During the Communist era, the governments in East-Central Europe tried to shoehorn art into the category of socialist realism. Artists were reconfigured as cultural workers who ideally created works to advance society in the same way that a steelworker shaped pig iron to advance skyscraper construction. The overlap was often quite direct. Many paintings and sculptures of the time depicted these steelworkers in heroic poses, or similar proletarian themes. Stalin liked to describe writers as "engineers of the human soul." The same Stalinist definition applied to visual artists, who were supposed to enlighten the masses by reflecting back to them an idealized version of themselves and their society.
Many artists, not surprisingly, refused to play this game. In relatively open societies, like Yugoslavia, the art world produced extraordinary work that blazed trails not only in the region but globally. For instance Marina Abramovic, despite pressure from the state, established a new kind of performance art during her days in Belgrade and Novi Sad in the early 1970s.
But in places like Czechoslovakia, where the political situation after the Soviet invasion of 1968 was tightly controlled, many artists who refused to produce state-sponsored work went underground. In some cases, as curator and art historian Tomas Pospiszyl told me in an interview in Prague last February, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether some of these artists were still doing art.
"Maybe the most famous one is Jiri Kovanda, a conceptual artist who, especially in the last decade, has been discovered worldwide," Pospiszyl explained. "When he was doing his performances in the 1970s and 1980s, even for some of his friends it was a joke. Even the guy documenting his performances wasn't sure what was going on, whether it was an art action or not. It's a coincidence that it was rediscovered. Or there were artists like Vaclav Ambrůz or Vladimír Havlík working in Moravia, who would organize parties for their friends. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish whether it was a party or a happening or a performance. Or maybe it was a strategy to endure the bad times and find a way to express creativity and build a small niche where one could live under the conditions we had."
After the fall of Communism, many of these underground artists have been rediscovered. At the same time, the once-official public art with its unfashionable socialist realist style is now hiding in plain sight.
"There are thousands and thousands of sculptures, especially in the housing districts around Prague," Pospiszyl said. "They've become homeless sculptures. They do not belong to anyone. No one sees them, even though they are symbols of their times. It's not just the people who live there that don't see them. It's also art historians! The official art of socialist Czechoslovakia is a subject that no Czech art historians find interesting. How is this possible? What makes us exclude such a huge number of pieces? Why aren't we being analytical and trying to understand continuities and discontinuities with our totalitarian past?"
In our discussion, we talked about working at the Prague Castle, the emergence of art galleries in unusual spaces like veterinary clinics, and the rise and fall and rise again of political art in the Czech Republic.
I'm interested in these large squats that combine art and politics, like Metelkova in Ljubljana or Tacheles in Berlin. Has there been anything similar to that in this country?
Not really. In the 1980s, it was impossible to build something like that. The Czech underground was a relatively small group of people. I personally knew some of them, but I was scared of them. They openly said, "We are not taking part in the system." And that was too scary for me at the time, as it was for many people. There were some semi-official exhibitions, but no squats.
Then in the 1990s, artists were so relieved that they didn't have to be so political, that they no longer had to be voices of the people and put into words what could not be said. So, the 1990s was the most apolitical decade in Czech art. All the artists became interested in their own mythologies, their own identities, and they put off political questions. Of course I am generalizing.
But it's surprising to look at the art production of the time and how it refuses to deal with the past, as if the past were totally forgotten like some vanished civilization that has nothing to do with us. This is a very dangerous and scary thing. But it remains this way even today. We forget about the totalitarian past as if we did not take part in it.
It's important to say that yes we took part in it. Even though I was only 20, on a conscious or subconscious level, I had to compromise with the system. It's important to recognize this in order to be aware of the mechanisms at work and not repeat this again. But the art of the 1990s was totally uninterested in this. Only from 2000 on, in the visual arts as well as in literature and film, people became interested in what happened to us in the past and be critical of politics in general. Especially after 2010, a new generation of young people is not afraid to be leftists. They can use leftist terminology without feeling embarrassed or inappropriate. They are much more critical than the generation 10 years ago.
At the exhibit After Velvet at the Municipal Gallery, I was surprised by how apolitical the art was. The only piece that was political was from the 1960s.
It's total amnesia, a kind of blindness. I'm writing an essay right now, which I have to finish by tomorrow, on the fate of the official public art created in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. There are thousands and thousands of sculptures, especially in the housing districts around Prague. They've become homeless sculptures. They do not belong to anyone. No one sees them, even though they are symbols of their times. It's not just the people who live there that don't see them. It's also art historians! The official art of socialist Czechoslovakia is a subject that no Czech art historians find interesting. How is this possible? What makes us exclude such a huge number of pieces? Why aren't we being analytical and trying to understand continuities and discontinuities with our totalitarian past?
This is a big subject in former Yugoslavia.
I think it is everywhere in the region.
Yes. But the war interrupted the conversation in former Yugoslavia. Now there are quite a few exhibitions about public art from that period of time. Can you give some examples of the new political art here?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.