Some interesting reading, of late...
The past two online editions of the e-flux journal feature the first two installments of a panel discussion on "Conceptual Art and Eastern Europe." Hosted by Zdenka Badovinac, the panel features -- as one would expect -- Boris Groys as well as a number of curators and writers from across Eastern Europe. From the first portion, in which the participants discuss the nature of conceptual art in Soviet bloc countries during the 1960s-1980s, and its differences from the same as it appeared in the West:
CH: [...] When modernism breaks down, it does so in more or less the same way everywhere. That’s to say that the aesthetically authorizing processes are giving way, leaving behind whatever authority they may or may not have. On the other hand, I think we have to be very careful not to fall into the wider sense of Conceptual art as a means of ratifying anything that looks like avant-garde practice.
ZB: This is the crucial question.
BG: That is a really interesting point. In fact, this kind of shift from the form or image to a kind of theoretical interpretation, which was crucial in the 1960s in the work of Conceptual artists, could never have taken place in the Soviet context, where this pure visual form was never taken into consideration. That means that the most recognizable aspect of these Soviet artists’ work was primarily their ideological intention.
CH: Not that the idea of pure visuality is not ideological...
BG: It was ideological, but immediately recognized and understood as such. That means the political attitude of an artist was the first thing you identified when you saw the work, from the initial Russian avant-garde to the end of the entire period of Soviet art. If you saw something like pure form, it probably meant that the artist was anti-Soviet. The work was based on the premise that ideological content and interpretation were everything. As there was no market, no connoisseurship, the visual quality as such was nothing. At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s people like Kabakov, Komar & Melamid, and others began to diversify, differentiate, and mix these ideological contexts.They started to develop interpretations that were non-pro, non-con, non-anti. It was a deconstructivist practice, which in effect amounted to the same thing as the Western Conceptual art. It was a different kind of shift, from a very strictly ordered ideological system of interpretation to a free-floating, ironical, and deconstructive interpretation. And to invent this type of interpretation, to undermine this strict order of ideology, was the main goal of the artists inside the circle. So, Western and Eastern European practices are comparable on this level, but very different on the other level. There was the market, connoisseurship, and concentration on pure form in the West, while in the East there was a very rigid ideological context with a very rigid system of interpretation.
At one point, Groys addresses the matter of "exoticism" in relation to Soviet and Eastern European conceptualism; which is a thorny criticism that has sometimes arisen in discussions of the work of K&M, Ilya Kabakov, and others over the years.
The conference dates back to 2007, taking place as Badovinac was starting to amass the Arteast 2000+ collection for the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana. Of interest is the presence of British art historian (and career-long Art & Language affiliate) Charles Harrison, who passed away in 2009. The first portion appears here, the second here, with the third to be posted in the journal's next edition.
Bringing things into a more current context in the latest edition is Keti Chukhrov's related essay "Epistemological Gaps between the Former Soviet East and the 'Democratic' West." Chukhrov examines the social dimensions of artistic activity in post-Soviet society, particularly citing the slippery role of "subversive" and "transgressive" acts as they relate to recent scandalous works by Russian art groups such as Voina and Pussy Riot:
"In such conditions, it becomes important to develop an analysis that evades both Cold War discourse and nostalgia alike. While Foucault’s cultural archeology did this for Western European disciplinary societies, this kind of work—apart from certain sporadic efforts—has not fully addressed post-Soviet societies. Why is it necessary? Why can’t we simply claim to be part of the global pro-Western democracy, where even terms such as 'Former West' are used to describe itself?
"The ethical differences between historical socialism and Western liberal democracy or its critical traditions arise not so much from ex-socialist authoritarian Politbureau decisions as from deeply different epistemological interpretations and treatments of crucial philosophical notions of consciousness, the unconscious, power, culture, psychics, the idea, the ideal, the common, and freedom."
In the final portion of the essay, Chukhrov discusses of the place of "interventionist" art practices in the wider post-Soviet culture in relation to the "urgent necessity for non-utilitarian values in the life of a society," by way of Russian philosopher Evald Ilyenkov's "dialectics of the Ideal" as it relates to cultural subjectivity and everyday life.