Numerous Eastern European artists (among others) have recently been reflecting on the notion that communism is a yet-unfinished project; for them, this idea is also part of their cultural tradition. While we must not lump together all those in Eastern Europe—from serious artists to pop entertainers—who, in one way or another, are today trying to revive the memory of communism, and with it the Partisan resistance movement, we can perhaps find in current events a number of shared motivations behind this heightened interest in the past. Among these, certainly, are the worsening social position of workers, the rise of nationalism, and the rightist attempt to equate communism with fascism. The response to all this is extremely varied, ranging from nostalgic retrospection to serious reflection on the future of the idea of communism. Here I am primarily interested in artists who see this tradition as offering great potential for designing alternatives to the dominant forms of globalization. These artists are returning to their local tradition not because they want to resist the homogenizing power of globalism, but just the opposite: because they want to draw as much attention as possible to the universal potential of the unfinished past.
Despite the more or less cruel reality of life in Eastern Europe—or indeed because of it—people in these countries were constantly talking about the future, about communism as the ideal society that would follow the period of “real socialism” then taking place. Boris Groys says that as a result of the strong presence of this future dimension, post-colonial cultural theory is of little use in the study of Eastern European art:
Although the post-communist subject takes the same route from enclosure to openness as his post-colonial counterpart, he moves along this path in quite the opposite direction—against the flow of time. While the post-colonial subject proceeds from the past into the present, the post-communist enters the present from the future. . . . Ultimately, communism is nothing more than the most extreme and radical manifestation of militant modernism, of the belief in progress and of the dream of an enlightened avant-garde acting in total unison, of utter commitment to the future.2
Inke Arns writes about the difference between two types of Eastern European art that both come to grips with the discourse of the avant-garde and socialist realism through a strategy of repetition and appropriation. Using examples from Soviet post-utopianism (Ilya Kabakov and Victor Pelevin) and the Yugoslav retro-avant-garde (Neue Slowenische Kunst, Mladen Stilinović, and Kazimir Malevich of Belgrade), both from the 1980s, Arns distinguishes between the post-utopian attitude toward the past of a failed utopia that is now over and the retro-avant-garde’s treatment of an unfinished past and its still-open conflictedness.3
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