Art and the Year 1968
Published in: Odjek, 11 June 1985, Sarajevo.
In his recent text, The Year 1968 and Visual Arts, the Italian critic, Renato Barilli, said that 1968 marked one of the crucial dates in the history of contemporary art. Barilli claimed that any future consideration of art would have to refer to the situation pre-1968 or post-1968.1 Today, one is less inclined to be so certain about things, as there have been other key dates, since then. One of these was 1980, which signalled the changeover to Postmodernism and the post-avant-garde, and it will certainly not have been the last. Art, and the way in which we look at art, are constantly subject to the emergence of new trends and the re-assessment of earlier phases. However, for all the changes that have taken place since 1968, including the general change in atmosphere, we are in no danger of losing sight of this turbulent period; indeed, the events of that period have left an indelible mark, both on artistic practices, and on how we choose to understand and interpret them. It has to be said straight away that neither Barilli nor subsequent commentators have tried to insist that the year 1968 was marked solely, or even primarily, by the clamorous political events of the time, such as the student unrests in West European countries and the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the troops from the Warsaw Pact troops. The year 1968 was characterised by a particular spiritual climate, a particular convergence of ideas, and a particular atmosphere - especially, as far as young people were concerned - and all that was closely knitted together, and permeated with the ideas and attitudes that had fuelled the explosion of artistic creativity. Therefore, a small clarification is needed here: relating the year 1968 to the art produced around that date by no means implies that that art was dependent on concurrent political circumstances, or even that it could be read as a reflection of those circumstances. Instead, it tends to suggest that we should consider art as a distinct component within the context of wider developments. Moreover, it means we should be able to experience the art of the period, as lending a degree of urgency to the events of the time, or at least, acting as an important ‘lightning conductor' for the mood of the time, in the one area where it undeniably enjoyed a degree of autonomy, within the broader context of politics and ideology.
There is neither the time nor the space here, for a lengthy discussion of the events which took place in different countries in the West around this decisive time. However, it is certain that in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s there were many signs that the younger generation of artists and intellectuals were anxious to bring about sweeping changes in the way that people thought and behaved. They felt a need to re-evaluate many aspects of politics, culture, and everyday life, and a part of this was manifested in their outright rejection of a whole range of existing values, notions and norms of behaviour. The main axes of spiritual revolt revolved around the following points: the crisis of classical Marxism and re-affirmation of critical theory, in philosophy and sociology (the Frankfurt School, Marcuse); the crisis of the so-called élite culture and the breakthrough of mass culture, the Counterculture and youth culture (particularly in music, clothes, etc.); and the struggle for the behavioural emancipation in numerous fields (the sexual revolution, feminist movement, movements for alternative education, and so on.). Without attempting to list all the well-known factors, we could sum up, by saying that no radical change in society, or change in behaviour, can be imposed from outside, or from above, in the name of some higher goals, or at the instigation of any institution. Changes could, and should, be initiated, by the individual, and represent the natural fruition of his or her own wishes and aspirations, needs, passions and longing for happiness, here and now, in a world free from oppression and constraint, in which the highest value is placed on the free individual, who is also able to promote new kinds of work and new modes of behaviour. An Important element in all this was the Influence of the alternative culture, stemming directly from the events of 1968. Thus, posters, stickers, stencils, graffiti, street theatre, protest poetry, rock and pop music, etc. were an inseparable part of that unrepeatable atmosphere, and part of the settings where students and young people used to gather. The famous slogans, L'imagination au pouvoir or Vivre au présent, written on the walls of the Sorbonne and Nanterre, were messages than cannot and must not be forgotten, today or in the future. But what we are trying to highlight here is not the kind of mostly spontaneous statements, intended to promote a new form of behaviour, on the borderline between daily life and political activism. Here, we wish to draw attention to the specific kinds of art that emerged and developed towards the end of the 1960’s, and mostly preceded the political events of 1968. These developments were mostly known by art critics' terms, such as Arte Povera, Body Art, Land Art, Conceptual Art, Behavioural Art and New Media Art or, simply, The New Art or, as it was referred to in Yugoslavia, 'The New Art Practice' around the turn of the 1960's and 1970's.
