealed itself to be the direct opposite of the modern ideal of internationalism, or universality. 

The world of globalization is not a world of international solidarity or shared cultural values. Neither is globalization a realm of the anonymous ‘crowd mind’, as it was celebrated by early prophets of the internet age. Rather, it became the world of global competition, of everybody against everybody. This competition pushes those who participate into mobilizing their own human capital. And human capital, as it has been described by, for example, Michel Foucault, is primarily the cultural heritage that is mediated by the family and the milieu in which a particular individual has grown up. That is why the contemporary logic of globalization, unlike modernist internationalism or universalism, leads to cultural conservatism and an insistence on one’s own cultural identity. Economic liberalization and globalization, on the one hand, and cultural nationalism, on the other, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, nationalism is good for global competition. The combination of globalization and extreme cultural conservatism, therefore, defines the politics and art of our time.

But even if, in recent years, mainstream media, literature and cinema in Eastern European countries have turned more or less explicitly towards Rightist populism, art institutions mostly did not follow this trend. According to my personal observations, in all of the Eastern European countries, including Russia, it is the art milieus that most radically seek to resist the nationalist turn and populist rhetoric of mainstream culture. There are many reasons for this. In each of these countries, contemporary art is not especially popular – compared, let’s say, to literature, film or television. But, at the same time, contemporary art is less dependent on the respective national languages and, thus, more internationally accessible. As a result, the production and distribution of contemporary art relies less on national audiences and their expectations than is the case for other cultural products. The fact of not being especially popular in their own cultures was traditionally compensated in the minds of modern and contemporary artists by the feeling of belonging to a universal, globalized culture.

Ilya & Emilia Kabokov, Treatment with Memories, 1997, installation view at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The Kabakov's installation re-creates a hospital corridor with doors leading to six rooms containing slide projections of family album-type images. The piece is accompanied by a text claiming the work was based on an actual therapy technique, developed in 1992 by Dr. Lublin of Saratov, Russia, to ease the suffering and depression experienced by elderly patients – that story itself is a fiction. Courtesy: the artists, Pace Gallery, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Contemporary art is often accused of being ‘elitist’. The reason for this accusation is precisely the relative independence of the art system from public opinion – independence that has often come to be interpreted as ‘undemocratic’ or, even, ‘anti-democratic’. However, contemporary art is more democratic than any particular national democracy: it appeals to everybody beyond any cultural borders defined by nation, or right of birth, soil and blood. Even in our time, democracy remains infected by its aristocratic past. It still privileges citizens over those whom, for whatever reason, are not awarded that status. In this sense, contemporary art is not merely democratic but super-democratic because its appeal is universalist. The universalist character of contemporary art is often explained by its dependence on the international art market. Thus, art becomes considered as an epiphenomenon of the globalized, neoliberal, financial markets. This interpretation of the universalism of contemporary art turns it into an easy target for critique both from the Left and the Right. But the true source of art’s internationalism is the avant-garde tradition – the tradition of radical breaks with national pasts and particular national identities. Of course, this tradition can be easily commercialized by the international art markets. But it’s the kind of art that insists on its cultural identity which can actually be commercialized much more easily on global markets that favour diversity and exoticism. Commercialization is not an argument for or against contemporary art, and commercialization is also less powerful than is often assumed. The return to national traditions can easily lead not only to cultural but also economic isolationism, and the breakdown of international markets.

However, there was no art market in the Socialist countries. The space in which art operated was primarily political, not commercial. Artists were compelled to take certain political positions and, as a consequence of the attitudes they were allegedly demonstrating, they were either celebrated or persecuted, or at least marginalized. Today, as described, the political atmosphere in Eastern European states is again becoming charged, and artists are becoming known as a result of discussions in social media about their political positions rather than their commercial successes. Time and again in the West, the politicization of art has been heralded, even though Western artists have operated for a very long time in a relatively depoliticized public space. Now, however, the situation does seem to be changing. The rise of the nationalist Right not only in the East but also in the West of Europe is creating the kind of political tensions that push artists to take political positions even against their wishes. This is the situation in which Eastern European artists operated for many decades. So, compared to their relatively marginal position in recent years, it is to be expected that, in the near future, the history and experience of Eastern artists will become much more culturally significant.

Boris Groys is an art critic, media theorist and philosopher. He is currently Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, USA, and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, Germany.