The Issues raised by the ‘New Art Practice’ of the 1970’s
Published in: Exhibition Catalogue Nova umjetnička praksa u Jugoslaviji 1966-1978, Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, Zagreb, 1978
General Characteristics of the New Attitudes to Art
Although the evolution of art undoubtedly follows a continuous pattern without sudden interruptions marked by fixed dates, a number of symptoms support the claim that a new situation arose some ten years ago, in the late 1960s, which, it seems, can be justifiably treated as a specific period in the history of post-war art. It goes without saying that the new developments contained many direct or indirect influences and elements discernible in the period preceding it, but it also shows a sufficient number of characteristic constitutive elements that gave it a separate identity. In his Precronistoria, Germano Celant takes the year 1966 as the beginning of this period and sees the first signs of change in relation to the features of the preceding trends in the exhibitions Arte abitabile at the Sperone Gallery in Turin and Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery in New York.1 The works displayed in those exhibitions were characterised by a conscious distancing from the premises of Minimal Art and the art of primary geometric forms, realised by means of industrial technology and the new media; the artists now offered works in ephemeral materials and temporary structures that raised questions, more than ever, about the status of the solid, permanent art object. This change in the status of the art object seems to have been the key issue, which opened up the critical debate about the specific features of the new situation in art. Some of the first analyses of the new attitudes pointed to the reduction of the material character of form, applied as a principle; this was also the basic statement of the now classic critical texts, German Celant's Arte povera2, Lucy Lippard's and John Chandler's The Dematerialization of Art 3, and the programmatic texts of two of the artists representing the movement - Robert Morris' 'Antiform'4 and Michelangelo Pistoletto's 'Le ultime parole famose' [Famous Last Words]5. The issue of the altered material status of the art object was also treated in some later writings, such as e.g. that on post-Object Art, by Donald Karshan6; furthermore, in the first presentations of the new trend, an emphasis was laid on the artists’ attitudes, behaviour and action in concrete processual operations, in the exhibitions, Op Losse Schereeven, at the Stedelijk, in Amsterdam and When Attitudes Become Form, at the Kunsthalle in Berne, both in 1969); finally, the symptoms of this radical separation of the current art practice from previous attitudes led some critics to speak of the whole phenomenon as the ‘New Art’, which was the subject-matter of the exhibition of English artists entitled The New Art at the Hayward Gallery in London in August 1972.7
However, it has meanwhile become evident that this whole development contains a much more structured inner configuration composed of a series of phenomena, for which it is increasingly difficult to find a common denominator. The status of the art object remains one of their characteristics, though it has to be pointed out that we are dealing here with a change in the visualisation or concretisation of ideas rather than with a definite disappearance of the physical properties of the art object. The work of art was no longer formulated as an autonomous plastic shape, but was constructed in a medium or material as ‘ground’, within which there functioned a thinking process.
Furthermore, apart from the interest in the use of physical, organic and natural materials, there arose the question of how to treat the modern media, such as video, film and photography; and within the whole movement that emphasized the mental components of artistic work, problems associated with new approaches to the classical disciplines of painting, sculpture and drawing once again came to the fore. If we add that these developments had very definite sociological implications, that individuals and whole groups of artists took part in ideological discussions and the social and political life, we must inevitably conclude that the ‘New Art’ trend did not involve merely an internal stylistic change, on the basis of an accepted concept of art, but in many ways tackled an essentially new global situation, in which the issues of altered forms and modes of production arose and were featured with equal prominence - as was their impact on the basic structure of the cultural and social conditions in certain milieux of modern society.
Texts on the new art practices, art critics and the artists themselves have identified a number of separate orientations that are today parts or components of a single entity. Initially, when writers were recording their reactions to the strictly technological orientation of Neo-Constructivism and the Primary Structures movement, they placed an emphasis on the artists' ways of working unselectively with organic and ephemeral material, whilst observing that the meaning was transferred from the form of the art object to the behaviour of the artist, as subject, the work of art was seen to be the ideological expression of a dichotomy between nature and culture - a characteristic feature of the early 'antiform' and 'earth works operations of American and English artists (Morris, Smithson, Serra, Long, Flanagan and others) and similar to the Italian artists' espousal of ‘Poor Art’ (Arte Povera, being the term coined by Celant) - Pistoletto, Merz, Kounellis, Zorio, Prini, Anselmo, Paolini and others, as well as the German representative and precursor of the movement, Joseph Beuys. Traits shared by all these artists were the continuous change of behaviour, and action aimed at the creation of as much room for free manoeuvre as possible. As Celant observed, this was a consciously expressed principle of 'creative nomadism', in which the procedure was intuitive and concrete, and not pre-determined by any philosophical and theoretical motivation, although it was almost always based on the principle of tautology, which served to indicate the factual character of the elements used in the process of the materialising, and visualising, an idea. By their tendency to stress the natural and the physical, i.e. organic mediums removed from any confinement within the frame of a fixed object, these operations were directly continued by Land Art and Body Art. In Land Art, outdoor locations in the countryside were chosen for works on a macro-dimensioned scale. Such works either perished quickly or survived for a long time, like some kinds of 'archeological' data (viz. the works by Smithson, De Maria, Heizer, Long and others). In Body Art, the artist’s body became the place and medium of work and often involved the use of considerable physical brutality. The representatives of this movement (Gina Pane, Acconci, Burden, the Vienna Actionists, and others) reacted to the subconscious layers of individual destinies, including in their actions the components of personal and collective psychological complexes, endowing the perception of the work with a marked sensuous character articulated for the most part in ephemeral and momentary performances.
Conceptual Art had grown up alongside all the other art practices that had developed simultaneously, though in different directions and independently from one another, in various parts of Europe and America. The term, 'Conceptual Art', had hitherto been used rather imprecisely to denote almost any kind of new artistic development over the previous decade (the 1970's), but now began to be more clearly defined. Today, it is obvious that the term, in its narrower sense, should only be applied to the works of a group of American and English artists whose output was based on the principles of analytical and linguistic philosophy, under the influence of Wittgenstein and Ayer. The term itself derives from Sol LeWitt’s writings, 8 which postulated the possibility of the physical object’s disappearance and envisaged the substitution of that object with a conceptual (mental) level of its functioning. As LeWitt put it:
'Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.'
