Boris Groys - Cheerful Post-Modernism
No compliment today is as manifestly out of fashion as the determination that an artist's work is 'prophetic'. However, no more suitable characterization exists for that which is most conspicuous to the contemporary viewer of the works from Milan Kunc's "Ost-Pop" series (1977-1979): they foretell the evolution which has been taking place up until recently on a worldwide scale and which has brought about the diffusion of everyday Western and Eastern sign. The opening of Eastern European politics, industry and media in recent years has produced a quaint and aesthetically charming visual environment. Against the background of well-preserved 19th-century townscapes, this environment is now providing the scene for a clash between outmoded socialist status symbols and the continually increasing number of signs of Western commercial product culture. One cannot help feeling that this is due to the political decisions and events which shook the former power structures of Eastern Europe.
The series by Milan Kunc which I referred to (and which came into being fourteen years ago) shows, however, that the newly-developing trends which correspond to it were not brought about by the subjective decisions of one political or artistic personality, but have their source in the logic of symbols themselves, in their immanent play between affinities and differences. The artist is capable of discerning this logic, thus lending a prophetic dimension to his work. In his paintings, objects, photocollages and installations from the "Ost-Pop" series, Kunc intermingles the signs of the Western commercial world (such as a Coca-Cola bottle, a McDonald's hamburger, or television skits) with Soviet and Chinese symbols of the hammer and sickle, red stars and flags, pictures of ardent Communist Youth members and socialist collective farmers, or symbols of the Moscow Olympic Games.
All of these symbols remain symbolic: they do not transform themselves, as with American pop artists, into new icons which must be perceived as classic museum works, or rather as religious art. This sensual-contemplative approach which extracts the sign as an element from its original sign system and use it as an autonomous image which is not bound to any sign system is foreign to Kunc. Therefore, it is not possible to grasp his "Ost-Pop" as simply the transfer of pop-art methodology into a new subject area. Eastern iconography, which is at its foundation ideological and ascetic, demands an entirely different perception of symbols than Western commercial advertising which builds upon mere sensuality and erotic temptation. "Ost-Pop" is first of all based upon work with a different – Eastern – understanding of signs and art which for Kunc urgently and fundamentally influences and changes the economy of his work.
The imagery of Eastern communist ideology was poor in comparison with that of everyday Western life and offered no immediate attractiveness. Eastern posters, slogans, exhortations, and symbols were simple, monotonous, and boring: they did not attract attention and remained nearly unnoticed despite their ubiquitousness. Even in the East, the idea was often mistakenly held that they were therefore insufficiently effective and that it was necessary to artistically improve 'visual propaganda'. Such proposals were always unsuccessful, however, and their failure was not coincidental. Every citizen of the East bloc grew up surrounded by the ruling ideology. Its world view, its discourse with every possible nuance and undertone, its guiding values and idiosyncrasies were so intimately known that ideology became for each individual matter-of-fact – almost subconscious. It is unnecessary to advertise such ideology or to make it enticing. On the contrary, every attempt to make it linguistically or visually more interesting created a blasphemous impression because it patently rejected the ideology itself and tried to link it to something heterogeneous. Someone once pointed out that, so far, no well-painted Christian canvas has ever been worshipped as a miraculous icon.
Visual symbols of Eastern ideology communicated a pertinent content directly and infallibly without diverting attention to beauty or eloquence. And here, upon their dignified simplicity, Kunc establishes the connection in his works: he leaves them their linkage to the relevant ideological languages. And the signs of Western consumerism are seen by Kunc as being on the same level. For the East, where the taste of Coca-Cola and McDonald's was nearly unknown when the series started, such signs assumed a purely abstract ideological role as signs of the West, the enemy, the devil. Thus, from an official Eastern perspective, Milan Kunc's works presented themselves as an impermissible and provocative melange of the sacred signs of two opposing global ideologies – as profanity, as unheard-of blasphemy, as devil worship.
This effect loses its unequivocalness when we depart from the purely ideological level and take into consideration the role which ideology played in Eastern societies. For citizens of the East bloc, the West radiated an almost magical, irrational allure. It formed a kind of mystical zone of the absolute satisfaction of all desires and was seen as an earthly paradise, as 'true communism'. From an Eastern point of view the West appeared as a world where social and sexual temptation were predominant, where, although life was more dangerous, it was also more interesting and more meaningful. The United States of America was even geographically on the other side of the world from the Soviet Union: the border between the Eastern and Western military blocs was also the boundary between day and night, between reality and dreams, between consciousness and unconsciousness, between repression and libido. Thus the guarding of the borders between East and West had such an absolute, mythical, and fundamental priority, and their crossing promised people from the East the attainment of mystic harmony.
