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The institutionalization of artistic practice in Eastern Europe after 1989
Author: Octavian Esanu

The postsocialist contemporary intervenes, from the historical perspective of Eastern Europe, in a wider conversation about “contemporary art.” It departs from, and revolves around, a concrete case in which a program called “for contemporary art” was assembled on the debris of the Berlin Wall by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. The Soros Centers for Contemporary Art (SCCA) was a network of twenty art centers active during the 1990s in Eastern Europe. The book argues that this program played an important role in the actualization of the paradigm of contemporary art in the former bloc. The main goal of this study, however, is not to recreate the narrative but to take this Soros-funded art infrastructure as a critical point of inquiry in order to engage with key permutations occurring in art during the transition to capitalism. The book argues that with the implementation of Western art institutional models and norms by Soros, and other players after 1989, a radical departure takes place in the art of this region: a departure from an art that (officially at least) provided symbolic empowerment to the masses, toward an art that affirms the interests, needs, desires, and “freedom” of the private individual acting within the boundaries of the bourgeois civil society and the market. The book considers the “postsocialist contemporary” in a broader context of late twentieth-century political, economic, and cultural processes of (neo) liberalization, promoting and encouraging more critical historical materialist examinations of “contemporary art” – the dominant aesthetic paradigm of late-capitalist market democracy.

Octavian Esanu

The chapter is intended as a conclusion to a book that attempts to historicize the dominant institutional paradigm in post-1989 Eastern European art. Here the “postsocialist contemporary” is passed through three prisms. The first one considers the overall impact of the Soros art centers. But the book refuses to remain fixated on a “story of art,” that is, on protonarratives of this particular network and anecdotes about its players, aspiring instead to catch a glimpse of the Narrative of history, in the age of global networks of capital and culture. The chapter evolves, again in kaleidoscopic fashion, into two further sections written from the perspective of broader historical considerations in the development of “contemporary art” and “contemporaneity.” The chapter argues that contemporary art and contemporaneity (the temporality associated with globalized market-driven democracies) resonate with the main concerns of late bourgeois civil society, its actors and institutions. One can catch historical glimpses of this concern in the overlapping of the periodization of “contemporary art” and the rise of neoliberalism after World War II. The last section considers aspects of the construction of the discourse and temporality of contemporary art, dance, music, and architecture as specifically tailored to the needs of the global “open” or “great” society, since the early days of the Cold War in the United States. The “contemporary” is, in other words, one of the spoils gained at the end of the Cold War. Where this War has not yet ended (as in North Korea), one cannot fully imagine the network logic of contemporary art.

in The postsocialist contemporary
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The ideological bedrock of the postsocialist contemporary
Octavian Esanu

This chapter turns its attention to “antipolitics,” a word for what is seen as the dominant form of the resistance of East-Central European intellectuals to socialist totalitarianism. It will argue that “antipolitics” should be regarded not only as the main oppositional strategy and force developed during late socialism but also as the most significant ideological base for the construction of the “postsocialist contemporary” after 1989. It was “antipolitics,” as practiced in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia – and also earlier, and under very different conditions, in Moscow, in the context of post-Stalinist cultural and political wars (which, in fact, made Central European antipolitics possible) – that prepared the ground for a radically new relation between art and politics in postsocialist contemporary art. This new relation is developed early on in some of the first Annual Exhibitions within the SCCA network, and these efforts – formulated in terms of a new “paragon” of “PC Eastern Art” (where “PC” is made to stand for post-communism, personal computers, political correctness, the post-national condition, and others) – will be celebrated by the end of the 1990s as the major achievements of the Soros network. But the new conflation of politics with art during the transition are not only products of the post-1989 processes or liberalization – channeled along with grant dollars through various programs – and neither are they simply or only “Western imports,” but they are also to some degree residues and remnants of various antipolitical strategies developed within late socialist dissident groups, now in charge of normalization.

in The postsocialist contemporary
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Octavian Esanu

