Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 16, 2022
Octavian Esanu The Postsocialist Contemporary: The Institutionalization of Artistic Practice in Eastern Europe after 1989 Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2021. 288 pp.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth £80.00 (9781526158000)

It has now been some time since historians and critics began to seriously attempt a definition of contemporary art understood not simply as the art produced today but as a historical phenomenon. Beginning in the second half of the 2000s, scholars including Terry Smith, Amelia Jones, Peter Osborne, and Richard Meyer offered analyses of this phenomenon, exploring its relationship to modernism, its philosophical underpinnings, and its aesthetic characteristics—insofar as aesthetic considerations can still be considered to play a role in its definition. Octavian Esanu’s The Postsocialist Contemporary serves as both a deepening of these previous efforts and a methodological and historical alternative to them, situating the genesis of contemporary art in a context that is at once global and geographically specific. As its title suggests, Esanu’s book charts the shape of contemporary art by paying close attention to both its institutional framework and its manifestations in the first decade following the end of state socialism in the various nations comprising the former Eastern bloc, the chronological period during which the term “postsocialist” can be most appropriately applied to the region in question. 

The book argues that the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art (SCCAs), a network of art offices that ultimately numbered twenty by the time the program began to wane in the late 1990s, were the primary agent for the introduction of the notion of “contemporary art” in this region. Esanu, who was involved in this network as the founder of the SCCA in Chișinău, Moldova, shows that these centers were not simply sources of funding for local artists, or sites for gathering information about specific art scenes in order to increase the visibility of these scenes in the West. Linked to the broader goals of George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI), the SCCAs were sites where new forms of art making, art exhibition, and artistic discourse were established in a pattern closely intertwined with the ideologies of neoliberalism, inspired by Karl Popper’s notion of the “open society” and the role of the individual within it and by the economic and social theories of thinkers like Friedrich Hayek (27). For Esanu, contemporary art is a set of institutional practices that were brought into the region as part of the effort to promote the free market and the autonomy of cultural production from the state (9). The book treats contemporary art not as an aesthetic venture, but as a way of operating, creating a new art infrastructure as a corollary to post-1989 economic and political transitions. 

The Postsocialist Contemporary comprises an introduction and five chapters, moving from a historical account of the establishment of the SCCAs to broader questions about the periodization of the contemporary in relation to modernism and the Cold War. In his introduction, Esanu lays out the key stakes of the book, which intends to map the “common ideological space” produced by the supposedly nonideological systems and norms of neoliberalism (9–12). Partially adapting Wendy Brown’s analysis of neoliberalism in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (MIT Press, 2015), Esanu defines these practices as “responsibilized entrepreneurialism and self-investment, intense self-promotion, an understanding of artistic practice in terms of investment in human capital, an antipolitical skepticism and postmodernist irony, and an inclusion of art within a managerial and business-oriented semiotic and lexical register” (32). 

The first chapter describes George Soros’s adaptation of Popper’s idea of the open society and his application of this philosophy to postsocialist Eastern Europe—and specifically to the field of art. Soros advocated a market-centered approach wherein individual artists would define their own interests and compete for resources supposedly without any imposition of ideology. In chapter 2, Esanu elaborates how the SCCAs’ emphasis on artists as free, diverse individuals addressing personal issues produced the need for the curator, a mediator who articulated a set of demands to which artists were encouraged to discursively adapt their work and who interpreted the way artists’ activities related to the most pressing social issues or problems of contemporary society (88). After examining the context-making work of the curator, Esanu pulls back in chapter 3 to consider the intellectual underpinnings of Soros’s project, and asks if there is any identifiable “aesthetics of the ‘open society’” (127). Given that authors like Popper and Hayek have little to say about aesthetics, Esanu turns to Ernst Gombrich, showing how Gombrich’s version of art history adapted Popper’s ideas, developing “stories of art” that emphasized individual solutions to problems and focused on technical issues rather than historical circumstances (130, 151–52). Gombrich’s art history is the corollary of the neoliberal vision of “a world that consists entirely of problems awaiting solutions” (149). 

In such a world, the most appropriate ideological framework for the artist is that of antipolitics—avoidance of the state and of any mass social action. In chapter 4, Esanu charts the ways that the political content of art in Eastern Europe was reconfigured “into a plethora of micro-political singularities,” encouraging artists to resist totalitarianism by focusing on “small matters” (174, 200). This model upends politics as a realm of collective social struggle as envisioned by many historical avant-gardes. Esanu argues that the SCCAs helped ensure that the antipolitical stances of late socialist dissident writers and artists were carried over into the postsocialist period as the main paradigm for artistic practice. He also traces, in chapters 4 and 5, how the idea of the contemporary emerged intertwined with antipolitics on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, via the “midcentury contemporary” in the United States and “contemporaneity” or “severe style” in the Soviet context (190–98). In both cases, the contemporary was a retreat from the openly communist-inflected and mass political aims of avant-garde modernism and socialist realism. 

Here, it feels that Esanu’s emphasis on the post-1989 period is overstated: If the ideology of the contemporary really began during the Cold War, then how strong can the link between post-1989 capitalist normalization policies and the introduction of the contemporary art paradigm really be? For that matter, how different was the curatorial focus on defining timely “social issues” from the socialist-era effort to define—under socialist realism, at least—the key social transformations (and contradictions, in Maoist contexts) that artists should address? Although the book begins by asserting the introduction of a contemporary art paradigm after 1989, in many ways Esanu suggests more evidence of continuities before and after the end of state socialism.

The Postsocialist Contemporary offers a convincing account of how key paradigms of what we still call contemporary art arrived in the former socialist bloc, and in doing so it provides a compelling broader narrative of how contemporary art is intertwined with the development of global neoliberal capitalism. However, in focusing on institutional histories, the book barely engages with specific works of art and their meanings, leaving open questions about what role the work of art itself might play either in further entrenching or in challenging neoliberal ideology. The one concrete case Esanu discusses is Balázs Beöthy and Tamás St. Auby’s proposal for Beautiful Darkness (variation 2) as part of the exhibition Polyphony: Social Commentary in Contemporary Hungarian Art held at the Budapest SCCA in 1993, a work that would have interrupted electrical power in the entire city for twenty-four seconds (186). Esanu reads this work, which was rejected by the exhibition’s organizers, as proposing a collective and radicalized political vision that was incompatible with the individualizing ideology of the SCCA. But is this the only example that could be considered?  

Even if the point is to shift the emphasis away from specific artists’ stories and look instead at institutional practices, The Postsocialist Contemporary still seems to lack sufficient attention to potential resistance or undermining. This feels strange for a project presented as an effort to transpose the focus on “art and ideology” (so common to art histories of the socialist years) into the post-1989 era (9). Throughout, Esanu is careful to note that local conditions and actors meant that the various SCCAs functioned differently and had distinctive effects on the introduction of contemporary art in their respective cities and countries. However, extracting the shape and significance of this complexity is left to future studies, as is the work of determining what forces might have most significantly countered the managerial norms introduced by the SCCAs. Were the only alternatives essentially conservative holdovers from the state socialist system (centralized institutions focused primarily on mediums like painting and sculpture, for example)? Or were there other practices that we might read as alternatives to the neoliberal contemporary, which might contribute to a genealogy of resistance in the present? The value of The Postsocialist Contemporary—even if it cannot answer these questions—is that it allows us to ask them more pointedly, with a greater historical understanding of the recent past and a more nuanced perspective informed by the supposedly marginal geographies of global capitalism. 

Raino Isto
Institute for Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Art (IAKSA), Tirana, Albania