Notes on the white margins of some project
Pēteris Bankovskis, Art Critic
Does so-called contemporary art, let’s say visual arts, well, all of what you can see at popular art venues such as the Kassel documenta, Venice, Sao Paulo and all kinds of other biennales, have a “national identity”?

And that art which fills millions of galleries right around the world, from Tokyo and Shanghai even up to Seattle and Los Angeles – does that have a “national identity”?

And that with which these galleries try, by all sorts of means, to get noticed at fairs, in magazines and on the internet – does that have a “national identity”?

The question may sound silly – no, more likely a bit dated. Because liberal and leftist academic doctrine (Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, Antony Smith, Eric Hobsbawm and other champion providers of quotes, and the ones who quote, whose names are legion) avers that national identity is a “social construct” (well, something in that vein), which in today’s global village no longer has any justification, the preconditions for existence or future prospects. True, there are exceptions though: if art, or that which “contextually” gets called art, comes from Kosovo’s democrats or from Chechen fighters, from the Tamil Tigers or persecuted Ugandan homosexuals, then, of course, the “world community” nods its head and discerns identity and a belonging to a time and place.

Yet if art comes from Serbia’s native population, from patriotic or even, God forbid, Orthodox Russian society, from Sri Lanka’s new / old presidential suite or from Uganda’s Christian majority, then if the product even earns the honour of being called art, it is of course chauvinistic, racist, xenophobic, separatist art. In about that kind of spirit.

In a word – in contemporary art’s carousel, which for nearly half a century now has creaked and groaned in the brains of critics, theorists, gallerists and others close to those circles just mentioned, everything is relatively clear. It has been heard (read) countless times that art in today’s world is a form of criticism: criticising the governing institutions, practices and ideology, directed at everything which endangers human rights. But, you see, the threat comes from lurking imperialism in all of its manifestations. Manifestations which could be, for example, USA’s or Israel’s, or some other country’s mere existence on Earth. Or even the sad fact that here and there, still, the difference between men and women can be seen, the difference between white and black, respectable family persons and sodomizers, Christians and Muslims.

No-one knows how it really is.

If one follows the most highly regarded popular media, like CNN, The New York Times, The Guardian, Diena, Latvijas Radio, as well as all kinds of art and culture, so-called philosophical publications and similar, then one is left with the impression that “humanity” is predominantly “progressive”, and that only a handful of reactionaries and unenlightened ones remain lurking about in the recesses, clucking on about their “values”. It’s almost as if we live in a triumphant democratic socialism, forgive me, liberalism or liberal democratic era. And if somewhere, let’s say in Afghanistan, it still isn’t as we would like it to be, then it soon will be.

But if it is like that, if the dominant ideology in the world is like that, then, you know, artists should be obliged to fulfil what the dominant ideology itself so often praises: namely, to turn to the unsparing criticism of this ideology. Artists then should unmask “modern” academic, media, political and cultural “standards” and to praise regionalism, the isolation within family and clan boundaries, the return to “one’s nook, one’s corner of the world” concepts; art should aspire to be of use to one’s village, parish or community’s people, to take part in a national identity “project” as an individual form of protest.

Still, nothing like that happens. And that can be evidence of only one thing – that the world of the democratic civil society conjured up by the media is in reality a destructive vision of how things must be, conjured up by a narrow interest group which doesn’t have the slightest connection with the interests and needs of the six billion residents of this planet. To wit, the majority of people still feel affilated with (identify with) their native language and the thinking processes occurring within their defined nationality. A person with this type of belonging (or identity), for example, a Latvian, looking at a scene of Vecrīga at the market in the Filharmonijas Square will intuitively be able to differentiate a work created by a Latvian, from the same scene of Vecrīga created by a Russian or an Uzbek. Whereas it is quite plausible that, on arriving in Florence at a similar market, this same Latvian won’t be able to feel the distinction between a Ponte Vecchio painted by a Kurd or by an Italian. Each to their own. One could of course say that in art there are creative and less creative nations – alright, peoples. See, for example, the French create impressionism, and all other Europeans copy it. But so what? For the average Latvian, Purvītis will always be more understandable than Sisley, but the painters of the Nagbanya school are like that for the average Hungarian. Each has their own “purvītis”.

Yes, but how is it then with contemporary art? It is clear that a grainy video image, a pile of polyethylene sheets or a stack of planks are all international substances. Perhaps even supranational. But a charcoal pencil, oil paints and a granite block are also international. Nevertheless art historians are not ashamed of speaking about Flemish or Spanish or German painting, even when the same thing is pictured in all three paintings and all of them are hanging on the wall at the Russian Hermitage or at the American Metropolitan Museum. Americans have no qualms about saying that abstract expressionism and pop-art is American art. Then why, in relation to what followed after the both just mentioned, must we ask about national identity? Possibly because “contemporary art” in its quantitative and representatively most convincing manifestations quite simply isn’t art, useful “for the people of the village, parish or community”, which if luck comes one’s way could also be of interest beyond the borders of the village. No, “contemporary art” could sooner be compared with such “projects” as the flow of global finance, as a data exchange system which we know of by the name “internet”, or, taking it to an even lower level, as merchandizing: a goods and services distribution scheme, where the goods and services themselves have no meaning, and where the only meaning is in who buys what and how much.

Of course, not all who have the desire, skill and often also the corresponding education and training wish to get into this “goods and services distribution scheme” with their realisations of imagination, reflections or emotions in visual form. And probably only a few of those who wish to do so succeed at it. Yes, thousands get into the grandiose fabrication of “contemporary art” and appear in the first pages of art magazines and gallery promotional booklets. But hundreds of thousands of others don’t appear there, instead staying where they should be – in their own national identity, not the global one, but of the village of their birth.

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/
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