The destruction of moral values in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties was a logical, almost inevitable process. Having exhausted the possibilities of sexual pleasure, it was reasonable that individuals […] should turn their attention to the wider pleasures of cruelty. […] In a sense, the serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the Sixties; their common ancestors would be Viennese Actionists. […] They would rip out an animal’s organs and viscera and spread them in front of an audience of cretins, […] while someone photographed and documented the carnage so that they could be exhibited in an art gallery.
Michel Houellebecq, ‘Atomised’ (Les Particules élémentaires, 1998)
In 1999 one of the leading Estonian intellectuals and writers, Jaan Kaplinski, published a provocative essay entitled ‘Aesthetic Century’ (1) in which he drew parallels between newer art and the atrocities of the 20th century. Without actually pointing at any specific artist, he argued that the bulk of contemporary art has glided towards ‘evil’ because of the loss of ‘beauty’ (a concept with aesthetic as much as ethical value according to Kaplinski) – a process that had its roots in the modernist belief that ‘new’ is automatically ‘better’ than what came before. In short – if an artist’s main goal is to shock the public and the previous avant-garde, then one will consequently end up with killings, mutilations and all sorts of criminal acts. In this paradigm it is a small step to address 9/11 (the date when the twin towers of the New York World Trade Centre collapsed in 2001) not as an act of terrorism but simply as a work of art, which in itself would be tactless black humour, but at the same time would illustrate the widely accepted notion that the artistic quest for the sublime, the taboo-breaking and the border-crossing has to have some limits after all.
The art critic Johannes Saar immediately argued that the blacklisting of contemporary art forms in Estonia during the Nineties was in fact a reaction to radically changed social conditions after the regaining of independence and the collapse of the Soviet system, in which the visual arts were to take the blame and be the publicly humiliated scapegoats. (2) Trained as an art historian, we can speculate that Saar consciously adopted here the position and lingo of an avant-garde critic protecting the field of art from the ‘friendly fire’ of older generation Estonian writers. After all, the way we see and explain the European and American anti-bourgeois Dada movement today is not very far from the apologetics of art criticism that concerns local performances, happenings and so forth. It is no coincidence that historically speaking the definition of ‘performance’ or ‘happening’ began to evolve from the Dadaist outbursts during the First World War and its aftermath, although these terms were coined decades later. This means implicit acceptance of the idea that performance always fights back against some ideological or political constraint that the changing society has (more or less violently) imposed on people. As a result some sort of liberation or psychological release is supposed to come about, but probably only for the inner circle of artists and connoisseurs clinging to them. It is self-evident that the overall public reaction to this is mostly negative. You can ‘get it off your chest’ but it’s not pretty to watch – any psychoanalyst would tell you that.
Also, a lot of local performances were and continue to be critical (we can argue about individual cases, but overall it is true) towards the so-called cowboy capitalism practiced in post-Soviet Estonia. The public can easily decode these attitudes as attacks on the whole nation which ‘sang itself free’ during the Singing Revolution. This economic liberalism is our ‘religion’, the cornerstone of our current national identity, constructed mainly from mythical memories of the Twenties and Thirties, when Estonia gained its nationhood, and secondly from the lack of basic products in the last years of Perestroika. The question of whether some performances or spontaneous happenings actually produce any readable ‘meaning’ for the audience is, in that sense, absolutely irrelevant. Resentment has doubled its effect. In addition to a probable instinctive fear (“What will the crazy artist do?”), there may be a strong underlying scepticism about whether this kind of approach is ‘any good’ for a member of a nation that despises everything unprofitable (3).
