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Red Herring

Miahi Eminescu – the poet of all Romanians
The Museum of the Romanian Peasant – the museum of all Romanians
Ștefan Luchian – the painter of all Romanians
Catena Pharmacy – the pharmacy of all Romanians 
– Romanian Folklore

The innocent ad presents two realities about our society. Firstly, that Romania’s population, in the name of unity, is capable of buying its medicine from one particular pharmacy. And what else is that medicine, if not a symbol of advancement? The second reality shown is less true, as the development of the last 20 years comes to prove: that Romanian society has enough by having just one of each.

Gone are the days in which – intellectually, socially and financially homogenized – society wore Clujana shoes, spent its holidays at Costinești and watched – all together now! – Cerbul de Aur (i.e. The Golden Stag music festival). The capitalist progression of the second westernization process has revealed and triggered disparities of all kinds, fragmenting the joyous unity into rich, less rich, poor, and miserable people, into people of different educational backgrounds, and into countless other types of social groups. As comes naturally in a world in which people are different.

But the illusion of unity, laid down in the constitution and in the minds of people, has not seen its final hour yet. At most, it has reinvented itself. Even under the influence of the social transformations of the last 10 years, voices from most groups wail and accuse the “embroiling” of Romanian society, much more powerfully than it was done in the ’80s. The most often invoked counterpoint is the unity of the population in the last years of the Ceaușescu regime, when all “were united in their hatred towards the system”. There’s a new argument of nostalgia for you, other than that of the financial stability or that of youth lived out in the ’70s!

The division of society is accelerated, sometimes degenerating into chaos and stirring up a proportional intensity of the affirmation of unity. The extended access to the internet is the last necessary catalyst for a potential pulverization, and the answer can only be a symmetrical neurosis of national unity, manifested wherever there is an exit valve. Whether it unwinds through a lynching by the media, or by listening to Inna, by kissing relics, or by dreaming of Bessarabia, or by voting as a constitutional majority, Vox Populi hysterically reconfirms the myth of its own unity in the general frustration. The fact that the Great Frustration is a mosaic of smaller frustrations does not diminish the popular momentum whatsoever.

Romanian TV channels have hallowed, through the voices of Mr Pleșu or Mr Liiceanu, two slogans of dubious profundity, easy to interpret as we please: The Crisis of Values and the Lack of Elites. However, the values promoted as being proper are so relative and, in equal measure, so dependent on the populist consensus or on the effort to enforce it, that it is maybe better that they are still not defined. In what concerns the elites, these are represented in a Messianic manner, coming down upon us, much like in the Transfiguration of Jesus or, in historical terms, in the form of the stranger, an improbable Deus ex Machina, replaced with elites generated within chaos, who, judging logically, can only be confused and abusive up to the point of sedimentation.

In society’s grand process of transition, rhetoric has also consecrated the formula “old vs. new”, a great dialectical battle of the elderly, the conservatives and the uneducated, to whom a young model stands in opposition, “open-minded”, westernized and educated. According to the theory, society is divided into two antagonist groups (does that sound familiar?), whose continuous battle paves its way. The Marxist unity of this discourse is perfectly fitted to the search of national unity (undivided as it may be), which was manifested as early as the union between Moldavia and Wallachia. However, the rhetoric begets such simple children, that they cannot survive in the ever more nuanced reality. In truth, the interaction with foreign lifestyles and ideas begets hybrids which grow up next to the local spectra and beliefs, diverse or unitary, it does not matter.

Beyond nationalist or political catchphrases, recent historiography comes to prove that unity and continuity in Romanian society resides not in its ethnic character, nor in its political aspirations which – once accomplished – are assumed, but in a popular relativism which precedes the birth of the phenomenon in western society by far, manifested since the Phanariot period until now. And hybrids born in relativism cannot be anything but relative.

Also relative is the antagonism of old versus new, not only because everything is relative but because the reasons, the goals and the conflict itself are relative. Or – in order to avoid stirring up confusion – speculated. As values or elites are also speculated.

