by Frantisek Zachoval
header by Radu Carp
Is the contemporary culture of Eastern Europe only the sum of the artistic heritages of the nations in the region, or does it make up for something greater: a legitimized and self-aware cultural ensemble of sui-generis practices? Weaving around this question, Czech art critic and cultural manager Frantisek Zachoval proposes that we identify and examine the signified and the significator within artistic endeavors to be seen within the area. If the content of the art will be counted as art no matter where one looks at it from, it is the language employed to convey the artistic message that we must take a look at in order to inquiry about the existence or absence of a pinpointable unity of cultural conscience and identity. The project A History of Patronizing of the East by the West is a three-part essay which encompasses a short analysis of recent artistic expressions in the Central and Eastern parts of Europe, by first describing the Universal language (I) under which some part of the art world takes cover, then glancing at what might be the premises for a Local Consciousness (II), only in order to surrender to the idea that we are, without any sugarcoating, witnessing a live Cultural Rape (III) that has been going on for the past decades and continues to be performed more or less intentionally.
During the last thirty years, Central and Eastern states have been manufactured into liberal democracies subordinated to pluralist negotiation. At the core of this process, stood excluded and silenced citizens. The non-EU states then embarked on the path of integration defined by the Copenhagen criteria in 1993 and the West became the supervisor over our transformation. These Criteria required a state to have in place institutions which preserve democratic governance and human rights. On top of this, another prerequisite was the well-functioning of the national market economy – which acted like a catalyst for hyperconsumerism. Afterthought, we felt like a bad dog, who ate the cake to the relief of the cake maker, who had put into the dough classic ingredients such as flour, egg, milk, sugar and butter, but then began to flavour it with superficially scented matured round cheese, bacon, nuts, pickles, sausages, whipped cream, onion, chocolate sauce, garlic, pepper, fat, candies, pork rinds, cinnamon, semolina pudding, cottage cheese, gingerbread, vinegar, cocoa, cabbage, a goose head and raisins. In the end, it got us all sick and we are still left with a hangover. In the cultural sector, it is primarily concerning that our gullable acceptance of the new aesthetics, ideas, visions, and production – new criteria – started to be used as a way of evaluating our own identity, which is in fact our culture. From time to time, the West jumped in, checking whether the transformation processes was going all well. The gradual transition from collective action to personal autonomy and individualism largely generated selfishness within the population, diminishing their sense of solidarity, which is evident in the current example of receiving refugees from the Middle East. We have lost our social security due to adapting to the neoliberal capitalism, so we’re afraid to share our shelter with someone else. Although we went through different crises, we are part of the european superstate, a bay of prosperous and peaceful life. Heterogeneous elements of different cultures become twisted in a new, hybrid cultural entity and we almost all melted into one identity. The digital borderlines were erased and geographical boundaries become gradually blurred. The inner voice says – we are anchored where we were born, where we have created our cultural stereotypes, and where we are on firm ground.
The situation in every country of the former Eastern bloc is slightly different and has its own genesis which influences their experience. It is this very experience that Eastern-Europeans are somehow projecting or mirroring into their art practice. Very roughly, we have here two main sorts of approaches: one based on mining the local specifics and mostly limiting to their field of language, culture stereotypes and more or less bound by local consciousness, which will be discussed later, and another one, in which we have a group of authors who are inclined to apply and integrate a visual universal language. For the moment, I will focus on the latter and present an itemized view into this processes. Generally, a universal language gives you a certain visibility and a relative clearness, because more communication systems – in this context, different nations with different cultural coding, could easily identify with each artwork. Predominantly, the quality is defined by the level of understanding or, as we have already mentioned, by the easiest identification. For instance, common irony, sarcasm or jokes transfered into drawing showcase the characteristic style of Romanian Dan Perjovschi. This approach is typical for all kinds of publications, especially for humour and satire magazines; all of this was incorporated into the gallery framework. By drawing them on a white wall, their message is blown up, which immediately amplifies their importance. The surrealism of 21st century crosses new borders from of Adrian Ghenie’s brush, who uses many archetypes from art history and thus makes new and easily consumable cocktails of paintings. A good part of Polish-German artist Alicja Kwade’s production is based on a visualisation of the universe in which we can find the beauty of geometry. The aesthetics of deformation is another recipe, characteristic to Polish Monika Sosnowska. Universal language, as employed by Czech Krištof Kintera, follows the cumulation and repetition of the daily used objects such as bicycles, AA bateries, washing machines, computer hardware, spherical objects, thereby aesthetic objects of everyday use. On the other hand, we have a group of artists who mostly reflect or challenge our past understood as a Post-Soviet trauma, portrayed f.e. by Boris Mikhailov from Ukraine. This approach especially is quite frequently used by institutions, because it legitimizes western liberal criteria as the right ones. This reflects the power of Western cultural discourse, which is all too often considered as decorative or „superstructural”.
