Action ǀ Retraction: Czechoslovak Art and Philosophy in the International Context, 1960–1990

Hana Gründler

Jiří Kolář, Plate of his Deník 1968

The tendency observed in recent years to question the one-dimensional, still profoundly Western history of (post-)modernism, and to increasingly take into account, among other things, Eastern European positions, proves on closer examination to be relatively minor. Not least, this is due to linguistic hegemonies, and to those pertaining to science policy. The study of Czechoslovak art from 1960 to 1990 is no exception: although this art provided fundamental contributions to international movements such as concrete poetry, abstract art, action art, land art, or (experimental) film, these positions are little known and are discussed only marginally in academic literature. It is also often ignored how close the mutual synergies between visual art, film, literature and philosophy were, and how intensive the exchange was with positions from the West, including Italy, France and the Federal Republic of Germany, despite all the adversities.

The aim of the interdisciplinary project is to examine selected positions of so-called “non-conformist” Czechoslovak art and philosophy and to embed them in an international context. The leitmotif here is the question of the extent to which art and philosophy were understood as transformative, disruptive, and resistant practices. This question, which is also relevant for the present, raises a multitude of others: How is the relationship between art, philosophy, conflict and resistance to be assessed? What changes does the experience of exclusion and (internal and external) migration entail for philosophy and art-making? And how is the relation of retraction and action, of underground and open critiques of the official discourse, shaped?

In order to define the problem area more clearly it is first necessary to take a closer look at the lively and diverse cultural scene of the ČSSR, which played a fundamental role in the transformation of the political system in the 1960s and which fought for a critical consciousness of communist society. In a second step, the project will examine what consequences the phase of so-called normalization, which from 1970 onward lead to a restoration of the political conditions prevailing before Alexander Dubček’s reform attempts, had for artistic creation and philosophical thinking. In the immediate aftermath of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968, artists, writers, and philosophers experienced manifold forms of physical, psychological, symbolic and legal exclusion. This was implicitly also an exclusion from the official sphere of public life, which was controlled by the repressive official political apparatus.

As a consequence of this repression, many “non-conformist” intellectuals and artists, such as Bohumil Hrabal or Jiří Kovanda, promoted, from the 1970s onwards, a form of Lebenskunst, a modus vivendi, whose main goal was a disruption of ordinary everyday routines and a questioning of the heavily politicized reality. The philosopher Jan Patočka, for example, began to give underground seminars in which he not only devoted himself to concepts such as responsibility, solidarity and resistance, but also thought intensively about philosophy as a way of life in clear reference to antiquity. It was an attempt to test models of concrete philosophy as a form of action. In this context, Patočka attributed a central role to art and literature: for him, they opened up spaces of (thinking) freedom. As will be shown, the delicate balance of visibility and invisibility, of attracting and not attracting attention, was the basis not only for him, but also for many other artistic and philosophical positions. Václav Havel's observation that all too obvious and striking appropriations of the currently political need by no means be critical should be read against this background. According to Havel, attracting attention is a strategic calculation – resistance, on the other hand, can be found in the inconspicuous, in the small gestures that only become apparent at a second glance and that question the status quo


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