Nowadays, talking about the cluster of activities bracketed together under the heading of ‘The New Art Practice’ in Yugoslavia' means reviving the memory of those exciting and tumultuous events that started around 1966, with the first shows of the OHO Group in Ljubljana and quickly spread across the country to the other centres (Zagreb, Split, Novi Sad, Subotica, Belgrade), and continued at maximum intensity until the mid-1970’s. All these events demonstrated an indisputable generational inter-connectedness among the protagonists: though the initiative belonged most often to young artists, born in the 1940's, who were expressing themselves on impulse, for mainly existential reasons, rather than as a result of a conscious decision to pursue an artistic career. Hence, the short-lived nature of their initial choices; hence, too, the difficulty they experienced, in trying to achieve a lasting impact. Initially, at least, most of them grew up away from any kind of art. The New Art Practice found its own field of endeavour within a kind of protected area, provided by youth institutions, such as the Student Centre in Zagreb, the Youth Forum in Novi Sad, and the Students' Cultural Centre in Belgrade, and as time passed, it filtered through to the significant art scenes, - more often, abroad than at home. In some cases, it would develop into forms of issue-related art that anticipated, and had a bearing on, the well-documented interrelationship between artistic language and artistic behaviour during the 1970's.
A complete history of The New Art of the 'Seventies in Yugoslavia’s cultural milieux has yet to be written, although several exhibitions, with accompanying catalogues, have offered works on display, processed data and attempted a critical analysis of the subject-matter. These exhibitions have included the 1978 retrospective of the group OHO, undertaken by the Students' Cultural Centre in Ljubljana; The New Art Practice 1966-1978, at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. the same year; the 1980 retrospective of the group, Bosch+Bosch, from Subotica, at the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade; the exhibition, Innovations in Croatian Art of the 'Seventies, staged by the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb (1982); and The New Art in Serbia 1970-1980: Artists, Groups, Phenomena, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, in 1983. This is not the place, for us to re-examine the facts and critical interpretations provided in the publications, and it would certainly be necessary now, to add some supplementary information and offer some form of critical reappraisal. When speaking about art in relation to 1968, it would seem to be more appropriate to try and work out some of the curatorial theses, and the forms in which they were manifested, in relation to the spiritual and social climate of the historical moment in which it appeared.
The replacement of the object with the artistic process and the emphasis on artistic activity, instead of the work of art, were among the basic characteristics of the art produced around 1968. ‘Process’ and ‘activity’ were the terms that testified to the artist’s focus on his personal existence, his life in the world, and the here and now. By these means, artists tended to demonstrate that what they cared about most was spontaneous, unsupervised, completely liberated, behaviour. Symbolic expressions of this were actions, happenings, performances and exhibitions outside gallery spaces - in rural settings, in the case of the members of the groups OHO and Bosch+Bosch, or in an urban environment, in the case of the event, 'Chances for '71'/Mogućnosti za ‘71, in Zagreb, or other events staged in Belgrade by Ekipa A3. When artists chose to remain in spaces specifically designed for displaying art, they would enter them with a premeditated plan for taking possession of them, occupying them, for a while, at least, and turning them into places of their own, instead of just exhibiting their works there, in a modest fashion. Artists did not seek to transcend the brief timespan of an artistic event, as they were conscious that life itself was made up of transient, short-lived episodes; they sought to have as intensive an experience as possible of the very moment of feeling their own selves and their own bodies, in time and space. This very sense of inhabiting one body, and the release of physical energy - even to the extent of putting one's life in danger, as in some of Marina Abramović's actions -, and the need to do something and assert one's presence in front of an audience, for example, were the kind of impulses felt by many artists who were active around 1968. They reflected a desire to communicate directly with an audience, not through the medium of a finished work, such as a (a painting or a sculpture, that was separate from the artist. In other words, the artist wanted to be personally involved, and to share his or her individual experience, and whatever else might be implied by the term, 'the artist speaking in the first person singular'. However, not all the art produced in the climate around 1968 was simply sensuous and instinctual: 'speaking in the first person' also implied the artist’s rational consideration of the character of his work and the position of his work (as well as his own position) within society and his cultural environment. So in those years, the artist would often set out to write – about art and the circumstances surrounding art, as in the case of Raša Todosijević, Zoran Popović, Braco Dimitrijević, Radomir Damnjan and others. In those writings, one may find elements of irony, bitterness, defiance and overt negation of many things in the immediate surroundings, but artists also engaged in some serious analytical thinking about the properties of their own output; come what may, they could no longer be reconciled with the fact that anyone else, such as an art critic or art historian, might have the authority to assess their work, and to decide how it should be valued and categorised. On the contrary, artists themselves wanted to carry out their own analysis, interpretation and evaluation. This meant that they were often immoderate, necessarily subjective, narrow-minded and intolerant; yet these, too, were no more than symptoms of the heightened self-awareness that crept up on young people in the years around 1968, and the spiritual climate of the day.
