Modern art: holding a mirror to society, one sculpture at a time

Modern Art: Holding a mirror to society, one sculpture at a time. Image Credit: Jessica Stockholder

Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin is a first-year at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. He’s primarily interested in philosophy as it relates to happiness, Holocaust studies, religion, human rights, and other ethical questions. Jon spends his time exploring libraries, teaching young people philosophy, and taking long jogs on the Chicago lakeshore.

I’ve never been much of an artist. I never doodle. The closest I’ve come to producing art in recent years is calligraphy that a three-year-old Asian girl could top. My knowledge of art history is lacunary, at best. But, art has a way of creeping into other disciplines, and from there jutting into one’s consideration. This article on Czech artist David Černý is inspired by the first of three lectures I recently attended at the University of Chicago. Coming articles will feature the latter two, on Israeli and Palestinian art, and Swiss anti-Muslim propaganda, respectively, under the series umbrella of “Modern art.”

I attended these three lectures with very different motivations: the first was a “faculty fireside chat” with the topic TBA, the second was an activist rally, and the third was a gender studies lecture. The talks were delivered by experts in and outside academe, organized by very different sponsors, and at first glance had nothing in common. The latter two were not centrally about art. Yet, if we consider these three artistic projects as respective, simultaneous snapshots of our information age–in which nothing occurs in isolation–we arrive at a kind of self-reflective insight on the assumptions we have internalized as figurative sponges indiscriminately absorbing cultural particles in the post-modern sea.

David Černý: Hooliganism and modern Czech art

Inspired by a lecture by Malynne Sternstein, Associate Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of Chicago

First we look at David Černý, an award-winning 44 year old Jewish-Czech sculptor whose controversial works can be seen publicly in many European countries and the United States.

Černý first entered the Czech spotlight in 1991 when he spray-painted pink a formerly army-green tank, known as the “Monument to Soviet Tank Crews” on public display in Prague. The tank was first placed in a central square in Prague to commemorate the liberation of Prague from Nazi oppression by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, with the cannon barrel pointing threateningly westward. In the minds of most Eastern Europeans, the Soviet “liberation” was merely the dawn of a new occupation–that of Communism, which lasted until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Puzzlingly, Černý spray-painted the tank in 1991, after the Czech Communist regime had been toppled and Democratic elections had been held for the first time since 1946. That is, the anti-government sentiment assumed in this gesture was directed not at the former Communist regime, but the new Czech democracy, which promptly repainted the tank green. Černý thus extended the popular genre of anti-Communist resistance art into the democratic era, indiscriminately critiquing all regimes.

Černý was arrested and briefly imprisoned for causing a public disturbance, or, as the Czech term, chuligánství, is more literally translated, “hooliganism.” According to Sternstein, the UChicago professor who first introduced me to Černý, this word traces back to the Irish family name “Houlihan,” of which “Hooligan” is a variant. According to one British linguist, “It’s an odd word, which the Oxford English Dictionary says started to appear in London police-court reports in the summer of 1898” and was later used to describe British football fans who “‘went on the rampage,’ ‘ran amuck,’ were guilty of ‘thuggish behaviour,’ or ‘caused mayhem’” [1].

Monument to Soviet Tank Crews

“Man Hanging Out” is a 1996 series by Černý with installations in Prague, Berlin, Stockholm, London, Chicago, and other world cities. The sculptures feature a seven-foot-tall bronze likeness of Sigmund Freud hanging from a protruding beam on various buildings. On shorter buildings, as in the Prague installation, the sculpture is clearly identifiable as such. However, in installations such as the one at Columbia College Chicago, the figure is more than twenty stories up and must surely have concerned many a tourist.

Černý considered Freud “the founder of psychoanalysis – the intellectual face of the 20th century” [2]. With the millennium approaching, Černý wanted the installations to force his audience to question our collective intellectual future–and probably to cause more than a few frantic double-takes in the process.

Man Hanging Out

Man Hanging Out

The next piece, titled “Nation to Itself Forever,” was designed by Černý in 2002 and was scheduled to be installed on top of the Prague National Theatre, a prominent building of architectural significance itself. The fountain was to periodically spray steam from its nozzle, thus, in the words of Černý, “adding an air of suspense” [3]. Unfortunately, the work was never installed, for fear that it would outrage theatre-goers. For Černý, nothing is immune from hooliganism, even the established arts culture.

