The Properties of the New Art Practice of the Seventies in the Yugoslav Art Space
Published in: Treći program Radio Beograda, 61, Beograd, 1984
The farther we progress into the 1980’s and the artistic period that has been characterised by the processes termed ‘Postmodernism’, ‘trans avant-garde’, ‘Hyper Mannerism’ and so on, the more difficult It has become to decide from which standpoint we should view the art of the previous decade - the tumultuous 1970's - which represented a period of great change and even greater (though probably only partially realised) efforts at change, as well as a period of great aspirations, only some of them fulfilled. As Tomaž Brejc put it:
'The seventies were not just one of the 20th-century decades, but a crucial period when Modernism made its last original jerk preceding the surrender before various forms of Postmodernism in the midst of that decenary.'
What Brejc was saying was that the art of the 1970’s was the final stage of a process which had actually lasted since the end of the 19th century (when the terms ‘Modernism’ and ‘modernity’ were introduced into the discussion of artistic matters); in other words, it was a late phase in one of those periods that frequently recur, in different guise, throughout the history of art. In the 1980’s, there began a new stage, arising out of the crisis, or even the breakdown, of some of the fundamental premises of Modernism. However, despite the evident changes that took place with regard to the modes of artistic expression at the turn of the decade, it is difficult – or rather, too soon, perhaps – to speak of the 'surrender' of Modernism, in the face of the postmodernist onslaught. It seems more likely that this has been a process with a number of stages, which were delicately linked in a variety of ways; 'surrender' was out of the question because, in art, certain historic phenomena retain their core relevance, even when the dominant artistic practices take a different turn. In the Yugoslav situation, the art of the 1970’s, or, more precisely, the stream which at that time championed a new notion of artistic work and behaviour, was undoubtedly an extremely challenging area, overburdened with Issues that demanded a response. This period has not yet undergone a sufficiently through analysis, despite the results of some recent research, which were brought to light by a number of events: the 1978 retrospective of the group OHO in Ljubljana, the Zagreb exhibition of The New Art Practice 1966-1978 in the same year, Innovations in the Croatian Art of the 'Seventies, staged in Zagreb and Belgrade in 1982, and The New Art in Serbia 1970-1980: Artists, Groups, Phenomena, organised in Belgrade and Zagreb in 1983, not to mention a number of smaller-scale groups and solo exhibitions that cast more light on the details of the subject matter. The following is particularly noteworthy: this was an artistic affair, which took place in several cultural centres (Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Novi Sad and Subotica), others of which were omitted for various reasons; yet, more than any preceding, current, or future movements, this appeared to be a relatively homogeneous spiritual field, In which the protagonists were closely connected across the whole artistic space of Yugoslavia. Therefore, Marijan Susovski was right, to conclude that:
In the first moments, the new artistic activities were originating or going on in the local milieux almost independently on one another, and soon they merged into a unitary line which saw the sense of creation in an altered language of art and in the context of art’s functioning.'
It seems that one of the reasons why the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies in Yugoslavia appeared to take a common line was the fact that the practice owed little to local, domestic traditions, which differed from one cultural centre of the country to another. The New Art Practice of the 'Seventies did not stem from a specific sense of an artistic rootedness, setting, or milieu; on the contrary, it stemmed from the existential reality of the artists themselves, and from the artists' behaviour, of which this was part. When these artists sought points of reference in the history of art or in the art of their contemporaries, they sought them in the avant-gardes of the first half of the century (which failed to take a strong hold on the Yugoslav culture of the day) or, more often, sought them in developments on the international art scene of their own time, with which they could personally identify. Any impression that the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies in Yugoslavia might have developed a common line results from the fact that the new art of the time was, on the whole, a quite homogeneous, and significantly international, phenomenon - the different Inflexions, such as those between British-American Conceptual Art and Italian Arte Povera being more or less self-explanatory. It was international, because this trend in the 1970’s tied in, directly or indirectly, with the widespread social and spiritual mood of the time in most developed countries In the contemporary world, which were a sign of rejection or contestation of what modern sociologists have come to refer to, as ‘modern industrial society', 'the consumer society' or, as Lucio Colletti called it, more aptly, perhaps: 'the society of general consensus and integration.
