End of History – End of Art Criticism?
End of History – End of Art Criticism?

End of History – End of Art Criticism?
On the transformations of the art-field in Eastern and Central Europe

Author: Elona Lubyte
Originally published in NuktaArt, inaugural issue, May 2005
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Zubeida Agha, Karachi by Night, 1956

What is important?

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the massacre of Tiananmen Square mark the beginning of the great transformations that, at the end of the 20th century, took place in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as in Asia. The end of one history (Francis Fukuyama’s End of History) witnesses the beginning of a new post-history, whereby the centre/periphery model of the Cold War epoch is replaced by the constantly emerging archipelagos of dynamic regions wherein the processes of globalization are localised.

The opposition between different systems is replaced by active dialogue, while market relations take the place of command economy, and innovation displaces the canons set in stone. Sculpture Shelter by the Lithuanian artist Mindaugas Navakas marks those newly-opened opportunities for communication. (It was presented at the first Kwangju Biennale Beyond the Borders in Korea, in 1995).

Central and Eastern Europe, now entering a new phase of its history, ‘unites 15 countries lying between Russia on the East and Germany and Italy on the West, – a territory in between Estonia and Greece – with the population of ca. 160 million people, 15 small and medium-sized nations, who lived under occupation from 150 to 1000 years. This Zone, with the history rich in bloody catastrophes and a very melancholic present, is the youngest and most vital part of the Christian West Europe.’

Lithuania is one of the transit ‘development corridors’ between the East (Russia) and the West (Western Europe). This space is open to the influence from both sides and has been tossed by the powers of pressure and attraction, issuing from various centres. In such a space, the development of modernity in the 20th and 21st centuries was determined by a distinctive system of different world-views. In the region under the sway of opposing influences, a way of life has formed which adapts, changes, and influences to itself, and which adjusts to different, sometimes counter-balancing factors. The characteristic feature of this way of life consists in that it changes through adapting itself to the rules issuing from the greater centres, rather than through offering an alternative formulated by itself.

Floating Installations, Vilnius

For example, the development of the ‘quiet modernism’ in Lithuania in the second half of the 20th century in its own way adapted to the isolation of the Soviet era. ‘Having no opportunity to follow the evolutionary laws of international art directly, the modern art in post-war Lithuania reflected not so much the ideology of specific international artistic movements (on the contrary – it failed to get to know that ideology to any greater extent), but rather reflected certain general tonality and aesthetics of modern art as a hypothetical totality that, in reality, did not exist’. Likewise the post-historical ‘new Lithuanian art (which we may call avant-garde) was born without a conflict. It simply seceded, abandoning the landmarks that had been important in the previous context. The new art was not born as an alternative to its immediate artistic surroundings.

It simply oriented itself towards the wider environment of contemporary art, and this orientation was, in a way, distinctive. The artists of the younger generation did not so much freely join the international artistic processes (i.e., “felt themselves to be free”) as “rediscovered” those processes through their own artistic creativity.

After the end of history

In the West, the transition from agricultural/industrial society to post-industrial system took place continuously and over a long period of time. By contrast, in Lithuania, just as in the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, this transition at the turn of the 20th century was abrupt and complicated, accompanied by political upheavals. During the spasmodic process of demolition and collapse, as well as of adopting new models, it transpired that the political and economic system renews itself faster than the world-view, which is influenced by socio-cultural traditions, or mentality. The environment was changing too fast, so that the need to analyse and to offer a critical evaluation of the causes, the course, and the effects of the change that was taking place by and large failed to arise.

In the face of post-historical changes, the Lithuania of today enters on a local level that discussion concerning the end of the history of art, which in the Western art-theoretical circles arose in the 1980s, initiated by Hans Belting. If in the West this discussion was motivated by the imminent development of late modernism in art, in Lithuania it was occasioned by the clash of the new (Western) and the old (post-Soviet) world-view models in the changing ‘art-field’ (Pierre Bourdieu). In a small, economically vulnerable state the centralised system for co-ordinating cultural diffusion changes only very slowly. The transformation of the art-field takes place while the previous institutional system is kept intact, and the diffusion of culture is secured through the projects financed by the state, or rather, through the institutions that carry them out. Today, it is the institutions and the value-criteria formulated by them, rather than free-acting artists, art-curators or critics, that have become, in the social environment, the principal means of legitimacy and attracting subsidies, the guarantee of international recognition, the scene of glorification and the defensive stronghold. As a result, the rebellious critical discourse that was the principal vehicle of the development of Western civilisation is replaced by the self-defence of motley post-Soviet and post-modernist groupings and institutions that stalls the competitive dynamics of renewal.

