The Role You Made Me Play: About Unobvious Difficulties of Studying Eastern European Art

The Role You Made Me Play: About Unobvious Difficulties of Studying Eastern European Art

There is nothing more satisfying than finding yourself in the position of a narrator, sacrificing your ego to give voice to something that was invisible until you decided to name it. It is an act of claiming your position towards the story and setting its vision for future generations. The very act of storytelling plays a cruel trick on a story. First, it becomes preordained, with the logic of the story leading to the assumption that this is how it was meant to be, that this was its intended unfolding. Second, the very fact of the story’s existence is centrally constitutive in its subsequent history. It is only after the story is told that we can challenge it, look for flaws, inaccuracies, and imperfections. The history of a story is always defined by its first narrator because to begin talking about something, it must first be uttered. We do not know stories that have not been uttered, as well as we don’t see what has not been named. To name something is to give it a body, a mass, an outline. And it is for the right to name that the main battle is waged.

This text is about the right to name and tell a story, and therefore, to be heard. It’s about the right to set the vector of conversation and thus determine the prospects for its development. And yes, all of this is directly related to the history of Eastern European art.


Teacher: Dear students, please find Eastern Europe on the map. You have 3 minutes.
Western Art Museums: Dear teacher, I know the answer. According to the index of works in my repositories, Eastern Europe includes the ex-Soviet Union. So, it’s Russia, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Caucasian countries (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan).
German Art Museums: Dear teacher, I have the same list, but also Poland.
Teacher: Sure, you do, dear.
Geography: But that’s absurd. You’ve literally named more than 10 different parts of the world under one title. How can Central Asia be Eastern Europe?
Central Asia (all together raising hands).
Teacher: There was a hand from the Cold War.
Cold War: The list is incomplete. It should include Poland, but also Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia…
21st Century: But Czechoslovakia doesn’t even exist anymore…
Cold War: I’m not finished! And Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia: Well, that’s a revelation…
Geography: This doesn’t make any sense. If the Balkan peninsula is Eastern Europe, then why isn’t Greece part of it?
Greece: Please, we secured ourselves from those conversations long before Christ was born.
Geography: But the world map hasn’t really changed since those times… It’s not like a couple of years before Christ, there was an ocean instead of Eastern Europe.
Ukraine: Oh, I know a part of the world which would be just perfect for an ocean…
Teacher: Guess we have a problem. If Geography is confused, let’s ask History. What is Eastern Europe?
19th Century: I’ve honestly never heard of anything like this.
20th Century: Sorry, guess I’m sick. Can I go home?
Teacher: Oh, okay. Maybe let’s ask those who are on the list what they think about it.
Poland: Am I Eastern Europe? Seriously? That’s just insulting.
Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary (in chorus): Are there any precise criteria?
Geography: Geography?
Ukraine: I don’t mind. I mean, it’s still Europe, right?
Belarus: Uh, I’m not ready with an answer.
Teacher: What about the rest?
Balkans and Baltic States (in chorus): What are the other options?
Cold War: I’m not sure there are any.
Teacher: Sorry, guys, where is the Non-Aligned Movement?
All: They’re not attending this class anymore.
Teacher: Ah, okay, please continue.
21st Century: There should be other options. I mean, if the existing answers don’t work, what stops us from inventing new ones?
Teacher: I like your point! Let’s think about what stops us.
Political History: Well, Eastern Europe isn’t really a geographical term. I mean, something for sure geographically lies to the east of Europe, but that’s not the point. Eastern Europe is a political term, and it was invented during the Cold War in the contest between communist and capitalist blocs.
Cold War: See, I told you I know better. So, Eastern Europe consists of several socialist states which, during the Cold War, were considered the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. As it collapsed, Russia inherited the rights of the Soviet Union, and the newly independent countries around it inherited the status of its spheres of influence. Therefore, before 1991, it was Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and after it became Eastern Europe and Russia. See, very easy.
Theory: But who said so? I mean, in theory, those countries, after the fall of socialist regimes, could have become anything they wanted and choose any developmental path appropriate for them.
Russia: Hmm, but realistically, Eastern Europe is in fact Russia. You know, all Russians are Slavs, all Slavs are Russians. It’s logical.
Logic: Wait, so Eastern Europe is not a geographical area, but a term invented for identifying Russia’s priorities in international policy?
Geography: Okay, let’s imagine, just for a moment, that this is true. Then where does this potential Russia/Eastern Europe end?
Western Europe: Right at the point where Western Europe begins. Geography: And where exactly is that?
Western Europe: Right at the point where European civilization starts. Geography: 0___0
Logic: Did anyone notice this switch from ‘Western European’ to just ‘European’?
European Union: Hold on a second, let’s not rush in our assumptions. There is no doubt that European civilization is the basis of Europe, but we kind of have never really finalized its eastern border. I mean, the border should exist, for sure, but we are willing to leave it potentially open for those who can prove that they belong to our civilization and share our values.
Geography: But what you call the eastern border doesn’t lie to the East. North, East, South, it’s literally everywhere… And it’s not really my business, but I’m just curious, what are the ways to prove that any of these are Europe?
European Union: It depends on the situation, but trust us, we are managing this process. We are very flexible and know exactly when there are enough proofs.
Geography: So, there are no objective criteria? You just decide according to your own will and needs?
European Union: Well, we do believe that both our will and needs are very objective.
Logic: Wait, so on one hand, Eastern Europe is a term invented for identifying Russia’s spheres of influence, and on the other, to mark the fluid borderline of Western Europe, which exists to highlight the difference between ‘us/Europe/civilization’ and ‘them/not Europe/barbarians’?
Balkans, Baltic States, Central Europe, Ukraine, Central Asia (in chorus): Well, this is really insulting!!!
Western Europe: Are you aware that what you call Western Europe is actually a bunch of different countries, each with its own history, values, and culture, and they don’t necessarily like each other?
Eastern Europe: Welcome to the club, then.
All together: Did you hear that? Who said it?
Poor confused child: Dear teacher, so where is Eastern Europe? Can you show it on the map?
Teacher: Oh, it’s so confusing to be honest. Let’s make it your homework.


