1. Living in Oblivion: History The Yugoslav experience with socialist realism, just like the Yugoslav experience with postcommunism, is different and more ambiguous than the experience of other "Eastern Block" countries in the time period from 1948, until the fall of the Berlin wall (1989), and the Yugoslav civil war (1991). Due to a change in political interests, SFR Yugoslavia early got rid of socialist realism as the official art, and further forms of repression in culture evade a precise detection. The official censorship intervened only in a couple of cases, but the principle of self-censorship has been perfected instead, as well a principle of art "surveying".(1) Still, in the post-war Yugoslav history, socialist realism kept its twisted continuity - not through the visual arts' language, but as a dominant factor of the cultural policy, a modus operandi of the state and cultural establishment. Actually, we do not know what happened with the socialist realism, just as we do not know what happened with communism.(2) All we can conclude is that both of these phenomena were "hidden under the carpet", so that further on, in such an uproar, there was a transition to some kind of a mimicry of power: a transition which is not a transition, postcommunism which is not postcommunism, democracy which is not democracy, postmodernism that is no postmodernism. Indeed, that is a schizoid situation which plays with identities, and does not give real possibilities for clear definition. This is a state of saturation with history that, paradoxically, could be equated with a state of the temporary amnesia.
All written history and art history books in Yugoslavia claim that the "break down" of socialist realism happened at once, after the break with the USSR, so, in 1950/1951 at the latest. But we know that history is not what happened, and particularly, not what had been written to have happened. It seems paradoxical that in the very year of the stated break with the USSR, in 1948, Milovan Djilas, later the key repentant of Tito's Yugoslavia and sharp critic of post-Tito's Serbia at the Fifth Congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party (KPJ), defined socialist realism and its phobia for the Western "influence": "In the ideological political struggle after the war, the Party started - as it should in the forthcoming period as well - from the premise that there are three sources of the hostile ideological and political influence onto the working masses of our country. These are: the influence of the ideological dark wave of the imperialists and their propaganda; the influence of the deposed capitalist cliques ... and finally, the influence of the bourgeois destructive power..."(3)

It is true that a turnaround could not have happened overnight - it is hard to believe that the former ardent supporters of the agitation and propaganda work based on the example of the leading Commintern country (USSR), could so easily have renounced their opinions and beliefs. Thus, a liberalization of the Yugoslav culture should be seen as a social event strongly influenced not only by direct Party orders, but also by various shifts in the foreign policy. The currents of cultural and creative liberalization were quite often influenced, constructively or destructively, by the Party-state policy of closing or opening towards the East or the West - based on the current political interests. At the height of the cold war, Tito's Yugoslavia strengthened her international position, and culture became important and obvious connection with the "capitalist countries." One day the art of the West was identified as a symbol of the class enemy, an example that someone should avoid, and the very next day, the art of the West has been "liberalized," it became a welcome factor in the policy of "sitting on the fence."(4) At the same time, forms of cultural communication with the world and with an essentially pluralist art scene, will not just start the corrosion of the dogma, but also provoke new dilemmas and polemics in the Yugoslav cultural environment. Some issues will be deepened, especially the ones of the "influence" and form of "cultural imperialism," as well as the issues of the "authentic expression" and "identity" that should have been in accord with some, for the time, characteristic ideal - in time of Cold War, the ideal was an ideological and class one, and in the 1990s, a national one. The form of disharmony between the official attitudes of the political authorities and lower levels of the pyramid is typical for the further development of the Yugoslav as well as the Serb culture. Thus, a discussion on "influences" shall remain, in the course of five decades, one of the most indicative characteristics of the latent existing dogmatism in culture, and the "influences" will be interpreted differently, again in accordance with the current political interests.(5) Sometimes, as in the period right after the WW II, they were "bourgeois, civic," and opposed to the interests of the proletariat, later on, with the increasing prominence of the national issue, they will be defined as anti-national, but in their calling upon "the interests of the people," in any case deeply demagogic and populist. The Party never ceased to control the cultural activities: "Every opinion that has a struggle for socialism and socialist democracy as its starting point ... should be secured the right to express itself."(6)
