Ješa Denegri, The Year 1968 and the Related Developments in Art [ENGLISH]

The Year 1968 and the Related Developments in Art

Published in: Treći program Radio Zagreba, Zagreb, 2009

One Prediction and the Question of Whether It Came True

The Italian critic, Renato Barilli, once claimed once that, in the future, art historians would draw a dividing line at the year 1968, to mark the separation between the two phases of artistic developments in the second half of the twentieth century – i.e. those from the period pre–1968 and those from the period post-1968.1 In other words, he said, nothing would remain the same after this crucial date – not only, in the domain of social and political history, but also that of art, and in the ways that it came to be seen and carried out, in practice. We still cannot tell whether Barilli's thesis was correct, or whether his predictions have been fulfilled. However, it cannot be disputed that within a mere couple of years before and a few years after the said date, the European and global art scenes underwent a sea-change, which considerably affected the techniques of execution, the phenomenology of the work of art, and the  behaviour of the contemporary artist – in short, the whole notion of what art is. To what degree has the process of change been related to the overall context implied by 'the year 'sixty-eight'? This is a question which calls for an unambigous answer: the process of change was undoubtedly tied up with the  wider social  spiritual climate associated with events in that year; however, far from  far from being a straightforward echo or reflection of that climate, they were a constitutive and integral component of the culture of this extremely important historical period.

The Political Context

The immediate political context of the artistic developments around the year 1968 was set by the atmosphere of the ‘Great Refusal’, launched through by the student protests and influenced by radical minorities of intellectuals. The public mood temporarily paralysed Western society, which found itself facing a multi-faceted spiritual and moral crisis. On the students' side, the dispute had started off with criticism of the conditions of study at university and then spilled over into a challenge to the existing social system, as a whole, to the point where it represented a general challenge to the ideals and values of contemporary mass psychology and the consumer society. A number of highly important factors contributed to the general mood of defiance, including resistance to the Vietnam War, in the United States and the resistance to the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, in Eastern Europe. However, the causes and effects of those disputes were not confined to the political arena; the conflict had some much deeper roots and farther-reaching consequences. It was a conflict of fundamental cultural and moral beliefs, in which the students  and intellectual minorities, for their part, demanded immediate radical changes in all modes of individual and collective behaviour, ultimately leading to  'total opposition to everything existing'. It was, therefore, understandable that all this social and political turbulence should have had a direct impact on culture and art. What follows is an examination of the  actual effect all this had on the different modes of artistic practice and on the relevant theories to which the socio-political climate of the ‘Great Refusal gave birth, in the brief period before, during and after the year 1968.

Exhibitions, Writings, Terms AND PROPERTIES of Art around 1968

In his book, Precronistoria 1966-1969, in which he deals with the crucial artistic events in the period under consideration, Germano Celant listed the following exhibitions : Primary Structures, Eccentric Abstraction, Systemic Painting – all in New York, 1966; Fuoco, Immagine, Terra, Aqua and Teatro delle mostre in Rome, Lo spazio dell’ immagine in Foligno, Arte povera in Genoa, Arte povera + Azioni povere in Amalfi, Prospect ‘68 in Düsseldorf, and Documenta iv in Kassel – all taking place in 1968; Op Losse Schroeven in Amsterdam, Ecological Art and Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials in New York, Konzeption/Conception at Leverkusen, and When Attitudes Become Form in Berne – all taking place in 1969. At the same time, Celant also listed a number of critical texts from the period, including: Paragraphs on Conceptual Art by Sol Lewitt, Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism by Mel Bochner, Ultime parole famose by Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Arte povera by Germano Celant – all  in 1967; Microemotive Art by Piero Gilardi, The Dematerialization of Art by Lucy Lippard & John Chandler, Antiform by Robert Morris, Art after Philosophy by Joseph Kosuth, and Nuovo alfabeto per corpo e materia by Tommaso Trini, in 1969; and another piece of writing by Sol LeWitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art, in 1970.2 The terms used to designate the various forms of innovative art around 1968 included: ‘Primary Structures’, ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, ‘Systemic Painting’, ‘Minimal Art’, ‘Antiform Art’, ‘Poor Art’, ‘Microemotive Art’, ‘Process Art’, ‘Conceptual Art’, ‘Land Art’, ‘Body Art’, ‘Art & Language’, and ‘dematerialization of the art object’, among many others. Taken together, all the issues raised by these terms had the effect of radically altering the whole artistic panorama, towards the end of the 1960’s.

