Transition to Nowhere

Art in History after 1989

Chapter I: The Condition Called Post-Communism

The post-communist condition is often associated with post-politics: general consensus upon the only remaining path of history agreed beyond any ideological differences. It implies one essential feature, an all-encompassing notion of culture,or more precisely, the ability of culture to translate all conflicts into its own language. Having in mind our general inability to translate in reverse, all efforts to retrace the conflicts that have been shattering post-communism to their social causes were doomed to failure from the very beginning. They have been perceived and dealt with as basically rooted in cultural differences. In this way also the old Cold War divide has survived—as a boundary between two identity blocks, the West and the East. Even the very political event that created the condition of post-communism, the toppling down of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989/90, was defined as a “catching-up revolution”, whose goal was to readjust the East to its normative telos, embodied in the actually existing West. This, how-ever, degraded all the sublime ideals in whose name people in the East revolted against their oppressors. Freedom, justice and equality have turned into a set of culturally particular “western” values.

A sort of cultural desublimation of the political and generally social causes of historical change is an essential quality of the post-communist condition. It has prevented the utopian surplus that is inherent in any genuine claim to freedom from transgressing cultural boundaries and affecting the actual social relations and political reality, which are imperfect no matter where they exist. At stake is, concretely, a missed opportunity for a change of the world for the better, in the sense which Kant spoke of French revolution. Only if such a change is recognized as a “tendency within the human race as a whole”—and not as a need of a culturally inferior and historically belated part of the world to catch up with its superior and advanced counter-part—a political event will acquire the meaning of revolution. To put it more concretely: nuclear arms have survived the Cold War and continue to threaten “the human race as a whole”not because of the catching-up revolution that has not yet succeeded in the East, but because of the revolution that was missed in the West.

Chapter III:Art and Communism Out of History

Isn’t it curious how contemporary art after 1989 opportunistically followed the logic of area studies that has been haunting the western humanities since the end of the WWII? A case in point: only within twelve months, from October 2001 until November 2003, there were three large and quite ambitious exhibitions of art from the Balkans in Austria and Germany: In Search of Balkania at Neue Galerie Graz; Blood & Honey: The Future’s in the Balkans, at Sammlung Essl in Klosterneuburgnear Vienna and finally In the Gorges of the Balkans at Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel. Needless to say, the notion of an“East European art” was at that time already massively in use. A “Balkan art” was a short but intensely lived subspecies of it. One of most striking effects of the general reconceptualization of actual art production and art history in terms of area representation was an overall intensification of the so-called struggle for recognition. To be included in or excluded from the powerful western art system, its canons and its financial re-sources has become for the artists and art institutions of the post-communist East a matter of their survival. In paraphrasing the famous slogan of Mladen Stilinović on the hegemony of the English language in the art field one could say that in Eastern Europe after 1989 “an artist who does not represent an area is not artist.”

Another closely connected and no less striking effect of the introduction of area logic into the field of art and cultural production and in more general terms into the entire sphere of socio-political relations was the interesting fact that post-communism as a historical condition has never generated its own art, say a “post-communist art”. Every art produced, collected or canonized under this historical condition has been immediately recast into an “eastern art”. Only through its absence was communism still able to enclose an area and provide a specific(cultural) identity. Yet, it was already unable to tell its own history or at least to be seen within one. In post-communism it is already too late to follow that famous advice given by Fredric Jameson at the beginning of the 1980s: “Always historicize!”