Today one could say that the transformation of the form of Estonian art has reached its conclusion: the hierarchy of the arts (painting, graphic arts, sculpture, applied arts etc.) that prevailed during the Soviet period has vanished, the nomenklatura of People’s Artists have been toppled from their pedestals, and new institutions have found their place.
In a paper he presented at the Tartu Art Museum, Enn Põldroos compared Estonian art of the Soviet period with a boat drifting out at sea: we had the strength to push off from one shore (the official Soviet socialist realism) but we were too weak to reach the other shore (contemporary Western art). There was, however, a much stronger sense of unity among Estonian artists than one finds today; now one can say that some artists have gone ashore, some are still drifting and some do not even want to get anywhere at all. The picture of Estonian art is today more colourful than ever before.
The crumbling of fine art has not been without repercussion. To start with, the public’s adoration has been lost: the replacement of the artistic nomenklatura with a new elite has stripped exhibition halls of the “wide audience” that used to crowd Spring and Autumn Exhibitions in the Tallinn Art Hall.
Virve-Ines Laanemäe once conducted sociological surveys asking people why they went to an art exhibition. This was about all the “sociology” there was, but it would be interesting to find out today why they do not go to exhibitions any more. The answers would probably be “art is incomprehensible” or “anyone can daub like that or drag scrap iron to exhibitions” or something in the same vein.
There is namely a paradox in that the younger generation which regards the art of the Brezhnev stagnation period as a product of utopian socialist modernism (for instance Piret Räni at her exhibition Utopia and home) have become modernist themselves, despite their aspirations.
During the Soviet period the status of an artist was somewhat privileged; due to their special source of inspiration, artists were “holy” and art was at the forefront of ideological struggle. Artists were honoured, they were to be both respected and nurtured by the party and the people. Party supervision was not comfortable, of course, but looking back, it seems valuable to quite a few artists compared to the total silence that surrounds them today.
As I already suggested, the status of art and artists in the new artistic climate is something different. In recent years, much has been done to expand the boundaries of art, and the meaning of being an artist has also acquired new perimeters. Art has not only overstepped the limits of its traditional forms and genres, it has also left the exhibition halls.
Instead of elitist professionals in their “ivory towers”, the interest of the art world has shifted onto art forms which have, previously, been considered peripheral (a major comeback of photography in art) and marginal phenomena (art of the Third World, feminist art, art of sexual minorities, body art etc.). This is also why I am completely unable to understand claims that the concept of art has nowadays become narrower and artists’ freedom more limited than ever before. Rather, it is quite the opposite – a sentence of Joseph Beuys that is often quoted, “everybody is an artist”, should be interpreted as referring to the enormous freedom offered by contemporary art.
The young futurist Mayakovsky had a slogan “Streets are our brushes and squares our palette”; it was just a small step to the next well-known slogan “Art belongs to the people”. But the paradox is that when art leaves the palaces and golden frames to go to the people, then the people do not recognise it any more. The latter fact was well understood by the Bolsheviks, who dragged the people into palaces to see art. Contrary to aspirations, the descent of art from its pedestal has turned it into an elitist and decidedly modernist activity. The only difference is that the people – the public – no longer love this kind of elitism.
Our beloved painting and graphical arts have by no means disappeared, they have just withdrawn to commercial galleries, banks, hotels, embassies, and to our cosy homes, of course. So, even this kind of art has in a manner of speaking “gone to the people”.
Observing more closely the genesis of Estonian art during the last five or six years, we can distinguish several subsequent layers. The first wedge between the art and the people was driven in by the old avantgarde. Perestroika marked the start of the rehabilitation of the classical avantgarde. It was a kind of art that during the stagnation period was somewhat unpopular both with the party and the people. In fact, since the mid 1980s, when several artist were brave enough to exhibit works from their youth at personal exhibitions in the Art Museum, there has been a nostalgic harking back to the Sixties. The Young Artists’ Exhibition of 1989 included two retrospectives in what might be seen as an attempt to reconstruct the Young Artists’ exhibition of 1966 and the exhibition of the Visarid group.