Art is probably the most diverse domain, which is willing – autonomously from the specific context – to become a hybrid. And, when the specific context demands it, it is willing to speculate. The preeminent example is the cult of the poet Eminescu, often mixed through inbreeding with the cult of the journalist Eminescu, depending on the regime. The traditional form of the cult is of a sterile veneration induced by means of the school system; the great poet is more than a great poet, he is the quintessence of national identity, a prophet and a personality of great-great importance, even for foreigners, which admire romanticism 30 years after its days are over and regard it, through the poem La Steaua (En.: To the Star), as a forerunner of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, magister dixit.

The talk is of an already debauched cult, which omits or simply forgets that Mihai Eminescu is a romantic poet, his works are of a real and classical beauty, and his political visions – dubious. But the official standard cult, good for all in times of socialism and in contemporary high schools, must fend off the stratification of society. On one hand, elderly people, poor people or people with a precarious education live in conditions which do not allow them anymore to have contact with the forums that generate the cult (schools, churches, theatres and the precious case de cultură, i.e. “houses of culture” from the past) and experience the transformations of the present with a visceral character which renders culture generally inaccessible to them. For these, taking advantage of the elimination of restrictions regarding „mystical obscurantism”, the religious cult of the poet was invented, of an ecumenical solemnity and in a free context, accessible to everyone – the church. Endemic nationalism unimpededly goes hand in hand with mystical psychosis, resulting in an appropriate discourse, according to which so much good Eminescu did for the Romanian people, that he must be a saint! Icons with his face are periodically being agitated in front of archbishops, and the people involved – volunteers – annually collect signatures which, in the specific ad hoc manner of social media, intend to constrain the patriarchy to sanctify him, by means of likem sharamque (i.e. through like and share, Latin translation). Moreover, the religious context offers an extra touch of grandeur to any cult.

Once the “conservative public” has been speculated, we can direct our efforts towards speculating the “progressive ones”, a more difficult task, not because these oppose the mission but because they are agitated and cannot concentrate, for as, having received their education in the West or not, most of them are youngsters packed with hormones. Connected to the internet, the cultural aspirations of most of them get their kicks out of memes, niches or subcultures, far away from the official formulas of organized cult. And as the majority of pop culture is generated out of counterculture and, independently of its mutation, keeps the germs of opposition towards forced values latent, the seductive formula which is chosen is the incorporation of contradictions (again, Marx): on January 15th, declared a day of celebrating Romanian culture (although, for most Romanians, there is a ministry in charge with 365 days of celebration), the cities demonstrate their reverence towards Romanian culture, understood as being Mihai Eminescu. This year, Oradea had a flashmob (a terribly organized one) of young people gathered next to the statue of the poet.

The use of an alternative form, directly generated by counterculture and street art, for transmitting an uncontested official message, is fascinating. The connection with the work of the sculptor Ovidiu Maitec, of a soporific realist-socialist conformism, highlights the reinvention without any changes to the cult.

The same event, in 2013, relied on the local closeness of the poet, due to his collaboration with the Oradea citizen Iosif Vulcan, head editor of the Familia magazine, in which the poet made his debut. 480 people created a human chain between the statues of the two. Useful as an anti-Soviet protest in the form of the Baltic Wall, the protest in Oradea, having no object at all, demonstrates that the most flourishing chains remain the human ones.

In Oradea, another similar phenomenon took place, based on street art, which the curatorial council introduced into the Orthodox is Better project. In the summer of 2013, an unknown group of people hanged tens of plaques with the text Oradea is the territory of Jesus Christ inscribed on them throughout the city. The plaques were painted in the same shade of blue which is used by government institutions and traffic police and their placement in junctions, at bridge ends or the entrances in the city was an ingenious effort to camouflage street intervention as an official message. Although the authorities cannot assume the message as such as being theirs, they are however permeable to the religious phenomenon with a vast consensus in Romania. Thus, which are the stakes of wrapping a quasi-unanimously sustained message intro an anonymous and illicit process? How does the guerilla of conformism survive in what regards the idea, if not by eliminating its conceptual corpus and declaring its chimeric existence as its last finality?