Nation to Itself Forever

Finally, we look at Černý’s most elaborate and politically charged work, the 2009 installation of Entropa. The Czech government commissioned the work as a celebration of a Czech’s ascension to the Presidency of the European Union, which rotates every six months between member states. Černý was to select 27 artists, one from each EU nation, with each one representing his or her respective nation by producing a sculpture that would be displayed with the others in Brussels, the EU capital. Černý commissioned the other 26 artists (producing the Czech sculpture himself) and brought together the collection of sculptures on schedule and on budget for a formal presentation in the EU capital.

One problem: Černý produced all of the sculptures by himself, with the help of three assistants. To account for the other artists, Černý forged identities for over a dozen budding artists from all over Europe. He went so far as to make websites for many of the fictional artists, complete with impressive portfolios and CVs.


The representations of countries on the grid could all be considered offensive, or politically incorrect at the very least. Belgium is a half-eaten box of chocolates. Denmark is made of Legos revealing a faint likeness of the prophet Mohammed. France is covered by a “GRÈVE!” (STRIKE!) banner. Germany is dominated by a swastika-shaped autobahn network. Slovakia is a Hungarian sausage wrapped with string. Cyprus is split in two. The Netherlands is underwater except for the tops of minarets that stand visible in the sea. Sweden is an IKEA box. The United Kingdom is represented by the empty space in the left-hand corner. The political commentary is clear: France is socialist, Germany has a Nazi past, Cyprus is ethnically divided, the Netherlands is racist, the U.K. is absent, on and on and on.

The reaction? Most onlookers reportedly laughed out loud when Entropa was ceremonially unveiled. Meanwhile, EU officials publicly denounced the work for emphasizing the EU’s division over its unity and Bulgaria even demanded a formal apology from the then Czech EU President (the country is portrayed as squat-toilets). Various countries have since demanded that their installments be taken down–that is, censored–out of respect for national sovereignty. Černý wouldn’t stand for the piece to be separated and agreed to take Entropa down a few weeks prematurely in May 2009. By that time, the experiment had run its course. Entropa is now on display in Prague.

Černý’s reaction? A mixed success. I say it was a mixed success for Černý because he hoped that it would be taken less seriously than it was. He never imagined that anyone would be so deeply offended by it, and the caricatures that were deemed offensive by the public were one’s that Černý didn’t personally find as provoking as others. But in a way, Entropa accomplished the task Černý intended by Černý in the subtitle he gave the work: “Stereotypes are barriers to be demolished,” playing off the Czech EU Presidency’s motto, “Europe without barriers.” Just the fact that the caricatures offended  some onlookers and were humorous to others revealed the bias that citizens of the EU have for one-another.

Černý confessed to the hoax about a month after Entropa was unveiled and formally apologized to the Czech government in a statement. “We knew the truth would come out. But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself” [4]. From Černý’s website, “Grotesque hyperbole and mystification belongs among the trademarks of Czech culture and creating false identities is one of the strategies of contemporary art… We believe that the environment of Brussels is capable of  ironic self-reflection, we believe in the sense of humour of European nations and their representatives.”

David Černý

According to Sternstein, Černý’s work is Czech hooliganism at its best. Though it’s tempting to group Černý with many other artists of his generation as “rebellious” or “anarchist,” Sternstein argued that this would be an oversimplification. Černý’s highest aim is a self-reflective laugh, not social chaos. Despite its illegality, “hooliganism” stands for just that. As Czech Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra remarked on Entropa to the New York Times, “It is a piece of art—nothing else…If Europe is not strong enough to look at this, it would be a tragedy” [5].

The mixed reception of Entropa (and Černý’s work more broadly) is very much a tragedy. It shows that a lot of people in the world are clinging tooth and nail to a time when nationalism blotted out the sun and censorship was a viable option. As of the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, the era of blind patriotism is officially over in the West. Have you seen the pictures from Abu Ghraib? The popularity of some genuinely insane GOP candidates? The power of the Occupy Movement has spoken, but perhaps too harshly. We could all use a tall glass of self-critique with a shot of hooliganism.


1: World Wide Words—Hooligan
2: Open Concept Gallery—Man Hanging Out/
3: DavidČerný.cz
4: DavidČerný.cz—Entropa
5: New York Times—Czech Republic chooses a bit of provocation to herald its EU presidency

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