How to write about the art history of Central and Eastern Europe? In her review of the recently published book Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 by Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Marianna Placáková wonders who will be given credit for the knowledge and findings from research conducted by researchers from our region. Is it possible that a certain inequality persists between the former West and the former East?
Placáková’s review considers mainly the book itself and the policies of the publishing house (Thames&Hudson), therefore she doesn’t comment the complex activities of Maja and Reuben Fowkes in Eastern Europe. This fact caused a critical debate and Fowkeses decided to write a reply explaining their position. The reply is published below the review.
Which actions are actually decolonizing?
Being a little late to the party, it was only last week that I first opened the year-old book Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 by Maja and Reuben Fowkes, and consequently started wondering how scholars write about the art history of this region and what is the role of local art historians in this process.
The book focuses on Central and Eastern European art since the 1950s up until today. Its contents are ordered by decades. It has 230 pages with no footnotes or endnotes, there is only a selection of mostly English literature related to the topic of the book and an extensive appendix with pictures. The text itself consists of lists of more or less known authors, galleries, dates, and places. It outlines the development from post-war works influenced by new cultural policy, through the abstraction and the pop-art of the 60s to the action art of the 70s and goes even further covering the post-1989 situation reacting to the rising neoliberalism. It is actually a very long, easy-to-understand explanatory dictionary entry. After all, similar encyclopedic publications are no exception in art history. So where lies the problem of this book? Maybe it could provide an overview to those readers who are not quite familiar with the Eastern European context?
This will undoubtedly be the book’s fate and it will probably be often labeled as “the first” of its kind, as it is advertised by its publisher, Thames&Hudson. However, this does not mean that we should not criticize the form of this popularizing marketing product aimed at the international public and most likely perfectly meeting the publisher’s requirements. The issue lies in the fact that it is a synthesis of art from the above-mentioned regions with a problematic structure. The two authors refer in their approach to Piotr Piotrowski‘s “horizontal art history”, a concept common to almost all projects focusing on the issue of writing about the art history of Central and Eastern Europe and beyond, such as All-women art spaces in Europe in the long 1970s edited by Agata Jakubowska and Katy Deepwell (Liverpool University Press, 2018) or Globalizing East European Art Histories by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas (Routledge, 2018). There are two approaches to this issue: a purely authorial, subjective one, when authors try to offer their own perspective based on their extensive research and expertise (Piotr Piotrowski’s case), or a collective one, where the “collective image” is formed by individual studies by individual authors writing about specific topics and regions they specialize in (the above mentioned project by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas, for instance). But Maja and Reuben Fowkes apply none of these two in this book. It is not a collective work of many authors neither an approach bringing new propositions and perspectives.
Their authorial approach is probably reflected in the order and selection of individual authors and styles which lack, nevertheless, an overarching idea. The thing is that one of the reasons for writing a synthesis of Central and Eastern European art is to reveal the interconnectedness of individual societies caused by their “entangled history” and manifested in similar topics and processes present in different regions. The book evokes the seeming interconnectedness of these regions by describing events happening in several places at the same time (in film editing, this is called crosscutting), such as: “at the end of the 60s, Czechoslovakia was dealing with this, Poland with this and Hungary with that.” The question arises why use such an approach in writing about the art history of Central and Eastern Europe? The idea that someone would write a similar book about Western European post-war art is preposterous. So, we could actually sum up the main message of the publication as follows: Look, there was also some art in Eastern Europe.
However, the format of the book was more likely commissioned by the publishing house which also stands behind Contemporary African Art by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Latin American Art Since 1900 by Edward Lucie-Smith – both came out last year as part of the same book series. Even though these are second editions of books that were first published in the 90s, they speak to the publisher’s policy of publishing continent-wide syntheses about “non-Western” regions while, when writing about “the Western world”, the same format is used to focus on specific areas or individual issues. For example, the same series also includes Scottish Art by Murdo Macdonald, an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture, published this year. The question remains whether it is even productive today to write syntheses of Central and Eastern European Art (even in the sense of Piotr Piotrowski’s critical rewriting of the Western canon). Because it means, in a certain sense, adopting the Cold War perspective of using one label for a number of various regions (such as Czechoslovakia, Albania, and Estonia). It also often leads one to presume that this region interests the West only as one whole. As if the history of individual countries or smaller areas had no longer a chance to succeed on the “Western” book market.
