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.