– The Other is not “who” but “what”. It is a function. Its existence is not permanent and not complete, but rather fragmented. It appears at times when there is a need for it and disappears when that need ends. Its purpose is to illustrate, to be an example.

– It lacks its own logic and self-reasons, which is why the Other always remains unexplainable, mysterious, and illogical.

– The Other never speaks for itself. It cannot exist without a narrator, without someone who speaks on its behalf.

– The Other is also a broken rule. It exists outside the boundaries of my established norms and cannot be explained by the categories sufficient to explain me. For this reason, the Other endangers the very basis of my existence, but at the same time becomes the object of my fascination.


I said, “Everything I know about the East, I’ve learned in the West.”

Ruta said, “I’m different, but not different enough.”


Is there an Easter European art?

What do you mean – an art by Eastern Europeans?

A lot of Eastern Europeans do art, but is there an art made only by Eastern Europeans? 

All Eastern Europeans?

No, just an art, no matter how little of it – not a style and not a technique, but something broader – that’s done only by Eastern Europe?

I don’t know. Is there?

Well, there should be. The Eastern European experience – both social and political- is different from just European or the rest of the world.

And every experience is different from every other experience. Art is individual.

It is still possible to generalize about it. Renaissance art is different from contemporary one. Women are different from the man; migrants’ experience is different from locals. And Eastern Europe is different from the rest.

But it is a mixture. Art is international.

Sure, art is probably more connected to the idea of internationality than any other field. There are specific  themes and styles that transcend national borders, reflecting common human patterns interpreted by artists from diverse backgrounds through their own experiences. It is also true that artists from certain backgrounds are expected to transcend, to distil local particularities into forms digestible for an international audience. But it’s dangerous, like building a house on the sand. If you don’t know your own identity, the real meaning of your own experience, you can’t just jump up and “transcend”. It’s difficult to define even the overstudied subjects. What we refer to be the “History of art” is in fact the history of Western European art. Although it is silently acknowledged as the ‘gold standard’ against which we measure all other art histories, any attempt to publish a book titled  ‘Western European Art’ would be rather seen as an overview, we would know it is a simplification. Yet, bookstore shelves are filled with titles like ‘African Art’, ‘Islamic Art’ or ‘Eastern European Art’, which are expected to provide sufficient information about their subjects, defining what it is and how it should be interpreted.

Well, whatever ‘Eastern European art’ is, it was invented in the West, and so all its self-articulation was constructed to be obedient to the Western gaze. The lack of self-grounding is clear from a quick look at what has actually been called ‘Eastern European art’ over the last 80 years. In the 1960s, when the concept likely emerged,  Eastern European art consisted of three national art scenes: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, Romania was acknowledged, and the Balkans were added to the map. By the 2010s, the  Baltic countries were given this label. Following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine suddenly started to be seen as part of  Eastern European art. Belarus, Moldova — it’s clear the list is still full of blind spots because it was never intended to be a representation of a geographical map. What I’m trying to highlight here has nothing to do with any specific country; the term ‘Eastern European art’ itself is the main issue. We pretend it denotes a cultural region, but in fact, we use it to mark the sparkle of something that catches the Western eye in a groundbreaking political circumstance. News, the story around, always serves as an occasion for Eastern European art to be shown,  studied, or even spoken about. This geopolitical distinction leads to the common perception that ‘Eastern  European art’ is not art per se. It’s seen as a specific version of art – the art about something, the art of something,  something-something art, but never just art. When something appears under the label ‘Eastern European art,’ it attracts attention, meaning that, for better or worse, you are not invisible anymore. But the moment after it happens, to be recognized as equal in the European art process, you need to prove at any cost that you are anything but Eastern Europe. 

