The Influence of Conceptual Art within Hungary
(An Extension of the Concept and Function of Art)
It is not a new observation that in a strict sense of the term there was no conceptual art in Hungary, and it also seems to be appropriate. Similarly, we can talk about a large-scale "concept" (idea) art and must accept that the movements of Concept Art or Conceptual Art had a significant influence on Hungarian (Avant-Garde) art and more importantly on artistic thinking (as well as thinking about art).
Facts, however, need to be more exact. Thus, firstly: conceptual art does not primarily aim at the "strict" intellect,1 moreover it is essentially different from what is usually called the "obvious" (therein lies its inspiring power and novelty). One might admit that if an "idea" is considered to be art, then it must be because of the influence of Concept Art's mentality.
Maybe it has been obvious from what I previously mentioned that it is not my intention to either define Conceptual art or discuss its Hungarian characteristics from a historical perspective; my purpose is rather to describe its influence and present an outline of its appearance and the structure of events in their full complexity. Within such circumstances one might object to both the application of the word "concept" (the notion itself or, more clearly, the "concept of the concept") and further to my strong reluctance to define it. The reasons are as follow: in my opinion, one cannot write about conceptual art, since one of its principles is that it considers the role of the critic or interpreter unnecessary. From this perspective I can look at writing as being concept art (and then - since "that" is not "about that") or, regardless, I can still write about it - and then it also will not have so much in common with concept art, since I therefore neglect one of its ultimate features. The influence of an artistic activity or mentality can still be analyzed, which usually bears the label of the attribute "conceptual" and the very phrase was adopted into general means of discourse as well; presumably (since it is commonly used) it is usable and it rather precisely describes or distinguishes its object.
Naturally, probably even without any further explanation, influence needs to be interpreted differently within a discussion of conceptual art: an observation about the influence of concept art cannot be paralleled with statements about "the influence of Cubism" or "the influence of Picasso" (which can be compared to "the influence of Lawrence Weiner" or "the influence of Joseph Kosuth").
In the case of concept art, it must be emphasized that it was not the definition of the category but rather the nomination that clarified the essence of the movement and its position "among" the others, yet undoubtedly its contribution is significant and cannot be neglected. The name and its interpretation is a concept artpiece itself (it is a complex system of concepts, an artistic proposition for the interpretation of art), similar to both those that were born "before" and "after" it as well.
Undoubtedly, subsequently and indeed concurrently with the spreading of "nomination", the number of connected artists and artpieces "exploded", but (according to the mentality of Concept) this only means that more and more started to express their thoughts about art and their own personal situation and duty in an artistic form. Similarly, although this phenomenon had roots in the past, at the beginning of the seventies the gesture of nomination became very popular: the English word "art" or the German "Kunst" were often playfully used together with the most different words. This phenomenon (beyond the numerous, surprising products themselves, which I will turn back to) also demands attention due to its strong impulse from language and the general nature of linguistic relations within conceptual art.
Linguistic relations are the last essential element that I wanted to refer to. Now we can continue to approach (describe) and analyze the phenomenon. This I intend to do in three ways: while remaining on a conceptual plane analyzing the phenomenon directly, somewhat ignoring the consequent use of the factors I have previously mentioned, excluding any further explanation. Secondly, by describing the Hungarian context with special reference to the social-artistic condition (from the end of the sixties to the mid seventies) and finally by making some remarks about an "approach" that concerns the present situation as well as the problems related to the presentation of concept art. The description provides an introduction to some particular events, works and artistic methods and the connected conceptual apparatus, while the analysis presents the latter as the common moments of individual creative thought-systems besides providing specific work analyses. In the first phase dealing with approach I am going to use David Buren's (originally ironic, judgmental and condemning) typology differently from his own interpretation.
Concept Art - Pieces belong to four major categories:
1/ Plan or draft - the fixing of a certain idea, the documentation of an "unrealized" piece or art-idea. It might be a single idea as well as a complex and very elaborate (one that might perhaps be ultimately realized) project.
2/ A formula or concept - basic examples are: material forms or representation of a concept or an artpiece based on the conceptual-associative meanings of material. On the other hand, it can be the use and meaning of certain methods or formulas. Such methods can be, repetition, reflection, rotation and shifting as well as the use or demonstration of a system within the artpiece. The most common formulas are tautology and the paradox. Characteristically, these formulas (which in fact contradict and exclude each other) occasionally might appear together - depending on the meaning of the artpiece. (It seems necessary to remark here that this categorization is not meant to be strict: some works might simultaneously show the characteristics of all the four groups.)
