Interview with Miško Šuvaković about Art in Serbia in the East European Context

Misko suvakovic (ed.), <em>History of Art in Serbia in 20th Century</em>, book cover, 2011. Image courtesy of the author.Nikola Dedić/Aneta Stojni?/ARTMargins Online: Recently, you have published the first volume of a book entitled The History Of Art in Serbia, XX Century. Radical Artistic Practices, which is the first detailed and historical study of Serbian art in the last century. How would you evaluate the importance of this project within both the local and the international context?

Miško Šuvakovi?: Your History Of Art In Serbia, XX century– is the first volume of a three volume series that guides the reader through the “long 20th century.” As the editor, I was lucky to gather an extraordinary team of writers and researchers of art: Nevena Dakovi? (film), Vesna Miki? (music), Jelena Novak (music), Aleksandar Ignjatovi? (architecture), Irena Šentevska (stage design), Ana Vujanovi? (performing arts), Iva Neni? (pop culture), Ješa Denegri (fine arts), Nikola Dedić (fine arts). The first volume refers to an open history of radical, critical, and subversive artistic practices during the 20th century: the avant-garde, the neo avant-garde, conceptual art, postmodern art, the Yugoslav war; the transition; and finally globalism after 2000. The second volume will include discussions of art from WW II to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The dominant artistic and cultural practices of so-called “socialist modernism” will also be considered. The third volume will be dedicated to the art of bourgeois realism and modernism at the beginning of the 20th century.

There are three significant innovations implicit in The History of Art In Serbia, XX Century. First of all, this is a history that does not strictly deal with national Serbian art and culture, but with arts and cultures that were present during the 20th century within the territory Serbia occupies today. These cultures include: Croatian, Jewish, Hungarian, German, Slovakian, Albanian and so on. Secondly, this is an interdisciplinary history of art and as such it is not directed only at one discipline, (e.g. fine arts), but offers comparative insights into relationships between different artistic disciplines. Finally, this history of art is not historic, but theoretical. This means that the acts of certain histories of art have been broadened and worked out to enable the study of cultures.

Within the local, regional, even international context this book marks a change in the historicization of art and culture. Local art is not understood only as a simple replica of artistic practices of dominant artistic and cultural centers (Paris, Munich, Vienna, or New York); the planet is the sum of local cultures that exist in complex communicational relationships and exchanges. In other words, there is no longer a narrative about the vertical and the hierarchical history of art, a narrative that was based on identifying national and international works of art. It has also constituted a horizontal, critical narrative, which explains cultural differences, and aesthetic, artistic and political struggles in its time. On the other hand, probably for the first time on both the local and the international level, there now appears an interdisciplinary history of art used to establish relationships between different arts and their positioning within culture and society.

I hope that this methodology will stimulate the development of interpretative discourses regarding modern, postmodern, and avant-garde art and culture.

ND/AS/AMO: This project is based on the methodology of what is called “new art history”; in that sense it occupies a unique position in the local academic context. What is the position of art theory and interdisciplinary cultural studies in Serbia?

MS: If we talk about the Serbian context and about other contexts in Central Europe and South Eastern Europe that are not much different, we notice that there is a very traditional, academic paradigm in the study of art. This is based on two foundations. The first is the national, general history and theory of art. This foundation is hierarchical and it implies a binary opposition between a national culture and international art currents. The second foundation is based on the disciplinary history and theory of art; here the history of fine art is separated from the history and theory of theater, film, music, new media, architecture, and design.

Today, after the experience of post-media artistic and cultural practices, and especially after cultural studies, (i.e. the studies of performance, or the theory of new media), it has become clear that discourses on art should not be limited to narrowly disciplined contexts. This implies the theorizing of every discourse on and in art and culture, as well as the use of theoretical interpretations from different social and humanistic sciences within the field of art and culture. For example, political economy, bio-politics, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, cognitive theory, etc., weigh in on the field of artistic work and interdisciplinary artistic practices. By doing so, there arises a new theoretical situation of a permanent, problematic, and critical questioning of dynamic relationships between culture, society, and art.

I’m not speaking in favor of “the new history of art” as the key to all theoretical problems; on the contrary, I see the “new art history” as a starting point needed to get to a fully developed critical theory.

ND/AS/AMO: How do you see the department of Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies atthe University of Arts in Belgrade, where you teach? It seems that it is almost the only place where interdisciplinary art theory can be taught academically.

MS: The department of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Art in Belgrade is a brave and extraordinary project that started back in 2001. After the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic’s political regime, a change in the leadership and the Board of The University Of Art in Belgrade took place. The new rector, Dr. Milena Dragi?evi? Šeši?, enabled the beginning of the reform at the University,(The University consists of 4 faculties: The Faculty of Music, the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, the Faculty of Fine Arts, and the Faculty Of Applied Arts), by founding The Center for Interdisciplinary Post Graduate and Master Studies. The Center began to function on the principles of interdisciplinary work and the principles of the Bologna declaration. The newly founded departments were the following: The Theory Of Art And Media, Management In Culture, Multimedia Art, Digital Art and Stage Design. The classes started on the level of Master Studies, in order to move more quickly to Master and PhD scientific and artistic studies.