2. Art or Accident, Modernism or Dream?
Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art is, in every sense, paradigmatic for Tito's policy towards the East and the West. It was built at the entrance to New Belgrade at the time of the Non-aligned countries "movement" foundation. Isolated like a monument and architecturally in the spirit of the international style, the museum represents a "link" between the Yugoslav turn from the socialist-realistic, voluntary building of a new world on the swampy soil of Sava banks (where New Belgrade was built), to the high modernist make-up of a rising new political course. It is "the missing link" in the future schizoid chain of events and Erszatz ideologies. At the same time, the Contemporary Arts Museum could be an example of what Marshall Berman sees as the "civilization's outer shell," an effect of a violent modernization, due to an objective, global underdevelopment of the economic and social system and non-idyllic reality, as well as political, economic, and spiritual pressures.(7) "A modernism of underdevelopment" explains perhaps more effectively than a term like "postcommunism", the whole East European scene in the last seventy years. It does not grow, like it does in the West, out of real social or economic conditions, but out of dreams of modernization.(8) "A modernism of underdevelopment," then, logically, asks a question of the essence of east European postmodernism. Was it just a dream as well? The Contemporary Arts Museum is also an example of a dream of modernization, which does not arise because of real economic and social circumstances, but due to "a modernism of underdevelopment." Ironically, the Museum has completely shared the destiny of the political structure that created and nourished it. It had moments of great success during Tito's "turn" to the West in late 1960s and 1970s, it had moments of depression and decline during the second half of 1980s, it felt a totalitarian turn in the early 1990s (through the ruthless change of the qualified managing stuff, and the adoption of a completely closed, conservative, politicized exhibition concept).
The animosity towards radical artistic languages on a part of the contemporary Yugoslav critics and establishment, as well as a lack of interest for the continuity of avant-garde artistic activity in this environment, is to a large extent based in the adopted and later perverted sociasist realism (totalitarian) interpretive discourse. This discourse was expressed from the open attacks on abstract art of 1960s, through a sort of ghettoization of the conceptual art within the Belgrade Student Cultural Center (SKC) after 1968, through restrictive revisions or ignoring of the avant-garde tendencies and championing all forms of populism in the culture, like naive art and folklore, all the way to the emphasizing of national myths (the Battle of Kosovo), and pseudo-religious, commercial new painting. That is why the historical consequences of the fine arts morphology of the socialist realism should be distinguished from much deeper roots of the socialist realism modus operandi in culture, which has its visible continuity until today, now joined with the hard nationalist current. The ignoring or obstructing of the processes of the real rehabilitation of some artistic ideas is already visible from the 1950s and the so-called "opening up" of the culture.(9) A selection of rehabilitated artistic languages also implied a representational current of the "modern traditionalism," as a language that was on its semantic plane closer and more accessible to the populist reading. Thus, even after the official break with socialist realism, a specific state of a cultural amnesia continued, including the establishment of partial criteria, suggesting models of the "acceptable" art, the one that would not significantly disturb the structure of the "society in order," particularly the one that would not tend to cross into a sphere outside art, in real life. Through this, radical artistic languages were marked as something apart, and, in final consequence, accidental, barely desirable or non-desirable within the official cultural policy. That is why a participation of the "emptied," aestheticized high modernism in the power structures after the war was possible.(10)
Activities devoid of ideology and emancipated phenomenon played a role of the "civilization's outer shell" in the policy of "sitting on the fence". Among other things, this was possible because of the lack of a truly avant-garde or neo-avant-garde activity. The only neo-avant-garde of the more recent history, the conceptual art after 1968, was not blocked, but remained ghettoized, as mentioned above. Hence, its attack on the institutionalized art and cultural institutions that participated in the division of power, was localized, and, in a way, controlled.
