BY DAN MIHALTIANU
„To be radical is to go to the root of the matter. For the artist, however, the root is the artist himself“.
Kandy Marxhol: Critique of Philosophy of Art from A to B
Intelligentsia – Priviligentsia – Emergentsia
Even if, theoretically, they seem to represent diverging interest and functions, the Intelligentsia and the Priviligentsia are the two components of the cultural and political elite that continually flirt with each other in Socialist Society. The former plays the part of „social critic“, obviously within the very narrow limits, legal or illegal, imposed by the system, while the latter plays the part of the guardian, manager and beneficiary of the established régime. The Intelligentsia played a certain role in the implementation of Communism, however, after the consolidation of the regime it could only play the part of illustrator or analyst of socialist reality, which it did with a wide range of attitudes, from emulation to servility and even daring „constructive criticism“ or „cultural resistance“, dissidence being extremely rare and rather singular.After WW2 the Romanian Intelligentsia was slaughtered in work camps and prisons by the régime implemented by the Soviets. It was only after Nicolae Ceausescu came to power that, through a general amnesty of political prisoners in 1965, we could talk about a New Romanian Intelligentsia which brought together existing elements from the left with apolitical thinkers and even elements from the right, all of whom had survived the Gulag and re-conciliated with the new status quo. The New Intelligentsia practised, as a declaration of faith, Oppositional Consciousness, as Georg Lukács called it, an exquisite version of Class Consciousness that enabled the intellectual elite to think, reflect and act differently from the majority (the proletariat or the working class, in this case).
The Priviligentsia consisted not only of the members of the Nomenklatura (high-ranking Party and State officials), but also of the whole cultural, educational, economical, commercial, industrial, diplomatic, intelligence and defense system of the Socialist State, and subsequently, people who would hold key positions within these systems as well as their extended network and entourage (apparatchiks, subordinates, acolytes, family). Due to the fact that they were in control of the flow of information about the stockpile, production and importation of cultural and material goods, they were the first to have access to them, to make use of or to distribute those commodities according to the conventions established by the Socialist Society, according to the Party guidelines of the moment and sometimes according to their own free will.
The permanent reciprocal fascination between the Priviligentsia and the Intelligentsia follows the classical pattern of attraction between „Power“ and „Spirit“. On one side, the „Ruling Class“ would, as a mark of prestige, cultivate a wide range of exotic characters from buffoons to philosophers. On the other side, the „Cultural Class“ would be permanently looking for protectors and sponsors. The relationship is made even more complex by the Intelligentsia’s constant need to hold functions within the structures of power and reciprocally, the tendency of the children of Nomenklatura to follow a cultural rather than a political career.
Despite the tensions of the coupling over time, the symbiosis Intelligentsia – Priviligentsia was in fact the force that finally led to the fall of Communism in Romania, when the system became no longer viable (efficient). There was then the emergence of a new system using the same human raw material, which in the sense of natural selection made survival possible for the most adapted specimens, perhaps as an illustration of theories of Social Darwinism. Representatives of these survivors, the Emergentsia were included in those who took hold of the leading positions (cultural, political and economical) from time zero (December, 22, 1989) in the New Romanian Society.
In retrospect, it becomes obvious that what happened in Romania in December 1989 was like a blueprint for all that followed and that will come next in the social upheavals that occurred in the world from that time on. That is because the Romanian Revolution included the whole range of revolutionary practices, from non-violence to vandalism, from political lynching to murder, and from social unrest to coup d’état. Romania was the theatre of social experiments and a testing laboratory of new revolutionary techniques that would later become a Revolutionary Knowhow Kit, ready to be exported according to the free market rule of supply and demand.
By December 1989 Europe had already witnessed the Velvet Revolution / Gentle Revolution in Prague and Bratislava, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall under civic pressure on November 9, preceded by the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria in March which had led to major changes in the Hungarian political system, while most of Communist Parties in the Eastern Countries were undergoing a process of reformation. All of this took place under the watchful eye of Moscow. Thus the bloodshed, the material and social losses that took place in Romania were senseless. The transition towards a new political direction could have been done more efficiently, the more so because the main actors knew very well the nature of the international scenario of the play. It goes without saying that the confusion and chaos that was generated, maintained and manipulated by those in control was intended primarily to legitimate the new power elite and to refresh a new beginning by cultivating the same clientele.
