Gedankenkunst – László Beke and the Art of Ideas

Book presentation Laszlo Beke
Book presentation Laszlo Beke

On the evening of April 8th 2015 at Secession Vienna, the book IMAGINATION/IDEA - The Beginning of Hungarian Conceptual Art. The László Beke Collection, 1971 was presented. László Beke is widely recognized as a key figure in conceptual art in Hungary and internationally. In 1970-1 he sent out an invitation to all his artist friends to send him a documentation of work on an A4 sheet. The incoming work he collected in a book. Due to the vicissitudes of the Communist Hungarian regime in the early 1970s this „collection“ could only be viewed privately, in his home, or at exhibitions abroad. This collection, after it was published as a facsimilie book in Hungarian in 2008, IMAGINATION/IDEA has now been made available in English in a book produced by Tranzit Hungary.

My first personal meeting with László Beke was a virtual one. Researching in the archive of MSU Zagreb, I found digital copies of a book attributed to an „anonymous“ art group. This was the second book of this kind which Beke had collected for the exhibition tendencije 5 / tendencies 5 in Zagreb in 1973. At the conference held in connection with this exhibition, which was also the annual AICA conference Beke, together with other young radicals, such as Nena Dimitrijevic, was criticizing the views of the older generation of artists and theorists involved with New Tendencies. While New Tendencies were still invested in a neo-Constructivist or post-Concrete art paradigm which focused on visual problem solving, Beke advocated a new role of art as a meta-language critique. This conference was one of those seminal moments, when old and new were directly confronting each other, in a verbal „Match of Ideas“ which was also the title of the conference. In retrospect, the „new art practices“ carried a clear victory, although this metaphor of a „match“ was slightly unfortunate as a contemporary critique remarked.

Beke's concept of „meta-language critique“ inspired the young Croatian curator Marian Susovski who specialized in what was known at the time as „new art practices“ and presented, only a few years later, in 1978, the first large scale retrospective of The New Art Practices at MSU Zagreb, the catalogue of which still shines with fresh and inspiring writing. Within the space of a few years, the postwar neo-avant-gardes of a constructive orientation who had dominated the mid 1960s had become superseded by the new art practices. Beke's first collection in 1971 had come indeed at a pivotal moment, when a new paradigm was ushered in, initially, by the conceptual and semiotic turn in art in the late 1960s, early 1970s, a moment which deserves to get investigated still more. If we follow the English art philosopher Peter Osborne, and I think we should, the moment of conceptual art was constitutive for the formation of the paradigm of contemporary art. All contemporary art is post-conceptual art.

On the occasion of this book presentation at Secession, chaired by Georg Schöllhammer, Beke recalled the story of how his book came to be. As Schöllhammer reminded in his introductory remarks, those years were quite edgy in the art and social systems of the Warsaw Pact states. After the violent suppression of the Prague spring in former Czechoslovakia and also Hungary there was a „call to order,“ a re-Stalinisation of art policies. Beke, as a young art historian, was allowed to travel to Bratislava, where Slovak artist Julius Koller was playing Ping Pong in an exhibition called „J. K. Ping-Pong Club” and artists such as Koller and Stano Filko had already a developed conceptualist practice. However, as multilingual Beke recalled, Slovak artists did neither know nor use the English term conceptual art, it was called, in German, Gedankenkunst, an art of ideas. This linguistic problem is exacerbated by the fact that concept in German also means Begriff, a philosophical concept, as opposed to „concept“ unerstood as the conception behind an artwork. Thus, Beke declared wittily „I don't know what conceptual art is.“ What he did was to start collecting information about projects which could not be realized under the conditions of actually existing Socialism. For him, it was thus initially a „project art“. At the time, he came across a small article by Joseph Kosuth on concept as Begriff and understanding art making as a kind of linguistic game reflecting on the concept of art. Through this step, art became an auto-reflective activity. This, Beke thought at the time, would render him as a critic obsolete. The only possibility to keep going was thus to also become an artist. Until 1986 he collected his own works in a file under the category „unknown artist,“ and the „anonymous“ group show for Zagreb in 1973 contained some works produced by himself.

For this type of auto-reflective art Beke invented the term meta-language art. When directly asked about this term, he explained that since the second half of the 1960s, art circles in the East developed a strong interest and engagement with structuralism, semiotics and linguistics. Artists, rather than just reflecting which message they wanted to create, reflected the relationship between material base and surface from a new dialectical position, inspired by communication theory, taking into account all the conditions that contributed to an artwork being art. Therefore the mediality of works became so important, if text was typed or handwritten, which font was used, which paper quality, etc. Hungarian conceptual artist, in a way anticipated the work of media theorist Friedrich Kittler Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (which appeared in 1986, thus, 15 years later). It can be said that meta-language art also performs a media theory of art.

But how did artists from behind the iron curtain come to develop such sophisticated concepts? Ideas could find their way easily between the gaps in the wire mesh. In the early 1970s, Beke recalled, he was allowed to travel to Graz, on invitation by Wilfired Skreiner, then director of the Neue Galerie. Graz in the early 1970s was an unlikely – from today's point of view – hotbed of the critical art practices of the 1970s. There, the dynamic trio of artist Richard Kriesche, artist and designer Karl Neubacher and curator Horst Gerhard Haberl who had joined forces with the group Pool created their own brand of meta-language art. Beke returned to Hungary with suitcases full of catalogs, art books and magazines. Another medium of exchange was mail art, and then there was „the ritual of the Western curator visiting Eastern Europe.“ One of them was the Argentinian curator Jorge Glusberg from CAYC, who played a similar role for Argentine as Beke did for Hungary.

These networks of exchange and encounters, often very personal, enabled the development of different flavours and interpretations of what an important exhibition in 1999 called Global Conceptualism. As this exhibition demonstrated, conceptualism in Latin America meant fighting American imperialism. This was very different from what counted as „political“ in Hungary, explained Beke. Asked if he considered his practice political, Beke admitted that it was political, yes, but a „timid politics.“ Those unrealisable projects in Beke's „collection“ were often of a strongly formal character, reminding sometimes of Art & Language. However, as Schöllhammer pointed out, many works make the separation between the neo-Constructive and the conceptual paradigm much less clear-cut than it appears in some narratives, such as the moment of 1973, as told above, when conceptualism superseded neo-Constructivism.

Hungarian conceptualism also had quite strong considerations for technology and media, whereas, for instance, Croatian artists such as the Group of Six intervened much more directly in the symbolic (dis)order. Such specifics of local „flavours“ of conceptualism make those art practices resistant to being put under a unifying master narrative, as Schöllhammer pointed out. The art practices of the 1970s need to be reconsidered under a new aesthetic regime of globalisation. Such a discourse will also have to consider the notion of „Eastern Europe“ from a new conceptual lense, maybe deploying, as Beke suggested, a conceptual apparatus of post-colonialism. Other approaches which may proof useful are „performativity“ as an anthropological category and the notion of the semiotic as defined by Julia Kristeva (Paetzold 1990). The linguistic turn in art has been constitutive for contemporary art. Now, however, we are approaching a new phase, when the contemporary paradigm has become tired and stale (see my article on Future of Memory, link below). What will come next? Maybe it will come from the direction of postmedia art. A new paradigm, however, is something that theory cant produce, only concrete artistic practice.