There are three strategies. The first is “a nation for itself,” the second is “a nation for another nation,” and the third strategy, the most effective one, is “a nation among other nations” – generally: we among others. I am strongly in support of the last option.

Katarzyna Jagodzińska: Europe and especially of Central Europe. […] For I have an impression that as a term used to describe contemporary artistic developments it has lost its attractiveness. The concept of postcommunist Europe is perhaps not very appealing, but it offers a certain neutrality.”

Slightly further the author notes, “Although the term Central Europe was not widely used, at least in the domain of art criticism, in the times of Soviet domination there was a feeling that this part of the continent was somehow separate. After the collapse of communism the existence of Central Europe began to be questioned or to be more precise, the usefulness of this geoartistic construct began to be questioned. Since the old system foundered and a number of postcommunist countries joined the (Western-)European structures, and some others aspire to it with more or less commitment, since in the new reality after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the world (or at least Europe) became more free and borders were opened, including some recently created, then why – asked a significant part of the artistic community – should we preserve this anachronistic geographical framework, a relic of times bygone which is the concept of Central Europe?”

Postcommunist Europe appears here as a kind of alternative for Central Europe. Have the political and economic changes, reflected also in art, made Central Europe “disappear from the map?” And if it has not disappeared, where is it now? Has it turned into something else?

László Beke: I must admit that I am somewhat puzzled by the claims that the Central-European discussion is coming to an end and there is no need to debate this issue any further. I think that such a discussion makes perfect sense, even if Péter Esterházy once compared an expert on Eastern Europe to a fish in the bathtub before Christmas.

It is true that definitions of the subject of discussion vary. For example, in the late 1960s Central Europe was a distinctly political concept. What was witnessed then was the opening of Germany to the East initiated by Willy Brandt. I told myself then that I would stick to the name Eastern Europe, more appropriate for this then the dirty, ugly and drab part of the continent. I was thinking about the socialist countries, where artists and intellectuals played a different function, they had to work together to resist the system – they conducted a kind of guerrilla warfare. Besides Poland and Hungary they included Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union, for obvious reasons. Austria also belonged to this group, to my context. Going further, one could name Albania, China – for they were also members of our socialist camp, the Albanian avant-garde artists were also there; and following this route we find ourselves in Africa, in the Middle East, where the Soviet Union was very influential. By the way, one of my Ph.D. students, an Iraqi, discovered that modernism – or perhaps we should say contemporary art in our European sense – was brought  to Iraq by a Polish artist roughly fifty years ago, when many Polish professionals still worked in Iraq, evidently not only technologists. It means that we have some ties even with Iraq, so I imagine Central Europe as a kind of utopia, and in fact we could conclude that the whole world is Central Europe thus understood. In this sense it is a quite metaphysical concept.

Or we may propose another take on the issue. Let us open the Atlas of World Art, a four-hundred-page book edited by John Onians – the whole world and four pages devoted to Eastern Europe. It contains a map of Europe with arrows showing that structuralism came from St. Petersburg and that kind of thing, and there are two reproductions on each page. It means that in a world atlas we have eight reproductions from entire Central and Eastern Europe. That is all. And it perfectly illustrates how the world, and how our Western colleagues view Eastern Europe. And this is the starting point for our conversation for me.

Piotr Piotrowski: I think we should ask not so much, “Does Central Europe exist,” but “Does Central Europe still exist?” The word “still” is important for comprehending the whole issue. Although from the viewpoint of art history it is not a particularly important region, for example, in the context of 19th century art, speaking about Central Europe as a historical construct we must know that the division of the continent into the East and the West emerged during the Enlightenment, supplanting the North-South division. It was the travellers and philosophers of the Enlightenment who coined the term Central Europe. And they also “invented” Western Europe. It is described in the beautiful Larry Wolff’s book Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization in the Mind of the Enlightenment. The term Central Europe – in our meaning – was proposed by Rogers Brubaker, who spoke about the emergence of Central Europe in the context of the fall of the empires around 1918 – the tsarist Russia, Prussia, Austro-Hungary. And after 1990 he announced the appearance of new Central Europe. And this is controversial for me. I agree that the culture of Central Europe must be distinguished from that of Eastern Europe after World War II, although American academics call it Central-Eastern Europe. This concept was useful and worked well in analysing the 1960s or 1970s, but after 1989 it is different, it is difficult to find something defining this region like the things from the earlier decades. On the other hand, postcommunist Europe is a term that functions well. First of all, it allows us to build a platform for comparing Central-European countries with those not belonging to the region – for example, the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (especially Estonia, which is not Eastern Europe), and even Russia – for some people claim that Russia is not Central Europe. Postcommunist Europe is a political term, but far more neutral. I would say that Central Europe is a concept allowing interpretation and analysis of postwar art differentiating it from art that was Russian art, but does it operate in relation to contemporary culture? Here I am not so certain.

