Aleksandar Srnec's personality and artistic oeuvre in the context of the industrial (socialist) modernisation of society
In previous attempts at giving a critical and retrospective account of Aleksandar Srnec’s work, the recurrent question has been: “what” is he? But in this text I shall ask: “who” is he really? The method of reconstructing one’s personality from one’s work is already traditional in the historiographic presentation and evaluation of works of art, following the modern concept of the individual who mediates his identity through his works, so that they represent this person. However, the questions of a person’s identity, his “what” and “who” are intertwined in the art production of modern times both in the aspects of ideology and politics, as well as technology and mass production – in other words, through the phenomenon of avant-garde movements that encompasses all these aspects with its semantic field.
The relation of the notion and practice of the avant-garde to the phenomenon of mass technology is unavoidable in most texts on the practice of modernism. Every attempt at assessing a cultural practice whose protagonist still lives and works also necessarily directs the viewer to a network of metaphors set up by the author himself, but also to facts claiming to be historical truths. However, historicizing an activity that traditionally belongs to the realm of art practice will frequently cause certain difficulties in the attempt to set up a historian’s narrative. This is especially the case when we speak about an art practice that took place in the context of a modernisation movement that formally no longer exists due to ideological political reasons.
In this text I shall thematize the work of Aleksandar Srnec, an artist who, as a rule, is marked as belonging to the neo-avant-garde of the second half of the twentieth century, but who was active in very heterogeneous creative fields and in a social context that has ideologically modernised technology. As technology is a considerable part of this artist’s metaphor, the relation of contemporariness to the past is primarily set as the following question: is Srnec an art visionary of mass media and how is he seen today by a viewer who is a subject of a symbolic network economy?
Within the framework of the relationship between a project and its realisation, actually the mechanism of transferring technological ideas from the sphere of art into the commercial sphere – i.e., from the field of avant-garde invention into the field of mass consumption – it is possible to establish a discussion on his entire body artistic work. This can be achieved by explaining former experiments as the basis for the today’s society of spectacle. Still, even if we accept this presupposition, it is necessary that the experiment, that is, the artist, be placed into a context. Where does Aleksandar Srnec belong? Is Aleksandar Srnec part of the body of contemporary Croatian art? These seem to have been the questions that Igor Zidić asked himself in a review of Srnec’s exhibition in the Gallery of the Students’ Centre in Zagreb,1 because this problem complex is “difficult to spot, from whichever side it is observed.” Thereby he has, perhaps involuntarily, described an important, if not the most important characteristic of the artist’s social and even artistic profile, which during the greater part of his public career has been less present in the conscience of the public and critics than his like-minded brothers-in-arts. Aleksandar Srnec is currently absent.
There is actually a universally accepted view of Aleksandar Srnec’s art work, which says that the body of his work is in each of its segments smaller than the body of work of his immediate fellow-artists, such as Ivan Picelj, Vladimir Kristl, or Božidar Rašica, with whom he participated in the first exhibition of the EXAT 51 group, which caused a considerable number of polemic articles in the context of the discussion of what art is suitable for a society of industrial modernisation. While a comparison with Božidar Rašica’s work is not easy to establish, because he was primarily an architect, a comparison with Picelj’s and Kristl’s work can be inspiring, because Srnec’s work is not inferior in quantity; it is simply more diversified, originating from a person less concerned with the linear development of his career.
Such a perception, but in a different segment or a medium of Srnec’s work, reflects itself in the assertion “Aleksandar Srnec, although with a lesser poster opus…”2, which points to the idea that his poster production is inferior in quantity to that of his colleagues. Because Srnec is inclined to research and experiment, free of the need to build up a straightforward middle-class career, he is, on the one hand, often understood as an experimenter who does not produce traditional works of art, so that his public position is “absent”, because it does not deliver a product understandable and acceptable to the mechanism of art evaluation. On the other hand, in the period between the fifties and the late seventies, Srnec created a large number of works in the field of graphic design and visual communications that entered the public circulation without an authorial mark, so that their author was “present”, but not with his personal identity.