The New Art of the 'Seventies can be seen to have been one of the components of that huge wave of alternative culture that signaled the desire to introduce – to the maximum degree possible - an ‘aesthetic dimension’ into daily life; in other words, to put it in Marcusean wording, the desire to contain the repression-engendering reality principle and substitute it with the pleasure principle. Thus, the art of that time did not lay any store by the production of art objects, for these would have been prey to the mechanisms of the market; instead, it insisted on forms of artistic behaviour that were, by their very nature, tied to the decisions made by the artist, as an independent person. ‘Dematerialisation of art’ was the concept used to describe this transition from the art object to artistic behaviour, although, naturally enough, some degree of materiality remains preserved in the artistic activities themselves and the means by which they were captured in the new media - i. e. photography, film and video. The increased emphasis on artistic activities and artistic behaviour implies a view that the ethics of art had undergone a change: there was an aspiration for art to embody an existential act by a liberated individual, by a person who did not accept any of the institutional norms, and who was ready to buy freedom at the price of being marginalised, in relation to the centres of social power. It is not so difficult to identify in such views the moods which were linked to, or at least ran side by side with, those of the youth revolt of 1968: many young artists of the day belonged to the same generation, so their art was part of the culture and, in a broader sense, the social mentality of the historical period in which that art came into being.
As for the developments in Yugoslavia, one can easily see that some of the moods related to the aforementioned processes motivated the Yugoslav exponents of the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies. What often lay at the basis of their orientation was a rejection of the heritage imposed through education or other channels of cultural influence, to which they felt no affinity; also, they maintained their resistance to the institutions of the art system which totally ignored, or rejected, their contributions. As a counterbalance, they aspired to lay the foundations for a better understanding of their own output, at least within the range of activities which did not go far beyond the environment of like-minded people. Therefore, the artistic climate of that whole decade was flavoured with a degree of polemical tension. The tension was caused by both the representatives of the new views and those who had felt threatened by these views. Regardless of the weight of argument coming from all sides and highlighting the pros and cons of a given phenomenon, this polemical situation produced a dynamic clash of ideas, such as is welcome in any social and spiritual atmosphere that can lay claim to be open-minded.
Naturally, the polemical dimension would not have sufficed to underpin the New Art Practice's claim to be different from the inherited cultural situation. What had to be done was to lay the foundations for certain characteristic patterns of articulation and, beyond that, to attain a level of credibility that corresponded to the requirements of a well-developed artistic language. The language had its own properties and it is possible to discern within it numerous sub-categories in both the typology of the work itself and in the choice of the medium in which it was expressed. One of the major features of the new dispensation consisted in abandoning any compunction to produce a solid, material object. Objects were replaced with processual (i.e. temporally determined) artistic activities (performances, actions, interventions and the suchlike, inside and out of out the gallery space); and when works (concepts/drawings on paper, paintings on canvas, objects in book form, works in a photographic medium etc.) one could not be expected to read their meaning in the formal terms that are normally applicable to fine art and sculpture, but on a conceptual plane. So it is beyond dispute that the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies boasted a number of its own distinctive linguistic properties - contrary to some of the standard assertions, even by some of the movement's supposed supporters. This art could not be said to aim at effecting reconciliation between art and life; nor could it be said to 'non-art’, or even anti-art. In essence, it was not, and could not be, anything other than art, though of course it was art of a specific kind that demanded to be read in a certain way.