K.J.: Postcommunist Europe seems much wider…

P.P.: …and more specific. It refers to political history. Of course, the politics of the postcommunist countries is dynamic – in the nineties the situation was different than today. Anyway, the analytical concept is more certain, credible and lasting.

Of course, as every concept it is rooted in the past and is a historical construct. As an analytical concept postcommunist Europe was much more effective in the 1990s, but currently it is still working. But, I have no illusions and know that it will gradually lose its significance.

And one more reflection. We are speaking about post-communism as a common basis for comparison, but it is worth realising that there was no one communism, especially in the 1970s, when we compare on the one hand Poland and on the other Czechoslovakia after 1968, during “normalisation” after the collapse of the Prague Spring, which was put down by the forces of Warsaw Pact. We are constructing a kind of idea, an idealistic tool called post-communism, but keeping in mind that the experience of communism varied. Even if the ideology was comparable, the apparatus for its implementation was different in different countries. When I came to Budapest in 1972 – this is when I met László Beke – I was astonished that there were no independent galleries there, for I had been working on such a thing with Jarosław Kozłowski in Poznań. Even this minor experience shows the variety of attitudes to art in postcommunist countries. And yet we must have some kind of platform allowing us to mediate various experiences and postcommunism does fulfil such a role, but I do not believe that it will be of any use a few decades from now.

L.B.: The collapse of the Berlin Wall provided a new definition of Central Europe, political, social and geographic. Nothing important was going on in the West at the time when the Soviet Union fell apart and the wall collapsed – all these events belonged to Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe underwent a process of unification and this is where postmodernism emerged. Of course, there had been historians preoccupied with postmodernism, there was the architecture of the 1960s and 1970s, but generally speaking, Eastern Europe realised that in practical terms postcommunism had come with the political changes.

Both postmodernism and postcommunism are not self-contained terms. Postmodernism in a way prolongs modernism, which came to an end, and analogously, when we speak about postcommunism, we agree that communism is still alive. If my memory serves me well, such a reflection was formulated by a colleague of ours from the former Yugoslavia some ten years ago. Philosophically he had the same problem – suddenly people wanted to forget that they had been Yugoslavians and desired to become Croats, Slovenians, Serbs, etc. It is impossible to forget, you have to work it through. It is similar in the context of the Holocaust, which cannot be forgotten, and therefore artists are looking for ways of working the question through. I think it is the same with communism. Artists are able to continuously find relics of communism and create absolutely new forms of art, new words on the ruins of communism. I do not want to slide into sentimentalism or scepticism, and therefore I am thinking with enthusiasm about our creativity. I want to work together with the artists and I believe it is justified or even necessary.

What is more, I believe that the postmodernist thinking assuming that there are no borders, that you can move freely without borders – like a nomad – has led us to post-postmodernism, that is a new fashion for nationalism. This nationalism penetrates our lives and we are not ready for it, for we fear the old nationalism which we know from the turn of the twentieth century. And at this moment a completely new nationalism has appeared – some interpret it within the context of the so-called postcolonial discourse, but I think we are dealing with an entirely new species of nationalism. For centuries we have been saying, “The Pole and the Hungarian are two brothers,” and now, when Poland is three times larger than Hungary and is like an older brother for us especially in the economic context, it turns out that the situation in Europe is completely new and we must get our bearings in it. Not to mention the European Union. Two years ago a Czech artist characterised all EU countries through hilarious slogans, creating a kind of anti-European monument. It was very interesting and bizarre at the same time.

P.P.: The year 1989, taken symbolically, was a great challenge, not only for us, preoccupied with the art of Central and Eastern Europe, but virtually for the entire world. We must realise that more things happened then, not just the collapse of communism. Apartheid in South Africa ended in this period. In the late eighties South-American regimes were falling. In December 1989 Augusto Pinochet announced that he was stepping down. Lots of things happened then and I would urge everyone to perceive 1989 not exclusively in terms of the collapse of communism, but as a moment of global change – the emergence of a new image of the world in the context of geography and politics, but also philosophy, for the cold war was a product of modernism. Modernism was based on a binary, black and white thinking (like the cold war), although it had been questioned earlier, in the 1970s, for example by female philosophers connected with feminism: Judith Butler speaking about performing gender or Rosi Braidotti speaking about the nomadic subject, its mass criticism came in the eighties. In any case, the binary way of perceiving the world (for example, with the division into male and female) was challenged. Communism and the modernist vision of the world were collapsing together. In my view we should not monopolize 1989, but go in the opposite direction – globalise it. Which means looking at this moment from a perspective different from ours, comparing our experiences with what was happening in other parts of the globe.