Although he encountered considerable critical reception3, Srnec has been building up his “present absence” persistently for decades, wishing to be active, but aside from the dominant social and cultural processes, detached as a kind of avant-garde dandy. An important contribution to this public image of him was made by art critics, especially those who rejected, or at least questioned, the value of Srnec’s artistic activity. In the context of the ideologically defined society of Croatia as part of socialist Yugoslavia, such negation indicated a problematic public position as well as the relativity of one’s personal identity. Hence the fluid condition of Srnec’s “present absence”, even from the 1950s and the public debate about abstract art in a local context, through the sixties and seventies, when his each new experiment surprised even those critics who had thorough insight regarding his work. There are three controversial points related to the phenomenon of Srnec’s identity within the body of Croatian contemporary art: technology, the relation between art and design, and the artist’s social status. The technological controversy is important for the perception of Srnec’s work, because experimenting with different technological structures – in order to examine physical and perceptive phenomena – has marked the author’s activity in the domain of “luminokinetic” works. As these works in themselves, during the sixties and seventies, when they were created, are not easy to fit into the traditional notion of art production – i.e., art that creates lasting material evidence of productivity in middle-class sense – so is Srnec labelled as a “wizard-magician”, with the remark that “mechanics can replace the mystery of creation, the value of ingeniousness, and the secrets of hands… but can go no further”.4 This was about the criticism of transferring technology from the sphere of the ideologically based social project of industrial modernisation into the sphere of art. Considering that a technological experiment could legally be conducted only under the control and with the support of the state apparatus, it does not strike us as awkward that experimenting in art could not be understood in terms of identity and also could not be placed into the system of culture production. Therefore, because he used technical means, Srnec made the traditional notion of his artistic identity questionable.
The controversy over the relation of art and design (here in the narrow sense in which this word has been used in Croatian since the 1960s onwards) was already sensed in the Manifesto of the EXAT 51 group, which states that “there is no difference between so-called pure and so-called applied art”.5 One of the key guidelines of the group’s activities is the notion of “synthesis” , which not only criticised the semantic field of the politically introduced notion and practice of “applied arts” from the late forties, but also introduced an encompassing practice of shaping the environment, reaching from gallery art to visual communication. Thus, later in their careers, all the members of the group have exercised with complete legitimacy crossovers between different visual art disciplines, spanning from posters to city-planning. In this they all saw the sense of manifestly highlighting the artist’s identity, all but Srnec, who says, “during my entire life I had to do other things in order to be able to proceed with my art”.6 This means that he is the only one with a seemingly practical and somewhat disrespectful attitude, in which it looks as if he again made a distinction between “pure” and “applied” art, as if he did not want to draw “his” art closer to the immense, almost endless series of visual communications he has created from the fifties onwards. Posters for museums and galleries, concerts, films, book covers, visual identities, and his other achievements for the needs of mass public communication show the same level of research and experimentation that Srnec’s gallery art has been based on. This means that there is no formal reason for detaching the identity of art from design, except the attitude of the author, who has never bothered to let the public know that he was the author, so that he has remained on the sidelines, unnoticed by the existing historiographic insight into the history of design and visual communication in Croatia.
The logical consequence of these two controversies is the third one, which concerns the social status of the artist. What this was like, is well illustrated by an argument about the purchase of his paintings published in an interview in 1979.7 According to the article, Srnec’s identity had not been completely clear in state administrative structures that financed art production, so that he simply disappeared from the list of subsidised artists. This anecdote fairly well supports the theory of the artist’s “present absence” in the local context. On the one hand, the artist himself kept evading a permanent determination of identity type, because he disliked the position of producers of lasting art values; on the other hand, he did not want to be perceived as an author of mass communication in the public sphere. In addition to this, administrative structures in charge of financing art production from the fifties to the seventies had to a large extent abandoned the model of supporting state representative art, while the middle-class ideal of the art product was still dominant in the perception of a desirable and thus culturally valuable work of art. Therefore, Srnec was a fluid presence even on the lists of artists. Present, but still absent, of his own will and choice, but also because of controversies that could hardly be solved in the context of socialist industrial modernisation, because, as one critic pointed out “a new type of artist, the artist-engineer type, is emerging. We are afraid that this might be a hoax.”8 The plural form “we” here denotes the speech of the other, i.e. speaking on behalf of a mainstream society that, even at the unconscious level, labels and discards the identity of difference.
