Czech Art History and Marxism

By Bartlová, Milena | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Czech Art History and Marxism

Bartlová, Milena, Journal of Art Historiography

Czech art history after the Second World War was pursued in a state dominated by Soviet power and as such it presents a prominent example of the coexisting synergy and conflict between the Vienna School and Marxism. Research into this relationship may provide valuable insight into the character of Czech art historical tradition. I will attempt to show the role played by Marxist, Marxist-Leninist and Stalinist thinking in Czech art history against the background legacy of the Vienna School of art history.1 The introduction of Marxism into Czech art history has to come to terms with this legacy, as before the Second World War the Czech art historical milieu was a self-proclaimed devoted and faithful follower of the Vienna School. The shape of Czech Marxism in art history, however, differs quite significantly from that which one might expect from the vantage point of the Western world. Frederick Antal, who personifies the contact between the two approaches, was unambiguously rejected, and authors such as Meyer Schapiro and T. J. Clark remained virtually unknown. Czech Marxist art history displayed pronounced disinterest in the social history of art and instead, solely concentrated on the problem of realism. The most interesting period was the 1960s, when the Viennese tradition was re-evaluated during the search for 'humanist Marxism', or Revisionism. Reframed, it was fundamentally strengthened as a methodology and considered the only truly scientific one. The only scholarly analysis devoted to Czech Marxist art history and published before the end of the 1980s was by Rostislav Svácha.2 It is based on good quality research but is written from a position inside Marxism and not surprisingly, Svácha's study thus lacks a critical distance from its topic.3

Two methodological restrictions deserve a preliminary mention. Firstly, I will proceed within the framework of the history of discourse, while devoting only marginal attention to the history of institutions, art historical topics and biographical research. This restriction is dictated by the fact that general inquiry into the historiography of four decades of Czech history under the rule of the Communist Party (1948-1989) has only gained momentum in the past few years. Until now, there existed just a few historical studies explaining the processes of continuity and discontinuity between the strong left-wing cultural and political Czech tradition of the inter-war period, post-war years and the period of Socialism (after 1960), and Marxist Revisionism of the 1960s.4 Twenty years of disinterest can be easily recognized as an act of negative memory, of forgetting; the type identified as 'monological forgetting' by Aleida Assman. More than twenty years after the political revolution of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the predominance of moral judgement has receded only slowly in Czech society and this has affected both membership of the Communist Party (the legal order contains a law from 1991 which declared the CP a 'criminal and despicable organization'), and also the reception and application of Marxism in scholarly research. As a result important creative personalities of the second half of the 20th century - in our case art historians - may have, at times, been members of the ruling Communist Party and information about them would have to be mined from personal archive files. Their membership may have had a decisive impact on their public activities and on the challenges they had to face in their careers. Besides, one definition of Marxism considers it to be a theoretical component of Communist activism and in fact its employment was deemed self evident for any CP member. As a result, it is often hard to decide whether published texts merely represent outer signs of loyalty to the political regime, 'just a camouflage' (as they are often summarily designated in retrospect), or whether they are the result of serious thinking and intellectual work. The question of honesty in Communist engagement, or rather its lack, is primarily considered in actual Czech discourse - paired with retrospective moral judgment. …

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