Non-conformism, “(Re)writing” and “The Author of the Quixote”
Ieva Astahovska, Art Critic
Andreas Tolts. Airplane. Collage on paper. 15x21,5cm. 1968. Collection: Latvian Contemporary Art Museum
Currently an important issue in the art world in many places is the study of archives and the so-called "rewriting" processes of art history, whereby the selection of historic materials is reviewed and hitherto ignored facts are included, re-contextualised or written in a broader context. This is especially the case in the regions where, due to (geo)-political or other factors, previously written history requires critical re-consideration. One such region is the former Eastern Europe, the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries, whose development in the second half of the 20th century underwent deformation and which have become "a territory of perpetually rewritten cultural, political and identity levels1." With regard to "rewritten" projects, the biggest resonance up to now has been achieved by the "East Art Map"2 from the Slovak artists' group IRWIN, an attempt at creating a version of Eastern European art history that emphasises that its existence is no less significant than any current professionally stewarded Western art history.

However it would be erroneous to assume that such reviewing is restricted to historically "traumatised" zones. In fact, it can apply to any place, environment or process which is placed in a relevant frame of reference, because like anything else the significance of a work of art is not unchanging, but rather is a product of time. Thus, for example, at the moment a team of European art institutions, curators and re-searchers is working on the project "The Former West,"3 about the fall of the Berlin Wall or the impact of the events of 1989 on "the new world order" and generating change in both society and art in the West.

In spite of Latvia belonging to the "former Eastern Europe", since the restoration of its independence the country has seen only fragmentary and rather unenthusiastic studies of Soviet era art, obviously related to the need for the distance of time for academic and emotional reflection. It is no coincidence that only now, almost 20 years after the change in the course of history, we are seeing a range of publications focussing on the so-called period of stagnation, through the prism of the individual spheres of culture, collective events or biographical studies. Examples include Sergejs Kruks' study of Soviet cultural policy ‘On music beautiful and melodious!' (2008), ‘Hurdle Race' by the former editor of ‘Literature and Art' Jānis Škapars (2008), the controversial ‘Observer' by Andris Grūtups (2009) and others.

Another example of this trend is a study currently being undertaken by the state agency ‘The New Three Brothers' and the Centre for Contemporary Art: the documentation and archiving of what was referred to in the Soviet period as "non-conformist art". The institutional aims of the study are to gather historic materials for the collection of the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art, and to create an exhibition contextualising "different" (avantgarde, differing from the official aesthetic, interdisciplinary, unofficial, as well as marginal) artistic activities. However, in its essence the significance of this project extends even further in relation to the "rewriting" processes, which in Latvia are only just beginning with regard to the Soviet period. This is not to say that Soviet era art has not been studied here. The expositions Latvian Art in the Second Half of the 20th Century (2005, 2006) and Mythology of the Soviet Land (2008) at the Latvian National Art Museum, as well as several private gallery exhibitions were devoted to it. However, the research up to now has not had the aim of (re)contextualising art processes, especially those that have remained outside the scope of museum-dominated history. It is significant that up to now the only serious study of non-conformist art has come from the West - the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which holds the largest collection of Baltic nonconformist art.4

Māris Subačs. The Round Stone II. Linocut on paper. 43,5x59cm. 1990. Collection: Latvian Contemporary Art Museum
At the same time, this "(re)writing project" is also encountering a range of methodological complications and specific local issues. Firstly, there are difficulties of clarification and definition. According to Estonian art historian Sirje Helme, the history of art in this region, especially in the West, is often limited to socialist realism versus non-conformism5. In reality, however, both in Latvia and in the Baltic States as a whole there was no strict canon of socialist realism, and "pure" non-conformism was a rarity, in contrast to Russia, for example. A better term would be "semi-non-conformism." Furthermore, the term "non-conformism" claims to be a separate current, rather than a broader, contextual panorama in which the actual division between official and unofficial art is blurred, partly due to the fact that there are many examples of art works that were non-conformist in style but absolutely conformist in content and subject matter, and vice versa. For example, in a recent public discussion on Soviet cultural policy, University of Latvia Professor Juris Rozenvalds recalled his astonishment at seeing the "Baltic Non-Conformist Art" display at Rutgers University containing the same names which are integral to the official Latvian art scene - Džemma Skulme, Boriss Bērziņs, Miervaldis Polis and others. This apparent paradox was characteristic of Latvian art processes during the Soviet era - the policy of the authorities was to "capture" those artists whose thinking and work did not fit into the Soviet canon and to integrate them through the institutional mechanism of the creative unions. The mandatory requirement to be a member of such unions served simultaneously to justify, mitigate and control potential "otherness."