Another problematic aspect is the genesis of this publication. The book is published in English by a renowned publisher and written by two authors living in London who, regardless of their past activities in Central Europe (at the Central European University), are anchored, not only thanks to their institutional environment, in “Western” structures. In their long-term research, the authors have been focusing only on art from specific Central and Eastern European regions. Although I do not know anything about the language skills of the two authors, I assume they don’t speak German, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, the Baltic languages, and other Eastern European languages, all at the same time. While I do not think it necessary to perfectly master the language of the studied material (and in case of such a synthesis it is probably even impossible), original sources are key for new conclusions. Most of the secondary literature is also available only in local languages.
So how did the text come about? The Fowkeses relied mostly on previous research and findings of local art scholars while also consulting the topic with some of them. Therefore, the publication uses mostly local research findings which is also reflected in the text: when nearing the present time (which is less covered by local research) the text gradually becomes less general, drowning in details. This is partially an established practice among “Western” authors writing about Central and Eastern Europe. In Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (Manchester University Press, 2017) Amy Bryzgel largely adopts local studies without entering into dialog with them. But in case of the Fowkeses, the situation becomes even more problematic – they do not reference the original authors because the publisher-defined format does not allow for footnotes/endnotes.
The main problem of the book thus lies in the fact that the authors do not give sufficient credit to local art historians. Such as, in case of Czech art, to Pavlína Morganová who, having been focusing on Czech action art for decades, has created its prevailing narrative. But the international readership usually learns about her findings from texts by “Western” authors, such as the Fowkeses or Bryzgel, with only a limited circle of experts aware of their actual authorship credit. Most of the readership obviously considers the “Western” authors, whose work is, as in the case of the Fowkeses, advertised as “path-breaking new history”, as the main authors. Local art historians must do with their name appearing in the “thank you” section among fifty other names of other Central and Eastern European art historians who had not only provided maximum local sources but probably also selfless consultations and opinions. In this case, the problem lies not only in the language but also in the structures. This is why Pavlína Morganová’s publication Czech Action Art (Karolinum, 2014), one of the few books on Czech post-war art history published in English, occupies, because of its Czech publisher, rather a marginal position in this international power structure.
One could object that this is what science is about: sharing data and information and creating shared knowledge. But this does not apply to the current global unequal economic and power set-up in academia. Generally speaking, we should avoid in the local art and art studies practice a self-colonizing assessment of the local situation, including the quality of local academic research and institutions, by comparing us to the “West”. For one, the situation is unequal in terms of economic resources (for instance, the idea that art historians in the Czech Republic will have “Western” academia-level salaries and working conditions, large travel funds for visits abroad or a team of researchers helping them with their research, as is the case of established Western academicians, is absolutely beyond reality). Secondly, this idea still implies that high-quality production is the privilege of “Western” institutions and publishing houses – a bit distorted perspective stemming also from the fact that the image of the West is still associated with cultural and social prestige. Local conditions also put the humanities under double pressure – to be relevant for both “Western” and local academia, or even the local public, which is time consuming but also associated with the issue of translating a different experience.
If we are to go back to the questions raised by this publication, one of them concerns the right set-up of international cooperation in this unequal structural situation. For local art historians, this could mean deciding whether they want to voluntarily invest their work and knowledge into projects which, it seems, will not give sufficient credit to their contributions in their final outcomes. The prestige resulting from this cooperation is, to a certain extent, illusory because this is not an equal partnership. Local science could eventually gain on confidence and emancipate itself from the West – its idealized role model as knowledge originating from “Western” institutions is often viewed by local researchers as by definition superior to their own research. The regained confidence of local researchers aware of the value of their work could then help establish more equal relations within international cooperation.
I am not saying that Maja and Reuben Fowkes’ publication is the result of an exploitative approach towards local art historians (I assume that they are on friendly terms on a personal level and the authors see themselves as “helping” the regions concerned) but it is an example of an unequal power, and ambivalent, relation between the West and the East, or, generally speaking, between the center and the periphery. Therefore, their work could be, on the one hand, viewed as highlighting Central and Eastern European art in the international context, but on the other hand, it embraces a colonial paternalistic approach towards these regions with the Fowkeses benefiting from and utilizing the continuous work of local art scholars without giving them sufficient credit. Their symbolic capital in the “Western” art world keeps increasing too, not least because post-colonial criticism wrongly understands their work as part of the solution of an unequal global situation. As a result, Central and Eastern European research is a source of facts and information for works published in the West which, unlike the original sources, become internationally relevant thanks to “Western” institutions. Despite their decolonizing narrative, these publications and courses of action keep reproducing the center-periphery power relations which give rise to global inequality.