The goal of these studies was to connect modern artistic and theoretical practices with modern, interdisciplinary education. It was an attempt to bridge the gap between the traditional academic divisions within artistic practices, on the one hand, and academic divisions within scientific practices, on the other. In the last decade, these were the unique studies that tended towards interdisciplinary academic work in the field of art and theory. That’s why these studies provoked numerous resistances within university’s administrations and traditionally committed clans. But the struggle for “the new school” is one of the most significant demands in this modern and transitional culture!

ND/AS/AMO: How do you see the education of young artists and art historians in Serbia today? How do you see the relation between dominant academic discourse and the artistic scene?

MS: It’s true that there’s a split between the academic traditions and canons, on the one hand, and the redirection within modern artistic practices in the local, regional, and international scenes, on the other. Reform is necessary in order to be in keeping with the times and the new critical situations in art, culture, society, and of course, the economy. The reform of the university called the ‘Bologna reform’, was just formally-administratively carried out, without essential moves in the nature of modern education. Serbian society is, also, essentially divided between traditionalism and non- traditionalism at the academic level, which prevents essential reforms of artistic and theoretical education. But the conflict between traditionalism and non-traditionalism is not only the issue of art or the history of art; it has to do with all forms of society and culture, from nationality, gender, and all the way to professional identities.

ND/AS/AMO: As someone who works in the domain of culture, and particularly in the field of visual arts, how do you see the art scene in Serbia after 2000? How do you see the scene in a wider, regional context?

MS: The world, really, rapidly changes. My thesis is that we have been, for some time, out of, or beyond postmodernism. In some way, postmodernism began at the end of the cold war, which means that it was the time of horizontal social, cultural, and even artistic plurality. For many years we have been confronting the global phenomena of transition, globalization, and certainly, a great economic crisis which is also being felt as a social crisis.

Where are the small cultures in this picture? The position of small cultures has certainly changed. For example, before WW I, there was a traditional tendency by the great powers to conquer and appropriate such cultures. After WW II, there was the time of the binary division of the world into the Eastern and the Western Block. The former Yugoslavia had an extraordinary position here – in between. That was the time of the hegemony of liberal and socialist modernism in which small cultures were supposed to have fit in.

The time of postmodernism, from the mid-1970’s to 1989, exhibited a plurality in which big and small cultures showed up as special and exotic cases on the hybrid map of multiculturality. With the event of globalism, finally, there appeared two processes: the process of domination by one super-power, the USA, and the process of overcoming the state as a stable, determining context of the nation, culture, or society. Instead of the state, there appeared neoliberal concepts of trans-geographic, trans-state and trans- economic-cultural networks. The current, great economic crisis is an expression of the crisis of this neoliberal model. A new strengthening of the states marks this crisis. Small cultures have gained something with globalism and networking, and lost something: the possibility of total failure.

If you want my personal opinion, I’m for the limitation of global capital’s mobility and its strict control. On the other hand, I’m totally, undoubtedly, for the global mobility of individual human lives. In such context, it’s necessary to deconstruct the repressive and violent myths of both small and big cultures. Criticism is an instrument.

In such context, modern art develops in Serbia. Post-communist art from the Balkans and Ex- Yugoslavia has been presented in the last 20 years through a few communicational channels, such as: exhibitions at the SOROS centers (by means of institutions arisen from SOROS centers or that accepted SOROS centers and then integrated them into their work) and through different foundations or collections, (Erste Foundation; Generali Foundation, etc.). There existed certain individual initiatives, and emigrational processes that were guiding artists to different international centers. There have also been some academic publications, such as the books by Aleša Erjavec (Postmodernism and The Postsocialist Condition: Politicised Art under Late Socialism, California University Press, Berkeley, 2003), and Piotr Piotrowski (In the Shadow of Yalta / Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, Reaktion Books, London, 2009).

The problem is, in fact, that the Eastern European frame hasn’t been problematized yet, so that the art of Eastern Europe and The Balkans remains the art of the Other… the close other, the exotic other perhaps, but still the Other. It must be critiqued through artistic dialogue, in discussions within both the theory and the production of art.

The art that I want to see is liberating both in the political, and in social sense. Such art exists in Serbia, but also in other parts of the world. What we need is a new potential for exchange, communication, and a new sociability.

Miško Šuvakovi? was born in 1954 in Belgrade. He was the co-founder and member of the conceptual artistic movement, Group 143 (1975-1980), and was the co-founder and member of the informal, theoretic, and artistic group, Community for Space Investigation (1982-1989). Since 1988 he has been a member of the Slovenian Aesthetic Society. He teaches the aesthetics and theory of art in the Faculty of Music in Belgrade. He also teaches the theory of art and culture in the Interdisciplinary postgraduate studies department at the University of Art in Belgrade. Furthermore, he teaches art history and the aesthetics of architecture in the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade. He was the co-editor of the magazine, Katalog 143 (Belgrade, 1975-78), Mentalni prostor (Belgarde, 1982-1987), Transkatalog (Novi Sad, 1995-1998) and the magazine Teorija koja Hoda (or Walking Theory, Belgrade, from 2001 until the present). He has published over thirty books and his new titles are: Impossible Histories (The MIT Press, Cambridge 2003), Dictionary of Contemporary Art (Horetzky, Zagreb, Ghent, 2005) and The History Of Art In Serbia, XX century- Radical artistic practices, (Orion art, Belgrade, 2010). I am interviewing him about new methodologies in the history and theory of art, education of artists and art historians in Serbia, and ex-Yugoslav art in an Eastern European and global context.

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