third year: 1999 series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers

course for curators of contemporary art: course participants / study excursions / program collaborators / exhibition /


Jaroslav Andel
Art's Shifting Grounds: The Case of Czechoslovakia / Czech Republic

There are two parallel developments in the fields of geopolitics and art, namely the transitions from modern industrial society (developed by nation states) to post-industrial society (driven by trans-national enterprises) on one hand, and the transition from modern art to postmodernism on the other. However, these transitions, are not smooth and synchronised. Indeed, the premise of this presentation is that the very dynamics of this evolution results from different speeds in individual fields, countries, and regions, in other words, from disjunctions, contradictions, and clashes that characterise both modern and post-modern history. The Return of the Nation State Once Communism collapsed in 1989, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia fell apart. This indicates that these only multinational countries of post-war Europe were held together by Communism. Their demise resulted in the return of the nation state that played the central role in modern European history. However, this belated emergence of nation states in Eastern and Central Europe occurs as Western Europe takes the opposite course towards unification, and as globalisation becomes a major force in economy, politics and culture. As a consequence, Central and Eastern European countries, their policies, including cultural policies, are pulled in the opposite directions. Contradictory Trends However, these contradictory developments are interconnected. In the same way that the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo could not have happened in the divided Europe before 1989, globalisation could not have fully unfolded in a bi-polar world. The unification of Europe prompts the fading of the nation state, which in return fosters regionalism in the West. On the other hand, the fall of the Communist empire revives nationalism in the East. It is no coincidence that its most virulent forms emerge in countries with a mixed ethnic population, i.e., countries that have not yet "ethnically cleansed" their territories. Having progressed historically from the West to the East, this seems to be an integral part of modernisation, i.e., the creation of the industrial society and the rise of nation states. The End of Modernisation In this context, Bosnia and Kosovo represented two of the last vestiges of multiethnic community that existed in pre-modern Europe, or to put it in other words, countries that have not gone through the entire course of modernisation. Thus, the war we are witnesses of is the end of the process that started over two hundred years ago in Western Europe. For this reason, current events can be seen both as the end of modern history as well as its return. They manifest a disjunction of different stages of the formation of modern society. Two Faces of the Nation State Like in the past, in the present these disjunctions have been associated with the belated rise of the nation state and led to major conflicts. However, one must not forget that the development of the nation state has not only generated wars, including World War I and World War II, but also provided the only political framework for democracy we have ever had, in which the evolution of industrial society, i.e., the process of modernisation (including the rise of modern culture) itself took place. But, as fundamental shifts that occurred recently indicate, this process seems to be coming to its end.



During the last twenty years, the structure of the Western economy has substantially changed from the industry-oriented to the service- oriented. In other words, industrial society has been changing to post-industrial and information society, outgrowing the boundaries of nation states. These changes, however, had been hampered, if not halted, by the Cold War. For this reason, the fall of Communism in 1989 had a dramatic impact on politics as well as the economy. It accelerated globalisation, which challenges the institutions of the nation state and often pits the political and the economic processes.


The End of Utopia

The collapse of Communism also eliminated the last remains of Utopian thought with its underlying idea of progress that shaped both modern politics and culture for the last two hundred years. Since the idea of progress is central to Modernism, the changing fortunes of these concepts are intrinsically linked. Therefore one can conclude that 1989 represents the turning point in the above-described parallel developments in geopolitics (the transition from the industrial society of nation states to the global, post-industrial society) and in culture (the transition from modernism to postmodernism).



Of course, the signs of these changes appeared years - in some cases decades - before 1989. Sociologists introduced the concept of post-industrial society and related concepts (such as post-capitalist, post-economic, technetronic, etc.) in the West more than a couple of decades ago (see Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, New York, 1973). The term "postmodernism" appeared in art criticism even earlier (notably in literary criticism, for instance in the writings of Randall Jarrell and John Berryman in the second half of the 1940's). This fact can be seen as an indication that the post-World War II period with its emergence of a consumer society represents a new phase in the history of 20th century art, in which the adversarial relation of modern art to the capitalist society is neutralised by the increasing co-option of Modernism through the commodification of art.


Conserving the Condition of Modern Art

The relation between modern art and the Communist state in the Cold War period is reversed: it is the state that takes an adversarial stance to modern art. Consequently, the Communist regime conserved albeit in a paradoxical and reversed way, the social underpinnings of modern art, notably adversity between the existing social order and artists ideals and aspirations. This paradox is not so surprising considering the extent to which the Communist empire perpetuated the paradigm of the industrial society. However, the lack of distance made reflecting these paradoxical consequences difficult. There were also other limitations which made the boom of Modernism difficult if not impossible under Communism, including censorship or even terror (in the Stalinist state).