Also in the feild of street intervention, this time around in Cluj, the famous stencil with Mr Andrei Marga in his meditative stance and the inscription “Vă ascult, domnule Norris” (En.: “I’m listening, Mr Norris”) right below came to life. The paraphrasing of the Chuck Norris jokes conveys a youthful tone, infused by the spirit of standing up to non-values and – isn’t it so? – by the opposition of the high calibre intellectual with frivolous gags. The image of Mr Marga is even more interesting, as the entire question takes on a Caragiale type of feel, suggesting “I had the courage, I wrote an anonymous letter”. Indeed, as ass-kissing – generally – is not practiced anonymously, the artist not only showed courage, but impassive industriousness as well.

The myth of the unity of the intellectual youth which wants the Great Change seems to shatter when we observe that, vocal in what regards values, they are not all Marga-philes. On previous occasions, I wrote about the scandal from the Paris Book Fair, where the imbecility of the official reaction was almost equalled by the imbecility of the protest. The values, this time around, are not represented by Mr Marga but by the opponents of his administration. The protesters wore masks of the writers which refused – on their own initiative – to take part at the fair. The message becomes ambiguous, as those which had been turned down had not been actually turned down, and to enunciate the phrase “Shame on the Marga administration for forcing the writers to turn down the invitation” sounds stupid. Mr Pleșu, Liiceanu, Cărtărescu and Marga are famous and uncontested heavy-weights of the dubious intellectual Romanian scene, as is also famous the conflict between them. What is interesting is the fact that the young protesters did not choose to reveal structural flaws – independent of the administration – of the IRC (Institute of Romanian Culture) and of the culture policy enforced by it, but have instead chosen to get involved as partisans in a conflict of attrition. Thus, let us behold a new unity between the intellectual youth, united under the sign of corruption and demagogy.

Coming back to Cluj, we cannot neglect the urban project design Etnozebre (En.: Ethnozebras) by Ms Cristina Curcan from Lateral ArtSpace. The display of traditional Romanian carpets onto the zebra crossings of Cluj could have been a particularly interesting conceptual project, should this concept have existed in the first place. Nevertheless, the nostalgia for artisanal creations of the peasants expressed by the artist perfectly matches the rhetoric of rural nostalgia experienced by the masses of workers which moved here from their villages, generating social tensions in the urban space for 25 years and counting. In the context of the identity crisis of the displaced villagers, Ms Curcan throws another shovel of self-sufficiency into the whirlpool that is chaotic enough, as it is. Through such projects we can see sketches of the “ruralization” of localities, with girl fairs, folklore music and cholera, as they used to be.

Social nostalgias can be substituted anytime by ethnic nationalism. The ethnozebras are part of the fashion trend which has resurrected traditional elements. A wave of traditional ii (Romanian blouses), shawls and ribbons have passed through Romanian society, supported by fashion designers. The totally new paradigm of design got contaminated, switching from the expression of identity to that of belonging in such a short time. When anything can be speculated, the difference between attires and costumes/uniforms gets blurred out easily and unremorsefully, especially if it was never perceived in the first place. Maybe it is exactly the novelty of the phenomenon which makes it interact with old sins. Maybe in time the difference will have settled down. The future, however, is a question of metaphysics.

Not far behind design we encounter architecture. A famous chimera is the excess of glass in post-revolutionary constructions, inspired from the model of western buildings. However, if in Europe, glass is used as a medium for enhancing transparency, the glass towers from Romania are covered in mirrors or smoked glass, shiny and opaque at the same time, providing a modern form to secular impenetrability.

The vanguards reconfirm: here’s how, by speculating technical diversity, we can easily annex social diversity anew, classifying it under the same slogans which have mobilized Romanian society since the dawn of modernity onward. Who hides behind the insidious event? Conspiracy theories blame occult forces, whilst the partisans always blame the counterparty, the agent of societal corruption. A vocal but inconsistent majority, a majority of guilt, stands on the shoulders of the defunct socialist regime, becoming the pole of infamy, onto which anything can lean, whether connected to it or not.

