The Reason for ‘The Other Line’
Published in: Exhibition Catalogue Jugoslovenska dokumenta, Sarajevo, 1989
The concept of ‘The Other Line’, which is conditional and ungrounded in art theory, anticipated and suggested the grasping of one particular set of events in contemporary Yugoslav art. These events were in contrast to, or consciously distinct from, certain dominant streams in art; they formed a specific area, which basically aspired towards radicalisation of the notion of ‘art’ and, therefore, towards the radicalisation of artistic behaviour. ‘The Other Line’ was not an artistic expression that could be recognised or set in advance, but rather a mentality, and a reaction of certain artists and artists’ groups to the existing cultural and social circumstances. It was, in fact, a way of shrinking back from being integrated into those very circumstances and, thus, of searching for an independent artistic attitude. ‘The Other Line’ was not in ideological opposition to the alleged ‘official’ status of some ineradicable streams in modern Yugoslav art, nor was it a local version of the epochal conflict between the ‘avant-garde’ and ‘tradition’ – a conflict which is, in the present circumstances, groundless. ‘The Other Line’ could indeed be conceived as an alternative to some different artistic expressions and behaviour, but it would be more accurate, more moderate, and certainly more realistic, to regard it as a set of phenomena which were interconnected by a certain language, psychological similarities and spiritual affinities, making for a potential art historical whole.
The beginnings of ‘The Other Line’ in Yugoslavia’s culture can be found in occasional, but In terms of the local environment, very valuable, inclusions in those streams of European art known as the 'historical avant-garde'. In the early 1920’s, some artists and groups were associated with particular art magazines and followed the trend: Ljubomir Micić’s magazine, Zenit, and Dragan Aleksić’s Dada Tank and Dada Jazz. Another member of this group was August Černigoj, who attended the Bauhaus in Weimar in the summer of 1924, and, having become familiar with the ideas of the Russian Constructivism, assembled a group of sympathizers in Trieste, who worked in line with the ideology of that movement. It was not, of course, an entirely uniform group – there were uncompromising fundamental and personal conflicts inside the membership (such as a Zenithism-vs-Dada conflict between Micić and Aleksić) – but, on the whole, that no longer posed an obstacle to seeing them all as part of one and the same movement, characterised by the aim of radicalising ideas about art and artistic behaviour.
That radicalization was undertaken through manifestos, proclamations and theoretical texts written entirely in the spirit of the ideology of the historical avant-garde. It could also be observed in works of art – collages, photo-montages, prints, spatial constructions, drawings and, occasionally, the paintings of Bijelić, Klek, Petrov, Černigoj, Stepančić and others. Although few in number and short-lived, these artistic events, directly related to similar European processes, were a heroic chapter in contemporary Yugoslav art. Its linguistic particularities, behaviour, understanding of the artist’s vocation and the art objects themselves founded a cultural heritage and example to all later events, hereafter referred to as ‘The Other Line’.
In the postwar social and cultural circumstances, the notion of the avant-garde, established in the first decades of the century, could not survive any longer, although there were certain trends which claimed to mark a break with the existing and inherited spiritual climate of their milieu, or at least some kind of fundamental shift. In the early 'fifties, the art group, EXAT-51, appeared, demanding respect for the new medium of of Abstract Art, and introducing astyle whichh was regarded at the time as Iedologically dubious. Theyfought for a reconstrution of their surroundings through a synthesis of the artistic and architectural design of space. They regarded the role of the artist, not as a producer of aesthetic objects, but as an active participant in the modification of the everyday milieu. Although these aims could not be achieved at the time of EXAT’s existence, the mere expression of such needs was enough to place this group and its members among the pioneers of new developments in in various artistic comains: abstract painting, architecture and town-planning, graphic and industrial design, stage design, cartoons and art education.plastic-arts pedagogy. The members of EXAT-51 were well aware of the theoretical and practical principles of their activity, as well as of the cultural inheritance of which they were part, within their own milieu. The statement of one of EXAT’s members, Ivan Picelj, testifies to that awareness:
“To just create a piece of art wasn’t enough. It had to be defended. It was a confrontation... Among all the plausible and implausible arguments against our painting, the most repeated one was that we didn’t belong here. The fact that Aleksić (Dada), Micić (Zenit), Šumanović (post-Cubism) and Seissel (Bauhaus) worked in this city was overlooked”.