English translation: Anna Žilková
Marianna Placáková is an art historian. In 2017 she graduated in art theory and art history from the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague. She currently pursues her doctoral studies at the Department of Art History, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, with her dissertation focusing on state socialism-era gender policy in relation to visual production. In 2019-2021 she was part of the Gender Politics and the Art of European Socialist States research project (Getty Foundation, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań).
A reply by Maja and Reuben Fowkes
This radical opinion piece by PhD student Marianna Placáková tendentiously portrays us as Western academic colonizers of East European art history, basing its spurious arguments on personal convictions and her own ‘beliefs’ about our academic background, wilfully ignoring basic biographical facts about our work that are also easily accessible on the internet. This is our response.
‘How to Write a History of Central‐East European Art?’ was the title of the inaugural lecture at the first SocialEast Seminar in 2006 delivered by Piotr Piotrowski (1952-2015) and subsequently published in a special issue of the journal Third Text edited by Reuben. The reviewer reduces the significance of Piotrowski to the field by only referring to his concept of ‘horizontal art history’, when his groundbreaking contribution lay equally in setting the foundations for monographic post-war comparative art history of Central and Eastern Europe. She also omits to mention that the edited book she refers to as exemplary of the so-called ‘collective’ approach to the subject, Globalizing East European Art Histories by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas (Routledge, 2018), is a publication that arose out of the last conference Piotrowski organised in Lublin in 2014, the editing of the proceedings of which was sadly cut short by his untimely passing. Many of the original contributions were lost in the editing process, however we both presented at the conference and published our text in the volume, which the reviewer also fails to mention. The opposition she sets up between ‘subjective’ and ‘collective’ approaches misses the more important point about the divide between nation-centric and comparative approaches to Central and Eastern European art history, and Piotrowski, who was a consistent advocate of progressive comparative positions, was often attacked by nationalists in his lifetime.
In our work as art historians, curators and art critics, we deal primarily with post-war East European art history and art and ecology. We both have PhDs in comparative art history of the region, Reuben’s dealing with post-war monumental sculpture and Maja’s with neo-avant-garde art. Together we have published monographs, edited several books and special issues, have also published more than a dozen articles in peer-reviewed journals, contributed more than twenty chapters to edited books and written a similar number of texts for exhibition publications. We also published dozens of art critical texts in a wide range of international and regional art magazines. We have co-organised fifteen conferences, including nine itinerant SocialEast Seminars from 2006-2010 in the UK and across the region, as well as regular conferences in Budapest on art and ecology, and led dozens of academic workshops. In addition to that, we have given more than 30 conference papers across the region and internationally, and dozens of guest lectures at art venues and universities in Central and Eastern Europe. Conferences and lectures are established scholarly structures for intellectual exchange, which seems to be misinterpreted by the reviewer as a form of ‘friendly’ exploitation of academic peers. We have also curated dozens of exhibitions of contemporary art in Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland, as well as outside of the region. At the invitation of the mentioned art historian Pavlína Morganová, we recently joined the editorial board of the peer reviewed journal Notebook for Art, Theory and Related Zones of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Most of this information is accessible online and is indexed on our website www.translocal.org, which one would assume would be the first port of call for someone concerned with our work.
Translocal as a curatorial partnership and online platform exists since 2005, reflecting in the name the fact that in a (now historical) era of easier transnational mobility and communication we were able to divide our time between the UK, Hungary and Croatia. Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art functioned as an independent space in Budapest from 2013 to 2017, hosting numerous seminars and lectures and enabling the work of researchers through access to its specialised library. During this time we taught MA and BA courses for students at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts and the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and were members of the Art Theory research group at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Significantly, the reviewer chooses to single out only our work with Central European University, as it fits neatly into the (populist) picture of pernicious foreign influence. In terms of languages, to which the reviewer pays a lot of attention, speculating about our lack of linguistic skills, between us we speak English (Reuben’s native tongue), Maja’s native Croatian / Serbian, German, French, Russian and Hungarian. As an aside, Reuben translated Zoltán Kékesi’s book Agents of Liberation: Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Art and Documentary Film (2015) from Hungarian into English.
