The tensions between actual and ideal versions of socialism elucidated by East German theorist Rudolf Bahro in 1977 are taken as a starting point for reconsidering East European art from the radical effervescence of the 1960s to the post-utopian twilight of the late 1970s. This special issue is premised on the concept that artistic life in Eastern Europe was profoundly shaped by the structures, conventions and workings of the overarching system, with artists and critics compelled to negotiate its productive contradictions. It examines the quotidian functioning of art scenes across the region that entailed the drawing up of tacit compromises and maintenance of calculated ambiguities in relations between party authorities and artists. Ultimately it was the latent and unrealised promise of actually existing socialism as much as its demonstrative failings that marked a crucial difference in the attitude of East European artists to the utopian reverberations of the era.
Art in countries of the former Eastern Bloc was created under specific economic and ideological conditions, and these shaped it more than awareness about the pioneering achievements of Western art. The oeuvre of Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek (1926–2017) provides several case studies to demonstrate that art in socialist Czechoslovakia was far broader than an official-unofficial dichotomy, creating a richly structured, dynamic cultural space. Political repression, together with the independent artist’s activities and specific talents, led Zoubek to the world of entrepreneurialism even as the communist state structure consolidated power. He retained his artistic autonomy and did not compromise himself by pandering to the regime; at the same time, as a sculptor he did not abandon the realm of public art. Olbram Zoubek’s story is not just about the impact cultural politics has had on him, but about the comprehensive transformation of the relationship between art and society during his lifetime.
This article presents the phenomenon of artistic potboiler work – craft-like objects commissioned from artists by the socialist state in the 1970s People’s Republic of Poland. The case study is the KwieKulik duo (Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik), artists working in the field of processual and ephemeral art. The analysis focuses on KwieKulik’s attempts to cope with and criticise the potboiler artistic economy that was for them the only legal way to earn money. They used to send official letters of complaint to state authorities, criticising Państwowe Przedsiębiorstwo Pracownie Sztuk Plastycznych (State Enterprise of Visual Art Workshops), which was the monopolist institution that commissioned works and decorations for various social and political rituals. KwieKulik managed to turn the political and economic necessity of producing potboiler works into a way of critical exposure of the conditions of the artistic production under socialism. They also reflected on possible ways of financing experimental art.
This article presents a chronology of exhibitions and related public and political events from the 1970s in Hungary centred around the theme of peace and solidarity, transcending the ideological and rhetorical opposition so often drawn between state- and self-organised culture in Eastern Europe. It demonstrates how the approach of exhibition history can be used to get a better understanding of cultural events as intersections between artistic concepts and social-historical-political situations. The chronology sets out from the case study of a Peace cycle created in 1950s by Gyula Hincz, an artist using a moderately modernist artistic language of socialist humanism. The work is connected to the emergence of the international Peace Movement and cultural diplomacy after World War II, but was also featured later in an international solidarity exhibition in Beirut in 1978. The article reviews the ambivalent and geopolitically changing relationship between engaged art and modernism through the evolution and transfiguration of the iconography of peace and solidarity from the Peace Doves to situational exercises on otherness by such neo-avantgarde artists as Miklós Erdély and Tamás Szentjóby.
The etymological kinship of the word 'amateur' with the Latin 'amator' (one who loves again and again) makes it possible to view art as a widely accessible cultural practice. Without seeking perfection or competitive status, the amateur takes prolonged delight in the chosen activity, thus giving substance to the idea of the anti-bourgeois artist. Examining the art worlds of mid to late Socialism necessitates considering so called 'parallel spheres of action' – those that lie in between official and unofficial art. In this article I examine three artists-organisers and compare their cultural practice: Jiří Valoch, Milan Adamčiak and Július Koller. Each of them comes from a different field – while Valoch was poet and exhibition maker, Adamčiak a musicologist and action artist, Koller’s point of departure was painting. What connects them all is that they were engaged in amateur art. Their continuum of educational activity was not revolutionary, and indeed it was not even entirely oppositional.
'Sibylle' was an East German fashion and culture magazine founded in 1956. This article explores how Margot Pfannstiel and Dorothea Bertram joined forces to transform the magazine – initially viewed as both outmoded and out of touch with the realities of everyday life in the German Democratic Republic – into a modern and relevant publication for its readers in the early 1960s. It traces the changes these women made to its content and personnel and the autonomy that Pfannstiel offered art photographers during her tenure as 'Sibylle’s Editor-in-Chief. By analysing fashion series by Arno Fischer, the first East German art photographer to be featured in and hired by the magazine, this article maintains that 'Sibylle' published images that would have been excluded from photography exhibitions and magazines either organised or overseen by the Central Commission for Photography and assisted in the development of East German art photography during the second half of the Ulbricht era.
