Art in Peripheral Capitalism
The concept of this year's Pancevo Biennial is based on the consideration of the (non) existence of a local art scene issue, the problem of movement, emigration of artists as “creators” or “intellectual producers” as well as international markets influence on local artistic circumstances. In this regard, the main objective of this paper is to provide an outline for a future theorization of the following questions - what is it that specifically determines the art of our time, that is, how do the conditions in which this art is created differ from the conditions in which art was created a decade or even twenty years ago? We believe that in order to carry out this analysis, it is necessary to take into account several factors - first: a) the question of the specificity of the social order within which the art of our time is created, and that is the question of evolution of a neoliberal “transition” state and its ideological apparatus; b) the problem of material work forms, which has to do with economic production models that both contemporary neo-liberal state and art are based upon; c) the issue of value (for want of a better word let us call it “aesthetic”) which is implied or entailed by the work in the field of art.
The dominant ideological metanarrative within which post-socialist societies after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist project developed was the one of a “democratic transition” and a new state of liberal democracy. Within this narrative the story of “totalitarianism” is constituent: former communist societies should overcome their totalitarian legacy and enter a society of liberal freedoms, human rights, democratic distribution of power and, of course, free market. Thus, the EU becomes the ultimate goal of historical development, and the European integration process gets to be a path that once totalitarian societies should follow so as to transform, get educated, and mature, with a view to turning from non-European dictatorships into European democracies. However, as the historian János Kornai shows on the example of his homeland Hungary, the idea of liberal democracy, especially in the aftermath of the great economic crisis in 2008, reaches its definitive debacle, even ceasing to play the role of an ideological metanarrative . Kornai analyzes institutional, legislative and ideological changes brought in by Orban's regime: one of the founding principles of liberal democracy - separation of executive and legislative powers (separation that has probably never been achieved in Eastern European countries but at least it has functioned as an attainable “ideal”) was suspended with a series of legislative changes (changes to the Constitution, electoral laws, media laws, election of state prosecutors, etc., which culminated in the passing of the so-called 32 “cardinal laws”, whose further potential change can be implemented only with the two-thirds majority in the parliament). In terms of economy, Orban's Hungary leaves the market model and takes a turn for state protectionism; this does not mean turning back to the socialist model, but to a new form of neo-liberal economy, which in place of at least declarative free market puts clientelist system where economy develops under a fundamental influence of political elites close to the prime minister. Finally, there is a strict control of the “cultural sphere”, which started with a radical “purge” of the media and which leads to institutionally shaped negation of any ideological “pluralism”. Kornai’s thesis is that these changes are structural, that is to say - they do not constitute a deviation, degeneration, dysfunction of a liberal system, but make a new system that cannot even theoretically be called liberal.
This new system can neither be called “dictatorship” in the traditional sense of the word; in fact, it is a sort of hybrid between “liberal democracy” and “dictatorship”, which, for want of a better word, Kornai refers to as autocracy. This transformation from democracy (at least in principle) towards autocracy is, owing to a series of legislative and institutional changes, practically irreversible:
"Fidesz is prepared for the unlikely but not impossible event of its failing to win a parliamentary majority in the next elections. The 32 cardinal laws can only be modified by a two thirds parliamentary majority, and even in the case of Fidesz’ electoral defeat no such majority would be possible without their participation. The mandates of many key positions, most importantly those of the chief prosecutor, president of the republic, head of the central bank, of the audit office, and of the judicial office, extend beyond the current parliamentary cycle; they can ass sit tight, even if the opposition wins. The fiscal council, a body appointed by the present government, but which would remain in office even in case of an election defeat, has not only an advisory role but also the right of veto over the budget submitted by a new government. If that veto is used, the president of the republic may dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. In other words, a few hand-picked men loyal to the present government would be able to overturn the next government.
All of this leads to the logical conclusion that it would probably be extremely difficult to effectively dismiss the government at parliamentary elections. In this sense, the situation that has emerged is nearly irreversible. Historical experience shows that an autocracy can only be brought down by an “earthquake” that rocks the very foundations of the system..”
