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Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule, 1956–1989

0 Comments 🕔14.Aug 2014

The Cold War divided the world into neat and orderly modernist binaries: West and East, good and evil, capitalism and communism. The art world in Central and Eastern Europe has been subject to similar polarization – artists, and their work, are often viewed through contrasting lenses: official and unofficial, conformist and dissident. The reality of the matter, however, was far from that simple, as Klara Kemp-Welch makes clear in her monograph, Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule, 1956–1989. A series of case studies of six artists (Tadeusz Kantor, Július Koller, Tamás Szentjóby, Endre Tót, Jiří Kovanda, and Jerzy Bereś) whose work spans three countries (Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary) in the post-Thaw era provides a rich picture of the artistic life of the vanguard under communist rule, demonstrating that life as an experimental artist was anything but cut and dried, and the work of these individuals cannot conveniently be divided into political or apolitical.

Instead of relying on such labels, the author engages the term “antipolitics” to characterize a range of approaches employed by the artists discussed in her book, many of whom denied overtly political readings of their work. In countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, where cultural production officially came under state control during the communist period, it has been argued that all art could be considered political – whether it responded directly or indirectly to official dogma, or avoided it altogether, artists were viewed as always somehow positioned in relation to the dominant ideology. Kemp-Welch takes a different tack, offering a more nuanced understanding of the situation, describing the methods of these artists as antipolitical – that is, engaging with the political circumstances through non-political means. She identifies different strategies used by artists in this vein: disinterest, doubt, dissent, humor, reticence, and dialogue. Referring specifically to Czech dissident Vaclav Havel’s statements on reticence, Kemp-Welch reminds us that not only reticence, but doubt and faith – positions that also played a role among artists and dissidents – took many forms, and had various degrees. This supports and reinforces the author’s assertion that “the relationship between art and dissidence…is far from straightforward” (p. 5), along with her aim to demonstrate how even though these artists “played their part in these historical transformations” (p. 9) taking place in the second half of the twentieth century, their work was not necessarily dissident in a “straightforward sense” (p. 5). Reading the works by Kantor, Koller, Szentjóby, Tót, Kovanda, and Bereś through the lens of antipolitics, then, enables us to see the powerful role that their work had in the social and political changes taking place in Eastern Europe during the latter half of the twentieth century, without simply reducing them to political or apolitical gestures.

Antipolitics allows for shades of opposition and acquiescence, from Szentjóby’s “dissent,” whereby his “parallel” course of activity eventually forced him into exile, to Bereś’s exploitation of loopholes in the system, such as his utilization of state-sponsored initiatives from the Ministry of Culture to present and perform his experimental work in front of a wider, non-art-going public. By making use of these mechanisms, the author demonstrated how Bereś achieved the contact with the viewer that Czech artist Jiří Kovanda so desired, but could never achieve – both because of personal and political reasons. As Kemp-Welch describes it, Kovanda’s personal story is that he was shy, and many of his artistic actions developed from his desire to connect with others. For example, in Contact (1977), the artist casually bumped into passersby in downtown Prague. Unbeknownst to them, a photographer on the opposite side of the street captured these encounters or performative events. Because they were fleeting, and nearly invisible, the actions existed in a liminal state – they were experimental works of art (performance or action art) that were allowed within the public space, but they were allowed because of the fact that they were undetectable. Nevertheless, the author’s reading demonstrates how they served a dual function – they enabled the artist to pursue his own individual truth (according to Havel) while at the same time reclaim an admittedly small piece of public space from the state.