The reception of 1970s Czech performance art was influenced by a unique set of conditions. Typically, only a handful of friends attended live events in Prague, while the art piece had to cross the state borders through photographic documentation in order to find a broader secondary audience. The missing institutional footing was therefore partially substituted by reproductions in foreign magazines and photographs distributed for exhibitions abroad. Petr Štembera was one of the few figures to draw attention to Czech art outside of the country. He would send photographic documentation to artists and curators who orchestrated his representation at many foreign exhibitions. As I demonstrate with concrete examples, he helped create a network which gave his activities the status of art. However, when performance art became an established part of the international art scene and institutionalised itself late in the 1970s, he concluded that it was best to quit the practice altogether.
This article discusses the complex cumulus of theoretical references and artistic ideas that shaped the particular understanding of art and learning of Sigma, a seminal artistic group founded in 1969 in Timișoara, Romania. In the epoch, the group’s name became associated with an innovative analytical practice pioneering, simultaneously with then-current international debates, a scientific and research-based attitude which moved the interest from the medium condition of art toward alternative cognitive models for understanding society and life. Inquiring the significant detour Sigma produced in art and pedagogy that was general in Romania at the time, the study reflects upon the matrix of cultural relations that shaped the particular environment in which the artists lived and the interdisciplinary dialogues which fostered at the Art Lyceum in Timisoara the development of a more nuanced and experiential type of curriculum in art, product design and architecture.
In 1969, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha wrote an open letter addressed to Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntaz Dhrami – the most prominent sculptors in socialist Albania – that contained a series of conceptual and aesthetic considerations bearing upon the creation of the massive Vlora Independence Monument then being realised by the sculptors. The three sculptors likewise responded with an open letter, and this exchange subsequently became one of the key documents of socialist Albanian cultural history. This article considers the way these letters functioned to shape the narrative of art’s relationship to political power and the narration of history in Albania. It explores the kinds of agency attributed to the dictator, to state sculptors, and to the monumental work of art, and considers how the discourse surrounding the exchange served to conceptualise the process of creating public sculpture under socialism as a reflection of the inherently collaborative nature of socialist contemporaneity.
This article traces the life and legacy of Hungarian film-maker and media artist Gábor Bódy, a key figure of post-war Hungarian experimental cinema whose trajectory ties together various aspects of artistic production and cultural politics during the socialist era. Bódy was a crucial figure in the development of Hungary’s experimental media culture in the 1970s and early 1980s, yet alongside his major role in shaping alternative cultural life in the country in this period, he also wrote secret reports to the state about fellow artists and film-makers between 1973 and 1983, some of them his close friends and collaborators. In discussing this multi-layered personal trajectory, the article argues for a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which cultural and political life coalesced under state socialism and calls for a revision of Gábor Bódy’s image as either an undisputed hero or vilified perpetrator of the state socialist era.
In the former Yugoslavia, Students’ Cultural Centres played host to the conceptual and performance art scenes that came to be known as the ‘New Art Practice’, fostered under the political programme of socialist self-management. This article traces a specific episode in the history of Novi Sad’s Youth Tribune, when the city’s New Art Practices crossed into political engagement and provocation. I follow the increased bureaucratisation of the Youth Tribune – the resistance to it, and the coercive consequences – along with the ultimate dilution of radical practices in Novi Sad, that forced its key players to appeal to an ‘Invisible Art’. Though Yugoslavia is frequently characterised as a country which encouraged public debate, the unique and important case of Novi Sad reveals the consequences of a direct confrontation with the city’s cultural apparatus, at a moment marked by oppressive change and political turmoil.
This article reflects on the implications of historical change for art, in particular on the relation between the paradigm change from industrial to post-industrial societies, and the change from late modern art to postmodern art. The central narrative of this article is provided by the rise and fall of the international art movement and network New Tendencies which emerged in Zagreb, Croatia in 1961 and lasted till 1978. The background is provided by the unique conditions of postwar Yugoslavia, the gap between the ideology of self-management and its reality, and the increasing fossilisation of the system. Rather than providing a linear history, the article traces relationships between historical processes of different kinds: first, between Yugoslavia in a catch-up process of modernisation and innovative practices in art, such as New Tendencies, and in philosophy, such as the Praxis group, and Korčula Summer school; secondly, after the implications of 1968, Yugoslavia in a state of slow decline, at first invisible, and the rise of new artforms, such as the new art practices. As the social base for a modernist, utopian project such as New Tendencies was slipping away, new art practices emerged which were better capable of reflecting changing times.
The journal is published in print and online by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.