Fluid Adversity

However, the adversity of the Communist regime was not fixed but fluid: it varied from country to country and from period to period. The thaw after the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 and the so-called socialism with a human face of the 1960s in Czechoslovakia represented major developments in softening the totalitarian characteristics of the regime. They led to significant cultural and artistic achievements manifested, for instance, in th New Wave of the Czech Cinema. "Goulash Socialism" was another development characterised by an attempt of the Communist regime to adopt some elements of the consumer society following the year 1968. Even the "real socialism" and the so-called normalisation in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s followed this trend. Then, of course, Gorbachov and his "perestroika" that paved the way to 1989 arrived at the scene. New Fault Lines: the Global and the Local The fall of Communism in 1989 started many changes that are still unfolding. The bipolar division of the world into the West and the East, Capitalism and Socialism have been replaced by several other dichotomies with different fault lines and different dynamics, which often make our world a messy and confusing place. The most important of these dichotomies is the global and the local (regional), whichis much more complex than the previous dichotomy of the East and the West since its fault lines are shifting across many fields and categories, communities and individuals. The growing disparities and disjunctions among different fields is another crucial characteristic of this dichotomy. For instance, while the globalisation of economy is developing with great speed, the development of global political and cultural institutions is much slower.


The Geopolitical Frame of Reference

Of course, there are other dichotomies and elements that shape and guide geopolitical developments, interacting with globalisation and with each other. There is, for instance, the North and the South dichotomy, and also a phenomenon that has been called the clash of civilisations (and cultures). Although they might seem very general, these geopolitical characteristics and elements have a great impact on art, its production, distribution and reception. They constitute patterns of identification and provide a general frame of reference for politics, economy and culture: they represent art's shifting grounds.


Art and Its Context

In their work, contemporary artists and critics demonstrate heightened awareness of the socio-political context in which art functions. In this respect, they further elaborate on the lesson of Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, i.e., on the idea that the meaning of representation is shaped by its context. This can explain why the popularity of Marcel Duchamp has been constantly on the increase after World War II and why he has become the most influential artist in the last few decades. In fact, one can study the reception of Marcel Duchamp's work in the post-World War II period as an example of the growing artists' interest in what has become later known as dominant post-modern concerns and concepts such as intertextuality, de-centering the subject, and deconstruction. For this reason, the artists' interest in the relationship between art and its context can be seen as a tell-tale sign of the transition from modernism to postmodernism, a process that has been accompanied by the commodification of modern art and the artists' revolt against it in performance and body art, situationism and conceptual art.


A New Direction

Surprisingly, one of the first groups of works that signal this new direction in the 20th century art after World War II was created in Prague under the totalitarian regime. It is the work of two writers/artists, Jiri Kolar and Zdenek Urbanek, who made collages called Confrontage and Rapportage in the early 50's. Confrontage consists of a pair of pictures (reproductions of photographs, paintings, and graphics) pasted next to each other, while Rapportage includes more than two reproductions placed on one sheet of paper. These techniques and their names were invented by Urbanek in 1951 when he and Kolar were members of a small group of dissident artists and writers. Unlike Dada, Constructivist or Surrealist collagists who juxtaposed incongruous elements within one frame, Urbanek and Kolar put together whole ready-made pictures. They thus redirected the artist's focus from the manual to the conceptual process of artistic creation and recovered the original lesson of Duchamp's ready-mades. Contextualism: Collage and Ready-mad One can see a common element of collage and ready-made in transposing an object from its original context to a new, aesthetic context. However, while collage juxtaposes art and reality (for instance a pencil drawing and a fragment of a newsprint) within one pictorial frame, in case of ready-mades the juxtaposition of art and reality occurs on a more cerebral level. In this respect, Urbanek's and Kolar's rapportages and confrontages are closer to Duchamp's ready-mades than to Cubist, Constructivist or Surrealist collages. By presenting ready-made pictures and changing their contextual framework, confrontages and rapportages question and reflect on the process of signification itself. They thus emerge as perhaps the first example of a new artistic strategy after the war - as harbingers of key artistic movements, including pop art, situationism, and conceptual art. More importantly, they herald post-modern concerns and concepts such as hyper-space, intertextuality, and deconstruction.



Geopolitics and art are interconnected by numerous connections and relationships whose general framework can be seen as two parallel developments: the transitions from industrial to post-industrial society and from modern to post-modern art. These transitions are defined by new dichotomies, creating contradictions, disjunctions, interrelated trends: the revival of the nation state and its fading, globalisation and tribalisation, interconnectedness and specialisation. Artists respond to these shifting grounds by reflecting upon the role of the context in which art functions, on the process of signification itself, and, consequently, on our changing identity.



  1. Zdenek Urbanek, Rapportage, 1951-52,
  2. Zdenek Urbanek, Confrontage, 1951-52