Not surprisingly, it is impossible to find a single common denominator for all of the phenomena listed above. Nevertheless, all these manifestations and events share a number of factors, In common, and together they provide plenty of material, for helping us to pick out some of the principle characteristics of the changed artistic situation, around 1968. One of these factors was the change in the status of the artwork. In the modernist period, it had still been possible to make clear-cut distinctions between the media and to assign works of art to a specific category, such as painting, sculpture, discrete objects (Minimalist art), mental propositions (Conceptual Art), processual kinds of ephemeral art (Arte Povera), or actions performed in time and space (Body Art). The change in the status of the artwork requires a theoretical explication on the part of the artist himself, who now has also has to be able to round out his knowledge of working procedures with some familiarity, at least, with at least a smattering of Information from a whole range of disciplines, such as philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, information theory, sociology, anthropology, history of ideas and political history. The artist who has this kind of education and intellectual potential must also have activist leanings and critical self-awareness, as a political being – not, of course, in the sense of membership of a political party, since ‘political’, in this context. merely implies public activity in one’s own behalf, in accordance with one's personal sense of responsibility. In other words, whatever the artist, as a free individual, does or says, he does, or says, by 'speaking in the first person singular'. In The New Art of the late 'sixties, what mattered more than linguistic or technical innovation was the artist’s aspiration to stand up for, and demonstrate the freedom to behave as he pleased within a community of free individuals – all in the spirit of compliance with the social and political climate of the ‘Great Refusal’, of 1968.

A Model Form of Art from the Late 'Sixties: Arte Povera

Italian arte povera was an entirely characteristic phenomenon of the ‘Great Refusal’ of the late 1960’s. The term was launched by the critic, Germano Celant, to designate a cluster of strong individuals, such as (in alphabetical order) Anselmo, Boetti, Calzolari, Fabro, Kounellis, Mario and Marisa Merz, Paolini, Pascali, Penone, Pistoletto, Prini and Zorio. The exhibition that really launched Arte Povera took place at the Galleria La Bertesca, in Genoa, in 1967); others soon followed, both in Italy and in other countries and successfully brought this now phenomenon to the attention of a wide public across the entire international art scene. Celant’s concept of ‘Poor Art’ was derived straight from Grotowski’s term, ‘Poor Theatre’. According to Celant, as one can read in these excerpts from his writings,

'Arte Povera is an art which in linguistic and visual anarchy and in constant change of artists’ behaviour finds the greatest degree of creative freedom… This art deals with chance, the present time, anthropological  reality… Giving up semantic intricacies it is oriented toward tautological presentation of the factual states in real things… It aspires to deculturing, to a reduction to the pre-iconographic stage… It utilizes the primary elements (earth, water, fire, animals, plants, minerals)… It testifies to the futility of any coherent situation (coherence being a dogma worth destroying)… It practises an asystematic idea of life consisting of intermingling art, science, love, work, politics, daily experience…' 3

Arte Povera is a guerilla force in art, and an Arte Povera artist is a guerilla fighter, a nomad, a roamer travelling across the world of contemporary art into which he will fit and become adjusted, when Arte Povera itself – like any other avant-garde that preceded it – becomes acceptable and accepted, and gains due recognition for the important place it occupies in the history of modern art.  

