(Ed.: a plesni [Romanian] = to slap)
Motto: “…like a calcined pearl in Bach’s music.”
Ramona Novicov, art critic
The perception of art in Romania and in the former socialist space has maintained itself as the status quo ever since the formation of the nation states: great art is produced for a select elite and for export, while the remaining part of society functions as a result of a guided inertia of which the main resort is the forced fitting of modernity into a traditional mould. The honest name of this practice is proletkult, the household art and culture belonging to societies which retreated within. The rare artistic polemics appearing in the media – apart from violence and vulgarity –, have in common the fact that the perception of contemporary art lacks the notions and principles of modernity. The vehicles are not the erroneous interpretation or the logical errors, but the premises that stopped before Impressionism: the majority of the expressed statements and expectations are of a Romantic character. The ideal example is the Pink Pony, a scandal which was animated twice by Antena 3 (Ed.: a Romanian TV channel) and sustained by politicians not by means of qualitative assessment (good art, bad art) but by using value judgment: it is NOT art. The moderators, as well as the speakers or the audience evoked a time of grace when art was good, accessible and art. The concoction of postmodernity in the way of thinking, together with the atavism of archetypes lead to the improbable “classicization” of the traditional, to its obstinate refusal to permit any interaction within a circuit. In this case, the “independence”, “non-corruption” or stagnation of the traditional are pressed upon.
In Romania, it is unanimously accepted that art is spoken about while using a vigorous lyricism. My colleagues call it “uapism” (Ed.: an invented term coming from the abbreviation UAP – Uniunea Artiştilor Plastici – The Union of Visual Artists [Romania], denoting the spirit and style of this union) but the flamboyant speeches specific to any opening are not an invention of the UAP. Their origins are to be found in the praise brought to the artist by the patron before his guests. Until today or even today, flamboyant declamations are being enchantingly woven in any literary magazine, within UNITER (Ed.: Uniunea teatrală din România, i.e. The Theatre Union of Romania), Uniunea Scriitorilor (Ed.: Writers’ Union of Romania) and in the print and online media. Be it visual art, theatre, cinema or literature, live or playback, show or text, the protocol of mass art imposes the beautiful words, sometimes even to the detriment of the object: I once read an article about a graphic art series in the Familia magazine, which was very poetic but not at all illustrated.
The speech at the opening of an exhibition, which had been in decline since the ‘70s, has flourished in every part of Eastern Europe, whilst in Romania it has only gained surreal dimensions, incorporating eulogies into talking about art, eulogies which were only to be found in political speeches back in the day. The motivations of the metaphorical excess can be exploited at any time: it can be said that a society affected by deference feels the need for guidance and authority even in a visceral relationship as is art. It can be said that such a society has no idea of what modern art is (let alone contemporary art). It can be said that the speakers compensate the deficiencies of the works through their exuberance in referring to them, or, even more risibly, to the author’s personal qualities. It can also be said that the practice started in the ‘70s during the peasants’ relocation, when art was meant as propaganda for the workers who were not accustomed to the city, which appeared needlessly filled with aesthetic and conceptual notions. It can be said that Romanians utterly like kissing each other’s asses. Value judgments of all varieties will not obstruct or influence the phenomenon. It is produced, it exists, without any moral characteristics.
We cannot deny the fact that Romanian literature is somewhat prone to encomium, given its richness. We cannot deny the fact that the liberal project of the 19th century abundantly resorted to illustration, given the low level of literacy of the population. We cannot deny the fact that the illustration per se seemed to take on forms inaccessible for the population, the fact that it had to be accompanied by translations, and that even such a simplistic style such as L’art pompier needed explanations for its transparent allegories. We cannot deny the fact that the consolidation of state and society needed a massive support, while the weavers of the two entities justly resorted to blending politics with the art which evidenced its value. Nonetheless, those weavers did not always do it out of a mere sense of justness. If in the Romanian People’s Republic the proletariat needed guidance in order to achieve the proletkult, in the Socialist Republic of Romania the guidance was incorporated in the artistic experience. The two become symbiotic, while the opening of the exhibition turns into a compilation between the visual and the performance. Thus, a separate work is exposed, written or uttered, inspired by or complementary to the project.