Shortly after the execution of the presidential couple in December 1989, the nation was confronted with a horrible inheritance – too big a House for such a poor People. National opinion was divided between, on the one hand, admiration, pride, satisfaction or approbation and on the other, bewilderment, surprise, embarrassment, disgust or anger. Previously, everyone had tried to cope with the situation as well as they could, either by ignoring the existence of the huge construction site in the middle of Bucharest, or by trying to take advantage of it by becoming actively involved in the process.
The deep and irreversible changes brought to bear on the social, economic and cultural fields of Bucharest and of Romania as a whole, by the construction of the Bucharest Civic Center and the People’s House, can never be properly evaluated. The impact was in the order of a nuclear explosion, which left behind an indelible mushroom cloud of concrete that cannot be blown away by the wind, washed away by rain or buried. Its radiation will not diminish as time goes by. No one can tell whether its effects will be harmful or benign. What can be observed for the time being is the division of Romanian society, which nevertheless continues the struggle to occupy new territories that have opened up after the collapse of communism.
More than two decades after Ceausescu, many of the features I have mentioned are still to be seen behind huge billboards covering the facades of buildings in Bucharest. Other aspects of daily existence during the last decades of Real Socialism in Romania – the fear, the humiliation, the confusion, the alienation, the duplicity and opportunism – did not fade from people’s consciousness. They were merely covered over by a thin layer of new attitudes and behaviours in a rapid attempt to adjust to the new economic, political, social and cultural environment called “Transition”.
Since December 1989, the immense majority of members of the Romanian Communist Party considered themselves absolved of any responsibility concerning their belonging to the Party that had led Romania for half a century. It is thought that at least at the beginning of their party memberships, Romanian communists were true believers, or at least well intentioned and not merely opportunists, something that is obviously difficult to verify. As a consequence of the fall of the régime their past was wiped out of the Collective Memory.
Declared illegal and abolished by a government decree shortly afterwards, the Romanian Communist Party did not engage in illegal activities, as was expected from a party with the highest membership of any country in the Eastern Bloc (16% to 18% of the population, after some estimations), its members scattered throughout all the newly-created political formations.
Almost two decades later, in December 2006, the Communist Régime was officially declared illegal and criminal. It was not a secret that the Communist System had been mostly implemented through criminal means, and Romania, most of all, was an example up until the end. What makes it absurd and tragic at the same time is that, somehow, an important part of the population suffered, and took advantage, simultaneously or successively, of the communist régime. In almost every family there are people persecuted, victims, persecutors, accomplices, followers, collaborators or associates of the régime. Sometimes, the same person would experience several or all of the situations mentioned above in a lifetime.
As Romania belongs to a conglomeration of states led by communist régimes that were formerly sponsored by Moscow, the conviction of Communism should be an international joint platform, an effort whose impact should be not only symbolic and local, but also effective and global, similar to the worldwide condemnation of Fascism. Of course many socialist and communist ideas are still considered to be progressive, only the injustice and the crimes committed in the name of those ideals should be condemned and this is not an easy task.
It is significant that the members of the Communist Party, except for a few special cases, the Ceausescu family, close collaborators and high-ranking officials, had no difficulty, after 1989, embarking upon political, economic or cultural careers or even becoming champions of the denunciation of communism if that could advance their career in any way. Of course criticism can be most effective when it comes from connoisseurs (people that were inside of the inner circle) and their right to exercise criticism could not be denied, but rather welcomed.
The transition from Socialism to Officialism – a state of grace, where Meritocracy, Plutocracy, Profitocracy, and Kleptocracy seem to be institutionalized and officialized as part of the generalized corruption – has been successfully implemented. If in State-Socialism the very existence of those components and the corruption itself were denied – there existed a kind of permanent hysteria about the eradication of corruption, which was defined in different terms: lack of socialist consciousness, ideological backwardness and even undermining of the socialist economy – in the Post-Socialist Romanian State they become part of the system and the war against corruption, an already-lost battle.
