Polite Quietness

Current Waves in Eastern European Art History

The international conference Contested Spheres: Actually Existing Artworlds under Socialism co-organized by the Kassák Museum and the Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art,  took place on May 27–28, 2016 in Budapest. It was realized within the framework of the Kassák Museum’s ongoing research project focusing on Hungarian art of the 1960s and ‘70s. The general aim of the two-day gathering was to give insight into current research directions on art and culture in the ‘60s-‘70s, specifically inviting a younger generation of scholars from and beyond the Central and Eastern European region.

The two organizing institutions are known as active initiators and participants of discourses on Eastern European art and art history, on a local as well as on an international level. Over the past few years, the Kassák Museum—a branch of the Petőfi Literary Museum, which was originally dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Hungarian writer, editor, artist, avant-garde theorist Lajos Kassák—has grown  into a vivid center of art historical, cultural, and social research for avant-garde and modernism in Hungary. Since 2014, its current director, art historian Edit Sasvári has been leading a group of researchers whose objective is to make a comprehensive study on Hungarian art of the 1960s and ‘70s. The group, consisting of art historians, art critics, curators, and social scientists1, is working on the long overdue rethinking of existing narratives of this period in order to provide a more complex understanding of art under Socialism in Hungary. As Sasvári summarized it in her introductory talk of the conference, to create a framework for a more sensitive interpretation, instead of unreflectively applying the (so-called and ever so contested) “Western model” of art history and cultural theory in the Hungarian context, it is rather vital to focus on regional and local phenomena. For instance, on such practices as doublespeak or dual orientation; that is, the constant dual pressure in Socialist countries and the urge to meet the demands of both sides of the Cold War confrontation while remaining politely neutral. This approach is very similar to the method of what one of the most influential advocates of Eastern European art history, Piotr Piotrowski has called “provincializing the West:” to deconstruct the Cold War East-West narrative for a more diversified understanding of modernism.2 The subtitle of the conference, Actually Existing Artworlds under Socialism also highlights this understanding as it refers to the popular ideological phrase “actually existing socialism” or “real socialism” that was the self-description of the Eastern Bloc states’ real political and economic systems compared to the propagated ideological form of Socialism. By using the word artworld in plural, the title implies multiplicity in artistic orientation i.e., to overcome the binary talk (such as East-West, us-them, West and the rest, official-unofficial, political-apolitical), and replace  it with a more diversified set of references (revealing interpersonal, local, transnational connections). It likewise underlines the importance of re-negotiating the seemingly homogenous character of Eastern Europe(an art) by analyzing the actual sociopolitical contexts that have formed and are still forming it (them).

Július Koller, Standard Cultural Situation (UFO) 1984
Július Koller, Standard Cultural Situation (U.F.O.), 1984. Source: Kassák Museum Archive

Looking back to the past few years, the conference could be perceived as a continuation of other recent initiatives that examined the specificities of the region’s art and theory from within as well as from a global perspective.3 Even though these “regional issues”—such as the question of identity in Eastern Europe after 1989, revealing the so-called unofficial art scene, and putting the former Eastern Bloc onto the global art map—have already been addressed in the late 1990s and early 2000s through various exhibitions and publications4, one can notice a new wave of more focused academic research on specific topics that emerged in the last five or  ten years.5 For a long time, Piotr Piotrowski as a professor of art history in Poznań was at the forefront of programmatically educating a new generation of researchers who, since then, have gained international recognition on their own account (for example Magdalena Moskalewicz and Magdalena Radomska). Nowadays, the list is broadened with several universities, departments, and professors such as Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius (currently lecturer at Birbeck University of London), László Beke (professor at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts), Edit András (senior research fellow at the Institute for Art History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), Bojana Pejić (curator, lecturer at the Bauhaus University in Weimar), Suzana Milevska as previous and Jelena Petrović as current endowed professor of Central and South Eastern European Art Histories at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna,  Klara Kemp-Welch (lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London), and Amy Bryzgel (lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on performance art in Eastern Europe).

Artists working on the model for Monumenti i pavaresise_1969_in Shq Soc Marshon
Albanian artists working on the model for Monumenti i Pavaresise, 1969. Source: Kassák Museum Archive

One of the most important aspects of the Budapest conference, I believe, was exactly the participation of a large number of young but internationally experienced scholars (current PhD students and recent PhD graduates). When talking about the specificities of the 1960s and ‘70s, especially about the different layers of the relationship between the artists and the state (commissions, employment, support, resistance, provocation, etc.), one should not forget that the reception of this period has changed quite a lot in the region itself since 1989. After several years of ignorance or at least polite quietness of the local actors, towards their own recent past, today we are witnessing an immense institutionalization of modernist and late modernist art of the Central and South-Eastern European region: exhibitions and research projects in regional and international non- and for-profit institutions, a growing number of publications, PhD research projects, and conferences on this period. There have been several reasons for the growing interest in this period: the fact that many of the artists who were active in the ’60s and ’70s are still around and often participate in writing their own (hi)story, resulting in their presence not only in the regional but also in the global art market as well as in major international museums such as the MoMA in New York. The reception, however, could easily have shifted because of the younger generation’s historical (and emotional) distance from this very period. However, in-depth analyses and re-evaluation of topics such as socialist realism, or the turn to new media/technologies (digital art, video art, experimental art), and the growing interest in other disciplines (literature, film/theater, architecture, and science in general), is still yet to be done first on a local (national) and regional, then on a global level. The general aim would be to understand this period in its continuity and complexity—as art historians did so, for instance, in the case of Russian constructivism.