Avant-garde as a notion?
At the beginning of this text I stressed the position of the avant-garde as important. Is it still possible today to use the term avant-garde and be sufficiently convincing in this communication? Considering the fact that at a time of fragmented modernisation centres the dominant idea of social and economic progress was dispersed into an endless series of local stories, it seems that things should be well-founded if we want the usage of the term or the label “avant-garde” to carry a meaning close to its original one.9 Or is this perhaps about a different meaning?
On this occasion we are devoted to the description of a profile of a single artist, so that an adequate frame for the attempt at describing this phenomenon should inevitably encompass the following topics: the notion of avant-garde; progressiveness as a concept and modernisation as a process; the idea of modernity; the relationship between corporate and individual; and finally, art as a complex of visual facts and design as an identity system, as well as both as a communication model.10
The notion of avant-garde is historically delineated and bound to the foundations of civil democracy and to the idea of the individual as the carrier of cultural transformations. Just as these transformations have intensified during industrial modernisation, on the wave of mass production and consumerism, the notion of avant-garde (that which we can today understand as practice in real historical time) has been getting more complex at a rather high pace.11 This dynamic is the point of difference that, for example, divides modern culture from the traditional, marked by long-lasting style formations. Speaking strictly theoretically, avant-garde as a category can be ascribed to different forms of social activity, based on the relation of individual to collective identity. The practice of different disciplines of the humanities and social sciences has made it usual to discuss the avant-garde as a line of art tendencies – primarily in architecture, visual arts, and literature - during the time line reaching from the last quarter of the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. More precise critical historians would make this span even narrower, because they do not all agree about the categorisation, although the majority would accept the assertion that the time of the historical avant-garde has passed.12 This is so primarily because the connection of art with social and political projects has entirely changed the direction of its actions during the last fifty years. Let us not forget that the notion of avant-garde has also been applied to ideological influences.
By reminding of this level of the avant-garde notion, we wish to point out the relation of progressiveness as a concept to the processes of modernisation. Here we should not especially point out that general efforts towards modernisation have created a sufficient base for establishing the concept of economic development as a primary social category. To that extent, the idea of progressiveness has – practically from the beginnings of steam engine use in production processes and the French Revolution – been projected into diverse social spheres, from politics in the narrowest sense to art. Its key factor has been the mechanistic image of the world, featuring incessant machine production that had to continuously increase the production of commodities in order to satisfy the needs of the increasing number of people.13 Or was it the other way round – first the needs and than the production? The modernisation process in Western society – i.e., the perfecting of capitalism as a new civil formation – has set up progressiveness as an entirely new ecological fact, both in its relation to the natural environment and its relation to the social environment. The resources used in progressivist social philosophy have used and encompassed (and they still do) everything natural (including man) and everything that is turned into artificial forms, mass products and works of art during the continuous efforts of modernisation.14
There is a certain relation between efforts at modernisation and avant-garde visions; it could be termed as resistance-related, meaning that it typically describes avant-garde art as a modernist reaction to modernisation processes. From the gap that is formed between effort and resistance, modernity emerges as a resultant, immense source of ideas and concepts: from positive and negative Utopias to today’s anti-globalisation movement. Can modernity as a phenomenon be ascribed to any lasting semantic position? This is not at all easy, we might say, because already for the continuity – actually the progressiveness – of the processes that set modernity in motion, the contents created in this way (by resistance) are in continuous flow themselves.15
However, the idea of modernity primarily of literary character, although today we can observe it on different levels of cultural production. The notion of avant-garde within the phenomenon of modernity is probably the most productive segment in the now already historical story about the creation of modern Western culture. This is because within a short period of time – mostly from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century – so many new contents were created that they exceeded the production of several previous centuries, confirming Morus’s idea of a “century that will hold more history than any before”. Expressed more precisely, this is the consciousness of history and cultural production.16 In the same way, this consciousness has mainly been encouraged by the extraordinary development of the mass media as another field of the processes of modernisation; one time’s avant-garde cultural tendencies have transformed from visionary works into mere facts of general culture, presented in large monographs with high print runs, today accessible and usable within different public communication strategies. Post-industrial culture, that which is frequently called post-Fordian economy, stresses the symbolic value of products as most important.17 On that level of functionality, one time’s avant-garde art experiments have become part of the general cultural repertoire. But has this process made clearer the identity of individuals who as artists were active in the context of ideologically conceived industrial modernisation?
