Revolutionary Decadence

Kiscelli Museum Budapest, 2009
Curated by Maja and Reuben Fowkes


Revolutionary Decadence is the last in a trilogy of exhibitions investigating the revolutionary moments of recent history and takes as its subject the contribution of foreign artists to the Hungarian art scene since 1989. While the first exhibition focussed on 1956 as a year of revolutionary insurrection and dealt with artistic reflections on the possibilities of revolution, the second exhibition took as its starting point the revolutionary atmosphere in the period around 1968, perceived as the first global resistance movement, and questioned its legacy for contemporary artistic strategies. The Revolution Trilogy closes with the sequence that began in 1989 and focuses on the effect of the changes on a single community in one locality, namely the enclave of foreign artists within the Budapest art world, and examines their participation in libratory forms of sociability, negotiation of the politics of belonging, and contribution to a post-national understanding of contemporary art in post-communist Europe.

The revolution of 1989 is sometimes considered to lack some of the typical characteristics of twentieth century revolutions, such as the violence of a bloody uprising, however ’the scope of change - political, economic, social, cultural - plus the speed at which it took place make any other word a strange and even tendentious fit.’ If revolutions are ‘concatenations of insurrection, resistance and constituent power’ and in their nature molecular, processual and transversal, then the ruptures around 1989 in Eastern Europe were perhaps most strongly marked by a wave of constituent power that reconfigured the political terrain and shook up social structures. Writing in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Antonio Negri was struck by the scale of social and economic liberation in Eastern Europe and the prominence of ‘those who deal with abstract and intellectual work’ in initiating the changes - he even proclaimed it to be the ‘beginning of a revolt against capitalism.’ Perhaps the strongest legacy of 1989 for the anti-globalisation movement is the importance of ‘small radical cultural acts of audacity and imagination’ in generating the revolt.

The summer of 1989 in Hungary saw the breaking of the official taboo on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 with the emotional public reburial of the executed leader of the uprising Imre Nagy and the fateful opening of the border with Austria to East Germans headed West, triggering the fall of the Berlin Wall and the symbolic end to communism in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the peaceful and negotiated transition to democracy in Hungary led to 1989 being labelled the rendszerváltas or ‘system change’, and to demands for a more radical confrontation with the past. A related tension could be felt in the cultural sphere, where the mildness of the disavowal of ‘goulash communism’ was hinted at in criticism of an insufficiently radical exhibition, by denouncing it as paradicsomleves (tomato soup) or ‘revolutionary decadence’.

Revolutionaries have traditionally frowned on decadence, associating it with the decline of the old regime and moral decay of the ruling class. Contemporary revolutions are however no longer the work of disciplined bands of puritanical revolutionaries, but rather arise from the ‘collective liberation of singularities’. On an abstract level, decadence is characterised by fragmentation, which privileges the parts over the whole and gives them their independence, with the potential to release new forms of creativity in both a social and an artistic sense. The sensuousness of decadent art and literature, with its exaggerated emphasis on detail, imaginative richness and seductive power, also applies to decadent social attitudes, in which the lure of sensual indulgence prevails over conformity. Decadence is corrosive of the founding modern myths of the organic unity of the nation-state, the capitalist work ethic, and the logic of progress, offering a rival account of the process of modernisation and, as Adorno notes, it can even provide a refuge from a world of oppression and violence.

The phenomenon of foreign artists moving to the capitals of Eastern Europe was linked to the transformations brought by 1989 and has remained largely unexamined until today. The fall of the Iron Curtain and opening up of borders brought in its wake a wave of migration that had a deep impact on the cultural life of cities. Coming as nomads, travellers and wanderers, they arrived in the midst of a revival of national identity that followed decades of communist suppression. Profoundly indifferent to national revivalism, foreign artists immersed themselves in the new forms of sociability that sprung up in the liminal spaces of the post-communist city. Westerners were often met with suspicion because of the long enforced immobility and deep terror of exile that coloured the understanding of emigration in the East. Despite the large numbers of foreign artists who have spent a significant amount of time in the capitals of Eastern Europe, there is relatively little recognition of their contribution to the local art scenes.

