Discussion considers changing role of art in politics

Milan Knizak, 1968

Many areas of life have changed hugely since the Velvet Revolution - including the world of Czech art. Art as a political phenomenon before and after 1989 was the subject of a debate at the Slovak Institute in Prague on Wednesday.

Jan Budaj,  photo: CTK
Milan Knizak, the director of the National Gallery in Prague, and Jan Budaj, perhaps best known as one of the leading figures of the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia, discussed the significance of independent art in communist Czechoslovakia. In those days both pursued projects of conceptual art and organized happenings and other forms of public appearances. Jan Budaj describes the Week of Fictional Culture he held in Bratislava in the 1970s during which fictional performances, exhibitions and film screenings were advertised.

"There were large banners, and one of them announced a screening of Ingmar Bergmann who was prohibited in Czechoslovakia at the time. We made the presentation even more peculiar because we put in a name of a movie that did not exist. Similarly, we presented a play by Ionesco, a real play this time, but in a new theatre that did not exist in Bratislava."

Events like these were held to provoke the public in order to stir the backwater of totalitarian society. With the fall of communism, Jan Budaj exchanged arts for politics. He became the leader of Public against Violence, the umbrella opposition movement in Slovakia in 1989 and later a member of the Slovak Parliament. Milan Knizak, too, was temped by politics and ran for the Senate in 1998. Back in the 1960s and 70s, however, he was not very enthusiastic about joining the political struggle and rather preferred to stick with his own art projects.

"I was in the underground already in the 1960's because at that time the actual art was created and we were working mostly anonymously in the streets, in the backyards, without being connected to the galleries. In the seventies, I was asked by the people from the so-called Czech underground to join them, to be some kind of leader, and I didn't feel like that. You know, for me it was too political, too black and white, and I wanted to live more alone, with me, myself, with my people, my family, and I didn't feel like joining this, let's say, simple-minded, in a way, movement."

After 1989, however, Knizak did enter the establishment. While still an active artist, he was the president of the Academy of Fine Arts for seven years before becoming the director of the National Gallery in 1999. He was sceptical about the public excitement raised by the Velvet Revolution, but he took the Academy's cause for his own.

"I was asked by the students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague to come and talk to them. They were inviting many artists and teachers because they were looking for some new people; they wanted to renew the Academy. I came there as the last one, I talked to them for about two or three hours, and then I left home. At about midnight, a group of student came and asked me to run for the rector, the president. I told them, ok; give me a week, because it was just before Christmas 1989. After Christmas, I came back to the Academy and said yes."

According to Milan Knizak, the role of art has changed just as much as the society and the conditions for artistic work. Now, he says, he no longer feels the urge to provoke. In his opinion, today's art should be quiet, inconspicuous and under the surface.