- Performance Art in East-Central Europe1960s to the Post-Communist Era
In order to evaluate the significance of performance art in the former communist countries of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, it is important to consider the development of the genre in the context of the socio-political conditions governing artistic and creative practice under state-sponsored socialism. During this time, most, if not all official artistic practice was subject to some form of government control if not monitoring. While the implementation of socialist realism in the Soviet Union and its satellites was the most extreme example of this, in practice, the policy was adhered to haphazardly, perhaps most strictly in Albania, and to some extent, Russia. Nevertheless, with the arts under governmental control, only painting and sculpture were considered appropriate genres in which to work. Thus performance art—a genre within the visual arts, as opposed to theatre or musical performance—not being recognized as a valid art form, offered visual artists a “free zone” for experimentation and development of their individual forms of expression, which could not have been realized in the official sphere.
The narrative, with regard to the development of performance art in Western Europe and North America, is that the genre emerged at a time of institutional critique, when artists were questioning the institutions of art and their respective mechanisms for judging and evaluating works of art; questioning canons and their exclusive and restrictive nature (for example, the exclusion, in the Western art canon, of women, LGBT, and artists from other marginalized groups); and attempting to combat the commodification of art. As such, performance art was one form of ephemeral art, along with conceptual art, that came into being with the aim of denying the art market and its institutions saleable objects of art.1 As we are also well aware, however, under communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe, there were no art markets to speak of, at least none similar to those [End Page 95] present in Western Europe and North America. Art was not sold in commercial galleries; it was commissioned and purchased by the state. To be an artist, in many countries one had to belong to the official Union of Artists, which provided a salary, studio, and access to supplies. To exist as an independent commercial artist was almost unheard of, although occasionally artists were able to sell their artworks to foreign collectors.
It should also be noted that while artists from East-Central Europe were well-connected with and familiar with many of the artists, performances, and events taking place outside their borders, the same cannot be said for those in the West, who to this day remain relatively unfamiliar with the performance art that developed in the Eastern bloc at the same time as in Western Europe and North America. This is in part because, until very recently, this history remained largely unwritten. While RoseLee Goldberg published her seminal text in 1979, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, it was only in the 1990s that art historians in the region were finally able to construct their own local histories of the development of performance. Among the first of these histories were Pavlína Morganová’s Akční umění (Action Art), published in 1999 in Czech and in English in 2014 as Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain; and Ileana Pintilie’s Actionism in Romania During the Communist Era, published in 2002.2 It is thanks to these national histories that international scholars can begin to get a better grasp of the significant performative activity taking place behind the Iron Curtain, contemporaneous with similar activity elsewhere.
While artists such as Allan Kaprow and John Cage in North America were developing more authentic forms of “art into life,” such as transient, experiential, and time-based—as opposed to object-based—works of art, in order to avoid com-modification and provide a direct experience of expression, artists in East-Central Europe did not arrive at their performative acts as a reaction to or rejection of the market or the object (although they...