The ideological polemics of the fifties
For a better understanding of the avant-garde notion and its social role, thus providing an even more detailed thesis about “present absence”, it is necessary to elaborate on the semantic field of this notion, in terms of discourse formed on two levels: first on the ideological level, pertaining to a political project with the stressed position of the Communist Party as the “avant-garde” of the workers’ class and then on the level of the art project, but not compatible with the first level, because the ideological avant-garde has not found its equivalent in the avant-garde of cultural production; hence numerous critical controversies concerning the term avant-garde – both in art practice and in the ideological project. The relationship between art and politics during the fifties has caused a number of textual interventions in favour of and against the avant-garde concept of art, which was then, in the critics’ vernacular, mostly termed “abstract art”, frequently theoretically encompassed by the notion of “decadence”. Even when, within the boundaries of that situation, critics inclined to the avant-garde concept in art wrote about Srnec, they defined him only as far as to realise that “his painting means painting the unseen, only the poetry of the inexpressible.”18 In this way his identity was only additionally made fluid, that is to say absent, despite the presence of his name in the written text. Ideological polemics in the fifties about what kind of cultural production was adequate for the context of industrial modernisation made room for the character of Srnec’s activity in the local context, work that constantly escapes a lasting critical label.
Constructivism and socialist realism – a non-existing juxtaposition?
Polemic discussions during the fifties took place within the context of the social project of industrial modernisation, within which “art of constructive approach”, as defined by J. Denegri, was then perceived as problematic and today as alternative or a necessary segment of an ideological project.19 If it is possible to read the possible state of society from the text – i.e., if the text is also, in Barthes’s terms, a myth by whose materialisation society is homogenized, then critical insights into “abstract” art are actually an attempt to discuss the identity of a social community and cultural production. If we take into consideration the historians’ discussions on the era of industrial modernisation, it is easy to see a semantic gap between the general social project of the “progressive” political tendency and critical insights into problematic aspects of “abstract” art.20 The language of political speeches and other ideological programmatic texts promoted “avant-garde” properties and even experimenting and research, while the utterances of visual art critics at the same time advocated the middle-class concept of the art product. This paradox indicates the complexity of the identity map of that time’s industrial modernization context, both on the level of the public practice of developing a collective identity and on the level of individual identities. On this complicated map, it is also important to mention the changes that took place during the fifties, regarding the shift towards social activism in building flats, creating a popular mass-media culture, advertising as a commercial communication practice, and also promoting clothing fashion as a consumption mechanism.21 If we consider the culture of the fifties in such a context, we can see that Aleksandar Srnec’s activity appears simultaneously in all these segments, from gallery art to advertising. Perhaps because of this it is difficult to fit him into the scheme of critical and historical assessment that insists on only one dimension of his identity. Srnec conducted his investigations through different media in the fifties, but as that time lacked the perception of possible links between artistic experiment and social project, his artistic identity appeared in every new medium as a different one. A gallery work of immaterial art, the front page of a fashion magazine, an advertisement for a company that produced photo films, a poster for the national airline – in each of these media Srnec is present in the research process but absent in name.
