The experience of socialism and its legacies in Eastern Europe created a specific context for artists’ engagement with animals and their approach to the natural world. The blueprint for building the socialist utopia had spared little concern for the environmental consequences of breakneck industrialisation, with rivers rerouted, landscapes devastated and nature viewed purely as a material resource. The welfare and interests of animals were far down the list of priorities in a system which valorised the proletariat and demanded sacrifices for the glorification of the socialist state. The cruel fate of the world’s first space traveller, Laika the dog, who was sent on a one-way mission into orbit in 1957, was symbolic of official attitudes towards animals under socialism, as well as providing a focus for feelings of empathy from human subjects that felt equally oppressed.
It was in the 1960s that live animals first entered artistic practice through happenings and performances, which occurred in parallel with the neo-avant-garde exodus from studios and galleries to enter public space and natural environments and was part of the utopian drive to abolish the distinction between art and life. However, it was only after the changes brought by the countercultural orientation of 1968, with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, a new concern for human rights and the rise of ecological thinking that neo-avant-garde artists began to conceptually address the position of the animal. Birds turned out to be particularly appropriate living metaphors to convey the suppressed desire for freedom, as well as offering a way to explore the ethical and environmental dimensions of relations between the human and the animal.
This paper explores changing attitudes and approaches to animals in East European art of the neo-avant-garde during the Long Sixties through an examination of key works by István Harasztÿ from Hungary, Slovak artist Peter Bartoš and Petr Štembera from the Czech Republic, while considering the impact of new thinking about the natural environment across the porous ideological borders of the Cold War. Engagements with the animal were most frequently conceived in metaphorical terms as a means to talk about the human condition which, due to the specific social, historical and political circumstances of the Eastern Bloc, was particularly true of artists living under socialism.
This paper examines the cross-pollination of the neo-Marxist critique of real existing socialism with the critical practices of the radical stream of the East European neo-avant-garde, and examines the extent to which the imprint of debates over the radical overhaul of the socialist system can be detected in the practices of artists and curators. Artistic affinities with the neo-Marxist debates that flared across the Eastern Bloc can be identified in a shared willingness to question authority, a subversive attitude to canonical thinking and a new interest in the role of an individual in socialist society. Considered also is the shift over the course of the 1970s from a belief in the possibility of a reformed socialism, to one of resignation, cynicism and frustration towards party bureaucracy, in which even the bureaucrats had stopped believing in the official ideology. This change in attitudes towards socialism is detected both in the change in tone in the writings of dissident theorists and in the approach of artists who could no longer muster the neo-avant-garde enthusiasm for the utopian desire to transform the world. The difficult paths taken by those, who sought to recover the radicalism in Marxist thought from under the blanket of state bureaucracy may also be viewed as a valuable source for contemporary social criticism of the post-communist order by a new generation of theorists and artists.