Politics of Interdisciplinarity?


Skaidra Trilupaitytė

Published in the “In the Graveyards of Interdisciplinarity (?)” catalog, Vilnius, 2013. Republished from cultural weekly “7 meno dienos” No. 15 (937), 15-04-2011

Laima Kreivytė’s manual of interdisciplinary art, published on 1 April (7md, No. 13), as well as Kęstutis Šapoka’s 2010 essay “A Few Notes on Interdisciplinary Art,” reproduced on the website of the Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association attest to what seems to be the usual crystallizing trends in contemporary art. The two art critics have comprehensively described the field of the new genre (or sub-genre), discussed characteristics of interdisciplinary art (Šapoka in a more historic- empirical manner, Kreivytė more theoretically) and there seems hardly anything left to add on the subject. However, the question of interdisciplinary art (IA), which has resurfaced in the public discourse lately, is gripping for reasons other than polished definitions. Both authors state clearly that the need for a new definition grows in proportion to the number of funding applications to the Culture Support Fund for interdisciplinary art projects. Some projects that try to pass for IA in order to secure funding clearly do not belong there, which points to the problem of a “watered-down concept.” According to Šapoka, today “we are talking about this kind of art (field) like an autonomous phenomenon which requires separate funding, even though its very name once meant, at least for a short while, a striving for freedom.”

Despite theoretical intricacies, the newly-emerged problem is in fact much easier to grasp if looked at in terms of straightforward competition for limited financing resources. This forces us to turn not just to our own notions of artistic value and other “self-evident” issues (there would be no problems, if the Culture Support Fund simply gave money to “interesting art”!), but also to criteria for setting priorities and quotas. In other words, the IA issue has to be treated in a political or “purely formal” manner, much like the previous near-compulsory classification of art into kinds, genres, or sub- genres. Moreover, let’s bear in mind that the way we currently understand IA in Lithuania was shaped under the influence of the imitative arts (as hinted at by the definitions of both the Culture Support Fund and the Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association).

I think that the concept of art itself is mostly a political construct (I know that not everyone subscribes to this view), so interdisciplinarity does not exist “in itself ” either, as a quality immanent to a piece of art and easily perceptible by every (educated) observer. The “stretching” I have mentioned before is near-inescapable if only because the concept of IA has been imperceptibly turned into a synonym of quality. Alfonsas Andriuškevičius once made a principled attempt to draw a distinction between contemporary art and art of the present. One must admit that such a distinction, even if expedient at the time, was also only conditional, aimed at drawing a once relevant rhetorical line between notions of art expounded by the Lithuanian Artists’ Association on the one hand and the Contemporary Arts Centre on the other. Since art made in Lithuania today gets judged in the light of international context more often than ever before, one could suspect that artpieces which were seen as radical challenges two decades ago might not be perceived as “contemporary” in the eyes of today’s public. The pieces might not necessarily have lost intrinsic noteworthiness just because of this; possibly, the most pointed accounts of early Lithuanian artistic actions, happenings, etc. are yet to be written. It is just that what once and under certain conditions might have seemed unusual, has since become a normal, often even stagnant practice.

Attempting to give the “watered down” concept of IA a more structural treatment might give rise to even more questions. For instance, the departmental structure of Vilnius Art Academy is at slight variance with the fields sponsored by the Culture Support Fund, since the academy does not even have either a contemporary art faculty or a separate interdisciplinary department. In general, such variances probably do not merit much attention, individual institutions do not have to “harmonize” their department titles with someone’s understanding of art. According to Šapoka, “today, a certain perspective on an artpiece can make a painter be regarded as interdisciplinary artist while video, photo, or performance artist will be classed with the traditionalists.” No one argues anymore that even the most contemporary methods do not always produce a McLuhanesque message; however, I would like to point out certain nuances that are not always visible from the outside.

Just like Kreivytė, I once received a call… The caller, a Vilnius Art Academy professor, asked me to give advice to a student of monumental art (stained glass) who showed inclinations towards conceptual art. Stained glass and conceptualism? My first reaction was that the two hardly fit together. Though I am not saying they are essentially incompatible. After all, “non-traditional,” “conceptual,” etc. artistic processes in the Academy accelerated back when there was no need for a clear definition of interdisciplinary art, when group initiatives by students from the Sculpture Department or the Painting Department (“The Green Leaf,” “Good Evils,” “Academic Preparation Group,” etc.) shaped a general idea of the new art through their activities alone. Against this background, various contemporary art concepts, thrown around by teachers and students for decades, all too often become liberally attributed characterizations instead of statements of principle.

As the first “insurgents” graduated from the Academy and tried to integrate into the cultural life beyond its walls, there emerged a need for more formalized institutions and definitions. The infant Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association (LTMKS) wanted to distance itself from the Lithuanian Artists Union (LDA), even though it did initially consult bylaws of the artists union founded in Kaunas in 1935, the predecessor of the “vilified LDA.” When, in 1995, Vilnius Art Academy abolished the Graphics Department and was setting up a new Image Studio (it evolved into the Photo-Video Department in 1997 and later into the Department of Photography and Media Arts), the move was perceived as yet another sign of contemporary art gaining some autonomy. Breaking away from pieces, installations, or murals created across the departments of Vilnius Art Academy was significant in that it pointed in the direction of how the academy students would use the language of contemporary art from then on. The process, of course, was further entrenched by ever closer cooperation between the students and curators at the Contemporary Art Centre.

This communication and cooperation notwithstanding, the Academy’s Department of Photography and Media Arts should not be seen a priori as an institution of the new art, implementing a qualitatively novel “approach to creative principles” – in this case, I agree with Šapoka’s above- mentioned distinction between traditionalists and interdisciplinary artists. In this department, much like in all the others, students study traditional subject like photography. However, following the Culture Support Fund’s classification, this department strangely “pulls away” from both fine art and interdisciplinary art, a pull-away that is not purely rhetorical – there is much talk about the Fund’s remarkably big quotas for photography. Therefore, unlike photography, the Fund treats IA as simply one more funded fields rather than an “exceptional” feature of visual art. We could find even more formal “variances,” not to mention the “matter-of-course” lobbying by creative unions.

I go into the circumstances of young artists’ careers only because, while I agree with most of Kreivytė’s points, I have some doubts about the fifth one. So far, I simply cannot see any possibilities for notions about IA in Lithuania developing without any institutional backing. Interdisciplinarity and contemporary art is defined by institutions (not so much in the sense of the Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius Art Academy, the National Art Gallery and other galleries themselves as the institutional field shaped by curators and influential critics) to a much greater extent than traditional painting or sculpture. I feel that, within this specific field or theoretic atmosphere generated by changing artistic practices, state funding principles will also undergo adjustments in the long run. Presumably, art genres based around traditional uses of materials and methods will lose significance – for instance, what we call “art in public spaces” will be more to the point than “granite sculpture symposium.” We will, in all likelihood, continue to talk about “transgressive” contemporary art (in fact, it would be hard to imagine contemporary artists not claiming to transgress limits of one sort or another), coin terms to describe new processes, even though legitimization of the new art will perhaps follow “logic of modernness” other than what we are used to today. That, of course, will not mean erosion of traditional methods or (traditional) selection processes, nor will it reduce subjectivity of appraisers. On the contrary: experts who process applications for the Culture Support Fund note that applicants grow increasingly skillful at making their project proposals fit perfectly the Fund’s stated priorities and requirements; consequently, they must come up with a “complementary” criterion for quality – not always palpable or unambiguously describable – in the face of declining funding.