K.J.: How does it translate into art and art history?

P.P.: The hegemony of modernist centres of art is coming to an end. Paris was such a centre in the 19th century, and in the 20th century, especially after the Second World War to simplify things a little bit, the importance of New York grew. After 1989 a more horizontally conceived art history takes a prominent place, which means that art could be compared on the same level, not vertically and hierarchically, but horizontally – in a parallel way and pluralistically. I see in it an upshot of a process which Dipesh Chakrabarty, a distinguished specialist on postcolonial studies, called the provincializing of the West (“provincializing of Europe” to be precise, but he meant West Europe – the West in short). This opens the possibility of looking at the West not as a region providing models and a hegemonic structure, but as one of the provinces of the world, of no more importance than South America, Africa, South-Eastern Asia, Eastern Europe…

To some extent it sounds as a criticism of the monumental work Art Since 1900. Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, written by scholars associated with the October magazine – Hal Foster, Yve-Alain Bois, Rossalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh – and regarded as one of the most important and comprehensive works on art history in the last hundred years. And yet they are still utilising the modernist vertical hegemony, instead of challenging it and broadening their perspective. I have no problem with saying that the West is just one of the provinces. Of course, we know that some trends reached marginal regions, such as South America, from Europe, from the West, but looking horizontally we may point at more differences and original meanings than Western influences. The year 1989 means for me the globalisation of experience, creating new comparative studies of art history and consequently, the provincialising of the West.

L.B.: I agree that 1989 was a turning point at various levels, but many questions remain open as far as reinterpretation of the past is concerned. For example, the cold war was not important at all for my generation. We lived in those times, but we did not try to define or redefine the cold war. On one side there was the West, USA, and on the other side there was the Soviet Union, and there was nothing more to it. Young people now speak about the cold war, for the young generation it is part of history, and therefore they try to somehow classify or characterise it. Not us, who experienced this period. It raises certain methodological problems and is a very interesting issue for researchers.

And one more example: the new political tendencies in Hungary in 1991 gave rise to an exhibition in Santa Barbara called Standing in the Tempest. Painters of the Hungarian Avant-Garde, and presenting the work of the first Hungarian avant-garde from 1908–1930. When as its co-curator I arrived at the finisage, I saw that all the posters advertising the exhibition had been removed, for the avant-garde presented there had been perceived as communist and Jewish. It means that the term was overinterpreted – postmodernism said that avant-garde was finished, that modernism was dead, and the right-wing community claimed that avant-garde was Bolshevik and Jewish! For me avant-garde is still avant-garde, it is still moving forward, and therefore I am symbolically sticking to the concept of Eastern Europe and avant-garde, for it is still developing, marching forward. It may seem old-fashioned, conservative, but in fact it is a problem of methodology – how to practice art history today.

K.J.: There is a widespread opinion that Central-European art is appreciated only when it achieves success in the West of Europe; that the status of a given artist must be confirmed in the Western metropolises. Moreover, we do not know too much about each other. Universities disseminate the knowledge mostly about Western art, Western urban centres, Western artists. Even here, in Poland, we know little about art from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary etc. Will we be able to overcome this aversion and will we start to learn from each other?

L.B.: The first book on this subject was written by Andrzej Turowski under the French title Existe-t-il un art de l’Europe de l’Est. Utopie et idéologie (Paris 1986). It speaks about Eastern Europe, but unfortunately the author ends his reflections on the period before the Second World War. Since the 1980s new comparative research has been created which allows us to take a joint look at these countries. Before that the region had never been looked upon comprehensively. Only bilateral relations were described. Krisztina Passuth continued Turowski’s studies and shortly afterwards P.P. wrote Awangarda w cieniu Jałty. Only when possessing these books we can take a comprehensive look and get to know how to proceed further.

Unfortunately, one person is not capable of processing the entire material that has been collected thus far. This is a work for universities, research teams, and a subject for exhibitions. In my view, and it can be seen in the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, the new art history must be written with the help of contemporary artists. For me art history from the last ten years is a kind of historiography, a look at how art history has changed in the last decade (it is defined by the German word Zeitgeschichte) – including contemporary events in the field of research, with the help and to the benefit of contemporary art. It is a quite radical point of view, but I think that it works.