This problem, rarely discussed by Yugoslav historiography, is at the very foundation of the actual social position of contemporary art.(11) The state of the contemporary Yugoslav art is similar to the one of seventy years ago, as well as to the one of fifty years ago. It has been permanently described as "pro-Western", "incomprehensible", "decadent", at the height of the chauvinist hysteria of the early 1990s, even "mercenary": it has been judged and discussed by an inherited interpretative discourse. In other words, art has been pushed to the very margins of a certain social structure and limits of material existence, forced through it into being "alternative," expelled from the currents of normal or market integration. Such a situation, creating a state similar to Sloterdijk's "Weimar syndrome," was especially prominent during 1990s: "It cannot become `stupid' and harmless any more, and innocence cannot be regained. It remains convinced into the force of gravity of the relations themselves, tied to them through its self-preservation instinct... A new cynicism is surrounded by discretion, the key word of a charmingly mediated alienation."(12)
3. Art of the 1990s: Guns & Roses
In the course of 1970s, during the rise of the Belgrade conceptual art, a radical language of "another line" has been sharpened, in contrast to both the inherited conservatism, as well as to the modernist "civilization's outer shell". Its anti-system actions, limited as it were inside the SKC, further intensified para-theses of the established culture on the "avant-garde conspiracy". However, some artists, like Rasa Todosijevic, continued the assault on the socialist middle (compromising) solutions, that is to say, onto a situation objectively based in the post-war watering down of the radical artistic concepts, whose political equivalent was Yugoslav "sitting on the fence". During 1980s, a "new wave" generation offered a concept of irony directed against the socialist realist and totalitarian structures of the society: the concept was entertaining, funny, anticipating, but achieved nothing, perhaps because it was soon crushed by the brute force of 1990s. In the first half of 1990s, especially between 1992 and 1995, it is almost as if art took a generally escapist attitude, confronted with problems of the sense of its own activity and survival in impossible conditions. Such escapism can be understood not only as the consequence of the shock events resulting in the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but also as a consequence of the attitude that art should not be an arbiter in politics. Taking into account the political engagement of a part of the intelligentsia, which programmatically supported the government surfing on a wave of nationalism, and warring behavior that followed, such escapism was the most honest solution in the moment. First, one should have admitted that s/he hit with the head the wall of History: "My defeat is, actually, an expression of my new understanding, the one telling me that history is still the main tailor of my destiny, as well as the destiny of all of us, all of which I have persistently refused to accept, until a couple of years ago".(13)
In mid-1990s and later, in the post-Dayton (after 1995) period, art displayed a distanced, cynical political engagement, which should not be understood as a mere consequence of the law of action and reaction, but more as a form of expressing critical consciousness, the one that through a roundabout strategy deconstructs symbols of political power. In a moment, it referred to the concept, representations, and consequences of violence. Mediated representations of the instruments of violence have served as a medium for de-canonizing of a totalitarian structure. In the works of some artists, art offered toys of violence and instruments of death, weapons as forms of popularization of monstrosity and demystification of the demagogically-heroic. Such an acceptance of a part of political responsibility, with creation of an artificial-popular image, mostly reminds of Oldenburg's 1969 work "Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks", displayed during the Vietnam war. Perhaps some artists went a step further, shaking the very identity of a work of art. The case of Belgrade artist Srdjan Apostolovic is quite interesting. In 1995 he made a series of sculptures, projected so that they can potentially function as weapons, as sculptures "which can kill." This idea of art as a "publicity of fear" is in another way expressed in a series of works of Mrdjan Bajic, "Daddy's gift" (from 1995), a heap of sculptures-bombs, little tanks, machetes, etc.; a difference between a fairy tale dream and a nightmare is really thin, danger is attractive, fear is a game, and toys of fear are colorful and seductive. In 1995 Dragan Srdic organized "A great selling exhibition of bombs." Thus, a gallery became a storage for real bombs, a concept of the ready-made has been combined here with a bare and brutal message, devoid of intent to even imitate any aesthetic content. Just like Oldenburg, Rasa Todosijevic in his cycle "Gott Liebt die Serben," bared a pornographic thought of violence, with a critical-ironic attitude towards the kitsch of a national megalomania.
4. No Epilogue, No "Outer Shell"
After the municipal elections of 1996, the first, and so far the most visible, move of the new Belgrade (opposition) government, has been taking down of the star from the dome of the City Hall, and putting instead of a two-headed eagle, an old state and royal symbol. It was similar to the actions from more recent history of the whole of Eastern Europe and ex-Yugoslavia: a destruction of monuments and changes in the streets' names are a specific cathartic phenomenon which orders a semantic landscape, thus providing for an illusion of a thorough change.
