Prague for the Biennale 2003

Tomas Vlcek


Discussions about the role of the center and the periphery have played an important part in art history and criticism of the last quarter of the 20th century continuing on into the 21st. These discussions are symptomatic of the essential changes in culture that began a few decades ago. The inclusion of the subject of relationship between center and periphery at the 26th Congress of the History of Art in Washington in 1986 proved that places without a powerful cultural establishment did have the chance to become artistic centers.

According to Stephan Gardner, the reason that Paris became the birthplace of Gothic architecture was the combination of a lack of rules and past experience with volatile and changeable cultural models. Since 1986, the cultural map of the world and the notion of the role of the arts in it have changed so much, that art, formerly important in forming ideological, national, and social attitudes, has today lost its respectable position in the political establishment. In a sense, all centers have become peripheries today and all peripheries adapt to the centers. Therefore the differences between the two become less relevant.
If Prague in 2003 belongs to the network of world cities that host big international shows of contemporary art, then we can ask in which way Prague can enter, enrich, and make an impact on contemporary art. Is the importance of Prague hidden in the fact that it is still, more than any other city of the (civilized) Western world, beyond the mainstream? Is it attractive because of the way in which it is different from the standard? Can such a cultural tradition, that for centuries found itself in a destabilization and transformation of styles and artistic traditions, newly define itself today? Is it able to attract interest without being a steady center of politically successful and progressive initiatives, and yet neither random nor unfamiliar enough to be a real periphery? Difficulties with capturing the character of the culture and art of this city exist, because the well-known model of interpretation emerged in the dominant cultures of Western Europe and not in such a complicated and ambiguous place as Prague was and still remains.

Prague has tended to experience the fate of a marginal culture within the so-called “advanced” cultures of Europe. In this way John M. Cooper (1891–1945) defined the culture of natural tribes excluded from the main structures of development, retaining the models of behavior and thinking long forgotten by the rest. Although Prague shares cultural space, knowledge, civilization models, and techniques with the other cultures of the Western world, its character has strong marginal features. Local culture of the new age is characterized by the survival of polytechnic, lesser specialization of work, and by models of science keeping the connection of scientific knowledge and religion, which other countries secularized long ago. The model of “actual infinity” in Czech 17th- and 18th-century mathematics was not replaced by the model of “instrumental infinity” known to the progressive parts of the West. The positive role of the “weaker” part of the society, — women, children and the elderly — survived as a marginal aspect of local culture from the time of less developed forms of civilization until the modern age.

Anticipations of future that do not come at the right time and place become marginal because at that given moment the mainstream is not able to use, tolerate, or even accept them.

Today, every place has the potential to be a center, in some sense. This is due to advanced, electronically-mediated communication. The age in which the Prague Biennale emerges allows marginal and fragmented demonstrations to enter the main current in culture. The invention and use of new communication technologies has changed the world. The exclusive truth and culture of one authority or center disappears. The disintegration of the dominant models of the modern world into a postmodern scene of an infinite number of subjective trends and meanings questions the propositions that gave priority to dominant trends and values; and, in the long-run, became the best alternative for the development of Western civilization. These questions have significantly emerged particularly in Prague, a city facing the transitional nature of its culture.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Prague began to level with the most culturally and economically progressive cities of the world. It was capable of organizing large retrospective shows of leading modern international artists. Monumental exhibitions of Auguste Rodin in 1902 and Edvard Munch in 1905 were the first occasions that these artists exhibited away from their home countries. An interview between the Czech critic Milo Marten and the French poet Paul Claudel cites these words on the city of Prague: “for what kind of vain hope does Prague amaze us so much…“ Prague was not only a picturesque enclave beyond the boundaries of the progressive world; Prague was and remains one of the places that through its peculiarity resisted and still resists the limiting mechanisms of modern civilization.

There is a chance that the cultural inheritance of Prague can correlate to the postmodern age. The defining of modern Europe, which took place between the 15th century and the 20th, was marked here by a blending of different religions, ethnic groups, and models of civilization. The marginality of Prague allowed the survival of many skills that were in other places destroyed by the standards of progressive technological civilizations. The individual skills which were traditionally linked to the arts, but which were to a great extent eliminated in the technological industrial society, can now present themselves in the technologically advanced computer age. The dangers threatening the progress of world unification and political globalization are lessened by the character of new communication technology. This phenomenon is slowly causing the destruction of models and instruments of the contemporary system, thus enabling the interaction of the margins, games with meanings, layering of codes, or the vertical escape to individualized cultural space. Marginality now allows some aspects of the art of the past to find rebirth in the kaleidoscope of new communication models.

The Biennale takes place in the building housing the collections of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st- century art of the National Gallery in Prague. The permanent installation of these collections also shows these aspects of diversity, a sense of value mostly unknown to the world and often not taken into account even in the Czech lands. This is because the models used for their interpretation are too dependent on the cultures of the main current, and they do not respect the reality that art is being created beyond the categories of the center and periphery.