memory. culture. art.
Art in a crisis
Text by Vladimir Tupanjac

The following abstract is taken from the contribution “Art and a Public Affair: Serbia between 1989 and 2001” at the Berlin conference “Memory, Culture and Art”, July 2008

“On the basis of numerous examples from the history of modernism, it is known that in individual critical moments and moments of crisis art reacts in two ways. One is to emphatically advocate the autonomy of art, the other is the engagement of artists for or against certain social and political options. In today’s circumstances, the latter solution has not been manifested here, at least not in the form of aesthetically relevant phenomena and achievements. Awareness of the nature of art is sufficiently formed and established here; owing to this awareness, the notion of art in its essential dimension has remained intact and has been preserved.” Ješa Denegri, Umetnost u oskudnom vremenu [Art in a Time of Austerity], Projeka(r)t no. 3, Novi Sad, July 1994.

“... I imagine Serbia as a state where we shall go in for politics purely as a hobby, not out of necessity for survival.” Petar Luković, “U to ime, ja vas pozdravljam” [With That in Mind, I Greet You], published in: Druga Srbija [The Other Serbia], Beogradski krug, Belgrade, 1992.

It is generally considered that the art scene in Serbia during the Milošević regime did not manage to face up to the challenge of political and social events within the framework of which it was, to say the least, synchronously created. The most frequent complaints against the so-called social engagement of artistic practice have pointed to anachronicity and self-referentiality, to the so-called lack of visible reality – priority being given to formal characteristics, as opposed to confronting a material, spiritual and, first of all, political crisis through the content and then also through the realisation/production of a work of art. If we proceed from the assumption that, in order to understand the nature of a work of art, it is necessary to locate it in the production relations in the society and the time it is created in, it may be said that there are almost no radical changes in the relations of art concerning production and realisation at the beginning of the 1990’s. If we can view the symbolic location of the exhibition Yugoslav Dokumenta (Sarajevo, 1989), first of all, against the horizon of the coming historical events, that is, if we agree that its importance is limited and almost declarative for both politicians and fine arts critics, then the last Youth Biennial in Rijeka, held in the summer of 1991, and its apolitical continuation in Vršac in 1994 (it is interesting to note that the repetition of the names of artists receiving awards confirms the natural logic of the relation between the two events), may serve as an ideal illustration of the role of art as a factor of normalisation in the new social and political ambience.

It is precisely this conspicuous lack of exhibitions that would, in various ways, gather established representatives of the art scene in Serbia at the beginning of the 1990’s and correspond to the changed reality of the economic crisis and the wartime circumstances, that is a symptom of unease indicating, first of all, a lack of institutional activities, but also a kind of inertia of authority in the moments of a general crisis. Hence, the visibility of the social and political everyday life in the artistic production at the beginning of the 1990’s was limited to a few cases of direct comments, that is, explication of political attitudes through the actual motif/content of the work in question: concerning artists already established on the scene, this period marked the beginning of Raša Todosi-jević’s great cycle “Gott liebt die Serben”, which would continue in various forms over the next 15 years, and the unexhibited series of works on paper entitled “Wartime Period” made by Peđa Nešković, whose exhibition activities from the beginning of the 1990’s would also be marked by the protest gesture of taking down his pictures and turning them towards the wall in the course of the exhibition “Needlepoint” (in Serbian: Gobleni), held at the Sebastian Gallery in Belgrade in the spring of 1991. In the period that immediately followed (the first half of the 1990’s), one may observe several parallel trends in the artistic production or the activities of artists in which it is possible to recognise direct forms of public engagement. In chronological terms, there was, first of all, a series of events proposing to shift the mechanisms of gathering and exhibiting works of art, be it partly or entirely, outside institutions (“Private-Public”, a project initiated by Raša Todosijević in early 1992, is the most ambitious attempt of this kind of self-organisation on the art scene). The next level of para-institutional activity can be recognised in the examples afforded by two collective projects stretching over a number of years, whose beginnings can be located in the spring and summer of 1993: these are a series of public events gathering, behind the common name of LED АRT [ICE ART] (the eponymous later artistic collective was officially initiated in the course of one of the first events in May 1993), under the slogan “Frozen Art”, a number of representatives of the art scene in Serbia (it is interesting to note that the project unfolded almost simultaneously in Belgrade and Novi Sad), and a series of events which, under the “label” of URBAZONE, were produced by an already quite stable institution of “the anti-regime Serbia” – Radio B92, under the ideological guidance of the highly respected Belgrade painter and radio activist Miomir Grujić Fleka [spot, blemish]. It can be said of both projects that they strategically ponder the public sphere from the position of an endangered minority, first of all as a place of moral and existential questioning of the fate of culture and art under the circumstances in which we are not sure “whether one should create” and, if one does create after all, “which direction one should take”. What these projects also have in common is a kind of negative enthusiasm, a conditional optimism based on a collective spirit, but which does not hide its scepticism towards its immediate environment. While the academic scene gathered around LED ART took the opportunity of expressing its attitude of refusal to accept being instrumentalised by the institutions which constituted the art system at the time, deliberately “postponing” a confrontation, freezing its works to await “the possibility of a new healthy beginning”, the URBAN ZONE enabled us to feel secure and “amongst our own kind” by initiating a series of projects of revising the notion of “urban space” within the register of qualitative (sub)cultural determinants that would, not infrequently, produce collateral effects of cultural racism9 and the so-called elitism and isolationism of the “streetcar no. 2 circle” [the phrase refers to the central area of Belgrade, encircled by the route of the local streetcar no. 2, translator’s note].