The work of the early Conceptualists, such as Barry, Huebler, Kosuth and Weiner, who gathered around Seth Siegelaub in New York, was based on these principles and characterised by a rough and ready choice of solutions to the challenge of conceptualising, and realising, the object. As Lawrence Weiner put it, in one of his well-known Statements:
'The artist may construct the work - The work may be fabricated - The work need not be built.'
However, Catherine Millet quite correctly discerned, In this approximation a relapse into 'residual expression'; it took Joseph Kosuth's strict theoretical approach, to provide the term, and notion, of Conceptual Art with its full analytical sense, of 'art as idea as idea'.
'The propositions of art', stated Kosuth, 'are not factual, but linguistic in character, that is, they do not describe the behaviour of physical or even mental objects: they express definitions of art, or the formal consequences of definitions of art'.9
The course of such rigorous analytical procedures was pursued further by the Art & Language group and a few other artists (Venet, Burgin), who insisted on the extreme objectivity of artistic language, or language as art, with the aim of eliminating from it any possibility of ambivalent meaning which might result from the function of image, form or symbol. All these artists used language, as a medium of artistic practice (and not as a medium of art criticism or art theory), and this was the ultimate point that the process of conceptualising artistic thought could reach and still be conceived as a kind of perceptional pattern.10 A further, more extreme, step in that direction would be that envisaged by Jack Burnham, in his statement that 'Conceptual Art’s ideal medium is telepathy', but this is a thesis that goes beyond the scope of the known examples of art and therefore has no meaning for an historical consideration of the phenomenon.
The further development of this purely linguistic wing of Conceptual Art took an unexpected turn at the beginning of 1975: its members did not follow the direction predicted by Burnham, but, on the contrary, started to criticise severely the cultural superstructure in the context of the historical and cultural development of contemporary neo-capitalism. In Kosuth’s words, the position of the contribution of Conceptual Art, already completely assimilated at that time, demanded a new impulse, which necessarily led to a break with the Wittgenstein-inspired first stage. The analytical operations that had resulted from that inspiration were replaced by anthropological and, consequently, ideological and political issues, which were pursued to the extent and in the forms that could be achieved in small groups of intellectuals in New York. Working in that direction, Kosuth and the members of Art & Language (Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden, Andrew Menard, Michael Corris and others) launched the magazine The Fox in 1975, in which a number of contributions by these and other, authors explained the reasons and motives of the changes in their ideological standpoint, as well as the strategies of practical behaviour resulting from them. Apart from substituting the idealistic position of analytical philosophy with a kind of specific interpretation of Marxism, the concrete consequences of the new attitudes were manifested in the criticism of the very principles of the cultural and artistic system to which these artists had themselves belonged. The contributors to The Fox were aware of the fact that the politicisation of art could not proceed effectively on the level of elaborating contents linked with the developments in the world around us, but only on the level of a dialectical analysis of the situation within the art system itself, which in fact forms an integral part of a much broader spectrum of the dominant social system. Exposing the dependence of art on the broader context of relations in that system (a dependence that obviously exists even when artists act autonomously, in their choice of language), the earlier Conceptualists made a significant contribution towards a clearer insight into the socially determined position of culture and art in the concrete circumstances of a given reality. However, they could not avoid the dilemmas which, since the time of historical avant-gardes, have always accompanied the activity of radically oriented artists, torn between the need for a continuous development of their ideological stance and its simultaneous neutralisation by the integrative instruments of the existent social organism.11
This short and necessarily simplified outline of the various alternatives within the range of new artistic experiences justifies the conclusion that, in spite of the widely differing approaches, they may be classified in two general attitudes. One of them is turning to the limitless sphere of the real, in which the artist seeks the sources and inspirations for his work, using various media, ranging from highly developed technological ones to primary organic media, and almost explicitly placing the artist’s individual subjectivity in the foregrou8nd. In the other attitude, the search focuses on an analysis of the constitutive terms of the artistic language itself, and the artist thus avoids any contamination with the real and the objective; here, the expressive potential of the medium gives way to the verification of its elementary structural factors, and this is the very reason for strictly objective and impersonal operative procedures. Trying to describe the characteristics and intentions of these two approaches, Renato Barilli distinguishes between 'mystical' (vitalist, or worldly) and 'tautological' Conceptualism, the former referring to the artists in whose work an emphasis is placed on 'referentiality and subjection to the material context of life', and the latter, to those who 'reject any referential link with the world or their environment, whether natural or social, corporeal or spiritual' and reduce the problem of the work to a rigorous process of self-analysis conducted within the implied concepts of art12. The American critic, Robert Pincus-Witten, makes a similar distinction when he speaks about two types of Conceptual artist, - 'ontological Conceptualists', whose prototype is Acconci and 'epistemological Conceptualists', whose prototype is Kosuth.13 Both critics ascertain the existence of both synthetic and analytical components within the complex of New Art experiences, thus underlining the fact that the New Art scene had brought to light numerous integral working approaches, the characteristics of which went beyond the solutions contained inside one and the same style, school or movement and formed the elements of a much more intricate organism, characterised by new ways of grasping the nature of art itself.