1968:  Contestation at the Venice Biennale and Beuys at documenta IV, in Kassel

By coincidence, the two most significant contemporary art events on the European continent – the Venice Biennale and Documenta IV, in Kassel – took place in the same year, 1968. The opening days of the Venice Biennale were fraught with nervous tension, largely as a result of the demonstrations organised by students from the local Art Academy, with their threatening slogan:  'Biennale of the bosses, we’ll set fire to your pavilions' ('Biennale dei padroni, brucciamo i tuoi paviglioni.'). The historic retrospective of Futurism and the exhibition, Linea di ricerca 1950-1965 ('Line of Research'), which were both for the  central pavilion, were postponed, while many national pavilions were temporarily closed or did not even open at all. A great many of artists, who sought to champion their own autonomy and artistic freedom were faced with the anachronistic conception of the Biennale and the presence of police around the pavilions, as well as the radical posture of the students and young people. When the tumult of the opening days had died down, the Biennale gathered itself together, the prizes were awarded, and the exhibitions whose openings had been delayed or postponed finally opened their doors to the public, but the residue from the contestation led to a number of partial reforms and a number of organisational novelties, without, however, managing to make any serious impact on the underlying conception of this international art festival.

At the fourth documenta iv, in 1968, Beuys displayed an environmental work, titled Raumplastik. But of greater importance than presenting his latest works was his presence there, as a social activist, who preached to the visitors – especially, students and young people – about the different nature of contemporary art. After documenta had closed, Beuys' fellow professors at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf demanded his dismissal. He responded, by participating in founding the German Students’ Party at the same selfsame Academy, and in 1970 established the non-voters’ Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum. On that occasion, he made the following statement:

'In my opinion, art is the sole revolutionary force… Things can be changed merely out of man’s creative power… The evolution of the human can go on only if stemming from art …”