3/ Textualality - these are usually theses or treatises, yet they may consist of only some words or just a sentence. Inasmuch as we hear about "pure" Concept, it always refers to this.
4/ A thought or a system of thoughts applied as one entity or separately - or organized into an independent structure from different parts and elements. These might be scientific theories, mythical moments, religious forms as well as concepts of mystical or socio-political origin. They usually have an impact on the personal life of the artist and beyond that they also determine their own role in a public activity. This group can be typified by applying and intersecting heterogeneous thoughts (that are far from each other) freely and never taking any one (already existing) system in its completeness.
Considering the applied "materials", it can be pointed out that sequentially, moreover parallelly to their intermedial (i.e. the use of various materials, tools and "mediums" adjacent or interconnected to each other) nature, a development towards an interdisciplinary direction is determinant. This inspires the creation of a joint perspective of the different methods and views by which one can approach the world as well as to blur or unite separate systems - or even to use them together without any inhibitions (e.g. the conceptual system of one science with another or, perhaps, with mythical externals, etc.) It is interesting to take a look at the development of science-theory/science-critique, which is analogous with that of art in this period.
Apart from the tendency of raising an awareness about the general expansion, it is not hard to notice the "favored" (more common) appearance of certain elements: in regards to tools (mediums) - and besides language - such elements are commonly photographs and the size DIN A4 paper collected in files or bound together - or in connection with certain communicative systems and duplication (e.g. the use or transformation of postcards, letters, telegraphs, mailed things, Xeroxes, newspapers, books, advertisements, etc.). Considering the idea itself, it can be partly characterized by the re-discovery of certain esoteric sciences as well as an increased interest in an occult, mystic or oriental (i.e. different from the classical European cognitive schema) perspective of interpreting the world and also by being a (sometimes radical) reaction to any new scientific invention, unsolved problem, political event or social operation. (Starting from the form of a proposal or observation and moving on to artworks analogous with a political activity.)
When characterizing the Hungarian context (i.e. the second level of approach), it is important to remark that there were works that were in tune with the mentality of Concept Art before the movement had actually been formed or the name and its "program" had existed. (It is also significant to mention that the influence of the earlier Fluxus as well as the anti-cultural or underground movements in Hungary are also simultaneously detectable, and yet it cannot be precisely said what was "earlier" or "after" nor can it be decided whether something is due to the influence of "this" or "that".) These pieces (dating from 1966-68) usually have the forms of texts, poems and drafts preserved on paper (i.e. Gábor Attalai, György Jovánovics, Tamás Szentjóby, Miklós Erdély, Géza Perneczky, László Lakner, Gyula Konkoly). Around 1970-71 the number of artists making such work started to increase harmoniously and soon became in contact with the international tendency. In this period more and more often there were pieces of news and also images about similar foreign works that were filtering into Hungary and the gradually increasing interest together with the inspiring power of news and its accompanying manner of thinking strove for publicity in actions both at home and abroad (i.e. exhibitions, publications, private collections, etc.) The climax was reached in 1972-73 and afterwards the majority of the artists, who had basically started to make conceptual pieces, adopted a more complex and personal approach or turned towards a completely new direction. Parallelly with this the mental structure and moreover the formal manner of Concept Art became more general; by 1976 several writings (polemical articles, analyses, essays) were published and created a consensus (unfortunately only within the narrow bounds of artists and a few experts), whose main significance, however, lies merely in the acknowledgment of the phenomenon ("this is actually happening"). The general situation could still be best characterized by the absence or rather the repression of information and that was the very reason why several artists became more and more actively and seriously concerned about spreading information as well as teaching. (Another reason for this was that such activities organically belonged to the artistic program of Concept Art, while in other cases they were rooted in personal and often existential problems.)
The same period from a social perspective represented a stiff and hostile social and artistic context that had serious shortages of information concerning both the topic of this study and the ambitions of the Avant-Garde - in general. It seems to be important to point out that although there was a resistance against the Avant-garde in general, and beyond that also against the special manifestations of Concept Art, a significant difference exists when compared to the restrictions of the preceding historic period (i.e. the 1950's), beginning in the sixties there was even the possibility for open confrontation and on several occasions the pieces (for a short period, in a peripheral location or abroad) were publicly shown.