Around the mid-1990’s, one can note a certain change of the iconographic model even in those artists who insist on a classical formal-linguistic framework in their work: Srđan Apostolović, as a representative of the generation of already established young Belgrade sculptors, produced a series of revolvers in terracotta (“Hip-Hop”, 1993). Mirjana Đorđević realised the emblematic work of the first half of the 1990’s in Belgrade – the installation “Star and Shadow” (March 1994), while Mrđan Bajić (sculpture-stories “Of Cities, Armaments, Internal Organs and Oblivion”) and Milica Tomić (a cycle of monumental oils on canvas containing blow-ups of revolvers) produced their own works inspired by the iconography of weapons. The 1990’s, so to speak, in the form and the mood we know them by from personal experience, entered art gradually, shyly and with a relatively slight lag – the consequences of this compromise with synchronicity would become evident in the years to come in the unsuccessful attempts to designate this period by way of the traditional modernist pattern of generationally determined artistic phenomena and trends.

If institutions like museums, city galleries and large annual exhibitions could be said to operate as a kind of a buffer zone of protection or autonomy of artistic-exhibition practice, helping it “get over the shock of being faced with the events”, it is characteristic of the fine arts criticism of the first half of the 1990’s that, to a greater or lesser degree, it successfully maintains a balance between assessing the quantity of palpable everyday life and its inclusion in the reference framework of artistic production. Hence the characteristic constructs offered by art historians/curators such as “the new obscurity”, “discreet modernism” or “active escapism” mostly serve as an example of the passivisation on the part of art criticism and an expression of the need to take up a stance in relation to the production which is accepted as the only possible, necessary and justified one. The thesis about the identification of the extended practice of the 1980’s, made in several texts published in the course of the first half of the 1990’s, can be understood as a direct illustration of a situation dominated by a retreat into “the solitude of form”, “belief in fiction”, recognition of a subjective sphere in parallel structures, in a way, as the simplest formula of the anachronisms and autism brought about by the need to maintain a distance in relation to the reality of (collective) everyday life.

If we try to explain such an attitude of the expert and acting public using any logical formulation based on ethical or psychological-political categories, we shall be faced with a seductive analogy: is not insistence on the autonomy and inviolability of the essence of art in times of an absolute social and political crisis actually the other side of the moral obligation expressed by numerous intellectuals (scientists, artists, journalists…) gathering on behalf of the collective identity of the newly-established “Belgrade Circle” in early 1992 and speaking, in the course of a series of public sessions of the “Circle”, in the name of the so-called “other Serbia”, the one that “had carried inside for a long time a painful feeling of nausea over the calamity that had befallen us”. Was it not there, at a place where all the Belgrade intellectuals gathered then, presenting their views of a different Serbia “before a large audience which experienced a kind of moral purification in the course of those sessions”, that a civic obligation of morality was established, the morality of participating in a project where political action boils down to the need for distancing oneself and rejection, and the rhetoric of critical reaction turns into an institution of civic conscience of dissident-expatriate provenance. The public sphere and the public statement, whose “return to dignity” is advocated by this kind of cultural-artistic engagement, would appear to be almost determined in advance at that moment – moral autonomy and autochthonous universality in the struggle for finding one’s own subjectivity in a new context, but also in the development of a new institutional hierarchy, would mark the activities of “the other Serbia” in the coming period.