In regard to the specific issue of decoloniality, and the reviewer’s defamatory characterisation of our approach to the region of Central and Eastern Europe as ‘colonial paternalistic,’ we would like to make several brief points. We recently edited a publication, Ilona Németh: Eastern Sugar (Sternberg Press, 2021) based on the artist’s extensive research into the neo-liberal processes of post-1989 transition through the example of the demise of the sugar beet industry of Central Europe. The question of colonialism, and its various prefixes, are also addressed by many contributions dealing with the parallels with the colonial histories of Caribbean sugar cane plantations. We also contributed to a special issue of the peer reviewed journal Ars Hungarica 4/2017 on ‘(post)communism and (de-)colonisation’ with a text that looked at the question of decolonising nature in relation to national identity in the context of post-war exhibition histories of Műcsarnok / Kunsthalle in Budapest.
Furthermore, as the last in the Revolution Trilogy exhibition series, we curated for the twentieth anniversary of the revolutionary moment of 1989 an exhibition at Kiscelli Museum in Budapest, which significantly hosts the canonical municipal art collection. The exhibition, accompanied by a publication, investigated the contribution and integration of foreign artists who lived and worked in Budapest into local art structures, exploring the extent to which the local art scene had become opened to new transnational artistic communities since the system change. Relatedly, at the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) congress in Bratislava in 2013 we gave a paper entitled ‘Sidelined, Under-represented and Snubbed: The New Unofficial in East European Art,’ which addressed new marginalisations in postsocialist Eastern Europe. Published also in Slovak translation, it dealt with the neglect of minorities and non-native artists in art scenes organised on ethnic lines, as well as the side-lining of those that find themselves in opposition to populist politics, which was at the time characteristic of Hungary, but has since become a more general phenomenon. Our intention was to raise the question of who has the right to be considered an East European art professional, contesting the idea that it should be done on a national or ethnic basis, and asking what internal decolonisation might entail for the region.
Relevant here too is our contribution to the first conference of the Piotr Piotrowski Center in Poznań on ‘Theorizing the Geography of East-Central European Art’ held in 2018, which we addressed for the first time as scholars no longer based in the region, since we had recently relocated to the UK due to the existential issues posed by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. In our paper we raised the question of the extended geographies of Eastern Europe in terms of the inclusion of the living artistic diasporas in Berlin, Vienna, London and other European capitals. Here we’d like to point to the publicly available research conducted by Centrala Art Space and University of Birmingham into the ‘Inclusion and Representation of Central and Eastern European Artists in the UK Creative Economy,’ at the conference of which we gave the keynote lecture. The reviewer ignores the complexity of precarious transnational existence in Europe by presenting a cardboard fiction of well-funded and securely employed Western art professionals and artists. Tangentially, our research into complex and entangled factors in the integration of East European artists into global art structures, revealing it not as a one-way process but resulting also from the agency of local actors, resulted in an article in the peer reviewed online journal Tate Papers in 2016.
Finally, the World of Art series, launched by Thames & Hudson in 1958, is an iconic edition with set principles of a limited number of words, illustrations and back matter comprising suggestions for further reading, aimed at students and a wider readership and written in an accessible style. Titles from the series, from antiquity to contemporary art, were on the reading list of the Department of History of Art at Zagreb University, where Maja studied, and our book on Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 was actually written with students from across the region in mind, to provide an accessible account of the art histories of neighbouring countries. The book intentionally gives maximum available space to the discussion of actual art practices, rather than engaging in art historiographical debates, which we have dealt with at length elsewhere. It is deliberately written from a regional perspective, with no hierarchical comparisons to Western art history, and conceived also as an opportunity to test out the region’s position in relation to the fast developing decentred global art histories of Latin America, Africa and Asia. For the record, the book was largely written in 2016-17 in Budapest with no institutional support, with the exception of a short research trip to Poland that was kindly funded by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw. Since the reviewer devotes only half a sentence to the actual content of the book, commenting that ‘there was art in Eastern Europe,’ we would like to point interested readers to a more in-depth review of the book published in Art Margins by a scholar of East European art. Also, the reviewer’s personal conviction that books on individual countries have no appeal to the ‘Western book market’ that in her view is only interested in the region as a whole, is contradicted by the fact that the same publisher in 2018 released a major edited and fully illustrated volume Art in Hungary, 1956-1980: Doublespeak and Beyond, to which we also contributed a chapter. While for the reviewer, ‘the idea that someone would write a similar book about Western European post-war art is preposterous,’ in light of what decolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the need to ‘provincialize Europe’, this would be a logical and inevitable turn of events.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes
3 June 2021
Cover image: Little Warsaw: Qualities, 2001, installation view