Socialism has only technically contributed to the phenomenon, by modernizing it. The present manner to produce socio-artistically sick children is the result of the marriage between the internet and the inherited teachings of Cenaclul Flacăra (En.: The Flame Literary Circle, cultural group and movement from the times of the regime) and of Cântărea României (En.: The Song of Praise to Romania). Cenaclul Flacăra represents the vanguard of the Communist chimera: aroused young people, frustrated by the rigidity of socialist realism were channelled to take over the ideas, slogans and anguishes of the system through alternative ways. The unconventional form never implied an unconventional idea, but the excitement coupled with hallucination swiftly made the voice of the intellect fall asleep.

The Cântărea României festival took the process further, demonstrating the applicability of the mechanism in all branches of art. The true genius of Cântărea resides not in the physical effort of verifying the theory but in the wonder-hybrid of the Golden Age; the unitary Romanian folklore, which does not take into account specifics or the particular geographical area.

The chimeras precede socialism by far, entities like the masonic Orthodox and nationalist lodge of Octavian Goga are just examples meant to be preserved in formalin because of their unusual exoticism. In the same category, we may find Camil Petrescu’s theatre of „ideas”, based on the coupling of avant-garde techniques with a pseudo-scientific intellectualism à la Emile Zola. A „New Theatre” is proposed, dogmatic and absolutist in character, which annuls the relativism of thought, of vision or of perception in an a priori manner. On a practical level, the entire machinery of Petrescu’s theatre is actioned by the injection of ideology, without which the structure of the play would collapse, unlike the theatre of Berthold Brecht, which does not require systemic but critical ideas, thus becoming the most subtle and applicable form, other than that of the performance.

The founding myth of national unity hides behind the insidious happening, ingurgitated in so many forms from the time of the old kingdom, passing through Great Romania, the Iron Guard, the supporters of Carol, and Communists, until it nowadays becomes, having started from an idea, a mere automatism of thought. More profound than any mentality, it is a Pavlovian reflex, encountered in everyone, from those which believe, to those which, consciously, deny it. Beyond any conspiracy, the Romanian context produces artistic and conceptual abortions sui generis, much like the cat which covers its shit.

For a long time it was believed that the contexts of modernity and technology will come to influence thought, through the changes upon our lifestyle. Marx sees industrialization as the catalyst of the awakening of the consciousness of messianic proletariat, whilst Facebook and Twitter are credited for the Arab Spring. Although Marxism was confiscated by its own practical unfolding, and the Arab Spring was imposed through the same social networks, once the new dictatorships learned how to use them, there are just a few voices which demystifyi technology and its liberating character. In the 19th century the talk was of the forms without grounds in what regards the greatest conceptual defeat of Junimea: the forms are not only stable, but also perpetuate into a traditionalist modernity, as exotic today on a regional and European level as was the cult of the Great Helmsman in the Golden Age.

Red Herring is not an X-ray of contemporary Romanian art in the big picture and in its current complexity. Although the chimera is approached by many artists and writers, it is not always pernicious. The herring only regards one segment, which is not necessarily considered to be art from the perspective of the experts of the field: the segment offered by the media to the audience. Technically and conceptually surpassed, the phenomenon is yet more dangerous than we deem it to be, because it imposes a perception on art which is frozen in time and ever more distant from the advancing contemporaneity. On the grounds of this perception, budgets and cultural policies in Romania are created, in relation to which just a few artists can consider themselves totally independent. Not even superb portfolio galleries can affirm with conviction that their artists have never been influenced by the state school they attended, by the Union of Plastic Arts where they were launched or by the public museums where they created their first projects.

Without mentioning the dialectical weapon which a certain practice creates: have the Romanian curators forgotten how the TV channels succeeded to generate the anger of the proletariat twice over the same work? A fact which led to the dismissal of an administration and to the restructuring of an institute, which is responsible for deciding on who takes part in the Biennale, in Venice. And the Biennale is not quite unimportant, now is it?

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