Although he writes about Hungary, Kornai’s thesis is gaining confirmation in other countries, both in the former socialist bloc, and the countries of the so-called peripheral capitalism. Paradigmatic place is actually Putin's Russia, but states such as Erdogan’s Turkey, Poland, and former Yugoslav countries are going through substantially similar processes. This does not necessarily mean that “Putinism” is the model, or a role-model for the processes of a new neo-liberal autocracy constitution - all these countries experience the erosion of liberal democracy metanarratives in specific local circumstances, traditions and within a different network of international economic and political relations. However, what still links them to each other is a strong neo-liberal economic policy, which is necessarily clientilist and which on the one hand implies strong social and class stratification and on the other, strengthening of conservative elements in the ideological sphere domain, which is in some cases (as is the case with the latest Croatian government, for example, or the process of rehabilitation of the Second World War collaborators in Serbia and elsewhere also) openly neo-fascist. More detailed research that would provide an answer to what is the extent to which these processes have become irreversible in post-Yugoslav countries is beyond the scope of this text (direct parallels between Serbia and Hungary still cannot be drawn - Serbia has not yet realised structural constitutional and legislative transformations of the political system that would be reflected in an even more rigid Constitution and change of electoral laws, although there have been sporadic announcements of the sort; the review of private property has not still been carried out, nor its “amendments” through a state centralized economy; on the other hand, similarities are obvious - concentration of power in one political personality, clientelism, suspension of power distribution, elimination of a functional opposition, changes in labour legislation, and perhaps most notably - full control of the media, that is, “ideological apparatus”). Kornai’s thesis points out precisely the fact that the process marked as “democratic transition” has been finally rounded off, which means that former socialist countries have evolved into a new “post-transition” phase of their development. The question that arises is how this process of gradual formation of autocratic neo-liberal country of peripheral capitalism is reflected on the topic of art and artistic production.
The socialist system looked at art in a broader context of modernism as a universal metanarrative; in this regard, communist systems, such as the Yugoslav was, saw art as the key place of political self-legitimation: socialism “with a human face” is only possible as part of the global emancipation universal narrative. In that way, a communist state treats art within a kind of Hegelian teleology: the totality (the universal) is achieved by the interaction of a multitude of opposing subtotalities (local modernisms), not annulling but integrating them into this “higher” form of totality (the universal design of “great” modernism). Disintegration of the teleological art narrative happened as a matter of course along with disintegration of the socialist project: after the fall of the Berlin Wall (if not even earlier) it was hardly possible to speak of a universal project of modern art. From the state of modernity art has come to the state of contemporaneity, that is to say, a series of synchronic micronarratives, none of which reaches the level of the Hegelian totality. Yet it would be wrong to assume that the “transitional” state rejects all forms of artistic teleology: the logic of liberal transition is basically teleological. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic once said: “Our generation is a generation that has a huge responsibility. Of course, with responsibility comes great honour. We have been chosen, we have a mission to complete.” This mission, of course, is the European Union. Within such logic, history is seen as a teleological narrative that leads to the ultimate self-fulfilment - the order of liberal Europe is a kind of “homecoming”, the end of history, which can be reached only through rejection and complete erasing of the Yugoslav socialist legacy. Art resumes its place within this liberal-capitalist teleology: as indicated by the Slovene theorist Miklavz Komelj, the concept of “East art” is the construct included in the project of cultivisation, “civilizing” of local pre-modern societies into the community of European democratic nations. For Komelj, “East” art are those postconceptual practices that are reflective in relation to avant-guard heritage (perestroika art, soc-art, Yugoslav retro-avant-guard). This art’s constitutive element is a kind of myth of the socialist project “totalitarianism”, underlined by a broader historical process of the restoration of capitalism, and therefore the global art market as well. In Komelj’s words:
“The rhetoric of “East art” refers to the otherness of “East” and that otherness’ subversion in the global art system - which we could understand exactly like fighting against the ideological disqualification of “East” performed by “West” through the use of the term “totalitarianism” [...]. This thesis, however, is nothing more than a way to incorporate “East” as such in the space of “West”, that is, a globalized art market now. Thus, of course, “East” becomes harmless; something that until recently represented a real threat to “West” becomes a potential cultural wealth that can fill the globalized art system with new vitality. It is about how to convert social issues into issues of art and launch them as such onto the globalized art market.”