The manner in which art is spoken about, a manner generated in full blast of urbanization and systematization – of cities and art alike – represents, perhaps, one of the first forms of urban folklore in contemporary Romania. Even the structural characteristics of folk creations match the phenomenon:
1. Most often, the texts are oral or marked by an oral character.
2. As borrowed and modified formulas are put to use, fashionable phrases are collectively generated.
3. As for syncretism, the usual protocol imposes the presence of the object, the praise and the complementary character, i.e. usually a musical or theatrical moment taken out of context, and completing the experience. Irony contributes as well; these secondary manifestations are deemed to be “artistic moments”, undermining the frame which had been intended a priori to be an artistic one.
4. The anonymous character is a matter of interpretation.
Late postmodernity witnesses a medieval fragmentation. If the national emphasis is discouraged, what is being looked for is the formulation and fathoming of a specificity in expression. Minorities like homosexuals and majorities like women create political speeches, then ideologies, holidays, internal hierarchies, and finally, idioms of their own: doing drag and Camp are not only invented by homosexuals but refined by them, as they become the real folklore of an artificial group. Subcultures, the “tribalization” of which has already been discussed, are looking for ways of traditional expression, as – unobserved – the alternative turns into the archetypal. The stereotype of the hipster selling homemade organic cookies becomes less ironic when we realize that hipsters really do bake excellent cookies and that they can gradually create a gastronomic movement of their own. In many situations, the folklore label is still incomplete but we can follow conscious tendencies as to conquer it or not. The relatively opaque group of artists and ”artists” not only manifests stereotypes and myths of its own but also has a protocol that a modus operandi can become a modus vivendi at any given moment. This is even more interesting as, in nationalist structures, the artists are seen as the educated expression of the creative bustle of the people, often recycling folklore elements. However, artists becoming a mini-nation with customs and traditions of their own – that is truly unheard-of.
In time, the reason of the Beautiful Words will be cancelled. Many speeches have changed their direction lately, shifting from poetry to a form of promotional minimalism, coming from the rhetoric of advertising. In other instances – to a form of a social militant character similar to political discourses, while in others – to a form of once more taking on the literary component. The practice of displaying the statement does not offer it a conceptualist touch but (sometimes) it mystifies or directly substitutes the concept. The written text is a natural support for literature, while the lyrical statement is not only aloof to the works, but it also rivals them. The sculptor Gabriel Kelemen undertakes curatorial endeavours, but his texts contain postmodern poetry, not concepts: “An ochre adidas totem, oxidized immobility, a pawn that evokes the horizontal deaf steadiness looked at from an olfactory perspective” or “A work that does not allow any comments for inutterable (sic!) reasons, but which discrepantly evokes the one-way transfusion of benzyl bytes, from the DVD towards the juvenile chiropractor, closely assisted by the apparently red bat”, etc. Changing the support and the contemporary technologies enable the recording of poems nowadays but they are accompanied by different motivations which alter the chemistry of the speech and branch it out.
Another destabilizing factor is that the relative homogeneity of the space where the Romanian artists’ ethnogenesis took place is ravished by the new economic realities, by free movement, by the arrival of the FOREIGNERS and by a new hierarchy which weakens the undoubtable “art critic” that evolved in socialism. The status quo fights for survival once the former authority is divided amongst “critics”, curators and gallery owners, while the latter do not only have aims but also backgrounds that are different from the traditional “history of art”. Thus, the movement is not only towards opposition but towards a great variety of approaches, standards and protocols – to each country, its customs. Luckily, the old guard calls all these globalization, which it deplores in tears and emphatically, as it is accustomed to. Poetry is still being practised in the small number of state galleries and provincial museums, with old intensity but old transience as well. The Beautiful Words need to be documented before their complete extinction, if not for any other value than that of having survived and evolved until the third millennium like an exotic beast of Terra Incognita.