The assumption on which EXAT 51 acted was based on an ideology rooted in structure, design and a constructive approach to problems of form - likewise, the behaviour of the group's members. A decade later, in the early 'sixties, similar attitudes were once again expressed through the affiliation of most of the former members of EXAT 51 to the international movement, New Tendencies, which made Zagreb their centre, on account - in part, at least - of their earlier activities. New Tendencies bore all the traits of a typical postwar neo-avant-garde; its sole and final aim was not the linguistic dimension of the artistic work in itself, but rather an analysis and criticism of the conditions that affected the work. The movement aspired to redefine certain fundamental assumptions of artistic practice, and, therefore, to redefine the social determinants and the social status of art, in general. Apart from the artists, critics and organisers also took part in these events and became integral components of them. One of the leading theoreticians at the time, Matko Meštrović, best expressed the essence of the New Tendencies:
'The "New Tendencies" appeared spontaneously in the climate the old Europe was first to feel. A positive attitude towards scientific achievements is the tradition of the pioneers of modern architecture, neoplasticism and members of Bauhaus, which remained alive. Also alive was the confidence in the potential transforming power of technology and industrialisation. The deep-rooted Marxist thought made the approach to social change and problems constructive. Those were the reasons that made the first criticism possible in Europe, and with it came the first opposition to corruption and alienation. A resolute demand was made for the demystification of art and artistic creation, and for the unmasking of the dominant influence of the art market, which speculated in art, treating it in a contradictory way – as both myth and commodity. The tendency towards the suppression of individualism and towards promoting the spirit of collective work also became possible. A progressive political orientation was clearly expressed, and art was concentrated on the problem of plastic and visual research, endeavouring to establish objective psycho-physical principles of the plastic phenomenon and visual perception...'
However, the social and psychological tensions of the time did not allow the radicalisation of artistic expression and behaviour to be introduced solely through a design-led, constructive approach. Furthermore, there was a tendency towards the idea of ‘artistic negativity’ or ‘negative artistry’, which, instead of creating forms and works, was inclined towards the destruction or, at least, the reduction of material and sulptural elements.
When an artist fails to see the possibilities and reasons for his social integration, when he loses faith in collective efforts and the commonly accepted view of the way society should develop, he unavoidably turns to his own inner world and concerns. But in so doing, he also turns to some general questions about the survival of art itself. This creates a climate which results in an exceptional and conscious defence of the uncommunicative nature of modern painting. Painting is a gesture of the artist’s will and, undoubtedly, there are authentic reasons for its creation. But it is no longer the author’s link with the world. Painting then becomes an amputated, independent organism, living on the verge of proud self-sufficiency. Such were the positions of a non-iconic and anti-artistic, extremely radical art stream in Art informel of the late 'fifties and early 'sixties – the informel of Ivo Gattin, Eugen Feller, Vlado Kristl, Djuro Seder and Marijan Jevšovar. This stream was separated linguistically, spiritually and psychologically from other streams in the same climate and artistic environment. It had nothing in common with those subgroups which turned away from the subversive attitude typical of the mentality of this 'Art of Another Kind' (Un Art autre, as Michel Tapié named it) to the production of paintings, as aesthetic objects. Some members of the radical Art informel movement were at the same time members or close associates of Gorgona, an informal group of artists and intellectuals who were active in the early sixties and contemporaneous with New Tendencies. Gorgona aspired to dislodge established notions of art and to focus instead on behaviour, as a medium of artistic and spiritual existence, generally. Gorgona was said to exist, rather than work, since the activity of this group was not public, although its members were all well-known public personalities – mostly artists and critics. Nonetheless, because of its dual position – one of which was public, the other underground and cryptic – this artistic behaviour, for the first time in Yugoslavia’s culture, stressed its acceptance of a feeling of existential unease and alienation, as a force driving the artistic impulse. Thus, it exposed the belief that creating art was not a matter of professional education or social status, but, to the contrary, it was a matter of not having any other choice. In other words, being an artist meant being condemned to the only means of expressing oneself in the apparently shielded, but completely limited and, to others, inaccessible field of art.