In the Bars of Berlin (Das Magazin). Source: Kassák Museum Archive

I believe that the conference at the Kassák Museum was realized at a rather important moment in the scholarship of contemporary Eastern European art history. Parallel to the above mentioned process of institutionalizing art created under Socialism, artists and other actors of the contemporary cultural field are often facing similar moral dilemmas as their predecessors. In Hungary, institutional structures are getting more and more centralized and controlled by the current cultural policy of the government, which could result in a clear separation of state-run institutions/projects and civil, grass-root initiatives. At first glance, this process could be perceived as almost a repetition of the notorious three T’s’ of Hungarian cultural policy that divided artists into three categories: supported, tolerated, and prohibited during Socialism. As the presentations of the two-day event revealed, even though the “official” and the “unofficial”  existed as strictly separated categories in the Socialist countries, there had always been overlaps between them. It is the next generation of artists, art professionals who need to overcome the region’s own polite quietness towards Socialism in general and art under Socialism in different countries, and  identify in what ways we can learn from this period.


About the author

Barbara Dudás is an art historian based in Budapest. She is currently a PhD student in art theory at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Her research revolves around questions of globalization and global art history seen from East European, Hungarian perspective, as well as gender issues in contemporary art.




  1. The group members are Edit Sasvári, Edit András, Flóra Barkóczi, Géza Boros, Lóránt Bódi, Gábor Dobó, Dávid Fehér, Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Sándor Hornyik, Emese Kürti, Mária Madár, József Mélyi, Péter Molnos, Júlia Perczel, Merse Pál Szeredi, Katalin Székely, Dániel Véri. For their research abstracts visit http://www.kassakmuzeum.hu/en/index.php?p=hatvanas_hetvenes
  2. For further details of Piotrowski’s method read: Edit András. “Provincializing the West: Interview with Piotr Piotrowski.”  Artmargins, October 9, 2012, http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/691-provincializing-the-west and Richard Kosinsky, Jan Elantkowski, and Barbara Dudás. “A Way to Follow: Interview with Piotr Piotrowski.” Artmargins, January 29, 2015, http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/interviews-sp-837925570/758-a-way-to-follow-interview-with-piotr-piotrowski
  3.  See for example the Global Art History and the Peripheries conference in Paris in 2013, http://www.artlas.ens.fr/colloques/global-art-history-and-the/article/program-of-the-conference; the East European Art seen from Global Perspectives: Past and Present conference, organized by the late prof. Piotr Piotrowski at Galeria Labirynt Lublin in 2014, http://www.konferencja.labirynt.com/34/en/page/o_konferencji_en.html; the Inside Out – Critical Artistic Debates Concerning Institutions conference organized by the City Museum of Ljubljana in 2015, http://www.mgml.si/en/city-art-gallery/news-and-events/events-1289/inside-out-critical-artistic-debates-concerning-institutions/; the yearly International Forum for Doctoral Candidates in East European Art History organized by the Humboldt University, Berlin since 2014 http://www.kunstgeschichte.hu-berlin.de/institut/lehrstuehle/lehrstuhl-fuer-kunstgeschichte-osteuropas/internationales-doktorandenforum/2016-internationales-doktorandenforum-kunstgeschichte-des-oestlichen-europas/ or the growing number of the respective sessions of the annual AAH (Association of Art Historians) and CAA (College Art Association) conferences.
  4.  See for example: After the Wall. Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe exhibition at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1999), Aspect/Positions: 50 Years of Art in Central Europe 1949–1999 exhibition at Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (1999), or L. Hoptman, T. Pospiszyl Eds. Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s. New York: Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
  5. These topics are, for instance: conceptual art in Eastern Europe (a research initiated by Zdenka Badovinac, director of Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, began in 2007, for further details visit: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/conceptual-art-and-eastern-europe-part-i/), cultural connections between Eastern Europe and Latin America (addressed by Klara Kemp-Welch, Piotr Piotrowski, László Beke, Katarzyna Cytlak, Cristina Freire, and many more), institutional critique (addressed by various projects, exhibitions of tranzit.hu Budapest, or by the Inside Out – Not So White Cube research project initiated by Alenka Gregorič and Suzana Milevska, http://www.mgml.si/en/city-art-gallery/archive-of-exhibitions-411/inside-out-not-so-white-cube/), gender issues during and after Socialism (addressed by various individual scholars as well as large-scale research projects, such as Gender Check, http://www.erstestiftung.org/gender-check/about/), holocaust and remembrance (addressed by conferences, exhibitions and publication, especially in Germany, Poland, and Hungary).

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