Over the past few years, however, the situation has changed: the developments that could be denoted by terms such as Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, etc., are now losing the attributes which made such definitions possible; they are growing into a very extensive artistic practice, within which distinctions can only be based on the choice of the media of articulation. Artists have become aware of a large number of working methods that might with equal justification be natural or technological. This had led to the autonomous use of techniques, such as photography, film and video; most often used, at first, as the means of registering and documenting processual events, these media have turned into vehicles for expressing extremely individualised themes. Narrative and metaphorical messages have reappeared (Narrative Art, in a symbiosis of photography and text) and the language of video has been given a more elaborate structure, which set it apart from the condensed and reduced material of the first works in this medium, such as the tapes by Gerry Schum. The stage of testing the techniques and the languages of these media is now over, and they are becoming the vehicle for presenting a variety of subjects, so that a large number of new works is based on the individual’s private, subjective thoughts and obsessions. The behaviour of the artist is marked by an emphasis on the authorial voice - the 'first person speaking' , as a consequence of which the language of the earlier stage has been abandoned and replaced – as was first stated explicitly on the occasion of the Documenta 5, in Kassel (1972) – by the recognition of 'individual mythologies'. Furthermore, a number of other vehicles of expression, such as various forms of performances and the use of 'mixed' and 'hybrid' media and a simultaneous opening up towards the psychological and sociological complexes of individuals - often those from marginal social groups - have led to an increased fragmentation and specialisation of the causes and modes of artistic expression, thus depriving the current situation of the earlier (conditional) possibility of differentiation according to linguistic orientations. Critics have therefore termed the present state in art 'the post-movement art', i.e. a time of extremely individualist approaches to art and art-related issues. 14
In this post-Conceptual stage of contemporary art we are witnessing a development that seems to contradict the extreme diversification of media and procedures: the focusing of the artists’ attention on the study of the basic constitutive concepts of painting. The representatives of this orientation are Ryman, Marden, Mangold and others in the United States; Griffa, Verna, Battaglia, Gastini and others in Italy; Girke, Gaul, Erben in Germany; Berghuis in the Netherlands; and Cane, Devade, Viallat and others from the Supports/Surfaces group, in France. A number of exhibitions and critical texts gave the development names such as ‘Analytical Painting’, ‘Fundamental Painting’, ‘Primary, (or 'Elementary') Painting’, and the suchlike. 15 Filiberto Menna has pointed out the problems that Conceptual Art and the ‘New Painting’ have in common:
'Conceptual Art and the New Painting conduct their research toward one and the same direction, although employing procedures marked by their particular specificities. Their common denominator lies in the greater attention they pay to the issues of language and in their shared interpretation of the artistic activity as a quite special and autonomous practice. The artist adopts an analytical and self-reflexive attitude, shifting his procedure from the immediately expressive or representative plane to the metalinguistic level, engaging in the debate on art and its specific linguistic instruments at the very moment in which he makes art.'
And further on:
'In the practice of the New Painting, the procedure is particularly conspicuous in its disciplinary specificity: a return of the issues of painting back to the painting itself requires from the artist an essential specification of the plastic reality, an analysis of the painting process, which cannot be accomplished without the very process of making a painting work.' 16
The fact that these analytical principles of Conceptual Art may be applied to painting (or to sculpture, or drawing, or printmaking) gives weight to the following statement: the new art phenomena of the past decade do not consist only of procedures involving media that had hitherto been rarely used, that is to say, of a mere broadening of the existing basis of art; they are a process of restructuring and redefining the very notion of art, a consequence of which has been that the process manifests itself not only in new mediums but penetrates into the foundations of the classical and “constant” media of art production. Analytical Painting is a characteristic example of that symptom and it therefore testifies, no less than many seemingly more radical developments, to the altered character of art in the past decade, in regard to the earlier, and still present, ‘standard’ model of art-related thought.
The complexity of these processes, which, as we have seen, have resulted in basic changes in the very notion of art, calls for an attempt to fathom their sociological and ideological causes. The starting point should be the fact that they emerged in a situation of conflicts and crises in the modern world, a situation characterised on the one hand by a continuous consolidation of hyperorganised social structures, with the aim of strengthening their economic and material potential and, on the other hand, by a permanent dissatisfaction of progressive intellectual forces with this one-dimensional development of the dominant courses of civilisation, which they tried to oppose by the free and uncodified behaviour of the critically-minded self. Culture and art were the obvious fields for the manifestation of such uncodified behaviour, which can be found at the roots of any radical art development in history. It is no accident that the emergence of new attitudes in art took place at the same time as the broader social and spiritual events in, and immediately after, the year 1968. Barilli even thinks that on the ground of many characteristic facts, we can justifiably speak of the 'pre-1968' and 'post-1968' periods in the historiography of the post-war art. 17
There is no doubt that the process of contestation that was sweeping, in different ways, over most countries at that time, found its expression in culture and art - the evidence for which can be found in many well-known data. One of its symptoms was the resistance of the New Art to the dominant role of the market in the art system of Western bourgeois society, which at first manifested itself in the temporary, inconsistent and therefore non-commercial status of the work of art. Celant and Restany, for example, spoke about ‘Poor Art’ (Arte Povera), as a kind of guerilla action within the existing cultural mechanism. ('Is Poor Art meant for poor people?', asks Restany18 and answers his own question: 'No, Poor Art is a guerilla art against the rich.') The strategies of resistance were implemented on two levels, both of which were inherent to the language of art: one of them was the gestures and actions, emphasising the subjectivity of the artist through his opposition to the paternalist and institutionalised organisation of cultural life, while the other was focused on achieving the utmost objectivity in analytical procedures, which stressed the strict autonomy of art and its total isolation from ideological manipulation by the culture of affirmation. Culture being an integral component of the system, the conflicts within it are, in fact, conflicts within the standards of the system itself. In this way, the New Art assumed the role of spiritual opposition to the functionalist demands of the dominant hierarchies, and the artists involved became yet another minority group that hovered on the margins of the basic social mechanism. The alternative offered by this art practice was the liberation and articulation of individual preoccupations which grew into an act of social and cultural relevance through the very process of evaluation. Individual preoccupations were continuously freed, by expansion through the channels of the communications media; in this way art transgressed the bounds of standard specialised techniques and its practice became accessible to the forces external to the professional hierarchies; as a result, the content of art-delivered messages becomes so personified as to lead in many cases to that frequently emphasised element of permeation, and even identification with the spheres of both art and life. This 'aestheticisation of everyday life' is one of the instruments of the alternative art that opposed the pragmatic demand for the total organisation of reality, based on the principle of an efficient functioning of predetermined parameters. The moving force behind such a process was the demand for continuous changes of behaviour, action and evaluation of action, as opposed to the repressive demands for a continuation of the status quo.