The 1990s was a tumultuous decade of transition in Romania and was marked by significant social disturbance that began immediately after the fall of the Ceausescu Regime. There was a three-month occupation of the University Square by pro-democratic and anti-communism forces, followed by several brutal invasions by the Jiu Valley miners in Bucharest, designed to obstruct the democratization process, permanent conflicts between official power and opposition groups, between different fractions of the main political parties, between different fractions of the former and the actual secret police.
This somber atmosphere, enhanced by astronomic inflation, the collapse of industry and devastating unemployment rates, was the hostile environment for the new, fragile institutions of a fledgling democracy. The fact that Romania has managed to overcome all those difficulties is nothing short of amazing and in the end, all the forces involved in this process seem to have played a constructive role.
It would have been a positive fact if the philanthropist George Soros, the American multibillionaire of East-European origins, had remained true to his reputation of Robin Hood who takes from the rich, through spectacular financial speculations on the international stock-market, and gives to the poor from the former Socialist Camp and the Undeveloped World with a view to consolidate Civil Society and the building of Democracy.
Many of his initiatives, like, the Open Society Foundations and the Soros Centres for Contemporary Art, had an immediate positive impact on the strengthening of a democratic spirit and a new cultural climate in Eastern Europe.
For the time being, Soros‘ name remains most often connected with US institutions involved in exporting democracy and financing political changes around the world, enterprises that may have destabilized and endangered global peace, the very motivation of those actions. Gene Sharp, the theoretician of nonviolent action and George Soros, the financial guru, seem to be the mentors and sponsors, among others, of Otpor the Belgrade-based civil youth initiative, instrumental in the overthrow of Milosevic. Since then, Otpor has developed the Center for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS) as a training and inspirational platform for the many revolutionary events happening globally, from Colour Revolutions to the Arab Spring, not to forget the Occupy Movement. This is just the tip of the iceberg of a strategy ignored by most analysts, (deliberately or not), and until relatively recently, completely absent as a topic of international public debate. Taking into account the versatile character of American foreign policy, it remains to be seen how all this will evolve in the future.
To understand recent developments in Romanian art is not an easy task since the last two decades have been severed from the previous ones by the events of December 1989, considered the year zero of the New Romanian Contemporary Art. Whatever of significance that occurred in this field before 1989 is now considered to be purely accidental and contaminated by the communist régime in power for half a century. Moreover, there exist few efficient attempts in analyzing, discussing and underlining the continuation of the “outsider” artistic research that now forms the ground for current developments and trends. The hiatus that occurred in the realms of social and political life is assumed to have had the same impact on artistic life. We should keep in mind, however, that artistic development is a long-term process, which has its own mechanisms that can withstand rapid social change. There are multiple layers of reality and everyone involved in this process has his or her own personal version.
The shift from a unique and centralized art institution, the Romanian Artists’ Union, that represented artists’ interests and dealt with all aspects of production, exhibit and criticism, to the current multitude of institutions, associations, foundations, private galleries and magazines dealing with professional art, has happened gradually. It started with the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts, as part of a network developed across the entire former Eastern Block with its headquarters in New York, under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation, which acted as a model for the new art scene in Romania and the other former satellites of the Soviet Union. While it is still too early to judge whether the considerable resources involved in this enterprise – financial, artistic expertise, logistics and lobbying – have played an essential role in the formation of an entire new generation of artists, it is by this time quite clear that certain artists and art-operators have already greatly benefited.
Despite this, or maybe because of all of this dysfunction and inherited discontinuities, the New Romanian Art Scene which emerged in the new millennium is divided and fractured on multiple layers between generations, between political and aesthetic issues, between social and economic topics, between institutional platforms and institutional critique. Irreconcilable positions and radicalization are the principle trends and this has produced a state of permanent contestation as the new normal, which is perhaps the very engine of art itself.
text revision Anne Ramsden
© Dan Mihaltianu 2006, 2013, 2015
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This contribution is an excerpt from the longer text published in conjunction with a series of exhibitions with the same title.