The situation is identical to the one in John Cage’s Taoist essay, where he tells the story of his friend’s visit to the Central Park in Manhattan. The friend set out hoping to admire the birds, swimming, with grace and dignity, in the watercourses of the Park. Yet he returned disappointed: in place of the proud fowls he saw only the birds fighting for the bread-crumbs distributed by the Park’s visitors. The work by a young Lithuanian artist Jurga Barilaite addresses the problems of indispensable Self-Defence (2001), which it publicizes, while opposing the course of local changes. The author fiercely rejects the canons of traditional painting, of patriarchal priorities and of standardized ‘Barbies’. Turning her back to the colleagues, the critics, and the public, she asserts free and independent self-realisation.

The work seems to affirm that only open, well-aimed and powerful blows can ensure victory. It is contradicted by the everyday reality that attests that the levers of power remain in the hands of timeservers, of those who conform to circumstances and attack from behind. Which strategy is more productive in the face of post-historical changes: the strategy of art or the stratagem of life? Discussion concerning the end of art-criticism is transferred into the area of choice between conformity and contradiction, or alternative. In order to answer this question, we have to identify the three main reasons behind the current condition and to discuss a sample-situation that confirms the statements above.

First: In the atmosphere of Soviet censorship, Lithuania saw the emergence of art-criticism that employed associative (interpretative) ‘Aesopian language’ and adopted ideological ‘lightning-conductors’; it was a language of coded hints that conveyed the officially suppressed information. With slight modifications, this method of presenting artistic phenomena is still current today. Encoding, however, is no longer relevant in the open post-historical society. The new consumerist society is no longer interested in decoding the mysteries of self-celebrating authors. On the other hand, there is no aspiration, on behalf of the critical community, to seek for the modes of expression that would be more attractive to the reader, more pertinent and keen-eyed in analyzing and assessing everyday reality.

At the beginning of the period of changes (1988-1992) Lithuanian periodicals lived not so much through the stage of critical revolt, as through the phase of ‘free speech’ and historical truth. The print-runs of the cultural weeklies and monthlies at that time exceeded the current ones by as much as twelve times, and could compete with today’s tabloids by the number of their readers. As the changes accelerated, and art-critics and artists started becoming curators of projects and presiding over new institutions, the development of critical thought was overshadowed by the need for the application of new skills. An art historian who lives from his profession has to combine activities of a teacher, curator, art-historian and critic, that is to say, one has to institutionalize one’s activities. And as art-criticism represents a certain institution, it can only perform informational and representational functions, but not the task of evaluation and critical assessment. Whereas emerging urgent problems only rarely attract the attention of an author who is tied down by a number of commitments and competing claims for his or her time.

Second: In the course of salutatory changes, the language of art renews itself faster than the institutional networks. Since the network of museums, exhibition spaces, non-commercial and commercial galleries, art auctions and fairs failed to materialize. The segments of alternative, official, and commercial art failed to emerge and settle, likewise. The new art, without spending any time in the limbo of the ‘alternative’, straightaway and painlessly became institutionalized at the Contemporary Art Centre, while the traditional did so at the post-Soviet Artists’ Union. The relations between these important institutions of the art-field is characterized by defensive tension that is unrelated to the kind of art they both, respectively, represent. In the environment of variegated tastes, the paths of diffusion of the traditional and the new art never cross. The roots of the conflict lie in the opposition between the new (that is to say, modern and open to changes) and the traditional (collectivised and centralized) governing methods.

Third: Since the environment does not adapt to the changes uniformly throughout, but rather does so unevenly, a tension arises between the participants of the art-field who encourage change and those who avoid rapid transformations. As the partisans of renewal concentrate their efforts on achieving international recognition, they abandon the internal field. Entrenched in it, the supporters of the old system hinder the diffusion of change.

‘We are young, dynamic, and creative, therefore we want to use our creative energy – not in order to resolve ideological disputes, but to create and build up an effective and lively artistic structure’, asserted in 1994 the young members of the Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association (LIAA, www.letmekoo.lt), a newly-created artistic group.  The new mode of artistic expression that took place through the development of artistic forms of installation, object, conceptual art, performance, video-and computer-art, could fit neither into the traditional classification of the artistic genres. Disowning conservative institutions, as well as the modernist expression centred on plastic renewal, the young artists sought to be alternative. Leaving behind ‘the white cube’, they started seeking openly provocative ways of interaction between art and life. ‘Contemporary interdisciplinary art is characterized by contextuality, and this is why it rarely fails to become an active part of that social and political context into which it inserts itself. This is art which seeks a new balance between aesthetic and social spheres, between individual creativity and a mass-production, between elite and democracy’.