Even if, for the sake of convenience, the conditional term "non-conformism" is applied to non-canonical art (every "ism" encounters similar problems regarding consistent usage of terminology), there are two divergent understandings with regard to this art. On the one hand, there is the inner artistic motivation of the author to work in a way that may not align itself with officially approved art; on the other hand, there is an ideological or political motivation, a sceptical attitude toward the regime and a desire to criticise it through art. In Latvia the first position was dominant: the desire to use a broader arsenal of forms and styles of artistic expression than was officially prescribed, although this non-conformism did not always contradict the official artistic line. The less common presence of the second attitude can be attributed to the fact that up to the mid 1980s the political climate in Soviet Latvia did not allow any open criticism of the regime. Censorship was a form of "natural radiation" that made artists' internal censors work even more conscientiously, with the outcome that art made practically no political references at all, neither critical nor supportive of the regime.

The time factor was also important. Artistic movements which in a certain period may have required great daring and were dissident with the prevailing rules could after a time become the accepted norm - thanks to the aforementioned integration of "otherness" into a common system. Another problem is related to the fact that many of these directions may have been inspired by movements which were at the time prevailing in Western art - abstractionism, pop art, op art, surrealism, happenings, conceptualism etc. In conversation the artists themselves have often spoken of how they hungered for information about the West, not only about art but also music, cinema and literature (which, despite the Iron Curtain, could be obtained if one had the will to seek it out), and how this greatly inspired their creativity. This evaluation of Western influences can be critically analysed due to the "superficial" adoption of techniques and forms and the absence of discourse (the intellectual justification, the context of their creation) in most of these examples. However, as has been said many times in connection with Eastern European art history, derivation does not denigrate these movements or their meaningfulness. The conditions and, once again, the context in which this art was made were totally different. An analogy can be made here with the Borges story ‘Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote'. This is the tale of the obscure man of letters Pierre Menard and "perhaps the greatest composition of our time" - his fragments of ‘Don Quixote', which are not just a mechanical rewriting of Cervantes' original, but an understanding of Don Quixote himself through Menard's own experience. This opens up a completely new approach to the text, in which the words are literally identical, but the style and content are contrastingly different.

Of course, this is only a brief outline of the issues, problems and specific historical features of non-canonical Soviet era art, whose deeper study is still awaiting a more comprehensive "archaeology."

(1) Serban, Alina. Curating My Own Condition. Gazet Art, September, 2005, p. 31.

(2) Its most visible part "East Art Map" can be found on the website and in a publication released by Afterall Publishing, London, 2006.

(3) Ikdienā gandrīz nekad nedzirdētais neoloģisms "bijušie Rietumi", protams, sasaucas ar daudz biežāk lietoto "bijusī Austrumeiropa", kur "bijusī" nereti kalpo kā politkorekts piedēklis, kam "Rietumu" kontekstā, šķiet, ir gan viegli pašironiska, gan ētiska principialitāte.

(4) Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression under the Soviets: 1945-1991. Ed by A. Rosenfeld, N. T. Dodge. Jane Vorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University Press, 2002.

(5) Helme, Sirje. Nationalism and Dissident: Art and Politics in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania under the Soviets. In: Art of the Baltics, p. 6.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/

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