In this context, ‘Eastern European’ is deemed more significant than ‘art’ itself, as it predetermines how this art should be viewed, treated, and understood. However, nobody, whose consciousness has been raised, wants to be seen as merely a label, an occasion for a story, or an illustration of a history book.

But think about it more deeply. Do you hear yourself? Is there any sense in denying your own story,  simplifying the experience central to the very essence of who you are, just to be visible through the lens of someone who, until yesterday, had no idea about your existence? One might say ‘Eastern European art’ is not self-sufficient because it always assumes the position of needing to provide additional explanation. But I would take it a step further, saying that ‘Eastern European art’ is the first to try explaining itself to the rest. On one hand,  it’s understandable—when faced with being perceived as the complete ‘Other,’ the initial response is to break down this wall. You would try to tell your story to make it more understandable and known, seeking connections and similarities. However, something labelled ‘Eastern European art’ has almost never transformed this situation into a real dialogue with an exchange of thoughts, where two equal partners contribute to mutual understanding,  and the action of one prompts the action of the other. It remains always a one-sided game. 

But isn’t it a natural reaction for someone who has been put in the position of having ‘to prove’ that they belong to something? Someone who wasn’t treated as an equal from the very beginning.

I would like to see all these things forgotten and revised according to new criteria; otherwise, we will just go in circles. The label ‘Eastern European art’ is seen as a deviation, something extra, something that requires too much explanation. But the act of explanation, the compulsion to conform to the ‘norm’, is what makes it so different. The word ‘understudied’ directly leads to the word ‘undervalued.’ What we know is a question of power dynamics, a war of narratives. A studied subject leads us to think that it was studied purposefully, that it is deemed more important than others. But everything we know as important was named so by someone at some point. We are taught to ignore certain stories to make our own more solid; we are also taught to sacrifice some stories to emphasize the importance of others. And some stories are just too complicated, and we don’t have the language to tell them, so we give up on them.

Every time something is labelled ‘Eastern European art,’ it has to fit into words and meanings designed for someone else’s experience. It doesn’t really matter if it is the need to fit local art processes into the vocabulary of  Western art history; to publish 10 studies just to be able to suggest that certain art practices of women in the  Eastern Bloc could be called ‘feminist,’ even though these appeared simultaneously but independently from the tradition of feminist art in the West; or, coming from a country with an absent or rather well-forgotten political tradition, you as an artist need to invent non-existing tensions between left and right-wing powers there, just to be able to ‘sell’ this to European galleries as a trending topic. It is both sad and ridiculous because, instead of working on what actually happened, you are forced to explain why something that was ‘supposed’ to happen didn’t. And most importantly, all these efforts prevent the actual understanding of what ‘Eastern European art’ is  or could be, but just turn it into a product designed exclusively for export, while in reality, the king is naked. 

Does it mean that something we call Eastern European art just doesn’t exist?  

Maybe, but it could also be an example of the right term with the wrong meaning. I know that the vivid existence of Eastern European art, beyond the labels, is wholly sensible to me, even if I can’t analyze it. Having had our heads turned exclusively to the West for so many years, I feel like we naturally came to the question— Who are we to each other? Is there something here, in between us, that can possibly overtake the meaning of the term projected onto us? I started to feel it vividly the morning Russia invaded Ukraine. At that exact moment,  something that is Eastern Europe was shaking and burning red. It wasn’t a ‘deep concern’, or the other answer of the cold mind. It was deeply instinctive – support, solidarity, anger or denial, it came from the very core of what we are. The moment it happened, it became obvious that we are connected, just like we share the same blood system. It was a clear message—Eastern Europe, just as Eastern European art, does exist, even if we still don’t know what it is. 

But you are so vague…

I know. On one hand, it’s intentional. I don’t want to draw any conclusions, as conclusions are often taken for granted and stop the flow of thoughts. On the other hand, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t draw conclusions on this subject now, because I don’t know enough. This isn’t knowledge that should be concluded by one person, any person, as none of us knows enough or has the right to settle this vision. We might think that Eastern Europe is an artificial construct. Okay, but tell me what isn’t? Whatever region we know, whatever thing we can possibly imagine, was once named so and therefore was forced to exist according to the rules of the given name. But it doesn’t mean we can’t queer it. 

Eastern Europe is an experience, and we are still yet to put the words for it into the vocabulary. We can do it by the old rules, or invent new ones – to see the things that fall out of the common pattern, not as flaws, but as directions to enlarge the ‘norm’; to make polylogue the main way to tell our stories; to accept the beauty of a nonlinearity; not to be afraid to end our sentences with doubt and question marks. ?.

The text by Asia Tsisar.

1This dialogue is a paraphrase of the text Six by Lucy R. Lippard originally printed in Studio International, 187, nr 963 (February 1974).
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