In the aftermath of 1989, foreign artists experienced the capitals of Eastern Europe as liberated zones, experimental enclaves, in comparison with the closed social, educational and artistic systems they left behind. There was a parallel process, typical of a decadent transitional state, with a trend towards the commercialisation of the local art world on the one hand and the thriving of a non-market professional art scene on the other. It was arguably those East European artists who were the first to cash in on their communist past that were elevated by the international art market, while foreign artists were generally more attracted to the non-market art system that derived from the sociability of the East European neo-avant garde of late communism. Taking this tradition further, they build new networks and professional collaborations that were informal and post-national in character. Foreign artists were increasingly caught in the pincer of identity politics, being both alienated from attempts to build national representation according to the multiethnic traditions of the region and surplus to attempts to construct a new post-communist East European identity. At the height of the art world’s preoccupation with identity politics in the 90s therefore, some foreign artists decided to leave the region, as the visiting international curators they met were clearly looking for ‘authentic’ East European artists and as newcomers, they did not match the profile.

The exhibition Revolutionary Decadence investigates the contribution of foreign artists over the last two decades to the Hungarian art world. At issue is not a belated rerun of the exhibition strategy of the ‘The Other Story’ at the Hayward Gallery in 1989, which called for the recognition of the work of Afro-Asian artists in the narrative of British modernism, in other words, it is not simply a matter of a demand for inclusion of foreign artists into national art historical narratives. Rather, the issue here is the initiation of a discourse about the phenomenon of foreign artists living and working in East European capitals and investigation of their contribution to understanding the post-national as a precondition of contemporary art.

Indicative of the presence of foreign artists in Hungarian art are their membership of official associations, such as the Studio of Young Artists, positions in the Academy of Fine Arts and art institutions, nominations for prizes and scholarships, as well as exhibition selections and critical attention in the art press. One issue that immediately arises is the lack of systematic research into the recent history of contemporary art in Hungary. For example, if the activities of the Újlak Group and their exhibition space at Tűzóltó utca were more thoroughly examined, then the presence of foreign artists in the art life of the early 90s would be more visible. Symptomatic of ‘enclave thinking’ and the decadent positions many foreign artists found themselves in, is the propensity to create their own niche by initiating independent institutions, collaborations and exhibition spaces. A paradigmatic case of openness to foreign artists is that of the Liget Gallery, which since the mid-80s has consistently taken a post-national approach in its exhibition policy, as is immediately visible from the gallery’s comprehensive online exhibition archive.

Considering the sequence of twenty years, the Budapest art world has experienced at least three notable waves of foreign artists in the city. The first wave (1989-1995) coincided with the post-revolutionary euphoria, a window of liberty between the fall of communism and adoption of the principles of neo-liberal global capitalism. The artists who came in the second wave (1996-2000) experienced the rapid social and urban change of economic transition, accompanied by an increase in nationalism, which was matched by a growth in ‘enclave thinking.’ The third wave of foreign artists (2000+) arrived in the subtly different era of the ‘post-transition’, in which the certainties of globalisation have fragmented and new ways of belonging are possible.

A recent account of the regional art history ‘In the Shadow of Yalta’ argues that in the capitals of Eastern Europe, unlike the metropolises of London or New York, ‘multinationality poses a much more basic problem than multiculturalism’. Taking into the consideration the post-national communities of foreign artists in Eastern Europe, it transpires that they do not fit neatly into the existing categories of ethnic identity in the multi-national model that still dominates cultural politics in the region. At the same time, their decadent approach to established national structures in culture destabilises the conventions of the art scene, undermines the relentless quest for national representation, and promotes a non-ethnic, non-statist and frequently also non-commercial understanding of contemporary art. For sociologists, the foreigner or stranger is ultimately a representative of the unknown, traversing the permeable cultural boundaries between insiders and outsiders, whose position in society is a paradoxical ‘synthesis of nearness and distance’. Georg Simmel describes the stranger as a ‘potential wanderer’ who ‘comes today and stays tomorrow’ and therefore as someone who not only belongs to the unknown world out there, but ‘by staying on, forces the locals to take a stand.’

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