Lest the processes described above should seem abstract or even too idealistic, we must take into consideration some contradictory factors within the socio-cultural situation. First of all, there was undoubtedly no direct organisational link between the various movements of political contestation and the proponents of the ‘New Art Practice’. This can be seen, among other things, from the behaviour of a number of artists during the demonstrations at the 1968 Venice Biennale: they demanded the right to independent work, free from any direct association with any political strategies. The world of art reacted with its immanent ability to resist all ideological and operative barriers, and refused to be instrumentalised in a political confrontation. On the other hand, the dominant 'art system' (the system for the functioning and evaluation of art production) proved sufficiently strong and flexible in almost every milieu, and thus, either because of true acceptance or in order to neutralise or integrate other developments, it sooner or later absorbed a number of new ideas and suggestions. In due course, these formed a bulk of the New Art production presented at the leading galleries, museums and in art journals. It thus came about that in both Western Europe and the United States the new artistic experience has assumed, over the past years, a leading role in discovering, and dealing with, new fields of issues; at the same time, it is financially the best stimulated art of our age. This has led to an inevitable cleft in the movement’s ethical and ideological foundations, thus proving again the well-known fact that the greatest threat to any radically new art practice is not to be opposed by the dominant hierarchies, but to be accepted and recognised. The relatively quick acceptance of all new proposals is one of the basic reasons why we can no longer speak - either theoretically or practically - of the existence of an avant-garde in the same sense in which this term was used, in the cases of Dada, Futurism, Constructivism and the other developments of the first half of the 20th century.
What is more, the working mentality and, consequently, the social behaviour of the protagonists of the new phenomena in art have not been identical, on account of specific social and cultural conditions at a local level, i.e. the cultural tradition, market pressure, public opinion and the suchlike. Among the many possible distinctions of this kind, there are differences between similar phenomena in Europe and America. In his examination of this problem, Achille Bonito Oliva identified a number of symptoms which were immediately recognisable. 19 According to him, the work of American artists was characterised – regardless of individual and formal solutions – by their focus on problems associated with the constitution and functioning of the art language which corresponded to the empirical and analytic basis of their knowledge of philosophy. As a result, the artist always exploited all the available resources in full and thus rarely came into conflict with his social and cultural environment.
It was only with the emergence of a new orientation in the attitudes of Conceptualists contributing to the journal, The Fox (members of the first and second generations of Art & Language) that the behaviour of artists took on a political aspect. On the other hand, for many European artists, inevitable integration into the 'art system' has evolved a conflict with their own conscience. This has led to a further polarisation of ideological attitudes and the introduction into the language of art of critical and subversive elements, and, in some cases, to political activism (not always quite homogeneous) - e.g. in the work of Beuys, Buren and some members of the Supports/Surfaces group. What is more, the discussions of European left-wing artists and critics questioned the very nature of the new trends, their ideological shifts and practical compromises, and it is from these circles that suggestions have come, to the effect that the notion of the avant-garde should be dismissed, as a phenomenon that was typical of bourgeois culture. They have also proposed a different form of socialisation, that would go beyond the still dominant models which – as has now become obvious – were not much disturbed by the New Art but have continued, with occasional reforms and corrections, to function as before.
The Characteristics of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia
When starting this paper with a survey of the general situation in the art of the past decade, our purpose was broadly to outline the trends which form the natural time- and issue-related context for the relevant examples in Yugoslavia. We should like to emphasise that the appearance of the ‘New Art Practice’ in Yugoslavia is not accidental, or isolated, nor the result of a random and mutually unconnected work of many individuals and groups, nor a development that still awaits artistic and sociological identification; rather, it forms part of the practice described in the introduction. There is ample evidence for such a statement, including, for instance, the participation and involvement of Yugoslavia’s artists in the events abroad, as well as the presence of foreign artists in events organised in this country. All this has been conditioned and accompanied by an awareness of the many problems which all the artists involved in these trends have shared in various milieux. Of course, this link is not the basic reason why Yugoslavia’s practices are relevant: it is above all a good indicator of the cultural, social and existential position of that part of the young generation which at one moment chose the language of the ‘New Art Practice’, as a possible form of artistic expression. We can state, then, that – apart from the influences and correspondences, which are certainly not negative factors but indicators of the nature and level of certain spiritual affinities – there existed a clear organic motivation for the emergence of the movement. It produced a very specific body of manifestations, whose particular features endowed it with an artistic and cultural identity of its own. The problems we should examine or at least indicate here include the following: identification of the working methods and articulation of individuals and groups of artists - a task that calls for an analysis of the application of art language; an enquiry into the circumstances of their spiritual formation, their modes of their behaviour in life; the forms of their involvement in the social and artistic environment; their attitudes to the former and current cultural situation; and the ideological roots of their attitudes and procedures. We should seek to obtain an insight into some types of feedback, such as the reactions of people to the work, outside the artists' own immediate circle, because they are indicative of the way in which social and cultural communications functioned in Yugoslavia’s particular circumstances.
The emergence of new art-related attitudes in Yugoslavia is not the result of any homogeneous action of a new generation (that same generation has also produced many entirely different attitudes, while on the other hand several artists of the preceding generation had adopted a new artistic orientation), but it is certainly the fruit of the mentality of a broad circle of young people - not only or their views on art, but of their attitudes to life, in general. An especially enlightening feature is this development of contemporary spiritual affinities. As regards the recent past, they have associated themselves emotionally with the different phases of the historical avant-gardes; from the contemporary scene, they have absorbed popular culture, ranging from literature, film, music and cartoons, to the visual arts. The pop culture we are talking about is not something that belongs to the sphere of mass consumption, but to the so-called underground – small groups of young people, who oppose the dominant cultural superstructure of mass society. In Yugoslav conditions, this was perhaps the first generation that was brought up without any nostalgia for patriarchal and local considerations, and was open to the ambience of the contemporary city life. This is the statement Braco Rotar made about the OHO group, saying that 'their production springs totally from an urban environment'20, and it still applies, though with certain modifications, to the work of all new artists in other centres. This sociological and spiritual dimension should be borne in mind when discussing the essential characteristics of the mentality of the new phenomena in Yugoslav art.
