The cover of Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology

The Museum of Modern Art in New York delivers a critical vantage point in discussing the art scenes of Central and Eastern Europe in the book Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology. This is the ninth edition of MoMA’s Primary Documents that follows up on the topic of the very first publication in the series, A Sourcebook for Central and Eastern European Art since the 1950’s, which studies the developments and commonly shared traits within the region as part of MoMA’s global research program Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP). The latest addition, edited by Roxana Marcoci, Senior Photography Curator, Ana Janevski, Curator of Performance and Media, and Ksenia Nouril, former C-MAP fellow for Central and Eastern Europe, takes the revolutionary years between 1989 and 1991 as a point of departure to bring focus to the legacy of socialism in artists’ practices and cultural production.

The anthology of selected texts concentrates on distinctive phenomena in art which arose from the socialist context and the post-socialist transformation. Ultimately, these texts convey the impossibility of using a Western art historical framework to understand the complex situations particular to each country in Central and Eastern Europe. Scholars, curators, and artists recognize their accountability for self-definition and present self-reflective critiques which demonstrate the specific directions that particular art movements took. For instance, a whole chapter is dedicated to feminism and gender in order to unravel the inconspicuous and complex development. Although many female artists working in the former East did not identify with a feminist agenda, the recent critical writings retrospectively observe several problems of the sex politics of the socialist environment and attempt to develop a discourse that can integrate gender issues into a global dialogue — on the terms of Central and Eastern European scholars and artists.

This critical reassessment of post-1989 art and theory challenges the conventional Western canon of art history and incites a paradigm shift away from the conceptualization of Eastern Europe solely through a post-Communism lens. Scholars reflect on the political construct of “Eastern Europe” and the need to write independent regional chronicles which will address a more nuanced differentiation of individual cultural developments within what is generally and misleadingly addressed as one geopolitical mass. The texts in the anthology build up a cumulative dialectic against the Western rhetoric about Eastern Europe and break down the historical divide between the West and the East as defined by Cold-War politics.

Marcoci, Janevski, and Nouril create a forum for scholars, curators, and artists to investigate what Central and Eastern European art and theory are by establishing autonomous terms for understanding the political and cultural circumstances in Eastern Europe. Several chapters in the publication talk directly to the practice of socially engaged art, self-documenting, archiving, as well as collectivity (a philosophical notion that emphasizes topics and activities which promote cohesiveness among individual entities, resulting in the formation of a network) — characterizing these modes as particular for European post-socialist art systems before and after the momentous fall of the Berlin Wall. Moreover, the collectivist approach emerges as an important quality that makes this trait of Central and Eastern European art a model for perspectives that enable transnational discussions.

The idea of collectivity and the emphasis on transnational topics in European post-socialist art are exemplified by Claire Bishop’s essay about the exhibition Monument to Transformation (organized by the City Art Gallery in Prague in 2000) which connected the post-communist condition in Central Europe to other political transitions across the world. Bishop explains how the premise of this exhibition “redrew the world map in provocative ways connecting the Czech Republic to Greece, Spain, and Portugal, but also to Argentina, South Korea, and Indonesia,” which favored identifying oneself in terms of a shared social experience rather than isolated nationalism. According to Bishop, such a curatorial concept “serves in part as a utopian means to denationalize cultural heritage (rejecting the homogenizing effects of globalism in favor of instigating local-to-local and transnational cultural narratives.)” This approach of coming to terms with one’s own past formed unexpected relationships and stimulated a dialogue reaching far beyond a single society or a political event.

The publication highlights how the post-socialist art model may be significant for today’s uneasy global political climate. While art in general can create new platforms for the discussion of pressing issues, a collectivist practice stimulates cooperative efforts, and the activism of socially engaged artists brings awareness to important topics that need to be registered and critically evaluated. In their introduction, Marcoci and Janevski explain how:

In a time of resurgent nationalisms and xenophobic sentiments, the audacity to embrace complexity, envision future trajectories informed by multifaceted histories, and build discourses through networks of alliances and collaborations (both political and aesthetic) that refuse the primacy of borders is increasingly urgent.

Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe helps navigate the post-socialist art scene from the current perspective of local art figures. The seven chapters provide critical treatment of some of the defining characteristics of contemporary art in the region and thoroughly analyze the political circumstances of cultural production. The search for commonalities may, however, perpetuate the perception of the region as one whole and further research on cultural idiosyncrasies is necessary in order to reveal the deep cultural constitutions of individual countries that do not share much more than the past few decades of Communism. While we are still dealing with a political framing of Central and Eastern European contemporary art that is tethered to the historical divide between the East and the West, the editors of this anthology steered the content to confront important issues relevant to societies across the globe — mainly the rising far-right governments. Thus, the publication effectively opens a due discussion not only about art of Central and Eastern Europe, but also compellingly includes it in a conversation about the world at large.

Art and Theory of Post–1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology was published by the Museum of Modern Art in September 2018, and was edited by Roxana Marcoci, Ana Janevski, and Ksenia Nouril.

Adéla Janíčková (Czech Republic, 1989) studied Art History and Museum Studies at New York University. She is currently based in Prague while she focuses on international multidisciplinary projects,...