P.P.: I would say that we need more widely accessible books and materials. For there are people who want to lecture on Central-European art, but they complain that they lack the necessary materials, especially in the commonly accessible languages. I am thinking about a group of people in Edinburgh who created an online magazine Art in Translation. The title means that we are looking for materials which are not available in English, but they are needed for educational purposes. The magazine is concerned not only with Central Europe, but also with China, South America, Africa. And it is not preoccupied exclusively with contemporary art. Contemporary art is a slightly different story. It is part of the mainstream. I would not say that Polish artists may feel disparaged and alienated from the mainstream. The problem is art history. Art in Translation teaches us that we are not the only region which is ignored, neglected, there are many such regions and we must be aware of that. How to change that? I am not sure if it is possible in relation to the mainstream, but it is different with narrowcasting art or in fringe communities and curricula – this art is present there as opposed to the mainstream. A primary problem is one of language. Even now we are speaking English – it is the dominant, global language, the so-called lingua franca, and this is a problem. We must communicate in one language, in the Middle Ages it was Latin, a much more neutral language by dint of not being a national one. We speak the so-called continental English, which is quite distant from the one used in England. But we speak English and we must publish in English. If we publish in German or French, as Krisztina Passuth or Andrzej Turowski do, these works will not be known the world over. Therefore, the only possibility, unfortunately, is a kind of subversive action within the mainstream of the English language academia – publishing in English works on excluded art, on historical and cultural experiences not only of Eastern Europe, but also of other regions such as South America etc. Publishing books and teaching others. In Krakow or in Poznań, where I lecture, there are many courses on Central Europe and the art of the region. But I am aware that the problem is not teaching here, but mainstream teaching, at the major universities. We can change that only by publishing books, providing material for analysis. But I am not an optimist here.

K.J.: And so translating texts, publishing books. Perhaps we should take a step further and find an institution which would take it upon itself?

P.P.: This is very important. There are three strategies. The first is “a nation for itself,” the second is “a nation for another nation,” and the third strategy, the most effective one, is “a nation among other nations” – generally: we among others. I am strongly in support of the last option and I believe that we must create international institutions – international rather than devoted to Polish art in the West, or Hungarian culture in Poland, no! These must be international institutions, focusing on international issues – this is very important. If a city where such an institution is created is dynamic and vibrant, visible in the region and the world, such an institution functions much more productively. In a word, creating institutions is very important, but they must be international rather than national.

L.B.: Yes and no. For if international activity becomes total, totalitarian, we lose everything which is specific for a given nation. Moreover, I am for the Occitan language, for the Romance languages used by two thousand people and even for Latin, hardly used any more. But all languages must be preserved, this is the problem of the Tower of Babel. So we must work together, co-exist and learn even those rare languages. Let us not treat it as international communication, but as a game or art. I think that it is a philosophical problem, and I fully agree that we have many international institutions which should cooperate. However, this is not a problem of language, but of communication. Let us not forget that sometimes visual arts are a much better means of communication than spoken or written language.

P.P.: Speaking about international institutions does not mean that the aim is the obliteration of the national character, the national tradition – or more generally local character and local tradition. I am interested in comparing experiences of various countries. International institutions allow curators and scholars to compare experiences, and this is very important. I wanted to stress the importance of comparative studies rather than research limited to one nation. If we do not do it, we will succumb to nationalist discourses. Of course, I agree that speaking all languages of the world is utopian, unfortunately we are able to speak four, five languages only, and how many languages exist in the world? Just in London people use 176 languages. How to communicate in such a situation? It is a practical problem. People should have a tool for communicating. Perhaps I am not enthusiastic about English being the global language, but this is the truth of the matter. So we must use it. But I agree that a monolingual culture produces simplifications. Therefore, it is better to speak many languages – such is the reality.

About authors

László Beke

Professor of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and since 2000 director of the Research Institute on Art History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Budapest) and curator of 19th and 20th-century art collections at the Hungarian National Academy (1988–1995) and director of Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle in Budapest (1995–2000). Author of articles and books on art, 20th-century art theory and contemporary times. Member of many organisations, such as Comité International de l’Histoire de l’Art (CIHA), Research Institutes for Art History (RIHA) or the European Academy of Science and Art (Salzburg). Awarded the Hungarian Szécheny Prize and the French Order of Arts and Letters.


Piotr Piotrowski

Art historian specialising in twentieth-century Central and Eastern-European art, Professor of the Adam Mickiewicz University (UAM) in Poznań, former director of the Institute of Art History at UAM (1999-2008) and the National Museum in Warsaw (2009-2010). Author of about 300 articles published in Europe and the United States and a dozen books, including Znaczenia modernizmu (1999, 2011), Awangarda w cieniu Jałty (2005, English edition as In the Shadow of Yalta 2009), Agorafilia (2010), Muzeum Krytyczne (2011). Winner of many awards, including The Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory (2010).


Katarzyna Jagodzińska

Graduate of art history, journalism and social communication, Ph.D. in European Studies, lecturer in public relations. Specialises in museum-related issues in Central Europe. Publishes academic articles and essays in cultural and artistic magazines. She works in the International Cultural Centre in Krakow.


Copyright © Herito 2020