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NSK: From Hybrid Socialism to Universal State

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Irwin—the artistic group that was and still is a part of the wider art movement known as “Neue Slowenische Kunst” (NSK). NSK has dominated the Slovene art scene of the past few decades and has influenced many artistic practices throughout Eastern Europe. At first glance, the art practice of Irwin seems to be a specific version of postmodernism. Indeed, in their works Irwin artists combine quotations from different artistic periods, styles, and movements in a way that is typical of Postmodern art of the 1980s and ’90s. On the other hand, Irwin’s practice is different from Western postmodernism in many decisive respects.

Western postmodernism was a reaction against the Modernist canon—against the emergence of a new Modernist salon and the establishment of normative rules for the production and appreciation of art. In other words, postmodernism was a reaction against the academization of modernism. Indeed, in the mid-1970s the Modernist canon dominated Western art museums, institutions of art education, the art market, art history, and critique. The goal of postmodernism was to rehabilitate everything that was repressed and excluded by this canon: a certain type of figuration (Italian transavanguardia, German neo-expressionism), photography, cinema, performance, and so on. The same can be said of architectural postmodernism, which was directed against the Modernist architectural canon, and of literary postmodernism, which rehabilitated literary trash of all kinds. Postmodernism privileged reproduction vs. production, secondarity vs. originality, anonymity vs. individuality. However, Western postmodernism also had its own utopian dimension. Postmodernism dreamt of infinite flows of desire and information and of a “hive mind” or “crowd mind” that had the power to undermine every attempt to control and secure the meaning of individual signs: all these signs were supposed to be turned into empty, free-floating signifiers. Thus, even if Western postmodernism in its different forms was a reaction to late-Modernist formalism, it inherited a formalist attitude towards signs and images. All artistic forms were understood as zero-forms, devoid of any specific content or meaning. According to Postmodernist dogma, all content and meaning was permanently deconstructed by the anonymous processes of reproduction and dissemination. The only way to give meaning to art forms was to use them artistically in the here and now—the meaning of any particular form being totally dependent on its contextual use. And because all art forms were understood as empty—as mere forms without content—every individual artist had a right to combine and recombine them in every possible way. Thus, the famous “death of the author” was easily combined with the proclamation of unlimited artistic freedom and the vocabulary of forms inherited from the various artistic movements of the twentieth century. However, all these combinations and recombinations became, in the end, as empty as their individual parts.

The emergence of this type of postmodernism was not possible in Yugoslavia, nor anywhere else in Eastern Europe, because the conditions under which art was practiced there were completely different. First of all: the Modernist canon was never established, formalized, and institutionalized in Eastern Europe to the same degree that it was in the West. Even if Modernist trends were permitted in some Eastern European countries—or even welcomed, as in Yugoslavia—they did not have the same normative power as in the West. Here I mean the normative power supported by art institutions with an international reach, big money, and so on. But most importantly, art in general, and Modernist art in particular, was never totally depoliticized like it was in the West. In the Eastern European countries, public space remained controlled: the Postmodern vision of the totally free, potentially infinite flow of signs could never take hold there. Signs were not free-floating but politically charged—and the art forms that circulated in the same space were also politically charged. They were never experienced as empty signs that could get their meaning only through their individual artistic use.

Living in a Communist country, one still felt a close connection to the artistic practices of the early avant-garde from the beginning of historical communism. For a late-Socialist subject, the black square of Malevich was not merely a self-referential image that initiated the international zero-style of geometrical abstraction. Rather, in the Socialist countries the black square, as well as other images from the early Russian avant-garde, signified the beginning of the Communist era, with all its utopian aspirations. Similarly, old realist images didn’t function as simple, politically innocent representations of landscapes or city scenes, but symbolized the national tradition that was partially denied and partially ideologically reinterpreted by the regime. The same can be said about Socialist Realism and Nazi art. And the same can be said about late-Modernist art. It was experienced not as a production of empty signifiers, but as a commitment to a Western orientation and Western cultural values. In other words, every use of this vocabulary of images manifested not the creative freedom of an individual artist, but a certain political stance within the sociopolitical field in which this artist lived. Thus, under Socialist conditions the artist could not, in the Western Postmodern manner, operate freely with empty art forms understood as language without content. Using a Heideggerian phrase, one can say that under socialism, die Sprache spricht (language speaks): the forms that the artist uses are always already ideologically charged. Their combinations are also ideologically charged—and so these combinations have their own message that not merely undermines but rather overdetermines any subjective artistic message.

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