It is difficult to imagine that Yugoslav contemporary art could have at the moment an ambition or a project of creating new values that would grow on the ruins of old ones. What the art has learned in the last fifty years or so, is that it must not (should not) be "a civilization's outer shell." Thus, it has found itself, unavoidably, on a waste land, no one's land. What we are witnessing now is the building of an attitude of personal responsibility, but devoid of "cheap optimism" when it comes to politics, history, and, generally speaking, future. Perhaps the background of culture is, as Jameson claims, made up by blood, torture, death, and horror, witnessed in the most literal way by the Yugoslav experience of 1990s. On the other hand, the decoding of some totalitarian concepts of society would have never happened, if the art did not have in view a Duchampian attitude - that the body of the art has been pierced by the arrows of the ridiculous. However, after watering down of the positive spirit of the last year's protest and perverting most of its ideals, the question remains whether our chosen way will unavoidably lead us towards a closed, cynical structure, within which "the issues of self-preservation shall be equated with the issues of self-destruction."
  1. After 1952, the only exceptions were Tito's attacks on abstract art, attacks on the "dark wave" in film, and the banning of a small number of exhibitions.
  2. "... Nobody knows what actually happened with communism in the former Yugoslavia, since there was no radical ideological demobilization in the country, as it plunged into political and ethnic conflicts, resulting in its bloody disintegration." (Dejan Sretenovic, Art in Yugoslavia 1992-1995, Centar za savremenu umetnost, Beograd, 1996.
  3. M. Djilas, A Paper at the Fifth KPJ Congress, in: The Fifth Congress of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, Reports, Papers, pp. 251-306, Beograd, 1948.
  4. The synchronicity between the rhythm of holding international exhibitions in Belgrade and currents of the Yugoslav foreign policy is quite interesting: "For example, the 1956 American exhibition is a response to the Soviet cultural offensive of the time..." (Predrag J. Markovic, Belgrade Between the East and the West, p. 425, Beograd, 1997.)
  5. B. Pejic, Vezbe iz umetnikog pluralizma, Pitanja 1, Zagreb 1981
  6. Conclusions of the Sixth KPJ (SKJ) Congress, in: The Struggle of the Communists of Yugoslavia for the Socialist Democracy, Sixth Congress Documents, p. 256, Beograd, 1952.
  7. M. Berman, Petrograd, a Modernism of Underdevelopment, Marksizam u svetu Nos. 10-11, pp. 230-342, Beograd, 1986.
  8. "... a crippled and deformed modernization - is happening in the Third World. A modernism of underdevelopment is doomed to be based on imaginations and dreams of modernity... It throws itself into a frenzy of self-dissatisfaction and survives only through huge stocks of self-irony..." (M. Berman, p. 289.)
  9. A good example is Ljubomir Micic's Zenit, Serbo-Croat avant-garde of 1920s, at the time firmly connected primarily to the Russian constructivism, rehabilitated only in 1970s.
  10. In Serb historiography, this phenomenon was called "socialist aestheticism." See S. Lukic, Socialist Aestheticism, In the Current of the Literary Life, pp. 67-69, Beograd, 1983.
  11. With the exception of: Jure Mikuz, Slovenian Painting from the Break with Socrealism, to the Conceptualism, and Western Art, Gledista Nos. 11-12, pp. 5-31, Beograd, 1985.
  12. P. Sloterdijk, Kritik der Zynischen Vernunft, pp. 33-43, translated in Marksizam u svetu, Nos. 10-11, Beograd, 1986.
  13. David Albahari, The Author's Remark, in: Snow Man, Beograd, 1996.
Lidija Merenik
Born 1958 in Belgrade (Yugoslavia). Critic and contemporary art historian. Teaching assistant in Belgrade University, Faculty of Modern Art History. Interested in all forms and shapes of totalitarian art. Lives in Belgrade.
© 1998 - Lidija Merenik / Moscow Art Magazine N°22 The Banner Network.