What also characterised the art marked by that climate was the notable expansion of the different media. After the personality of the artist came into focus in the art in early 1970’s, the means at his disposal all also, in principle, became equally available to him, whether in the traditional fields of painting, drawing, sculpture, or in areas outside art. This spurred artists on to satisfy their drive for self-expression. Basically, a great deal of artists' video may be understood as an individual gesture of defiance towards the habitual use of a powerful technology for transmitting messages that reflected the dominant ideologies of the modern world. Video art of the 'seventies signaled an aesthetic defunctionalisation of the mass media; hence, the virtually insurmountable obstacles that video artists confronted, in trying to gain access to the large television networks; condemned to a state of enforced isolation, video found that it was alienated from its own nature, as a medium, by being consigned to the exclusive confines of the art gallery.
Within the general atmosphere of aesthetic subversion that characterised artistic strategies of the 1970s, there were numerous examples of gestures that were aimed at desacralising art, relativising criteria, often in the most drastic way, and questioning many of the fundamental beliefs underpinning any form of art historical judgment. Braco Dimitrijević's Casual Passer-by series was one such example of this general 'skepticism toward the authorities in art history, doubts as to the arbitrarily imposed values, criticism of the hierarchical structure of the value system', as Nena Dimitrijević has written. Radomir Damnjan's actions and performances, such as A Speck in Space, or Position of the Individual in Society (Mrlja u prostoru ili položaj jedinke u društvu) and Reading Marx, Hegel and the Bible by Match-Light (Čitanje Marksa, Hegela i Biblije uz svetlost šibice); other actions involving the destruction of the Bible, Hegel’s Aesthetics and Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and Bálint Szombathy’s Lenin in Budapest, all furnish examples of the new artistic context and sense of cultural identity outside the gallery, where the artist's acts were heavily loaded with a sense of contestation. In an effort to deprive art of the attributes and prerogatives of a privileged aesthetic sphere, Goran Trbuljak went to the ultimate extreme in some of his exhibitions and actions, for which he released statements, such as 'I do not wish to show anything new or original (Ne želim izložiti ništa novo ni originalno)' and 'For an Art without Artist, without Critique and without Audience (Za umjetnost bez umjetnika, bez kritike i bez publike)'.The New Art of the 'Seventies, which questioned nearly everything that was normally held to constitute a work of art and expressed doubts about its very nature (Was ist Kunst? reads the title of a series of performances by Raša Todosijević) seemed to step beyond the preconditions of its own survival. It was powerfully present in the minds of those who lived (a better term than 'made') this art, yet less and less in evidence in works that might be identified with traditional notions of art. The new artistic tendencies, which had been launched at one point in the late 1960’s, when there had been a burning aspiration for individual freedom and personal fulfilment now reached a point in the middle of the last decade [the 1970's], when it seemed that everything was on the verge of reaching the point where one could speak of symptoms associated with the death of art. The solution for untying this knot turned out to be as follows: it is in the very nature of art to seek to perpetuate its own existence, by constantly facing up to new challenges; a range of such challenges opened up at the end of the 1970’s and the beginning of the 1980’s; and what has happened, since then [up to 1985] may be seen as a volte-face, a period of transition, or a sign of straightforward continuity, depending on one's point of view.