Throughout her text, Kemp-Welch demonstrates how the “shifting attitudes” of the artists, over the decades, “served as a litmus test of the wider direction of travel in the social field in the turbulent years 1956-1989” (p. 9). For example, we can witness the reaction of Kantor to post-Stalinist Poland’s short adoption of Socialist Realism, and understand why he insisted on “disinterest” or an antipolitical stance and reading of his work. The author, however, discusses the political readings of his Happenings by officials, stating that “while Kantor consistently refused to acknowledge contemporary political undertones in his work, it is clear that he courted them…” (p. 40), demonstrating the fine line between political and apolitical that his disinterest straddled. Similarly, Kemp-Welch shows how Koller retreated into the world of “space time” (p. 87) following the pivotal year of 1972, when Socialist Realism was reintroduced and the artist was expelled from the Association of Slovak Fine Artists. It was then that the artist adopted the alter ego of UFO-naut J. K., which offered him “…the opportunity to step back from the constraints of politics” (p. 87). Nevertheless, he continued to work “on two fronts” (p. 83), making both acceptable pictures for sale through the State Visual Arts Fund and also posing a challenge to socialist painting in his private, experimental work. Like Kantor, he occupied a liminal position.

One of the challenges of recuperating the history of art in East-Central Europe is finding the appropriate theoretical frame in which to place it, as the genres of art history and art criticism did not develop in the same manner in the region as they did in Western Europe and North America. Quite often, an appropriate theoretical discourse is missing from the literature, but Kemp-Welch finds a fitting solution to this problem by employing texts by Eastern European dissident writers, such as Vaclav Havel, György Konrád, and Jacek Kuroń. In choosing this lens, the author enables the artistic production and activity to be viewed from within its own context, rather than mapping external discourses (i.e., post-colonialism) onto this model. The author draws out parallels between statements, ideas, and approaches of these dissident writers and the artists whose activity, she emphasizes, participated in the shifting political climate in the post-Thaw period, yet are not so easily labeled as dissidents as the writers she cites.

Considering the significance of these artists’ personal stories with regard to their artistic activity, it would have been instructive to see more of a more discussion surrounding the circumstances of certain artists, particularly in connection to their relationship with the authorities. Kantor, for example, enjoyed a privileged position in the People’s Republic of Poland, traveling abroad often, to France and the United States, as the author points out. In one case he evaded interrogation by the security services regarding the perceived political overtones of his 1965 event, The Dividing Line, having left for Paris immediately after. This stands in stark contrast to Hungarian artist Tamás Szentjóby, who was jailed after a copy of György Konrád and Iván Szelényi’s manuscript, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (1973–1974) was discovered in his apartment following a raid. After this, he eventually went into exile in Switzerland in 1975. More explanation of the backgrounds of these artists may have illuminated the positions they occupied, and better explained the consequences (or lack thereof) for their experimental activity, which would further underscore the broad scope of antipolitical activity in the region. Also useful would have been a further consideration of the Church exhibitions discussed in Chapter 6, in connection with Bereś’s work. While the Catholic Church provided refuge for dissidents in Poland in the 1980s, supporting the activity of Solidarity and also offering artists exhibition space for experimental work that might not otherwise have been able to be shown in official venues, many artists viewed the Church as yet another official body to be avoided, and opted for a third way – outside of both the official (state) and the unofficial (Church). Furthering this discussion could have perhaps added another layer to the understanding of Bereś work in light of the artist’s antipolitics.

Klara Kemp-Welch’s book is not only a significant contribution to the literature on contemporary art from East-Central Europe, but also a convincing study of social and political transformation in the region. It will be of interest to art historians who focus on contemporary art, including conceptual and performance art, as well as historians and social scientists studying the fall of communism. While the author suggests in her introduction that many of the stories in the text will be familiar to those in each country – or even to scholars of the region – even if this were to be the case it does not in any way detract from the significant contribution of the text. Some of the stories may be known, and others are less known than they should be, but the manner in which Kemp-Welch brings these artists and works of art together places them in a new light and new frame, and contributes to a re-analysis and reconsideration of their work, and of the artistic production in the region. The contributions of this text to the history of art are many, as it challenges several assumptions and generalizations about art in Central and Eastern Europe that have been too conveniently relied upon by scholars for too long. Kemp-Welch’s study nuances our understanding of the many different types of experimental and oppositional artistic activity in the region, demonstrating that reticence has many meanings, and antipolitics, a variety of strategies.

Reviewed by Amy Bryzgel, University of Aberdeen

Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule 1956–1989
By Klara Kemp-Welch
I.B. Tauris
Hardcover / 336 pages / 2013
ISBN: 1780766963


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