The New Art of Late Sixties and the 1970’s in the Yugoslav Cultural Space

The New Art of the late 1960’s and the first half of the 1970’s was born, not only as a reflex reaction to artistic developments on the international scene, of which it was an integral part, but more especially in response to a number of specific issues on the domestic front, In the cultural and artistic space of former Yugoslavia.. Since the terminology used elsewhere to describe  kindred phenomena was not quite adequate, in the case of this art, the all-encompassing umbrella term, The New Art Practice' was introduced and came to be applied to the specific circumstances in Yugoslavia at that time. It term was taken from the title of the exhibition held, in 1978, at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Zagreb: The New Art Practice 1966-1978.4 The overall scope of this exhibition was such that it encompassed a number of artists' groups, including OHO from Ljubljana, Bosch+Bosch from Subotica, Kôd and (Ǝ from in Novi Sad, Red Peristyl from Split, a selection of young artists gathered around the Galleries of the Students’ Centres in Zagreb and Belgrade, and some generally slightly older individual figures, who had steered clear of the various artists' groups. The number of participants, as well as their character, reinforced the impression that resembled nothing so much as a broadly based cultural movement, The 'movement' was a symptom of the spirit of the times, which went far beyond the autonomous field of art, to permeate the entire sphere of social and political behaviour, by way of art and within the context it provided. This kind of behaviour was inseparable from the overall social and political situation that had ripened, shortly before and after the year 1968, and displayed many of the features implicit in that date. Regardless of all the controversy surrounding any attempt to evaluate the long-term effect of the events of 1968 in Yugoslavia, one thing is certain: the way in which things turned out showed quite clearly that Socialist Yugoslavia was not a compact or homogeneous society, but one that was riven by internal conflict that found expression in a wide variety of different interest groups, with divergent views on a possible way out from the existing political order. The same applied to the field of art. The New Art of the late 'sixties and early 'seventies in Yugoslavia came into being as a consequence of the deep-seated spiritual turmoil that intensified around 1968. This art brought about considerable changes, and even a schism in the ostensibly unified front of triumphant Modernism, which had grown up in the climate of 'creative freedom' that followed on the heels of the politically superimposed ideology of Socialist Realism. The triumphant variant of Modernism, to which the attribute ‘Socialist’ could be attached (‘Socialist Aestheticism’, being a variant of the same thing), had grown thoroughly institutionalized and had come to dominate the domestic art scene (more precisely, the various art scenes in all the constitutive entities of the Yugoslav federation). The radical way in which  The New Art Practice set about doing things meant that it was perceived to represent  an important deviation from the mild formal idioms of the domestic form of  ‘Socialist Modernism’; at the same time, it stood up to the well-established institutional art system , with its  training programmes for  young artists, its exhibition policies, with the programmes of its leading galleries, its selections for prestigious representational events abroad, and its influence through the mass media. The New Art of the late 'sixties and early 'seventies confronted the inertia of the status status quo; it explored different ways of practising art and different channels for presenting their work to a public. Hence, the experimental approach to the use of the new media, to cerebral and analytical work, instead of the formal perfection of the finished work of art, to straightforward body actions and to taking art out of the gallery. All of that led to the abandonment of the fixed material and aesthetic status of the physical object in the classical disciplines of painting and sculpture.  The New Art at the turn of the 'sixties into 'seventies was preoccupied with conceptual, metaphysical operations, but also with concrete, existential situations; it addressed the need to subject the operations of the museum, gallery and market – .e. the entire 'art system' – to a rigorous critical examination. ~By this means, t earned some credit for its activist, political engagement within a broader social context. The new parameters laid down in The New Art’s heyday paved the way for a re-evaluation of the historic domestic avant-gardes and neo-avant-gardes, starting with the Zenitism and Dada of the 1920’s and culminating in the reaching the EXAT 51 and Gorgona groups, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. And that, In turn, prepared the ground for proposing the existence of ‘The Other Line’ in the artistic space of former Yugoslavia, as an alternative to the 'First Line', constitute by the prevailing stream of moderate Modernism. The identity of ‘The Other Line’ rested on a whole chain of innovative, experimental and radical artistic phenomena over decades of continual development.5 It was with the New Art of the late 'sixties and early 'seventies, born in an atmosphere created by the social processes and spiritual unrest surrounding the  events of  1968, that the great historical span of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde movements came to a conclusion. This took place shortly before there was yet another drastic turnabout in the spiritual climate, which went under the name of Postmodernism and laid bare many different issues which lie beyond the scope of the complex subject-matter we have tried to delineate in the course of the present essay.


1      Renato Barilli, 'Il ‘68 e le arti visive', Qui arte contemporanea, 15, Roma 1975; republ. in: Informale, oggeto, comportamento: La ricerca estetica negli anni ‘70, Vol. 2, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1979.

2      G. Celant, Precronistoria 1966-1969, Centro Di, Firenze, 1976.

3      G. Celant, Arte povera, Gabriele Mazzotta, ed., Milano, 1969; G. Celant, 'Coerenza in coerenza. Dall’ arte povera al 1984', Arnaldo Mondadori, ed., Milano, 1984; G. Celant, Arte povera. Storia e protagonisti, Electa, Milano, 1985.

4      Nova umjetnička praksa u Jugoslaviji 1966-1978 ('The New Art Practice in Yugoslavia 1966-1978'), Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, exh. cat., Zagreb, 1978.

5      J. Denegri, Razlozi za ‘drugu liniju’. Za novu umetnost sedamdesetih ('The Reasons for "The Other Line": For the New Art of the 'Seventies'), Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, Novi Sad – Edicija 'Sudac', Zagreb, 2007.

One Prediction and the Question of Whether It Came True

The Italian critic, Renato Barilli, once claimed once that, in the future, art historians would draw a dividing line at the year 1968, to mark the separation between the two phases of artistic developments in the second half of the twentieth century - i.e. those from the period pre--1968 and those from the period post-1968.

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