These spiritual foundations were the source of the orientation and behaviour of the new artists. As they could not find models of avant-garde art on the cultural scene at home (where examples of this type of art were extremely scarce), and because their upbringing and attitudes to life could not allow for any striking affinity for the work of their immediate predecessors (except, to a degree, for some phenomena in Zagreb, where the of work of the New Tendencies and the Gorgona group was accepted as a positive factor), the new art scene in Yugoslavia developed in a direction that was markedly different, not only from the bulk of the art produced by the rest of the country, but also from the very interpretation of the notion and function of art at home. This difference, which was more pronounced than in all previous changes in artistic orientation, produced the impression of a drastic rift between the New Art and the established art, though it would be more correct to say that the rift was not the result of conscious provocation, but one of a natural basic difference in the mentalities of the representatives of these two attitudes to the language of art. The new movement had to look for footholds in the international art production, to which intolerant local critics immediately reacted, with remarks about 'foreign imports' - a criticism that reappears, whenever deeply rooted local attitudes are questioned and re-examined. The only truth in the criticism was the reality that turning to the international scene resulted in the adoption of some recent fads, which, incidentally, had always been an unavoidable factor in the creation of a new artistic language and can be observed in all artistic developments that have emerged in Yugoslav cultural centres over the past few decades.
As the ‘New Art Practice’ was not based on any continuity of existing art conceptions, and since it was the consequence of a broader view of the possibilities of artistic language which do not depend on specific professional knowledge, it is small wonder that a considerable number of its representatives did not come from the ranks of the regular students of art but from those engaged in other fields of study - mainly literature, languages, history of art, and, perhaps unexpectedly, from various fields of engineering. This was the case of a part of the membership of the OHO group, all the members of the Kôd and the (Ǝ groups of Novi Sad, the Bosch + Bosch group of Subotica, the Belgrade Group 143, and a number of artists from some other centres. It is interesting to note the initial catalytic role that was played by visual poetry, which was particularly wide-spread among Slovenia’s artists in the late 1960’s. 21 This can be explained by the fact that visual poetry was dismissive about the metaphysical character of any verbal expression that operated with symbols, imagery and metaphors - in contrast to which, the visual poet's attention focuses on reflecting on the nature of language and its constitutive elements, which, when adopted as a principle of approach to other mediums and procedures, made it possible to create works that could easily take on the status of a specific object, in the sense of constituting a new artistic experience. On the other hand, graduates of art academies (mainly individuals and groups in Zagreb and Belgrade) had to reach the starting-point of the ‘New Art Practice’, by consciously rejecting almost all they had learned about working methods and the very nature of art. This was not a normal process of outgrowing knowledge acquired at school, before entering the contemporary art scene; it was the first open conflict with one of the instruments of the established 'art system'.
It is impossible to obtain an insight into the institution of art academies in Yugoslavia only from the point of view of their pedagogical function, which is quite inadequate for current needs. It must also be pointed out that the institution brought together all too many teachers recruited from among artists holding conventional and often outmoded views; their teaching career merely formed the background to the financial and, consequently, ideological backup provided to such artistic conceptions, and this – in the prevailing circumstances In Yugoslavia - create a status of social privilege associated, not so much with individuals, but rather towards the attitudes on which such individuals based their work and behaviour. At the moment when the ‘New Art Practice’ appeared, this situation was manifested in an especially acute form: if penetration of the field of contemporary art could only be achieved by by-passing, or opposing, all the established experiences and training methods, there arose a question about it was realistic to expect that these two, mutually almost exclusive, trends would continue to exist, in a state of mutual interdependence. The dilemma thus exposed may be expressed thus: Is the ‘New Art Practice’ really an illicit and, consequently, socially problematic form of public manifestation, or have the established training institutions become so inadequate for modern requirements that their social role should be seriously re-examined? It is clear that the few examples of deviation from the standard forms of acquiring and exercising artistic training could not lead to any deeper processes of critical re-assessment of the activity of such institutions; the adequacy of these institutions Is not easily questioned by society, but it was the orientation of the new artists that finally exposed some of the latent symptoms, and thus unveiled the true character of one of the basic instruments of the dominant 'art system' in contemporary Yugoslavia.
The art produced by the New Art practitioners in Yugoslavia over the past ten years has been so prolific that it would be difficult to register and catalogue it, in full; furthermore, it shows a variety of approaches, branching out into many solutions, due not only to individual differences but also to a different cultural situation in each centre. As in other arts in Yugoslavia, in visual art, too, it is impossible to speak about 'pure' linguistic examples (in the sense of adherence to Arte Povera or Conceptual Art, etc.); what we find is a mixture of these and other working principles and individual interpretations, all of them resulting in 'syncretic solutions that should be put down to the artist’s search for expression.
