An Associative Art History: Comparative Studies of Neo-Avant-Gardes in a Bipolar World
Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2017, 293pp, ISBN: 978-3037645178.
A quick glance over the contents list of An Associative Art History makes one think that the collection of essays by the Czech art historian and curator Tomáš Pospiszyl might have come under the title How Prague Stole the Idea of Modern Art. A further glimpse brings the impression that he aimed to create yet another counter-hegemonic narration on the art of Eastern Europe, written from a culturally dependant vantage point towards the so-called West. Does An Associative Art History merely rephrase the title given by Serge Guilbaut to his famous book of 1983, or does it appropriate his ideas? A closer look reveals a much more sophisticated narration, which escapes the paraphrastic mode in favour of a more original and analytical approach. For Pospiszyl, Prague certainly did not steal the concept of modern art from New York, nor from Paris, and it was not even trying to do so. His essays cover a selection of artists and art theorists active in the former Czechoslovakia between 1939 and 2013 – such as Milan Knížák, Jiří Kolář, Július Koller, and Jiří Kovanda – and considers their work in relation to American situationists, minimalists, and fluxus artists. In his search for the place of Czech, Slovak, and Eastern European post-war art, Pospiszyl places it neither below, nor next to, but instead within the Western context. This counter-conventional method of comparing parallel art worlds attempts to avoid impositions of Western values, and it aims to neutralise the effects of translating Eastern Europe to a Western audience by means of Western methodologies. Pospiszyl’s essays prove that Eastern European art has been part of the Western tradition and should not be understood as its belated version. For defining the relationship between Prague and New York, Pospiszyl uses the term associative, on which he elaborates in the nine essays included in his book.
One of the first essays, for example, puts into comparative perspective the 1939 essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ by American art critic Clement Greenberg and the 1938 essay ‘On Art Freedom and Socialism’ by Jindřich Chalupecký, who was one of the formative Czech theorists and art historians of the post-war era. Both theorists had similar interwar leftist backgrounds, yet due to the political situations in their respective countries, they arrived at radically different conclusions regarding the place of avant-garde art in modern times and its relationship with society. For Greenberg, avant-garde art was related mostly to itself, and his main interest was its self-contained development through the decades. He considered the elitism of the avant-garde as a way of providing art with continuous development and survival. Kitsch is the inevitable product of bourgeois culture. For Chalupecký, on the other hand, Kitsch is the effect of the avant-garde losing its connection with society. He considered the avant-garde’s main task to be the introduction of change to society. Pospiszyl’s associative method emphasises that the neo-avant-garde did not have a single point of origin and was asynchronous due to the political circumstances that influenced its development. As Pospiszyl’s book demonstrates, Eastern European art has often had the same footing as Western art, but in many cases, similar art events became prominent later, often due to radically different political circumstances, as in the case of the comparison of Greenberg and Chalupecký.
American art historian Sven Spieker, in the foreword to this collection of essays, introduces the term ‘parallax’ to describe Pospiszyl’s associative perspective. In Ancient Greek, the word parallaxis (παράλλαξις) means ‘alternation’. It describes an optical phenomenon whereby one can experience a difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight. Interestingly, parallax makes the objects in the distance appear to move more slowly than the objects close to the eye, and therefore can be used to determine distances between objects. Pospiszyl applied the comparative parallax not only to determine but also to shorten the apparent distance between Prague and New York. He believes that the element helping to alternate the fixed cultural vision and link Prague with New York should come through a broader understanding of cultural time. On the other hand, parallax is in fact just an optical illusion, and so the parallactic method can be seen as nothing more than a variation on the translational methodology. Pospiszyl defines Czech and Slovak artists as part of the neo-avant-garde and therefore automatically locates them within the taxonomy originating from the Western cultural context. Furthermore, he juxtaposes Eastern Europeans only with their Western counterparts, which undermines the entire purpose of the argument. Hence, the associative method is useful for highlighting the clichéd patterns of comparisons, but it does not provide any alternative methodological system to replace the old one.
This book should not be taken as a missing chain-link between the Western and Eastern art worlds, but rather as a useful point of reference for understanding the problems associated with describing parallel art realities. Pospiszyl’s book therefore may be seen as a dialectical synthesis of methodological attempts of an entire generation of art historians from Eastern Europe, who after 2000 focused their efforts on creating a coherent and counter-hegemonic export narration for the entire region. In this regard, it is worth mentioning publications which approach this topic, such as Slovene Igor Zabel’s Essay I, II (2006, 2008) or Polish Piotr Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989 (2011), which both question the possibility of discussing Eastern European art without subordinating East to West. Pospiszyl’s An Associative Art History can be useful for researchers working on the topics related to contemporary global art history, because it attempts to find an alternative methodology for defining the relationship between the centres and the peripheries of art history. It is also one of the very rare examples of publications, recently published in English, which focus on a methodological approach to art produced in Eastern Europe, making it even more valuable for a broad audience interested in (re)discovering Eastern European art.
 Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
 Sven Spieker, ‘Conditional Similarities: Parallax in Postwar Art from Eastern Europe’, in Tomáš Pospiszyl (ed.), An Associative Art History: Comparative Studies of Neo-Avant-Gardes in a Bipolar World (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2017), 10.
 For discussion on the methodology, please see: Igor Zabel, ‘The Strategy of History Writing’, in Igor Španjol (ed.), Igor Zabel: Contemporary Art Theory (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2013), 46-59; Piotr Piotrowski, ‘Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde’, in Sasha Bru et al. (eds), Europa! Europa? The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent (London: De Gruyter, 2009), 49-58.