It was no accident that a re-examination of Gorgona and Radical Art informel occurred more than a decade after themergence of these two tendencies. It happened in a spiritual climate which could be seen as a result of another ‘cut’ in postwar art – in the social and ideological turmoil at the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies. Today, the prediction of Renato Barilli may seem exaggerated. He claimed that, in the future historiography of modern art, the year 1968 would be taken as a turning-point, but he distanced himself from the idea that this ‘cut’ could be directly connected with the political circumstances around that date, and attached greater importance to cultural processes and psychological moods. The art produced at that time throughout the world, including Yugoslavia, was not limited to the production of completed aesthetic objects, such as paintings and sculpture, but was transferred to the artist’s actual behaviour, his personality, his body and his ‘first person speaking’. It was only natural that such historical circumstances led to an explosion of emotional outbursts, which created the mood of the 'new sensibility'. This spread throughout the the mass media and alternative culture, fields which should not be equated with those forms of artistic expressions formed between 1966 and 1969 (Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Body Art, and others). A succession of artists' groups (OHO, Bosch-Bosch, Kôd, (Ǝ, etc.) and individuals (Radomir Damnjan, Ilija Šoškić, Tomislav Gotovac, Braco Dimitrijević, Goran Trbuljak, Marina Abramović, Neša Paripović, Zoran Popović, Raša Todosijević, Sanja Iveković, Dalibor Martinis, Mladen Stilinović and others) were part of this new trend. The sidelining of this trend from the dominant stream in artistic milieux gave rise to a wider recognition of the phenomenon, ‘The Other Line’ , in contemporary Yugoslav art. The phenomenon was characterised by breaks in conceptual links and discontinuity from many central streams within that art, but, at the same time, that led to a different continuity, one with the heritage of the historical avant-garde (Zenit, Aleksić, and Černigoj and his circle), as well as postwar neo-avant-garde trends (EXAT 51, New Tendencies, the Radical Art Informel and Gorgona). Despite considerable differences between these different forms of artistic expression, it is possible to establish certain traits they all had in common. They aspired towards extreme means of artistic articulation, and endeavoured to think art and do art without being obliged to realize it in a completed artwork. Even when classical methods and techniques were used, it was evident that the means used could be subjected to aesthetic and artistic evaluation in terms of a final result. On the other hand, artistic expression was either completely depersonalised or completely personalised, whereby a different mental language and different metalinguistic processes were employed. The orientation was one of a radical asceticism of visual form and a conscious turn to the field of ‘silence’. Susan Sontag convincingly demonstrated that this stratagem of art behaviour was not a question of denouncing the work of art, but an extremely responsible approach to reflecting upon the sense of creating art according to the usual practices. It was those many characteristics of the art that could, according to every standard and conventional artistic criteria, be regarded as inartistic, or as outside the realm of art, although they were most significant, from an artistic point of view. They were that, by virtue of the seriousness of dilemma they gave rise to, and were referred to in Argan's well-known, and only seemingly paradoxical statement, that 'everyone can do art, but only a true artist can do no-art'.
In the spiritual climate of the last decade, the proposition of ‘The Other Line’, strongly marked by the ideas of Postmodernism, may seem burdened with exclusivity which is characteristic of the experience based on the culture of the historical avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde and Modernism. There is little doubt that, in view of the character of art in the last decade [up to 1989], many of the earlier categorisations have ceased to be valid. Artists and art groups no longer suffer from the former ideological polarisation, and the idea of pluralism, although exhausted by incorrect usage, remains one of the basic traits of art orientations in the current historical moment. Therefore, it is not difficult to agree with Gilles Lipovetsky’s statement:
“In general, the sudden breaks are becoming less frequent, and the impression of déjà vu is stronger than that of novelty... We no longer feel that we live in a revolutionary period. The constant decline of the level of the avant-garde’s creative power coincides with the difficulty of behaving in an avant-garde manner... The weariness of the avant-garde does nor mean that art is dead, that artists no longer have imagination, but that the most interesting works have gone in another direction and no longer strive for expression without traits. They are, to an even greater degree, subjective and often obsessional. The search for purity has replaced the search for novelty”.
The basic truth of this statement should not obstruct the need for selectivity, for differences in type and value, and an open display of artistic expressions which qualify art as an ethical vocation, rather than art as a mere profession, a source of material commodities, or as a lever for gaining social status. There is a great need today for a safe orientation in critical attitudes, positions, choices and decisions, which does not, of course, entail dominance and indoctrination by this orientation. As Tomaž Brejc rightly said:
“Perhaps it is a consequence of the desire to find some regulating mechanism, a model of awareness in the chaos of modern art production”.
In the art of the last decade, such a mechanism could not be found at the level of formal expression and technique, but could be detected, at least generally, at the level of emotions, similarities of outlook and individual psychology. In other words, this mechanism could be noticed at the level of that certain instinct with which the authenticity and originality of an artistic statement can be recognized, quite apart from all theoretical criteria. The art of the last decade, created in an atmosphere of fiery arguments about the nature of Postmodernism, has different features from those of the previous period, and different, too, from the traits of ‘The Other Line’. Nonetheless, it is possible to feel, claim and even demonstrate that, in some individual cases in Yugoslavia’s contemporary art, a mentality akin to that of ‘The Other Line’ has been inherited and continued, and a psychological and spiritual unity established. It is true that this art, as was the case with the historical avant-gardes and the postwar neo-avant-gardes, no longer cultivated utopian projections, no longer sought deeper changes in the evaluation of tradition, and no longer radicalised the means and form of artistic creation. But, despite that, it still shares with the former experiences a consciousness of the critical and independent behaviour of the artist, and believes in the defence of his moral integrity. An artist is an independent intellectual who stands apart from ruling ideologies with which he is forever confronted. Thus, rather than merely by expression, technique, tendencies and style, individual artists participate on equal terms in establishing mentality, behaviour and attitude, similar to the phenomenon of ‘The Other Line’.