Social resistance was partly due to the absence of information and partly political considerations; its manifestations were as follows:
The movement of the Avant-Garde, deriving from its originally marginal position, had the ambition to concentrate these endeavors onto a narrow scale or even on one - well-controllable - place so that they would have a chance neither in time nor in space for expansion. In relation to this it is understandable why there was an antagonism and a consciously set-up opposition between the Avant-Garde and the mass media. The more important the role of the mass media the more it becomes the vehicle of a particular mass culture whose main mission is to repress essential information by means of an abundance of information. Thus, by mass culture (in a strict, and for the sake of brevity, in a simplified sense) I mean the systematic deprivation of the masses from significant information (one that concerns them in their whole existence) in a way that a huge amount of information is presented as if it was real and credible.
A more obvious and direct means of repression is the joint and complex use of bureaucratic systems of orders and paragraphs, taking advantage of all their myriad features (regulating the Fine Art Academy Department codes from fire and security prevention through janitors). Stepping beyond these we are confronted with direct reprisals - emphasizing the significance in which the following list is ordered - against events, things and then individuals. It can manifest itself in refusing permissions, closing down exhibitions, as well as excluding certain pieces or artists from participation, imposing a penalty, starting a legal process or destroying the work. The final (most radical) forms are personal attacks ranging from harassment by the police through making somebody ridiculous in front of the public and legal procedures to notices advising them to leave the country. An indirect (longer, but more "successful") method is to cause permanent existential problems for prominent artists and thus encourage them to show a "better understanding". The natural context of information shortage, which is one of the consequences of having taken action, has a major role in reprisals: the authorities very often have no idea who or what they are supposed to take action on; according to the tradition of several decades, they react against the disturbing, "exciting" or "incomprehensible" presence of the artpieces (artists) following their own lines. Thus not only the "foreign" artpieces are behind time but the development of the Hungarian art scene is also "late", and in a public evaluation (as if hiding a feeling of inferiority) it is claimed that what does not yet exist must be something that has been over already and what is about to be born has actually been well-known "for a long time"; this inhibited position induces an unuttered general agreement that leaves the evaluation (judgment) of things for "time", "posterity" or the "historical perspective".
Here I arrive at the third level of approach, where I promised the description concerning the problems of presentation as well as those of the present situation. Above all, between 1970-76 there were at least fifty actions (exhibitions, publications, thematic collections) that were connected to Conceptual Art and involved 6-8 (but often 20-25) artists. Several people participated in these without any background in creating expressly artistic work either in the past (beforehand) or the future (afterwards). Simultaneously, an intensive mail-art activity is characteristic within this period, which had started earlier than Concept, but (at least in Hungary) its role was crucial since a Concept artpiece can be written down, sent by mail, etc.. Resulting from its special formal features, one must take into consideration its inherently different public (one that is based on a personal and direct contact) which cannot be disregarded simply because traditionally a "valid" artpiece is one that in its time was publicly exposed or somehow published. Nor can it be disregarded by its quantity (which is almost "incomprehensibly" big), yet quite naturally in the information-exchange personal messages are dominant, yet even disregarding this the number of remaining Concept pieces is still large.
The representatives of official culture as well as the majority of various institutions now justly feel (and not only concerning Concept Art) that the seventies "slipped out of their hands" and they may even start to regret this. When considering the sometimes involuntary omissions it must be noticed that the act of collecting material or the occasional as well as systematic documentation was carried out by people who were directly involved in the ongoing events and that sometimes it was the artists themselves who did their own self-documentation instead of the "qualified" institution.
As a consequent result of this, the present study cannot attempt at being historically complete. A further difficulty is that (besides the large amount of material and number of participants) the work of the most prominent artists (the "core" of the movement which involved 15-20 people) is not known sufficiently enough to serve as the basis of describing the "main tendencies". In the pat few years there were reconstructive or retrospective exhibitions that indirectly called attention to the existence of the previously mentioned problems (Hungarian Avant-Garde or the seventies). This occurred partly because the phenomenon indicated that certain things must be recalled, and partly since these exhibitions were built into the story almost as individual, new events instead of showing the chosen segment of the process from a historical perspective. Besides, one must consider the danger of something similar happening in the eighties (the present), while working on the research about the seventies.