Now that we are getting down to specifics, a number of questions naturally arise, such as: What was the attitude of the exponents of the New Art Practice toward the status of the professional artist? What kind of knowledge could they boast of? And how did they demonstrate it through their work? In the nascent stage of the new art, from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, while there was a certain resistance to any kind of specialisation, including artistic specialisation, many of the individuals who came onto the scene had no formal artistic training, including some of the members of the Slovenian Oho group,, the Novi Sad groups, Kôd and (Ǝ, and the Subotica group, Bosch+Bosch. However, owing to their knowledge of a number of other scholarly disciplines, such as literature and linguistics, In particular, but also philosophy and art history, they moved with ease across the wide range of tasks they assigned to themselves, at any given time. At the same time, those artists who had trained at art academies underwent a process of critical reappraisal of their knowledge, and the status they had gained up until then. As a rule, they had more difficulty in engaging with the New Art Practice, but those that succeeded in this tended to stay associated with it for much longer. And it was these artists – since they already had some immediate experience – who constituted the major force of resistance against the inherited art tradition and against the art system, whose effects they had personally felt. Thus, the following situation was indicative of the circumstances in Yugoslavia: the initial breakthroughs in the field of the New Art were made by artists coming from non (art-) professional circles, but they subsequently only intermittently pursued an artistic programme, even if they did not abandon it altogether. At the next stage, in propagating this of this art, from the mid-'seventies onwards, those who stayed in the field, with few exceptions, were the artists who had chosen this profession through their education, even though they had been well aware that the profession was not going to guarantee them a stable existence.
An artist's decision to abandon the pursuit or intensify it was influenced by different approaches to the ethics of artistic behaviour, in the spirit of the postulates of the New Art Practice. At the initial stage, which we might qualify as idealistic, the protagonists of the New Art Practice were characterised by a certain moral purism, which they thought protected them from contagion with the professional art world. This approach was exemplified by the Oho group, whose membership – after some significant appearances on the international scene (e.g. Information, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970, and Aktionsraum in Munich, in the same year) did not wish to take advantage of these incentives for the sake of self-promotion, but instead decided to break away from the art system and withdraw from all public manifestations. Indeed, in 1971, one wing of the group established a commune at Šempas, with an aim of elevating their daily life onto a higher spiritual plane; and they deliberately avoided applying the epithet 'artistic' to this new form of existence. In some ways comparable to this was the case of some members of the groups based in Novi Sad and the group, Bosch+Bosch. On the other hand, several leading representatives of the (tentatively labelled) ‘professional’ wing of the New Art Practice opted for an entirely different strategy. They made efforts to secure for themselves, at all costs, a dignified place in mainstream international art. They tended to perform, or exhibit, as frequently as possible, and were prepared to take up permanent residence in a variety of different European countries, as in the case of Marina Abramović, Braco Dimitrijević, Radomir Damnjan and Gergely Urkom, who participated in numerous events of importance abroad. On the other hand, those who stayed and worked at home built up their positions through their works, writings and behaviour, with the aim of setting themselves apart from the existing artistic environment and, at the same time, laying the foundations for an alternative line of development.
One way of asserting a different response to the generally accepted artistic attitudes of the time was to develop a distinctive type of work and method of working. Thus, there was a widespread insistence at the time on the autonomy of the artist’s and, more generally, the intellectual's behavior, and on their independence from the conventional social hierarchies; accordingly, a work of art was supposed to be conceived and executed so as to 'speak for itself' - in other words, to express what the artist had deliberately incorporated, while resisting any additional interpretations which might come from outside and fall outside the control of the only competent person – the artist himself. The effect of this was that the works from the corpus of the New Art Practice had a much reduced physical presence, yet they were transparent and easy to decipher. They were anti-illusionistic, devoid of an aura, and deprived of metaphorical or symbolic dimensions. To make up for this however, they allowed for the mining to be read out of the very process, by which they had been made. The tautological and monosemic structure of the work of art was intentionally restrictive, and reduced, here and there, (e. g. in the Primary Painting of the second half of the 1970’s) to a mere demonstration of the manual process of producing a painting. A particular motivation lay behind resorting to such an extreme reductivity: the artists, at that time, who were of a similar persuasion thought they had fully to reveal the means by which their work was made, so as to give maximum publicity and clarity to their intentions, and to retain the maximum control over the means they employed.