Dan Perjovschi – Populism 1, 2018 – Permanent marker on paper
Overall, this kind of production seems to be sterile, as there are no deeper thoughts which could describe serious and important processes around us, because visual art should contain complementary visions about us.
Satire in the gallery represents entertainment for masses, as it has done since the half of the 19th century until now in publications. Although new surrealism is a very popular trend for investment, in matters of content, it is mere epigonism without any added value, as well as speculative gesture. Above all, it is naive to believe that labelling an artist as ”international” or ”world”- recognized always produces first-rate artwork. This sort of artwork doesn’t need further explanation, we instantly get the ideas or messages which are squeezed in the art object. It should be noted that this concept, known as universality is belittling the complexity of communication – the universal work mainly depicts elements that are easily translatable between several cultural codes or social classes; and is, therefore, internationally understandable. At the same time, the universal work is strongly influenced by mass media in which the subject of the artwork is reduced to the shortest description possible. Metaphorically, such examples are in a certain sense peeled, in order to be understood by the masses. This kind of production is mostly embraced by the private and public commissions and collections. Why? The main role is played by pragmatic motivations and policies which shape the current art system:
- legitimizing the institution itself and the collectors via already legitimised artists;
- political allignment within globalisation – international exhibitions have become more and more important for artistic growth by promoting aspiring artists through cultural exchanges;
- difficulties with private collections and their content orientation – mostly these collections are focusing on already appraised artists who do not stand as any risk, nor any potential depreciation of invested assets;
- and finally, artwashing – a common practice used by private individuals and institutions who collect artworks as a boost for their brand image inspite of their field of interest being based on nothing but easily apprehensible artworks.
 Copenhagen criteria refer to the overall criteria which applicant countries (to the European Union) have to meet as a prerequisite for becoming members of the European Union. They were defined in general terms by the Copenhagen European Council in June 1993.
 Josef Čapek – Povídání o pejskovi a kočičce (All About Doggie and Pussycat), 1929: folkloric story about a dog and a cat and the celebrating of their birthday by baking a cake. They both add to the dough what they like best, and in the end the cake ended up not edible.
 Boris Buden – Zone des Übergangs – Vom Ende des Postkommunismus, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2009.
 Homi K. Bhabha – The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994. Bhabha’s post-colonial critique is incidental in the transformation process throughout the East Europe. The exoticism of each nation is dissolved, as well as traditional social antagonisms.
 Edward Said – Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Frantisek Zachoval is a cultural manager, art critic and curator. Between 2015 and 2019 he led the Czech Centre of Bucharest, where he founded the contemporary art gallery Future Museum (2016) and the research project Protect Public Space (2017). He is one of the founders of the film festival Cinemascop (2018). In spring 2019, Frantisek took over directorship at the Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové, where he set up the Central and Eastern Europe Collection.
proofread by Andreea Bruchner and Teodora Săvoiu and edited by Maria Bîrsan and Radu Ianoș, based on a question posed by Radu