The introduction provides a general outline of the book. It is divided into four sections, with each part clarifying the author’s approach to the study of art in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as it revolves around new practices, institutions, and norms introduced by the SCCA network. The introduction begins with clarifying the author’s position vis-à-vis the figure of George Soros – the Hungarian-American financial speculator and philanthropist who had played a key role in the postsocialist reforms of the 1990s. The introduction states that the book does not study Soros as a personal figure, or his other activities, but only focuses on one art program, proceeding then to clarify its political position and critical interventions. It insists that this criticism must not be confused with current right-wing attacks on key liberal figures and institutions, but it is rather a critique formulated from the position of the left, which has traditionally approached art as an intrinsic part of social reality. The next section states the thesis and the intended contribution, offering a general introduction to the cultural context of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. This section also announces that the book builds upon the urgency of turning attention to the radical transformations taking place in the art of the 1990s, suggesting that its key motivation is the study of the relation between “contemporary art,” the ideological universe of liberal democracy, and neoliberalism. Finally, the introduction discusses the book’s method, concluding with a general outline of its five chapters.

in The postsocialist contemporary
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How Eastern Europe got the idea of contemporary art
Octavian Esanu

The main aim of this chapter is to provide a summary of the institutional context and history of the SCCA network. And even though the book does not aim at providing a full historical reconstruction of the “Soros contemporary” – given the diverse complexity of this program implemented in eighteen countries – a general outline of the narrative is still necessary in order to proceed (in the next chapters) to examine the structural transformations credited to the Soros art network. The chapter is divided into four parts, starting with a general overview of the network’s mission, values, objectives, and achievements; a concise discussion of the Soros Fine Arts Documentation Center, a small program established in the mid-1980s and which later served as a blueprint for the network; an examination of the general process of bureaucratic implementation of the SCCA centers; and an overview of the joined programs but also some major differences between these twenty centers. The chapter also discusses particular instruments used in the implementation of the program, such as the “SCCA Procedures Manual” which consisted of a set of instructions on how to open a center for contemporary art, headed by the logo of the SCCA network. These institutional elements are offered as examples of what united and negotiated the local nodes within this regional and trans-regional network.

in The postsocialist contemporary
The introduction of the curatorial function
Octavian Esanu

This chapter offers for discussion some aspects of research related to the rise and evolution of the SCCA network, as it was roughly outlined above. The main goal of this project is not one of historical recreation, but to identify certain fissures or ruptures that led to critical structural permutations in the process of artistic production during the transition to capitalism. The chapter’s title, “New norms and procedures,” is a direct reference to what some former employers and observers believe to have been the main contribution of these organizations in the constitution of the new paradigm of “contemporary art.” And while the latter has been advertised and promoted as the “art of the open society,” or as the “free art concept” (whose ideological underpinnings are discussed in the next chapter in the context of Cold War liberalism), here I examine some of the new patterns and norms of this new paradigm, by drawing on examples of art exhibitions and artistic activities produced within different hubs of the Soros art network during the 1990s. Such new institutional practices include, for example, the advent of the role or job of “the curator,” and the format of a “curated exhibition.” Both the curatorial job and format are believed to have been one of the most noticeable and lasting impacts of the Soros network’s Annual Exhibition program, discussed in this chapter along with some of the most dominant artistic and curatorial themes of the 1990s.

in The postsocialist contemporary
The aesthetics of problem-solving
Octavian Esanu

As discussed in previous chapters, the main postulates outlined in the mission statements of these centers – in their imperative to build an institutional infrastructure for the art of the “open society,” which is to say “contemporary art” – amounted to an ideology of postsocialist artistic institutions and practices in the 1990s. But such statements were the fruit of various managerial-bureaucratic narratives woven in the Open Society Institute offices of New York and Budapest. The postsocialist or Soros contemporary had a clear managerial agenda, but it lacked an aesthetic or artistic program. This chapter examines a small segment of the vast ideological universe of new or neo-liberalism. It engages with the work of a few intellectuals who have left a deep impact not only on post-1989 reforms in Eastern Europe, but also on the world. The chapter looks into some of the ideas about art that were popular among a number of Central European intellectuals that were affiliated in some way or another with Karl Popper. Rather than consider their general social, scientific, and economic postulations – for which they have been celebrated by advocates of the free market, over the course of the past century – the chapter traces their artistic and aesthetic beliefs, seeking to comprehend the place of art in the ideological universe of Cold War liberalism. The chapter poses such questions as: What is the place of art in the “open society” that Soros, following Popper’s dream, decided to build in Eastern Europe?

in The postsocialist contemporary