Autonomy Degree Zero In Eastern European Art: Galeria Foksal's 'Introduction to a General Theory of Place'
The problem of art's autonomy is crucial to any investigation of postwar modernism in Eastern Europe. From a Western perspective, the tendency shown by Eastern and Central European neo-avantgarde artists to endorse autonomy rather than repudiate it must seem puzzling, especially at a time when the Western neo-avant-garde was retooling key strategies of the historical avant-garde's fight against autonomy. One reason for this reluctance must be seen in the false sublation of art and life that was the result of the traumatizing imposition of Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe and, more generally, in the all-encompassing control over visual representation exercised by the state in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Still, the attitudes displayed by members of the Eastern European avant-gardes towards the problem of art's autonomy was neither monolithic nor without its ambiguities. In my essay I focus on the well-known founding manifesto of the legendary Foksal gallery in Warsaw, part an eclectic group of semi-autonomous art spaces that existed in several countries of the former Eastern Bloc during the cold war. I argue that while the manifesto - entitled Introduction to a General Theory of Place - does endorse art's autonomy, at the same time it deprives this category of any positive value or determined meaning. In this sense, while the Introduction follows the historical avant-garde in its analysis of the inevitability of the demise of painterly representation, it neither affirms the avant-garde's emphasis on the merging of art with non-art (constructivism), nor does it endorse the high modernist embrace of self-reflexiveness and autonomy grounded in utopian thought (Strzemiński). PLACE, while autonomous, is not presented by the authors of the Introduction as an ideal or otherwise as a category with any fixed characteristics or meaning. In this sense, the manifesto's autonomy postulate - and, by implication, similar pronouncement by members of the Eastern European neo-avant-garde - should not without reservation be understood as an endorsement of autonomy or as a repudiation of its opposite.