In the beginning of the 1990s, there was a number of exhibitions of heroic avantgarde classics. Abstract art in its varied forms was brought back to life; one can recall comprehensive personal exhibitions of Jüri Kask, Raul Meel, Leonhard Lapin, Ado Lill et al. The revival of old avantgarde, a sort of a “retro-avantgarde”, started at the same time, and is still continuing today. The more or less chronological list that follows speaks for itself: Avantgard ja transavantgard, the exhibition of kinetic art – Mobil 1- in the Tallinn Art Hall, the Harku ’75 retrospective in Linnagalerii, as well as numerous personal exhibitions reviewing the past (Raul Meel, Olav Maran, Kaljo Põllu etc.). Last year was especially rich in this respect: an exhibition of 1960s art in the Estonian Art Museum, Kunstitelg Tallinn-Moskva (Art Axis Tallinn-Moscow) in Tallinn Art Hall, the publication of Ilja Kabakov’s book about Ülo Sooster and a catalogue of Matti Milius’ private art collection have been published.
This elevation of the avantgarde has triggered a counterattack by younger artists whose artistic development coincided with the opening up of society. In opposition to the established avantgarde that carries the spirit of the 60s, they represent newer trends, now already connected to post-modern art. Keeping alive thirty-year-old art phenomena in a post-modern period seemed anachronistic to the young. Art critics coined the term “rehabilitative art”, that is, art which is not promoted because it is contemporary but because it was forbidden during the “Russian era” that has already become history.
Apart from the retrospective avantgarde, a strong group of neoconceptual artists has emerged in the generation who are now aged between 30 and 40, including Jaan Toomik, Jüri Ojaver and Raoul Kurvitz. Building upon the preserved forms of classical conceptualism and minimalism, they have found a radical continuation which is more suited to the present day. The latter has also impressed foreign curators and today the most well-known Estonian artist internationally is without doubt Jaan Toomik. An even younger generation seems to be divided in two camps: on the one side there is the development of neo-conceptual ideas by Peeter Linnap and his school (Mobil galerii), on the other side the neo-pop movement which, in contrast to the 1970s interest in Soviet paraphernalia, deals with products of today’s Western market economy, images from advertising and mass culture (photos by Destudio, Mall Nukke, Marko Mäetamm). One can add to them artists who have openly adopted commercial attitudes (Aapo Pukk, Navitrolla, Beatrice), something that is entirely unacceptable to the new avantgarde generation who deem themselves to be representatives of “fine” art. They move in the commercial world without complexes and much more openly than painters who started in the Soviet period and are still embarrassed by their commercial success. There are also traditionalists among the painters who defend the rights of the good old art form (Jaan Elken, Kreg A Kristring, Vano Allsalu et al.).
The arrival of new media in Estonian art in recent years has dealt a serious blow to the art of the 60s generation which had just acquired a status of official art. For instance, critics lost interest in geometrical painting due to the explosive increase in the work of photographers and video artists. In addition came the post-feminist (Mare Tralla, Tiina Tammetalu) and other movements orientated towards post-modernist thought.
Development logic tells us that the next wave of artists will oppose the generation in their thirties which is now becoming established. Their advantage is that they started their art studies in an open information society, entirely free of the burden of the Soviet period. The question is – how much the can the small world of Estonian art tolerate. One reason for the hurry in getting established is certainly that in the developing art life there is competition for important posts in cultural institutions which determine the chance of having your own exhibition, foreign trips and financial support.
There is a phenomenon that inevitably follows the infamous term “establishment”: if you start earlier you reach the finishing line quicker too. And I must grant that at the moment Lithuanian art (that has preserved its traditions for a long time) is in these new circumstances, already more interesting than Estonian art.