We have already mentioned the mediatory role of visual poetry, in paving the way to new experiences. The same transitional role, especially for artists trained in the visual arts, can be found in an initial reliance on the matrices of Pop Art and Minimal Art, and in the use of lessons learnt from spatial design. From there, artists proceeded to create objects of an Impermanent, and then went on to a more advanced decomposition of the object; various processual procedures were applied at ever shorter intervals in time; the action was taken out of the gallery into the natural or urban environment; and there were the first performances in which the artist was personally involved in carrying out the action. The process of further developing these experiences was marked by the following features: initial, often expressive, tensions were suppressed; forms of artistic expression began to reflect increasingly preconditioned attitudes; the awareness of the conditions in the social and cultural environment kept growing, and some artists therefore turned to re-examining the criteria of artistic evaluation and the functioning of a broader artistic context, at the same time introducing into the internal structure of their works elements which compelled the spectator face up to these issues directly. The repertoire of the media of expression was also broadened, and artists turned, for the first time, to the new technological capacities of video art, while film and photography no longer functioned as mere documents and began to be used as autonomous language systems, as well. Along with the use of these instruments of mediation, the art scene was enriched by a few radical instances of the direct use of the artist’s body, in the new language of Body Art. By the end of the period under review, these mental and analytical postulates had also come to be applied to painting, drawing and graphic art, and this provides further evidence of the ways in which the movement’s aim encompassed much more than the use of new media - it is, above all, the new use of all the available means of communication (both artistic and totally non-artistic), to express content determined by attitudes towards ideas, thoughts and, ultimately, existence itself.
All these different procedures share a number of traits in common. Each work pf art and each action uncovers the dimension of the actual working process; reality is never described by means of a symbolic or formal apparatus; the artist takes part in reality through the interaction of mental and technical interventions into the very medium chosen as the field of expression. The ubiquitous ‘metaphysics’ of traditional art, whose alleged purpose is to justify the subconscious roots of artistic activity, has been abandoned; artists can now validate their procedures, for they plan the course of their work, and once the work is performed, they can recapitulate the stages they have just gone through. This is the reason why these activities always emphasise the 'processual' element: finalising of an artwork is not an end in itself, it is only a stage reached by the gradual development of an idea. The physical form obtained is never experienced only through the senses - it possesses the characteristics of a materialised and visualised mental operation, which tries to induce the spectator to analyse the way in which it was conceived and realised. Since chance elements have been eliminated from the structure of the work (or else the 'chance' is included consciously into the working process), the artist becomes the person who controls his own practice; he does not want to expose the course of Its evolution and outcome to chance influences, not only in constructing the meaning, but also in its reading and use. In this way, he manifests his social and political consciousness, which inevitably brings him into conflict with all the factors that strive to separate art from the individual needs of its creator, under the pretext of achieving a ‘higher’ ideological and representative purpose. By stressing the concrete character of his work and aiming at a straightforward reading of its meaning, the artist wants to eliminate any mediatory illusionism, through presentation of actual, or imaginary, reality; for many art historical examples offer ample evidence of the fact that such illusionistic language served as a good vehicle for the ideological misuse, or abuse, of art, which was the reason why such artistic language has always been accepted by the dominant social structures. The ‘New Art Practice’, on the other hand, calls for a perception of art as such, trying to stress the independence of its own language, as a paradigmatic sign of the independent behaviour of the personality who articulates him- or herself through the work of art itself. It is this characteristic in the structure of meaning that conveys an awareness of the freedom to use one’s own 'anarchy of imagination', which is today tolerated in art alone. What characterises the activities and self-projection of the practitioners of the New Art is their voluntary grouping into more or less homogeneous clusters. Some mention should be made here of the following groups: OHO (some of whose members later joined the 'Family at Šempas'/Obitelj u Šempasu), ‘Red Peristyle’ / Crveni Peristil, ‘The Code’ / Kôd, the '(Ǝ', Bosch + Bosch, 'Pensioner Tihomir Simčić', ‘The Flow’/Tok, Ekipa A3, Verbumprogram and Grupa 143. Some such groupings never even declared themselves under any name, although they existed in various recognisable forms, such as the phenomena provisionally named 'October 72', in Belgrade, or 'Interventions' and 'Exhibitions-Actions', in Zagreb. It is well-known that modern art groupings usually appear at times of tension in cultural and social developments, when many individuals of differing outlook seek the support of others, whose attitudes or tendencies they claim to support. In Yugoslavia, these groupings were not only the reflection of the artistic affinities of their members, but also of the artists’ day-to-day contacts based, in part, on their similar attitudes to life and, in part, on their isolation from other social or professional groups. It should be noted that the groups were never established on the basis of a fixed programme; nor did they bear any similarity to the principles of team work that were characteristic of the earlier New Tendencies movement. On the contrary, the membership of these groups often varied from one public appearance to the next, and each individual retained his or her full working and titular name identity within the wider grouping - all with the express intention of demonstrating that proving that the group in question functioned as a spiritual, rather than a professional, entity. This is particularly obvious in the case of the OHO group, which, In the early stages, often changed membership, before its membership was consolidated, prior to the group's eventual dissolution - some members, going on to join the group, Family at Šempas, which functioned as a kind of commune whose primary objective was not artistic, but existential. In some other cases, such groups have been either extremely short-lived or extremely heterogeneous such as a group of artists in Belgrade who have been gathering from time to time since their university days; or loose circles, such as Group 143, which have only ever taken on a more permanent form, when they have needed to work together, and not for the usual purpose of wanting to prepare for a joint appearance in public.
Although the language of the ‘New Art Practice’ in Yugoslavia is essentially international, and although the adherents of the new tendencies are linked by close professional and personal contacts, their work contains certain elements that betray their association with the cultural and artistic environment in which they have been active. By the same token, the starting-points and consequences of their activity have often been conditioned by specific local circumstances, which are evidenced by the structure of the language they use. When, for instance, Braco Rotar states that 'the OHO group occupies an exceptional place in the Slovene visual arts, because its production is the only one in Slovenia that is not based on a semantic (illusionistic or mystificatory), but an explicitly semiotic transparence'22, he is referring to their opposition to the prevailing artistic standards of their own narrow, local milieu. However, the ideas and conceptions of the OHO group are linked to the so-called doctrine of reism', which is only characteristic of the Slovene cultural milieu and whose echoes have influenced the literature and, in particular, poetry of the young generation there.
