Who Cares about Czech Cubism?
by Matthew Offenbacher
When people talk about art in Seattle, I often hear things like: there are not enough collectors, dealers, curators, writers or university programs to sustain artists here—or, in Seattle’s favor—that the quality of life is good, the artist community is supportive, and the lower stakes allow more freedom for experimentation and productive fucking-up. What I would like to point out is that these statements all implicitly compare Seattle to places with larger concentrations of material and immaterial wealth. These places, such as New York and Los Angeles, are called cultural capitols or art centers; that makes Seattle a province or a regional scene. A center’s interest in a region—when there is any at all—is usually cursory and tends towards stereotypes. However, a region’s interest in a center is often intense. A quick survey of my computer and studio shelf confirms this. More than three-quarters of what I read and look at originated in New York, Los Angeles, or equivalent centers outside of the United States.
So, what am I doing here in Seattle? What is possible to do here? How can I think about what I do here in relation to what is being done in places like New York and Los Angeles? A recent post on The Stranger blog, expressing disappointment about the lack of Northwest artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial, elicited this comment: “Maybe it’s a mistake to pretend that this provincial part of the country has any cultural relevance in a national or global scale?” I think this question was intended as rhetorical, perhaps facetious—but what if we took it seriously? Is it a mistake to pretend? What are the possibilities of mistaking and pretending?
In the Winter of 1910, a passionate and somewhat abrasive 26 year-old from Prague named Bohumil Kubišta begged and borrowed enough money to stay in Paris for a few months. Nominally, he was going to help organize the transport of some work by French artists back to Prague for an exhibition; mostly, though, he went because he wanted to see first-hand what was happening in the red-hot art center of the world. He spent hours sitting at the sidewalk cafés, nursing the cheapest drink on the menu, sketching in his notebook. He studied the Poussin and Cézanne paintings in the Louvre that he knew from the terrible black-and-white reproductions taped to the wall of his studio back in Prague. Most of all, he sought out Picasso and Braque’s latest work. He bugged their dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to show him more paintings. He spent hours puzzling out the syntax of their crazy new style. The French always laughed when Kubišta introduced himself; they thought it was hilarious that this passionate Bohemian’s last name so well matched the object of his obsession. “Kubišta the Cubist!” By May, exhilarated, weary, and lonely, Kubišta wrote his friend Vincenc Beneš back home: “We’re too wild for Prague, that’s why we don’t have any base there. We’re too behind for Paris and we don’t as yet have an established base here. We’re suspended between heaven and earth.”
Am I keeping up? How can I make my work more visible and relevant? Where can I find support? Who are my peers? Who is my audience? Where do I belong? Kubišta was suspended between competing desires for success and security, recognition and community, risk-taking and comprehensibility. The anxiety of this position is intense; who wouldn’t seek resolution by moving to the center? The center is where you will be understood and appreciated. This simple promise is what ensures a center’s greatest resource, the continuous influx of creative people. The interesting thing about Kubišta and his cohort, however, is that they ultimately choose to stay in a state of suspension. Or perhaps more accurately, they realized that this choice between “heaven” and “earth” was a false one. They traveled around Europe, absorbed cutting-edge ideas, involved themselves in the artistic conversations of their day, in order to return to Prague to ask this question: with my new understanding of what art can be, what can I do for my home and my community?
With their answer, they unscrewed the lid of the jar of the French avant-garde and poured it out all over their landscape. In the process, they produced some strange and great work. It was fortunate that the theoretical concerns of Cubism mapped so well to the social concerns of Prague: a burgeoning sense of local identity, an interest in the mechanics of representation, a vigorous utopian debate about what it might mean to be modern. However, I do not wish to give the impression that all was easy for Kubišta and his colleagues. As Naomi explains elsewhere in this zine, the public reception of their work during those years was rocky at best. Recognition of their achievements, both locally and from the international community, came slowly. Czech Cubism lasted only a few years, and only because of an unlikely convergence of interests, people, and ideas. As Gretchen points out in her essay, the past can never satisfy the demands of the present; art proceeds at the mercy of memory, which is a fragile thing full of gaps and omissions. Or, as Klara suggests, perhaps art obscures life, creating a blind spot to lived experience. These are the kinds of fears the periphery is uniquely qualified to address. Joseph Roach, in Cities of the Dead (1996), writes “the myth of coherence at the center requires a constantly visible yet constantly receding perimeter of difference.... Sometimes this perimeter is a horizon; more often it is a mirage.” It was in this mirage of difference that the Czech Cubists located themselves. They pried open some latent potential lurking in the advanced art of their time—potential which could only be realized at an oblique angle to the center, at the intersection of shifting planes and permeable boundaries, with attention to the moments when, as Roach puts it, “the periphery and center may seem to change places.”
Some days I find it difficult to believe that the power of the center does not render what we do here on the periphery inconsequential. Sometimes, though, I believe that there are advantages to being here. bell hooks has written about the advantage of growing up on the “wrong” side of the tracks in a small Kentucky town. She observes that those on the margin have to know what is happening in the center, as well as in their own community—and, as a result, have a uniquely powerful sense of the wholeness of the social fabric. The center has the luxury of an art which can be narrowly defined and inwardly focused. It is hard to know if what is happening in Seattle art today is really going to matter in a hundred years, or where it might matter. What we can assess is how what we are doing impacts one another. On the margin, we have a different perspective, and maybe a different potential art.