Industry and identity
The question of experiment and avant-garde in the local context of industrial modernisation was solved already by the end of the sixties, but in the domain of economy. The mass project of mechanising the society certainly established relations within which individual identities were subjected to the concept of collective identity, correspondent to the metaphor of an industrial plant according to which the entire society is set up. Until the mid-sixties such a model functioned on the principles of plan economy and five-year cycles, following the idea described by Rudolf Bahro as “industrial despotism”.22 However, after the mid-sixties and the decision by the ruling political party to include elements of market competition into a society of nominal equality, economic reform was initiated, and since then the notion and practice of design have been forming in the Croatian language and culture.23 Through this notion, but also through the practice of creating functional objects and visual meanings, the framework for a new level of identity exchange between the individual and the collective was established. Since then, the identity of culture has been built (or at least there have been attempts to build it) on the synthesis proclaimed by the Manifesto of the EXAT 51 group: by connecting different visual arts disciplines and constantly encouraging experiments. However, since the beginning of economic reforms leading to market competition, there has also been a clear social justification for this experiment in fulfilling the idea of economic growth. Thus in Croatia, as part of socialist Yugoslavia, the dispute in the relationship between technology and art was terminated, at least on the level of public tendencies to include design in production processes.24 This has still not led to the realisation of the assumption that the experiment - the search for other and different possibilities – could be recognised in the domain of art as a possible constructive element of cultural production, and thereby production in general, because mass production has taken another path, towards the multiplication of material assets and even individual identities, but only those that could be legitimised as subjects of the industrial modernisation project and thereby also consumption. But since, from the mid-sixties onwards, this project has been based on a hybrid model combining the Eastern and Western economy patterns, individual identities were formed either according to one or the other model. Therefore, art was, in the view of the local public, also captured in the gap between the urge to satisfy the middle-class necessity of delivering a product and the ideological concept of society as an experiment. Also in the local context, this confirmed one of the aporias concerning the relation between Marxism and modernism, related to “understanding the basic humanist purpose of art as a measure of the fullness and emptiness of human life”.25 But when this relation is established on the economic calculation or the idea of economic growth, then the idea of art as a measure is reduced to just one in a series of problems in the identity exchange between the individual and the community. In other words, modernisation efforts cause resistance that seems to be an equally important part of modernist aesthetics and the modernist ethic.
Present absence is the metaphoric equivalent of the Utopian ideological project – a hybrid condition of fluid identity of simultaneous freedom and control, plan economy and elements of market competition – a condition in which the community is and is not, and the individual is present and absent, exactly to the extent of unstable duration that in the experimental sense has always interested Aleksandar Srnec most – as a recording on a roll of film, and film is everyday life, like the movement of a luminokinetic sculpture and the reflection of light, in the sense of Stokes’s “invitation to art” – i.e., public activity within which particular works/products are only points of linking individual and collective identity in the ritual of cultural production.26 More precisely, Srnec’s work could be divided within Catherine Millet’s “image-process-practice” triad, where the occurence of the artistic is differentiated from the happening of the political.27 Therefore, also the present-absent identity of Aleksandar Srnec’s political artistic activity is established as a permanently unstable state of his personal identity, but also as an inspiring metaphor for understanding the relation of avant-garde art and the contemporary mass culture of spectacle from where I have tried to provide an overview of Srnec’s activity and identity.