'The starting premise of OHO’s activity', states Tomaž Brejc, 'was that the mystical artistic production should be substituted with the production of commodity, and the art product with suitable simple "handicraft" products. In the further development of this trend, the need was felt to change the established model of perception, not only in the creative process but also in the way the spectator views the finished product, and to use such an article as a means of directing and transforming the spectator’s field of perception, thus enabling him to discover new visual impulses'.23
Naturally enough, in an environment where visual culture was based on entirely different principles, such an attitude came over as a rift, which did, indeed exist. For, the dominant culture – as Brejc went on to say – was characterised by
'a long tradition of ‘quality’ promoted by the "Ljubljana School", particularly in printmaking, with a conservative perception based on collectors’ ideals and a fair degree of intellectualism that had always been built into the traditional chiliastic structures of meaning'24.
Whereas the breakaway of the OHO group from the visual culture of their local Slovene environment was very radical, as the critics quoted above have observed, the situation in Zagreb had a more differentiated and, basically, ambivalent character. Writing on a quite different occasion, Matko Meštrović justifiably noted that, unlike Ljubljana, which has preserved a rather enclosed milieu,
'Zagreb is a city, cosmopolitan in character, where phenomena of utterly contrary provenance can endure and develop independently while creating a cultural setting of a very broad scope'25.
In such an environment, very authoritarian and extremely liberal conceptions about the nature of artistic behaviour existed side by side. This is the reason why the emergence of the New Art was met with sharp disapproval, on one side and open support, on the other. What is more, in Zagreb, unlike the other Yugoslav centres, there existed some basic elements in the art of earlier generations that could serve as an initial source of inspiration for the New Art practitioners. These can be identified in two different conceptions of work: one of them originated from EXAT’s ideas and developed within the international New Tendencies movement. Its working principles were based on a broader use of the media coupled with a belief in the participation of artists in modifying everyday life and the environment - an idea put into practice by the young artists who worked along the lines of 'interventions in the urban space'. The other was represented by the reductionist and deconstructive mentality of the Gorgona group and was realised in the works and actions that were intentionally non-aesthetic, critical, ephemeral, provocative and, sometimes, openly negative. Both components, then, form part of a specific 'tradition of the new' at home, which brings them into the following ambivalent position: the existence of the preceding climate makes manifestations easier and mollifies the open or hidden resistance of reactionary circles; on the other hand, it causes the absence of 'blank zones' in the starting points of new generations, which are sometimes indispensable, and thus robs the latter of the possibility of a 'cultural breakaway' from the inherited cultural scene that similar phenomena can sometimes effect in other environments.
The situation in Belgrade was different, though. Deep-rooted attitudes, which originated in the aesthetic experience of the 'École de Paris' in the period between the two World Wars, and the ever-present tendency towards deeply emotional and intimate confessions in the visual arts, account for the fact that in Belgrade there practically did not exist the type of cultural groups which could lend expression to the new artistic phenomena. To be sure, a section of the Mediala group [Medijala, in Serbian] had provided a sight deviation from that dominant discourse, at an earlier date, but the ideology of that grouping, as a whole, was basically alien to the new artists, because of its determination to construct an atemporal 'integral image', and they could not use it, as a spiritual, or functional starting-point. The only element that suggested the possibility of an alternative choice was in the abstract painting of Radomir Damnjanović-Damnjan, and this mental affinity was later confirmed by the fact that Damnjanović-Damnjan went on to adopt the ‘New Art Practice’, in his subsequent development. Because of these circumstances, the new modes of articulation appeared in Belgrade later than in Novi Sad and Subotica, but after the initial breakthrough they developed rapidly, owing to (among other factors) the favourable working conditions at the Gallery of the Students’ Cultural Centre and to the numerous international contacts promoted by events such as the BITEF Festival and April Encounters. The breakaway from the old conventions resulted not only in the introduction of new media, such as film, photography, xerox; performance and body art; Primary Painting and, more recently, analytical drawing within the context of ‘mental Constructivism’; but, above all, in new definitions of the sources and meaning of artistic language itself. Like the OHO group in Slovenia, the exponents of Belgrade's New Art favoured considering the mental (concrete or analytical) status of a work of art, in preference to the dominant aesthetic' (illusionistic, 'visual') forms of expression. It should also be pointed out that, in contrast to the prevalently conformist behaviour of the majority of young artists in Belgrade, their works and writings show an awareness of the social and political factors that determine the nature of art production and of the conditions of its reception and evaluation.26
It would be logical to assume that the extreme forms of contemporary art could have appeared only in a few large towns, in which there had already existed at least some cultural and historical preconditions favouring such a development, as well as some alternative channels of communication, through which the New Artists could display their work. However, the new forms of artistic expression appeared, if only sporadically, in Split, in Croatia, and, in a much more intense form, in Novi Sad and Subotica (Vojvodina/Serbia). Since the New Art practitioners in these towns came from some fields outside the traditional art scene, they could not become more deeply engaged in local artistic developments. But they did succeed – to a far greater degree than the other artistic circles – in establishing links with related phenomena across the rest of Yugoslavia, and even abroad. In this respect, the most successful were the initiatives launched in Novi Sad, where, apart from exhibitions and other actions, two successful publishing ventures got off the ground and made a significant contribution to the understanding of the theoretical and art-historical premises of the new movement: first, a special issue of the magazine, Polja, No. 156,27 (1972), thematically dealing with Conceptual Art, and, secondly, the publication, The Artist’s Body as the Subject and the Object of Art, published in the same year, 1972, and presenting the phenomenon of Body Art.28
Owing to their specific character, and because of the marginal status they at first enjoyed within the broader context of the ‘art system’ in Yugoslavia, the New Art Practices were initially presented in galleries which were part of more broadly orientated students’ and youth institutions and were consequently only treated as regular exhibiting spaces, in a qualified sense. Although the situation differed from one place to another (in Ljubljana, the Moderna Galerija held an exhibition of the OHO group, in 1968; an exhibition of young Serbian artists was staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, in 1972; and several shows took place at the Salon of this museum and at the gallery of Belgrade’s Youth Hall/Dom omladine). The tone of all these events was set by the programme of the Students’ Centre Gallery in Zagreb, the Youth Forum (Tribina mladih) in Novi Sad, the Students’ Cultural Centre in Belgrade and, more recently, the Galerija Nova in Zagreb. The Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb also belongs to the list, because its orientation towards, and open acceptance of, the New Art Practices provided ground for the verification of their value and their relevance to broader artistic issues. Apart from these institutional channels, important forms of activity took place outside the galleries: for instance, there were art programmes during the BITEF (International Theatre Festival] in Belgrade, and some ‘underground’ events, such as shows inside the entrance hall to 2a Frankopanska Street, in Zagreb, and at the Tenants’ Gallery, which, although based in Paris, undertook a number of actions in Zagreb, as well. Moreover, the management/editorial boards for visual arts of the Students’ Centre in Zagreb and the Students’ Cultural Centre in Belgrade were credited with the provision, not only of exhibition rooms, but with the support given to young artists from the very beginning of their careers; thus, they played the role of alternative educational factor, that was in clear contrast to the training offered by the art academies. On top of this, by associating with these new artists, the galleries themselves were also able to develop their programmes in new directions: and took them far beyond their initial status of students’ institutions, to the point of elevating them to the rank of professional centres, specialised in monitoring and fostering new forms of artistic production, at the cutting edge.