The Art World, or the network of art institutions and their concerned audience, operates as a religious group with some common icons, priests, heretics and so on. Many have noted this triviality, although few actually admit this ‘diagnosis’ because of the social insecurity it provides. Appreciating performance is in many cases a question of appreciating something non-narrative, nonsense or action without any reasonable purpose, and thus an aesthetic decision. As the well-known sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues, aesthetic pleasure presupposes learning4 and functions as a mark of distinction that signals belonging to the learned culture. Likewise, in the Estonian media, critics are seen as ‘mediators’ or ‘translators’ who push the public ‘to understand’ rather than ‘to enjoy’ art. This has led to counter- action, where the media prefers oversimplified and wide generalisations comprehensible to a maximum number of target groups, therefore eliminating more detailed discussions in the public space. Even in the Estonian Art1/2005, the writer Jan Kaus saw the need to stress once again that intellectual circles should oppose the notion that culture can be valued similarly to the economy, so that the results can be instantly measured5. But what we actually can instantly ‘measure’ or recognise is the unsteady and fluctuating foothold of the cultural circle itself, which is losing its prolonged, if not eternal, privilege of defining particular cultural values. As Bourdieu and Darbel point out in their study of consumption of art in Europe: “the history of individual or collective taste is sufficient to refute any belief that produced objects […] should be capable of creating natural preferences by their own power; only a pedagogical authority can break the circle of ‘cultural needs’ (6). What Kaus is actually alluding to, and what makes him worry, is the growing ‘pedagogical authority’ of the mass media instead of that of educated connoisseurs. As far as appreciating Estonian performance as a legitimate art-form is concerned, it is still pretty much confined to some ‘inside field of expertise’; in contrast, performances in a wider reception are more often ridiculed (ˆ la ‘Naked people and/ or a lot of smoke’). And we can state that it has always been so. In congregational groups the insiders and outsiders are very clearly defined.
In attempts to write the history of the 20th century Estonian avant-garde, there has been a tendency to explain the lack of ‘Soviet underground’ or ‘avant-garde resistance’ through the freedoms provided by the private sphere in the late Sixties – eg the artist doing semi-public happenings for his closest friends or putting up installations in his home, as in the case of young Ando Keskküla (7) or the video documented works of land-art by Jüri Okas (8). Thy home is thy castle, whatever the decade or the political regime in Estonia may be. The most powerful protected locus in that sense has recently been the school of Academia Non Grata in the city of Pärnu. If you need more names, then Siram (aka Mari Sobolev) is most definitely worth checking out. What is even more interesting is the tendency to ‘translate’ the language of performance into some ‘acceptable’ art form: many of those connected with Non Grata are painters (Andrus Joonas or Peeter Allik being probably best known) who use the experience of performance in their ‘proper’ works. Similarly, in the Seventies under the Soviet system Jüri Okas became a graphic artist in order to get his photographed land-art pieces exhibited as ‘legitimate’ art.
In 2005 Siim-Tanel Annus, who became quite well known in the second half of the Eighties as a mythical and powerful performance artist, conducted a performance for the first time in a number of years. While opening his exhibition of paintings in a private gallery to an audience of both ‘cultural elite’ and ‘businessmen’, he introduced quite a boring (or classical, if you want it in polite terms) routine of ‘splashing paint on everything’ with an ironic remark. “It’s all about the money,” he uttered without further elaboration. Somehow it seems that although performance was an important release valve in Western modernism, Estonians just mostly missed the point. Missed the whole thing.
(The first happenings presented as actions of art occurred in the late 1960s in Tallinn and Tartu and were made by art students. They mostly emphasised spontaneous play and unconventional behaviour. Their happenings took place both in public spaces (eg beaches), studios and flats. In the mid-1970s the tradition somewhat faded. New life was breathed into happenings by Siim-Tanel Annus and his fire performances since 1980. In the middle of the decade various expressive actions were added which continued also in the 1990s. This period saw the birth of video art that partly relied on documenting the actions. Today, a significant spring of performance art is the so-called Pärnu school that aspires to provoke the middle classes and deny any manifestation of the establishment – Ed.)
1 Kaplinski, Jaan. Esteetiline aastasada. Eesti Ekspress, 11 November 1999.
2 See for more details: Saar, Johannes. A Shitty Story. Nosy Nineties. Problems, Themes and Meanings in Estonian Art of the 1990s. Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia 2001, pp 326-335
3 The extent of condemnation inherent in the Estonian swear word ‘muidusööja’ (roughly translates as ‘a person who eats without doing any work for it’) is quite amazing.
4 Bourdieu, Pierre; Darbel, Alain. The Love of Art: European Art Museums and their Public. Polity Press, 1991, p 109.
5 Kaus, Jan; Soans, Hanno. Why Do You Want… Estonian Art 1/2005.
6 Bourdieu; Darbel. Op. cit, pp 108-109.
7 Helme, Sirje; Kangilaski, Jaak. Lühike Eesti kunsti ajalugu. Talinn: Kunst, 1999, pp 174-175
8 Ibid, p 179.