This process of capitalist culturalisation of “East” meant at the same time the construction of an entire institutional infrastructure of “East” art production: the paradigmatic place is the launching of the Contemporary Art Centres Network (SCCA), and then big biennial exhibitions such as Manifesta. The real break-up of this artistic teleology came to pass only with the completion of the transition: only a neoliberal “post-transition” state does not truly need contemporary art as a source of self-legitimition of its own political project. The dominant narrative of the “post-transition” cultural logic is no longer the one of a more democratic integration but the one of pure market, which is supplemented by ideological rhetoric of “austerity” and phasing out a large part of what we once perceived as “public sector”. Parallel to this, there occurred a disintegration of cultural infrastructure, both of the one built in socialism, and the one that was made up of “independent” cultural and activist organizations (NGOs) such as the aforementioned Soros network of Contemporary Art Centres. (That is why the dominant feeling of protagonists in the contemporary art scene in countries like Serbia is almost para-institutional operation followed by a kind of disorientation in both conceptual and even more so institutional sense, as well as by a feeling that a post-transition state recognizes only “occasional” culture (e.g. popular music festivals and similar commercially viable “entertainment” events), but not the supposedly “serious” culture, such as contemporary art. In other words, “post-transition” art is the one that does occur within neoliberal framework, but is devoid of “transitional” teleology of reaching liberal democracy.
Working in arts also reflects well the transformation of work brought along by integration into the neoliberal market, which can be described by the standard term of precarisation. The precarisation of art is the result of both external factors (global transition from Fordist to post-Fordist production model) and development inherent in art as such. The art historian and curator Jelena Vesic advances a thesis according to which the concept of contemporaneity was introduced in art and aesthetic debates precisely through the construct of post-socialist transition (and thus “East” art as well), which has brought with it the “managerial” model in terms of both institutional infrastructure and design procedures of the same art: the basic premise was that Eastern countries culture was “contaminated” with “totalitarian” ideology and state control (concern), and that the main task of today's historians, curators, artists is the “opening” of contemporaneity, which is achieved through “renovation”, “reconstruction” and “new management” of history. Hence, SCCA offices have become new meeting place of artists, but now these places are run by hired managers (usually local art historians and critics). While, in the socialist system, the development of art was decided upon by state councils and associations, the development of contemporary art depends on the decisions of a few expert councils (modelled on company management in the West). In this regard, “post-socialist institutions for contemporary art exhibitions in most cases are not judged, but curated - they are now curated either by a “council” or, in later stages, by an invited curator.” Also, while modernist authors focused on the métier (skills, artistic skills), creating tangible artefacts / works in their studios, the author in post-Fordist neoliberal economy conditions spends most of his time in offices “engaging in post-studio practices, dealing with communication, documentation, creating projects for his future works, researching, planning and so on." It is about constructing a new type of artist-entrepreneur who no longer requires art institution as institutions of social care but works on the curator-manager model, or as Vesic points out, as a self-governing entity that solves “his existential issues either on the art market (still linked to objects) or in the context of the project market.” This (neo-liberal) paradigm, first established within the SCCA network, remains as a practical model to date.
“Post-transition” art is thus created in conditions of complete dismantling and disintegration of institutional frameworks that were initially formed in the socialist era, but it is left without even “alternative” institutional frameworks, which were once brought along by the ideology of “liberal” integration of post-socialist societies, and its inherent concept of “East art”. Precarious market model is the dominant framework of today's art. However, at this point one can see a kind of paradox that is also characteristic of global frameworks: although it offers work in precarious conditions, often unpaid work, social insecurity, etc., the number of art students is not declining - in the last decade in Serbia private higher education has been introduced. One of the trends is an increase in the number (and not a decrease, as it might have been expected) of art academies, departments of new media, digital art, art theory, curatorial practice, design and so on. This is one of the paradoxes that points to the fact that work in the field of art, even in precarious neoliberal conditions, carries a specific type of symbolic multifacetedness, a kind of “symbolic capital”. The question remains how to consider this kind of cultural value which is implied by the work in the field of art. It seems that in the local circumstances at least three dominant discourses can be identified: a) traditional; b) market (or entrepreneurial) and c) critical-transgressive (this is, of course, only an approximate and intuitive typology).