A situation similar to that in the galleries could be observed in the press, too. Articles about the appearance of the ‘New Art Practice’ were at first published by students’ and young people’s press (Tribuna, Index, Studentski list, Omladinski tjednik, Student, Polet, Književna reč), then in cultural, literary, social science journals (Problemi, Polja, Pitanja) and, occasionally, art magazines (Umetnost, Život umjetnosti, Sinteza, Čovjek i prostor). Throughout that period, the dailies (Vjesnik, Delo, Borba, Politika) and weeklies concerned with social and cultural issues (NIN, Oko) – and that was by no means an accident – in the few articles devoted to the New Art gave it very poor ratings not only with regard to critical evaluation but also to political relevance, and the latter judgments were often extremely tendentious. Attempts to create the possibility of independent channels of information (Novine, published by the Students’ Centre Gallery in Zagreb and Moment, published by the Students Cultural Centre Gallery in Belgrade) faltered, for lack of funds, and a lack of true motivation. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned periodicals and publications constitute a substantial corpus of extremely valuable documentation.
The programmes of the galleries mentioned above were dedicated mainly to the work of Yugoslav artists: in that way, they helped to build up a platform for the New Art in Yugoslavia’s artistic centres. However, they also sustained contacts with artists from a number of foreign countries, which shows that the character of the new Yugoslav art has been international, that there exists a strong awareness of this fact, and that the collaboration with foreign artists has not been left to mere chance, but is part of a strategy of participation in the contemporary cultural scene. Mention can be made here only of the most important events; the list below is given here, in order to show the range and variety of artists, critics and organisers/managers who have participated in the development of the most interesting and active trends of the past decade:
In 1970, Walter de Maria visited the OHO group at Šempas, in Slovenia, and this led to the production of a number of collaborative works; in 1971, two exhibitions were mounted, on the initiative of Braco and Nena Dimitrijević: At the Moment (in the entrance hall to 2a Frankopanska Street, in Zagreb) and At the Other Moment (at the Students’ Cultural Centre Gallery, in Belgrade), which included works by Anselmo, Barry, Brouwn, Buren, Burgin, Dibbets, the ER Group, Flanagan, Huebler, Kirili, Kounellis, Latham, LeWitt, Weiner and Wilson. The Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb organised exhibitions of the work by Yves Klein, Bill Vazan, Daniel Buren, Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager, and presentations of Conceptual Art and the ‘New Painting’, within the framework of Tendencies 5, and a number of international video art encounters. However, such events and encounters were more frequent in Belgrade: at the BITEF theatre festival, April Encounters and numerous other occasions, the following artists have participated in actions and debates: Michelangelo Pistoletto (with the group Lo Zoo), Franco Vaccari, Claudio Parmiggiani, Mario Ceroli, Jannis Kounellis, Mimmo Germanà, Daniel Buren, Giuseppe Chiari, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, Antonio Diaz, John Stezaker, members of the Art & Language group - Andrew Menard and Michael Corris -, Katharina Sieverding, Ulrike Rosenbach, Wolfgang Weber, Klaus Mettig, Tom Marioni, Diego Cortez, Al Souza, Tim Jones, Luigi Ontani, Iole de Freitas, Ugo La Pietra, Francesco Clemente, Lamberto Calzolari, Gianni-Emilio Simonetti, G. A. Cavellini, Nicole Gravier, Hervé Fischer, Endre Tot, Natalia LL, Janusz Haka, Zdzislaw Sosnowsky, and other artists; Belgrade also welcomed art critics, art historians and editors of various art journals: Germano Celant, Achille Bonito Oliva, Filiberto Menna, Tommaso Trini, Henri Martin, Catherine Millet, Jean-Marc Poinsot, Klaus Honnef, Barbara Reise, Rosetta Brooks, Marlis Grüterich, Giancarlo Politi, Gislind Nabakowski, Willoughby Sharp, John McEwen, and others. Other events which should be mentioned here include an exhibition of Conceptual Art, selected by Catherine Millet (with works by Burgin, Collins, Cuthford, Dan Graham, Venet, the Art & Language group and others), the Mail Art exhibition for the 7ème Biennale des jeunes in Paris, 1971, selected by Jean-Marc Poinsot (with works by Le Gac, Boltanski, Gerz, Friedman, Higgins and others), Achille Bonito Oliva’s exhibition, Persona (with works by Merz, Kounellis, Boetti, Prini, Penone, Vettor Pisani, Paolini, De Dominicis and others), John Baldessari’s one-man show, video projections by Studio 970 of Varese (with tapes by Oppenheim, Nagasawa, Fabro, Chiari, Trotta and others) and Art Tapes 22 from Florence (with tapes by Acconci, Beuys, Buren, P. Calzolari, Joan Jonas, F. Gillette, Kaprow, Kounellis, Paolini, Urs Lüthy, and others).
Also of p