1 Zidić, I., Srnec na jednoj nozi i na obje noge (Srnec on one foot and on both feet), Aleksandar Srnec in the SC Gallery, 1967, Telegram, Zagreb, 9/6/1967, No. 371, p. 5
2 Kakarkaš, J., Plakat na lakat (Srnec's posters), Student, Belgrade, Apr. 27th, 1977
3 Neki primjeri kritičke recepcije djela Aleksandra Srneca (Some examples of the critical reception of Aleksandar Srnec's works, Pavle Stefanović), Opening of the exhibition of the Zagreb group EXAT 51, Umetnost i kritika, Belgrade May 24th, 1953; Josip Depolo, Djelo „napada“ prolaznika (A work that “attacks” a passer-by), Vjesnik, Zagreb, June 12th, 1967; Ješa Denegri, Situacija vizuelnih i kinetičkih istraživanja kod nas (The current situation in visual and kinetic research in Yugoslavia), Polja, Novi Sad, No. 113-114, p. 30-31; Tonko Maroević, Polje mogućeg (Field of the possible), exhibition Movement and Light by Aleksandar Srnec, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Telegram, Zagreb, Jan. 4th, 1969; Zvonko Maković, Izložba pokret i svjetlo Aleksandra Srneca, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, Jan. 10th – Feb. 2nd, 1969; Život umjetnosti 9, Zagreb, 1969; Kritičari o Srnecu (Critics on Srnec), Vjesnik Dec. 21st, 1971; Zvonko Maković, Aleksandar Srnec, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, May 25th – June 20th, 1971, Život umjetnosti 17, Zagreb, 1972
4 Maleković, V., Čarolije kinetičkog prostora (The magic of kinetic space), an exhibition of luminoplastic works by Aleksandar Srnec in the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Vjesnik, Feb. 4th, 1969
5 In: Kolešnik, Lj. (ed.), Hrvatska likovna kritika pedesetih (Croatian visual art criticism in the fifties), Croatian Society of Art Historians, Zagreb, 1999, p. 105 and Denegri, J., Koščević, Ž, EXAT 51, CKD SSO Zagreb, Zagreb 1979
6 Lučić, M., Živjeti od apstrakcije, Aleksandar Srnec (Living on abstraction, Aleksandar Srnec) – interview, Vjesnik, Mar. 6th, 1983
7 Kobia, G., Aleksandar Srnec, Treća strana medalje (The third side of the medal), Oko, Dec. 27th, 1979
8 Maleković, V., Srnčev kinetograf ili metamorfoze svjetlosti (Srnec's cinetograph or metamorphoses of light ), Vjesnik, Zagreb, June 22nd, 1971
9 Rogers, E.N., Tradition and Modern Design, in: Banham, R. (ed.), The Aspen Papers, Twenty Years of Design Theory from the International Design Conference in Aspen, Praeger, New York, Washington, 1974, p. 78-86
10 Bolz, N., Die Funktion des Designs (The function of design), Designreport 4 / 2001, Munich 2001, p. 66-69
11 Greenhalgh, P. (ed.), Modernism in Design, Reaktion Books, London, 1990
12 Walker, J.A., Design History and the History of Design, Pluto Press, London, Boulder Colorado, 1989
13 Buck Morss, S., Dreamworlds and Utopia, The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, MIT Press, Cambridge / Mass., 2002
14 Habermas, J., Modernity – an Incomplete Project, in: Foster, H. (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Seattle / Washington, 1983, p. 3-16
15 Bonsiepe, G., Design: From Material to Digital and Back, in: Interface, an Approach to Design, Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, 1999, p. 26-37
16 Julier, G., The Culture of Design, Sage, London 2000
17 Baudrillard, J. The System of Objects, in: Thackara, J. (ed.), Design After Modernism, Thames and Hudson, London, 1989, p. 171-183
18 Bašićević, D., Jezik apstraktne umetnosti (The language of abstract art), in: Kolešnik, Lj., Hrvatska likovna kritika pedesetih, Croatian Society of Art Historians, Zagreb, 1999, p. 145
19 Denegri, J., Umjetnost konstruktivnog pristupa (The art of the constructive approach), Horetzky, Zagreb, 2000
20 Bilandžić, D., Historija SFRJ, glavni procesi 1981-1985, third edition, Školska knjiga, Zagreb, 1985
21 Vukić, F. (ed.), Modernity and the City, Zagreb, 2003
22 Bahro, R., The Alternative in Eastern Europe, Verso, London, 1977
23 Vukić, F., Od oblikovanja do dizajna (From shaping to design), Meandar, Zagreb, 2003
24 Canki, E. (ed.), Industrijski dizajn i privredno-društvena kretanja u Jugoslaviji (Industrial design and economic and social tendencies in Yugoslavia), Collected papers from the symposium held 22nd-24th September, 1969, Centar za industrijsko oblikovanje, Zavod za tržišna istraživanja and Radničko sveučilište „Moša Pijade“, Zagreb, 1969
25 Lunn, E., Marxism and Modernism, University of California Press, 1982, p. 13
26 Stokes, A., Poziv u umjetnost (Invitation to Art), in: Mišćević, Zinaić (ed.), Plastički znak, Collected papers on the theory of visual arts, Izdavački centar Rijeka, Rijeka, 1982, p. 191-203
27 Millet, C., Problem „sadržaja“ u apstrakciji (The problem of „content“ in abstraction), in: Miščević, Zinaić (ed.), Plastički znak, Collected papers on theory of visual arts, Izdavački centar Rijeka, Rijeka, 1982, p. 245-249