The traditional model refers to mostly common-sense guidelines within which a work of art is treated as an autonomous “beautiful” object in an indifferent and non-utilitarian sense. An autonomous work is an “outstanding” object, rarely a situation or event, which essentially means masterfully made, authentic or unique. This kind of “common-sense” definition of art occurs in different contexts, and is often the argument within the institutional realignment on the scene - a good example is the change of the Management Board and program of the October Salon, where objections to the current concept, mainly articulated within official art associations, rested on the argument that the Salon has stopped dealing with “beautiful” art, authentic aesthetic values and visual arts, and that, instead of genuinely valuable works, “construction and demolition waste” is exhibited (as was written by one of the critics of “conceptual” approach to contemporary art), and that international artists have been privileged at the expense of local, national authors. On the other hand, the traditional approach is also characteristic of a phenomenon typical of the beginning of the new millennium onwards: emergence of private collectors who are mainly governed by the logic deep-rooted in “object market”, preferring contemporary art history phenomena based on the idea of “artistic” and aesthetically valuable art objects. Nevertheless, this “traditional” value model often goes beyond the scope of guild artistic circles and into the broader field of political debates and realignments: from conservative and right-wing advocacy for “authentic” national culture, to, for example, debates on reality television programs, where in response to the mass media aesthetics of “kitsch” and “schlock” supposedly “authentic” high culture and art are offered (an example of which is “Value System” student organization protest late last year which supported a petition against reality programs by putting on classical music concerts in the central city square; as mainstream media reported “they say that they want museums and theatres, rather than “Farms”, “Couples” and “Big Brother” and, as they stated, they showed that they appreciated real Serbian and European culture, and are against the promotion of immorality and stupidity which abound in TV programs”).
Another model that we have singled out is “market” or “entrepreneurial”. It is a context gradually built by creative industries: in circumstances where the state withdraws from everything that was once understood as “public goods”, including artistic production, a market environment is supposed to be created that will enable economic “self-sustainable” cultural policies. One of the ways that should allegedly make this possible is through the so-called public-private partnerships. The basis of this is the affirmation of private enterprise, which is based on the combination of art, social activism, marketing and collaboration between people working in the field of art, and private companies. One of the implicit arguments of this view is that there is still no “real” market in our country and that our cultural scene is marked by bad habits from the socialist era, rooted in the state’s patronizing attitude towards culture, as well as lack of “global trends” knowledge, successful management and absence of ideas. The naivety of this views aside, if the market did not solve any of transition society problems, why should we expect it to resolve cultural production issues? It is of much more importance to realize that the “free market” concept is one of the constituent ideological constructs of transition countries: as indicated by Kornai in the abovementioned text, peripheral capitalism rests on centralized, clientelist system in which the state functions as the prime regulator of the market. The curator Vida Knezevic has written most strikingly on this issue, analyzing the work of an event based on the concept of “public-private partnership”, noting that creative industry work actually means state controlled and patronized business modelled by local private companies, “whose business is largely non-transparent, and rests on privatization of social property, social infrastructure and resources built during the period after the Second World War.” In Knezevic's opinion, it is a complex mechanism of institutional collusion between private business, political elites in power and the new managerial class, which actually masks the structural conflict between work and capital.
Finally, the third model is the dominant contemporary art discourse in the narrow sense of the word. It suggests diverse post-post-avant-garde and postconceptual practices, which have generally rejected dealing with traditional art objects, and instead of aesthetic “content” of art, start from art as a form of political practice. Institutional framework of this art is based on the networking of local practices with international art “worlds”, where the underlying form is the concept of international biennials, and increasingly today art fairs. These practices are often positioned as critical, even subversive in relation to local ideological, political, aesthetic and economic models. With reference to this, as indicated by the French sociologist Nathalie Heinich, the main axiological determinant, i.e., a kind of pre-condition for the integration of such a work into contemporary art globalized system, is transgression. Whereas in the modernist model mediation between the work and the recipient used to be mainly direct and unmediated (and where the artist’s main task was expression, outwarding of his private world), in contemporaneity, in order to enter the art system, a work of art has to question and even go beyond the borders of what is usually rationally considered a work of art. Artists create ambivalent, “transgressive” works and the mechanism of their “socialization” is achieved through a curator and theory respectively. This is what Heinich calls “permissive paradox” of contemporary art system:
"We cannot understand how contemporary art functions unless we understand that, while artists are trying to push the boundaries, mediators (intermediaries) simultaneously keep extending the borders so that artists can get in - while at the same time the incompetent keep crying “but it is not art”. This is what I have called in the conclusion of my book the “permissive paradox”, which refers to the fact that by accepting and integrating transgressive proposals, contemporary art institutions are acting in a way contrary to what artists they supposedly support are doing because they pre-accept everything that is created as opposed to their power.”
