tendencies in art, Dušan Grlja

narrator Dušan Grlja
term tendencies in art
published 10 July 2014, Belgrade, Serbia, Europe
affiliated institution ex-Prelom Collective

The expression “tendencies in art” is typically used to depict artistic currents or trends – in terms of form, subject, style or any other aesthetic dimension. However, in the ex-Yu region, it also involves certain historical connotations ranging from the real-socialist-style censorship (accusations that an artwork or art movement promotes “bourgeois or other anti-socialist tendencies”) to the significant art movements like the New Tendencies (where tendency refers to willingly take different course of action, another direction, etc.). However, in the broadest etymological sense, the Latin noun tendetia is derived from the verb tendenre, meaning to stretch, to stretch out, to extend, and to apply tension (coming from the same etymon). Like in archery, this involves putting tension on a string and arching the bow in order to shoot an arrow at the desired aim. So, the word tendency refers to a motion in a certain direction, implying an effort to make things go towards a certain goal. On the other hand, in everyday speech tendency refers to something that is not yet fully visible or clearly discernable, something that has yet to develop completely. It is this eminently active, purposeful and practical, yet undecided, dimension of the term “tendency in art” that I find well worth tackling.


The term tendency is not even remotely new. Nevertheless, that what is historically changeable involves not mostly the words themselves but the meanings that they convey. In most of the cases, new terminologies are made out of “borrowed” words from other fields of knowledge. Maybe what is involved in coming up with a new vocabulary or “language” is precisely the estrangement of the existing terms – taking them from one familiar context and transposing them to another. So, my invitation to rethink the notion of tendency would be to disengage or suspend the usual meaning of the word in the sphere of art (in the above mentioned sense of currents or trends) and to infuse this term with the meanings mainly connected to Marxist discourse (ranging from theoretical and political connotations to the verbiage of everyday life under socialism) in order to see how it works and to try to make it useful for us today.


Instead of embarking on such an ambitious task, I would rather allude to those meanings of the word tendency while presenting some of the reasons – especially one connected to an exhibition-making project – that led me to choose to deal with this term in the field of art. As a member of the Prelom Kolektiv, I actively participated in a long-term regional collaborative research project the Political Practices of the (Post)Yugoslav Art (2006-2010) about the cultural – artistic and political – heritage of the socialist Yugoslavia. However “retrograde” this project may seem, it had a more or less articulated theoretic-political background in the Belgrade-based Prelom journal. “Prelom” can be translated in a broad sense as a break, implying a physical act of breaking, but in a specific sense, the Prelom took its meaning from Althusser’s concept of coupure, rendering it a synonym for an impossible and yet so needed notion – revolution. Stemming out of an educational project by the Belgrade Soros Center for Contemporary Art from the late 1990s, the editorial board comprised of mainly art history and sociology students had the opportunity to develop and galvanize further the existing artistic and theoretical, cultural and political network across the former Yugoslavia. The PPPYuArt project involved WHW (Zagreb), kuda.org (Novi Sad) and SCCA/pro.ba (Sarajevo), later including other artistic, theoretical and political groups.


For me, the inspiration to articulate the general outlines of this inquiry within the Prelom kolektiv was the 2005 Kontakt exhibition – showcasing the ERSTE Bank’s collection of East European neo-avant-garde and conceptual art. The artworks were presented in a curatorial and architectural setup that embedded them within a very well-known discourse. The ideological outlook of the exhibition suggested a convenient story of the “brave artists” that fought for the freedom of expression in the midst of communist totalitarian societies, therefore ultimately creating a narrative that legitimizes the current neoliberal situation after the so-called democratic revolutions and all that transition to a free-market economy. The main idea was to struggle against those ideological representations of the socialist past by making (self)educational case-study exhibitions that would offer tools for revealing the historical, social and political context of the artworks or art concepts and movements.


It was precisely the development of this project that sparked the idea of revisiting the notion of the tendency in art since it enables a broader and more illuminating perspective on historically variable production of art’s meaning and effectivity. The elucidation of historical contexts allows for insight that the tendency of an artwork or art movement could significantly differ in diverse historical, political and economic circumstances. For instance, while the tendency of conceptual art was founded some 35 years ago on the critique of artwork as commodity (revolutionizing the art form by depriving it of a fixed object and making it in fact just a communicated idea, bodily gesture or something else that could not be easily materialized as a thing that could be bought and sold), the tendency of the same conceptual artworks as exhibited by the Kontakt becomes a willy-nilly apotheosis of the present neoliberal condition (especially in terms of the ongoing economic transformation that favors the circulation of immaterial commodities as the source of profit). Therefore, inquiring into and discerning the tendency of art involves radical historicization: questioning and revealing the determinants of aesthetical, cultural, social and political contexts of the meaning – or the effects – produced by art. Since the meaning (or effectivity) of art is always an outcome of the forces operating in a particular institutional context, the research based on the notion of tendency can become an active power on the socio-political battlefield of art.


Now, this can easily be understood in as some neo-Nietzschean war of interpretations, or even as a post-Marxist discursive class struggle. In the case of the PPPYuArt project, it might have been just like that, since the strategy was to intervene in the ongoing production of art history, and, hopefully, of the history in general. Moreover, in order to get out and be present at the relevant “battlefields”, the collaboration with and funding from the ERSTE Bank Stiftung was welcomed. This enabled the publication of the 2009/2010 PPPYuArt final exhibition catalogue that was supposed to deliver a left-flank blow to the ideological discourse of the East European art. Nevertheless, it was quite easily digested by the ongoing historicization processes, leaving us wondering if we did, in spite of our enthusiast criticism, just added up to the process of value production, unwittingly enabling with a colorful publication the continuation of art historical discourse construction under the auspices of the bank fund and its auxiliary bodies (the ERSTE Stiftung also has a network of Transit galleries)? Thus, the true materialist lesson teaches that the efforts to “reveal” or, conversely, to “determine” the socio-political tendency of an artwork does not take place only on the discursive battlefield but at a more rudimentary level of social institutions and the political economy that determines them in the last instance.


Hopefully the term “tendencies in art” can thus be used as a starting point for a broader discussion on the relations between art and politics, ideology and political economy of art in different local contexts as well as in the broader global one. In general, one speaks of tendencies when one really wants to map the constellation of forces that carry out certain agendas, in this case in the field of art. But the tendencies in the art can only be properly discerned and actively dealt with if they are considered in their interplay with the ongoing historical changes in cultural, political and social relations of production. Maybe it is that today is much more difficult to distinguish and determine historically new tendencies, since there is no general sense of what should be mainstream or institutional art, and, moreover, what could be a viable alternative for contemporary predatory capitalism. Perhaps detecting and aiding some transformative tendencies in art (those that seek to change, transform and revolutionize the very institution of art – its practices, meanings, and power relations, its social significance, its political economy) can open perspectives for a broader social transformation.