'Ostalgia': A Walk Around the Bloc

The New Museum looks back at life during Communism

Many of the works harken to a time when totalitarianism turned art into samizdat: a message passed from person to person that partly relied on censorship for its spiritual legitimacy. What is the connection of art during that time to our blue-chip, market-oriented present? There is, of course, a slightly polemical choice in presenting this kind of work in New York today. Many of the artists in "Ostalgia" demonstrate that you can make work with almost nothing. This is an exhibition in which production values are very low, that provides a very recession-friendly aesthetic. Also, some of the artists in "Ostalgia" have literally put their life on the line to make some of the works on view. I think it's useful to be reminded sometimes that the responsibility of the artist goes far beyond the price of their work.

1972 reworked: #22 from the "Ogonyok" series, by Sergey Zarva
Courtesy the artist and Regina Gallery, London and Moscow
1972 reworked: #22 from the "Ogonyok" series, by Sergey Zarva

Are there lessons to be drawn from this exhibition and art's place today? I feel uncomfortable extracting specific lessons from these works, especially as many of these artists made art especially to escape from propaganda. They wanted to be misunderstood, they wanted to be ambiguous.... Artists interpreted completely different roles to the ones we know in New York. Artists working under repressive Communist regimes came to occupy a special place in their respective cultures. They were completely ostracized, but that isolation conferred a unique ethical power on them.

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