This dream of the West did not correspond only to 'anti-communist' thinking, but was itself contained in the official ruling ideology. The highest and most sought-after privilege of an Eastern European functionary was the opportunity to travel to the West; thus a visit to the West – that is, a journey through the land of the night, and never a journey through the future region of communism – was the focal point of the Eastern political system. This goal gave communist-oriented societies their inner unity and formed the substance of inofficial collectivism. Indeed, it included all social opposition. The opposition differed from the rulers only in the method by which it wished to move toward the West – i.e., along a path of private risk rather than by means of an officially arranged career – but never in the goal of its effort. Communist ideology itself originally came from the West and gravitated unconsciously toward its origin. Seen in this context, Milan Kunc's "Ost-Pop" series is an exploration of the actual structures of the ideology which prevailed in Eastern Europe, including their secret codes and the social subconsciousness of their subordinates. The same game of signs looks different from the Western perspective. Here, Coca-Cola and McDonald's are not any kind of ideological symbols indicating Western values. An inveigling allure – at least for politically free, left-wing intellectuals – emanates from red stars and flags and hammers and sickles. They symbolize both the imminent danger of total annihilation and a vision of exalted departure from the unbearable monotony of Western everyday life. While the West was a land of the subconscious for the East, the East played a similar role for the Western the West. Having mixed the symbolism of this far-away dream with typical, de-ideologized signs of everyday Western culture, Kunc thus stripped it of its secrecy and its attractiveness. Such de-ideologized ideological symbolism is cheap and just one of the phenomena of popular culture. Revealed are its tautology and banality which, in their most trivial forms, have not contained any alternative to the dominating western system for a long time. Here Milan Kunc exposes the true and actual function of this symbolism as supplementary ideological convenience for simple minds.
Overcoming the East-West dichotomy which Milan Kunc achieved artistically and foresaw politically is not entirely without danger, however. The removal of this dichotomy touches upon the dichotomy between the conscious and the unconscious, between dream and reality, between the self and the other. In this light, the process of detente between East and West seems, in retrospect, to be part of the post-modern strategy of deconstructing oppositions which are lost in the potentially endless game of signs. The fate of East-West relations is contingent upon the fate of symbols, upon their interrelationship as depicted by Milan Kunc in his works. This fate obviously encloses something depressing, futile and disenchanting within itself. Achieving balance between East and West – viewed as a particular form of post-modern reconciliation between reality and utopia, between enlightenment and myth – deprives life of an historical perspective: any movement forward inevitably becomes a tourism within fixed borders.
However, with Milan Kunc, we will not encounter the same depressiveness which is strongly exhibited by many other artists today. Although he calls one of his installations No Future Workshop (1979), the work has a happy overtone and only playfully reflects the new mentality of pop-art. The playfulness and joy of Kunc's works can perhaps be explained through the artist's biography. As a Czech emigrant he comes from a country which suffered severely from the East-West conflict, and Kunc himself became a pilgrim to the borderland between East and West. The symbols of modern utopias and modern imperialism – the symbols of Soviet ideological and American consumerist imperialism – are alien to Milan Kunc and for him have no psychological significance. They indicate for Kunc more of a European and internal psychological division than a real historic vision. Milan Kunc's works therefore lack any trace of bitterness which we find with American and Russian artists who also treated the issue of the loss of modern values (for example, artists of the 'Sots-Art' circle whose analyses resembled those of Kunc).
The devaluation of dividing signs, their arbitrariness, their interchangeability and miscibility have become, for Kunc, a new post-modern, national and personal utopia: a new sign of overcoming boundaries and mending inner fractures. Post-modern anti-utopianism is becoming a new utopia for all who suffered under classic modern utopias founded upon irreconcilable contradictions. In his earlier series "Embarrassing Realism" (1974-1977) Milan Kunc put to use a kind of historical war painting which depicted war as a noble and poetic affair. Its heroes were German and Russian soldiers. In Portrait of Stalin with Telephone Receiver (1976), which is reminiscent of Salvador Dali's painting Hitler's Riddle (1937), and in which the telephone, instead of the sword, is a symbol of supreme military power, Stalin seems – as was customary for socialist iconography – like a wise and benevolent leader. In the painting Melancholy Autumn Sentry (1977), a Nazi soldier appears in the role of a neo-Germanic hero from Hoelderlin's epics. Here Milan Kunc demonstrates the real power of his art as the first to create myths upon which the power of the military and the state are dependent from within. While the critical, protesting and demythologizing artistic approach always comes only from a position of weakness, thus confirming the superiority of the political power, the 'positive' art of Milan Kunc demonstrates the impotence of politics which needs art to legitimize, represent and protect itself. Although the powerful have obtained great military and political power, they require additional representation and glorification from art, due to a lack of 'normal' social legitimacy. The artist's presentation of this need for self-confirmation is his artistic master stroke. By voluntarily recognizing this legitimation through art, Milan Kunc exposes their legitimizing mechanisms.
On the other hand, Kunc overcomes not only Eastern, but even certain Western taboos which – after Auschwitz and the Gulag – try to prohibit a playful approach to these topics and allow only pathos and respect, thus compelling art to continue a bombastic ennoblement of totalitarian regimes. By incorporating these dangerous allusions in his game of symbols and making them ironic and aesthetic, Kunc liberates himself and the viewer from their power. For Milan Kunc even the most distressing, murderous and absurd utopias of our century have their hidden roots in the very simple and everyday aspirations and dreams about earthly happiness – dreams which unite all men on a deeper level and beyond all borders of ideology. This creates an affinity which the artist also professes. After all he, too, dreams of happiness, seduction and fulfilment – and, unlike so many others, he does not want to be a hypocrite and deny the inevitable similarities between his own personal dreams and the mass utopias of our age. This makes Milan Kunc's art a cheerful art, just as Nietzsche's science was a cheerful science.