How should we view today that huge complex of spiritual and cultural developments - not restricted solely to the artistic field - which had its source in the social and spiritual climate around 1968? And how is our view of this period affected by the intervening period, now that we already have some experience of the very different artistic climate of the 1980s? These questions may be formulated in a simpler way: What was the objective of the massive, passionate efforts of a whole generation of young people - artists, critics, organisers - to harness their energy to the radical options that were open to them towards the end of the 1960's and the beginning of the 1970's? And what did they achieve, as a result?
To help, in trying to find the answers to this, I shall rely on the opinions of two critics from that generation, of whom one wrote about the objective of those efforts, and the other discussed the possible outcome. In the opinion of Marjan Susovski:
'The new media and new modes of articulation dealt with the phenomena of culture, sociology, with the political and economic conditions of life. By way of unmasking the reality and due to the impossibility to actually change it, some forms of culture sprang whose foundations lied in the anti-conventional and the anti-traditional, which found articulation in inventing alternative languages, mediums, magazines, working- and exhibition-places. Raising of the consciousness of the artist as an individual, as a person who does not want to stay marginal in the societal structure, brought about his response to the system of art within which he works, i.e. galleries and market, yet the system which shuts him out of social affairs. The artists saw their role in a broader social context, not in the narrow art system. They were more concerned with the ethical and less with aesthetic issues of fine art.'2
In Susovski’s view, those were the hopes and aspirations of that generation. And in the view of Davor Matičević, the outcomes of those objectives and aspirations were as follows:
'With their expectations frustrated in an environment that has failed to grow together with them and in which the bourgeois mentality and consumer philosophy are gaining ground in spite of the proclaimed principles, ideas and efforts, they have turned to some general preoccupations; but since their only chance to act is through the medium and the space of a gallery, their activity has inevitably become dispersed.'
Further on in the same text, Matičević concludes:
'Although the basic approach of these artists starts from the identification of concrete problems in the socio-artistic practice, the results of their work have not contributed more to the changes of the social purposefulness of art than those of the earlier generations who did not put so much emphasis on new practice and attitudes. The achievement of this generation has not exceeded the limits of a culture in isolation, although they have created and offered to the public significant innovations, greater than those customarily produced within a single decade or by a single generation.'3
Whoever was involved in the goings-on connected with The New Art at the end of the 1960’s and beginning of the 1970’s will, indeed, certainly remember the great zeal, heightened fervour and intimate companionships of the time - in short, the pathetic nature of life in those days; yet one has to recognise that, little more than a decade later, there is not much to show for all this, and the results have not proved sufficiently enduring. What has endured, and has been able to endure, is mostly to be found in the art of this period. At the time, a number of individual artists – some of whom have managed to keep going until today - have justifiably earned them a more or less secure status in the history of the time and of the environment in which they were able to make their mark. In addition, there are others, who may not yet have fully developed their artistic potential, as yet, but who successfully laid down the foundations for their future development during these crucial years of maturation; they have not only found their place in the broader domain of culture, but continue to work away consistently, in a progressive and open-minded spirit. It would be wrong, just now, to attempt to draw any conclusions (and who can claim the right to do so?). Yet we are left with an overwhelming feeling that, for anyone involved at the time - even those who have witnessed so many unfulfilled hopes and disappointments - the tensions created by The New Art and, more broadly, by the patterns of behaviour that were born around the year 1968 are far from fully resolved. If nothing else, art always has a chance to continue its existence on a utopian plane; and, no matter how far away from reality utopia appears to be, art really has something in common with it, as it, too, projects a sense of the ideal. That is its major virtue, and that is why it has the power to survive any crisis in the circumstances surrounding its birth.
1 Renato Barilli, 'Il ‘68 e le arti visive', Qui arte contemporanea, 15, Roma 1975; re-publ. in: Informale, oggeto, comportamento: La ricerca estetica negli anni ‘70, Vol. 2, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1979.
2 M. Susovski, Inovacije u hrvatskoj umjetnosti sedamdesetih godina ['Innovations in Croatian Art of the 'Seventies'], exh. cat., Zagreb / Belgrade, 1982.
3 D. Matičević, Zagrebački krug ('The Zagreb Circle'), in Nova umjetnička praksa u Jugoslaviji 1966-1978 ('The New Art Practice in Yugoslavia 1966-1978'), exh. cat., Zagreb, 1978.