This is precisely the mechanism by which “East art” was created: authors create an ideologically and politically ambivalent, that is, provocative and subversive work, and the mediation process is carried out by specialized experts - critics, theorists, curators (a typical example of this is the famous Irwin group and NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst ) movement intervention, in the history of art remembered as the “poster scandal”, which rested on the ambivalent relationship to the thesis of “totalitarianism”; Irwin’s international success lies in the impossibility of “straight-line” reading of their work either as a glorification of totalitarian ideology or as its criticism and deconstruction). Contemporary art local scenes in former socialist countries are marked by the influence of such a “mediation” mechanism, which is the basis of the global art-system: local art is often marked by internal tensions – “short circuits” - which mainly revolve around which artistic gesture is “authentically” political and one reflects “backward”, “bourgeois”, “nationalist”, “conservative” ideologies, etc., whereat it is indirectly expected that “progressiveness” will ensure a work’s integration into the globalized art system (another typical example of this kind was a major debate about the work Gipsies and Dogs by the artist Zoran Todorovic in 2009-10, which, due to its ambivalent character, that is, its resistance to being straightforwardly read either as a critical documentation of racial exploitation or as its racist reproduction, caused a stir and an institutional and ideological realignment of the scene).
We have already pointed out that a common argument in the local art is the lack of “real” market and that the formation of a functional art-market would solve some of the structural problems of contemporary art production and reception. However, we hope that it is clear from the so far stated why this kind of faith in the market is at least ideologically naive: the point is exactly in that art created in post-socialist countries is already part of the capitalist market, that it has already been co-opted by pre-neo-liberal logic no matter whether it is circulating within either traditional or contemporary models; the point is that this market is of peripheral type, which does not mean that structurally it is not integrated into the mechanisms of the global capitalist system (whether it be the “object market”, where private collectors are replacing former public institutions, the market of precarious work that is taken up by increasingly clientelist-oriented creative industries, or the “project marker”, where survival in the world of art means integration into a global network of art biennials, residences, etc.).
Therefore, we can accept as meaningful Miklavz Komelj’s slightly pessimistic assertion, who in the already mentioned article argues that in effect art in post-socialist societies is not possible; or that, if we correct his claim a bit – it is not possible at the level of the politicality of its “content”, since politicality is an axiological category of contemporary art and as a rule the precondition of its integration into the contemporary art system. Art is only possible through the rejection of the current horizon of opportunities determined by neoliberal market logic. Nevertheless, we cannot expect this non-acceptance from art itself - art is an effect, a “reflection” of broader social processes. Until concrete political answers are not articulated, answers which will use a new mass political movement to question the very foundations of the current capitalist system, we can hardly expect art to truly escape co-opting into the neoliberal order.
Associate Professor of Art History at the Faculty of Music, Belgrade University of Arts, lecturer at Transdisciplinary Humanities and Art Theory doctoral program at the Faculty of Media and Communications in Belgrade. He has published: Utopian Spaces of Art and Theory after 1960 (2009), Towards the Radical Critique of Ideology: From Socialism to Postsocialism (2009), Triumph of Contemporary Art (co-author, 2010), Less Than Human: Srdjan Djile Markovic and Underground Figuration (2011), and A Painting in the Age of Media: Dragomir Ugren (Zrenjanin/ Nis, 2011). Collaborator on Contemporary Marxist Art Theory (2016) collection and co-editor of Radical Abstraction: Abstract Painting and the Borderlines of Representation. Deputy Editor in Chief of Art + Media study of art and media journal. Laureate of "Lazar Trifunovic" Award for the Best Art Critique in 2010.