Whilst the artist's personality used to remain in the background of works that were primarily conceptual or analytical in character, even though the artist did not abandon control over its meaning, the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies embraced one whole area of articulation, in which the competencies of the authorial person took precedence over all other evaluative parameters. By this, we are referring to those modes of manifestation, in which the artist no longer exploits shape and object, but their own physical presence, as an artistic and human subject. Due to the directness of what became known as Performance Art (in Yugoslav art of the 1970’s, it was most often practised by Marina Abramović, Damnjan, Raša Todosijević,Tomislav Gotovac, and Ilija Šoškić, among others), this kind of act was often referred to as 'the artist speaking in the first person singular'. The basic motivation behind this authorial voice - at a time, when people felt the pressures of hyper organised relations, was to enable artists to express, in a paradigmatic way, a peculiarly anarchic form of behaviour, as a model of the autonomous personality. The price to be paid for this was the loss of any lasting material work. Through processual work of this nature, art is exposed to dispersion, even entropy, in the unstoppable flow. The artist no longer has something substantial to leave behind, yet the flow of time does satisfy their need to experience, If only for a moment, a more intense and impulsive sense of living. The impermanence of the work gained another attribute within the framework of activities associated with the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies: the idea was born, and gained in strength, that a work of art does not exist 'for itself', or at least It does not have autonomous value – it achieves its existence and value from the context into which it is incorporated, and that, as a rule, is the context within which art is conventionally identified and assessed. The role played by context in the naming and assessment of art - most consequentially elaborated by Braco Dimitrijević and Goran Trbuljak – was indebted to the example of Duchamp, with his Invention of the ready-made, and the consequences that ensued from that. One of the outcomes of this was that, in the spiritual climate of the 1970’s, the main field of operations changed from a certain poetic playfulness, in the relationship between word and object, and a measure strikingly sharp criticism was directed at any neglect of the differences resulting from quite opposing views on the nature of art. With Dimitrijević, this relativisation of the status of the art object and even the relativisation of the status of art itself led eventually to asserting the specific nature of his artistic invention. On the other hand, with Trbuljak, it resulted in an utmost scepticism about the ‘production’ of art, which he demonstrated, for instance, by his declaration, 'For an Art without Artist, without Critique and without Audience'; yet in his scepticism, he did not spare himself either, admitting once, while opening an event, that ‘I do not wish to show anything new or original'. Thus, the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies displayed two almost diametrically opposed faces in Yugoslavia: one, which was expansive and egotistic, manifested itself through the behaviour we choose to call 'the artist speaking in the first person singular'; and the other which was sceptical, solipsistic and deliberately depersonalised, manifested in the artist’s position of 'eloquent silence'. And in the latter position, art objects were no longer produced, yet in that renunciation there was still a sufficient number of facts to indicate the nature of a particular idea of art at one particular moment of history.
The New Art Practice of the 'Seventies in the Yugoslav art space failed to result in any particular ‘poetics’ or ‘tendency’ (hence the difficulty in naming it: the provisional terms ‘New Art’ and ‘New Art Practice’ are in use, because they are broad enough to absorb extremely different views and techniques). But that should not cast any doubt on the fact that the phenomena of this kind of art in the Yugoslav circumstances were spiritually and psychologically conditioned. This cannot be taken as a kind of ‘import’ from abroad; it was an obvious articulation of the views about art and life of more than one generation of artists born approximately between 1940 and 1950 (mainly at one extreme or the other of this time span). When the first events took place, it seemed to be a broad movement that was going to re-evaluate not only the notions of art, but also the notions of life at one moment in history which betrayed numerous symptoms of social crisis, for which an outlet – in such a utopian and idealistic manner – was often sought in the revival of the old project of the historical avant-gardes about the assumed 'aesthetic dimension of existence'. When all those aspirations finally proved illusory, only art was left – neither better nor worse, in principle, than other kinds of art, just truly different, owing to the numerous diverse, and extraordinary, ways in which it could now be executed. From the initially broad mainstream of this movement, a number of individual figures built up their profiles and they persisted for a longer time, and more thoroughly, than many of their companions, in testing the unrewarding destiny of the artist-innovator, in a society indisposed towards alternative views - even those shrouded in the language of artistic symbolism. These artists were had fervent aspirations and greet ambitions, but the outcome of their hopes and ambitions was eventually reduced to the more or less successful bodies of work of a number of individuals. That is why, even today , a mood of latent disappointment seems to have spread across the entire region. What is left to some of those who at one point ventured into this art is not much more than their reminiscences of the days of their defiant youth. As for the results that were evidently achieved in the artistic sphere, they are ever farther away from the effects they had on immediate life, and were subjected ever more rapidly to the qualifications and criteria of art history.