The new artistic practices were made public in two ways, with two objectives in mind. In some of the projects, the objects, installations, performances and social sculptures of the historical environment (site specific) of the city (Mundane Language, 1995, curator Algis Lankelis) or with the space of a crumbling, derelict building in the centre of the Old Town (Forgotten Present, 1996, curators Algis Lankelis, Audrius Novickas, Paul Rodgers).

Other projects reflect on the changing social context. The new relationships between the work of art and consumerist society are analyzed in the spaces of shops, cafes, and pharmacies (For Yourself and Others, 1995, curator Liutauras Psibilskis). Artist’s private environment is made public (Flat 99, curator Algis Lankelis), artist appears among the passengers of the public transport on a trolley-bus (Identification, 1999, curators Laimute Kreivyte, Konstantinas Bagdonas Jr., Rokas Dovydenas) or debates with the viewers of television (TV project tvw. plotas, 1998, curators Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas).

The experience of public projects became, for the young artists, a training practice whereby they mastered new artistic strategies and tried out their communicative strength at home. And it did not take long for the successful results of this training – the results that persuasively linked local experience with the new mode of expression  – to be noticed in the international art-field that was ‘rediscovering’ the regions that opened up after the political changes of the 1990s. The project Mundane Language first showed to the public the elegiac live sculpture by Egle Rakauskaite: a line of girls, the hair of each braided to others’, decked out in florid conformist dress covered by heavy military trench-coats (Trap: Expulsion from Paradise, 1995; the work was repeated or presented in video-format in Personal time. Art of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania 1945-1996, Zachenta Gallery of Contemporary Art, Warsaw (1996), 5th International Istanbul Biennial (1997), After the Wall. Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1999), International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen, Baltic Times. Contemporary Art from Estonia, Lativia and Lithuania. Contemporary Art Centre, Zagreb (2000), Synopsis II – Theologies. National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Mare Balticum – myths, history and art through 1000 years, National Museum, Copenhagen (2002), East Art Map. Project Art Centre, Dublin (2004). Newly actualized historical experience is related in the video narrative that records the reminiscences of a prisoner of Vilnius Jewish ghetto (Deimantas Narkevicius, Legends Coming True, 1999; also presented in Lithuania’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001). Lithuanian partisans’ struggle in the post-war years is made public in Mindaugas Lukosaitis’ and Gintaras Lukosaitis’ project Resistance (2004), presented at this year’s Sao Paulo Biennale.

Jaroservaite, c.1990

The Situation

The artists of LIAA ‘migrating’ between home and abroad are gradually losing their charge of alternativeness in the face of mounting recognition and move away from the goals articulated by their manifesto. Commemorating the first decade of its existence, LIAA no longer offers any new alternatives. The exhibition entitles Ten Years of Non-Institution Activity, made up of archival material (curator Deimantas Narkevicius), is presented in the official citadel of the new art – the Contemporary Art Centre.

This is testimony to the fact that the organization has completed its lifecycle. Sometimes its insufficiently legitimized and institutionalized social status is emphasized by pointing out that LIAA, just as the Lithuanian section of AICA, have not, so far, been accepted into the Association of the Creators of Art – which unites all the post-Soviet creative unions and is more heftily subsidized by the state. But perhaps it is also the evidence of the fact that, in the face of institutional self-defence, it is tempting to abandon the tactics of open blows and to see recognition by other means?

Elona Lubyte is a professor of Art History and a respected critic of Contemporary Eastern European Art in her country. Elona contributes to local publications and regularly presents papers at various forums. She is also the President of the National Section of AICA in Lithuania.

Post script

At the 7th annual conference of the Lithuanian section of AICA, entitled ‘The Art World: Closed Society or Unrestrained Possibilities?’, which took place on the September 7, 2004 at Siauliai Art Gallery, the exhibition Ten Years of Non-Institution Activity provoked a fury of open and well-aimed blows – which suggests that the question raised in the title of the present paper ought not to be answered in the positive, after all.

1 Kazys Pakstas. Kultura. Civilizacija. Geopolitika: straipsniu rinkinys (Vilnius: Pasvires pasaulis, 2003), p. 11-12.

2 Lolita Jablonskiene. Naujoji daile Lietuvoje/ New Modern art in Lithuania. In: Lietuvos dailes kaita 1900-1996: institucinis aspektas/ Change in Lithuanian Art 1990-1996: Institutional aspect. Straipsniu rinkinys/summaries of the Papers. (Vilnius: AICA Lithuanian Section, 1997), p. 42-43.

3 Lolita Jablonskiene . Item.p.42

4 From LIAA Manifesto (unpublished, author’s archive).

5 Item.

Share this post

There are no comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Start typing and press Enter to search

Generic filters
Exact matches only
Filter by Custom Post Type
Filter by Categories
Shopping Cart