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Behind the Artwork. Thinking Art Against Cold War’s Bloc Polarity

Project leader:
Katalin Cseh-Varga (IKW)

3 years
extended until 28.2.2025

Funded by:
FWF – Austrian Science Fund | Hertha Firnberg (T1074)

FWF | Hertha-Firnberg Fellow
Katalin Cseh-Varga, Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies
Duration: 1.4.2019 – 28.2.2025

How did Central European contemporary non-realist artists and art theorists engage with and absorb the dominant intellectual currents that washed over Europe during the Cold War? The research project will be the first comprehensive study of the circulation of ideas within and across the artificial borders of the Iron Curtain, and will aim to reconstruct the complex conditions of art production in the period between 1956 and 1989. Figures like art mediator Éva Körner embraced and modified structuralism and semiotics, movements which went hand-in-hand with a growing cult of the ready-made, Wittgenstein and minimal art in the Hungarian art scene during the 1960s and 70s, while Dóra Maurer and Anna Kutara managed to travel to the “West” and import/export ideas in ways that challenged the claims of ideological insulation.

Focusing on the geopolitical areas of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, the project will be structured around three pillars: the roles of mediators, trends in philosophy, and the course of ideas embedded into a deconstructed narrative of the Blocs that influenced the intellectual production of art in late socialism. Important figures in art theory and the artists themselves in Soviet-bloc people’s democracies absorbed, translated and networked philosophies. The journeys of these travelling ideas resulted in discussions, publications, events, and in works of art.

The three factors that influenced the production of, and reflection on, contemporary art will be examined with regard to their local, regional and international influences. The study will also pay due attention to the paradoxes inherent in these processes, as well as the various forms of transmission, through applying oral history interviews, archival work, and discourse analysis to the research material.

The ideas of contact zones and cultural translation are central to the production of thinking art that overcomes Cold War bipolarity. Both concepts bring together information, knowledge and their material carriers in order to create a counter-narrative to the overly simple distinctions and homogeneity on which certain cultural histories of real, existing socialisms are based. Going beyond the focus on the art object, the research project’s focus, namely the act of transmission/translation as a critical and historiographical fact and tool , offers ways to engage with the theories and methods debated in contemporary digital and digitally informed humanities.