Only the state has the right to destroy and threaten? The “war by statements” and a continued pressure on cultural and artistic institutions

Protest rally in front of the „Cvijeta Zuzorić“ art pavilion; Photo: Ana Simić

The events related to the violent interruption of the “Boys” (Momci) group exhibition, which was held in “Stara Kapetanija” gallery during the weekend as a part of the “New Age” festival, gained a new twist when the Ministry of Culture and Information published a statement in which it condemned violence against the exhibition, but also the exhibition itself. This prompted public reactions of a number of professional associations and cultural institutions, and a protest rally in support of the “Boys” group and the Stara Kapetanija.

At the invitation of the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS), a rally in support of the “Boys” art group and the “Stara kapetanija” gallery was organized in front of the Cvijeta Zuzorić pavilion on Sunday, October 18th, followed by a panel discussion on the state of artistic freedoms and growing violence against dissidents. Martin Erdeš (ULUS Board), Vahida Ramujkić (ULUS Board member), Radivoje Marković (ULUS Board Member), art historian Milica Pekić (on behalf of the Association Independent Culture Scene of Serbia), artists Anita Bunčić Četnik, Milena Putnik, Tanja Ostojić, cartoonist Dušan Petričić and artist Marko Lađušić addressed the audience.

Several dozen people gathered in front of the pavilion carried banners calling for an end to right-wing censorship and improvement of the position of workers in culture.

In the week before the protest, a kind of a “war of statements” took place between the Ministry of Culture and various associations and organizations in culture. In its first statement, the Ministry condemned the exhibition, using inappropriate terminology, marking the depicted scenes as a “pathological deviation of consciousness“, calling the exhibition and its content “the underworld of the human spirit“. This provoked a series of reactions.

The destroyed exhibition at the “Stara kapetanija art gallery; Photo: Mašina

War by statements

Mental health workers reacted to the statement by launching a petition intended to draw attention to the inadequacy of the Ministry’s assessment of anyone’s state of consciousness and/or mind, as well as to the enormous damage and stigma inflicted on people living with mental disabilities:

The use of these terms as an insult and a way of discrediting, which represents discriminatory behaviour regulated by law, also harms the reputation of the professions that deal with the phenomena of mental health. It also sends a very negative message and acts as an example of how people can be discredited through abuse of psychological and psychiatric phenomena. Representatives of the abovementioned professions strongly condemn the use of such vocabulary and the approach of the representatives of a public, state institution that serves all citizens, including the ones who have been stigmatized and discriminated against. We appeal to the authorities to take responsibility, withdraw their statement, and not make similar mistakes in the future, the statement says.

The Association Independent Culture Scene of Serbia (NKSS), the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS) and the Association of Fine Artists of Vojvodina (SULUV) also reacted to the Ministry’s statement, recalling the historical example of the „degenerate art“ narrative used in Germany in 1937, and demanding responsibility from a public institution such as the Ministry in this situation:

With this statement, instead of protecting the freedom of artistic creation, the Ministry of Culture encouraged hooligans to be the judge of what is real and what is not real art in the future and to use clubs to enforce their vision of justice in theatres, galleries and at concerts.

The AICA International Association of Art Critics – Section Serbia also addressed the public, wondering how it was even possible for a ministry of culture to support violence against art through a press release:

We demand that the Ministry of Culture and Information of the Republic of Serbia withdraws the controversial statement, releases an unequivocal public condemnation of the perpetrators of violence, and publicly apologises both to the authors of the exhibition and to the general public for using inappropriate terminology. If the Ministry of Culture still wishes to „enforce order“, we believe that an adequate way to do that is to call for the perpetrators of violence to be adequately prosecuted for causing material and non-material damage in the „Stara kapetanija“ Art Gallery.

The Ministry soon issued a new statement, signed by Ivana Dedić, Assistant to the Minister in the sector of Contemporary Art and Creative Industries. This time, in addition of accusing NKSS, ULUS and SULUV of being led by „pathological unanimity“, the Ministry called upon the associations to research „genocide against the Serbian people in the twentieth century and the suffering of the Serbian people in BiH, Croatia and Kosovo and Metohija in the 1990s“, stating that they will receive special support from the Ministry in the event that they followed such advice.

NKSS and SULUV reacted again, reminding the public and the Ministry that such an institution exists to serve all actors in the field of culture, regardless of whether they belong to the public, civil or private sector, emphasizing, among other things, that institutions are financed by all citizens of this country and can therefore only be ours, common.

The Ministry also commented the petition launched by psychologists and psychiatrists:

We ask them to inform the public when and how they became a body of language supervision and to, if their supervisors allow them to, publish a list of colloquial expressions that, in their professional opinion, may be used in speech or literary expression, and list writers (such as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Andrić …) who should be censored or condemned due to the abuse of ‘professional terms’.

The group of psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and other workers in the field of mental health responded by stating that the Ministry’s position shows „disparagement of the profession, as well as their need to open a new conflict and controversy about art. That is not our intention and we will not respond to that.“

The destroyed exhibition at the “Stara kapetanija” gallery; Photo: Mašina

Top-down cultural policy

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić joined the whole controversy stating on Pink TV’s Hit tweet show that “only the state has the right to use force to bring order, and no one else has the right to invade, destroy, threaten and bring order based on their own beliefs, likes or dislikes”, further stating that she would have preferred if the Ministry of Culture had consulted with her, because in this way it additionally promoted the exhibition.

In the background of this event and the accompanying public debate is a continuation of a bad situation in art and culture, with yearly increasing pressures in the form of various types of conditioning intended to push towards an extreme commercialization of both contemporary art and culture and cultural heritage. Numerous projects testify to that, such as the current construction of the monument of Stefan Nemanja on Savski trg in front of the building of the former main railway station in Belgrade.

As we can induce from the mentioned and quoted statements of the Ministry, branding nationalist historical constructions is something that gets special support from the state, while the art production of organizations and actors whose work doesn’t fit into that framework is belittled, underestimated and pushed to the market, whose mechanisms stifle the freedom of artistic creation just as much as such attempts at censorship. By equating art with entertainment and decoration, all other aspects that distinguish art from these areas are suppressed, such as education, analytical thinking, research of old and new media, multidisciplinary approach to creation and action, research of various forms and concepts and many others.

Let’s go a bit back in time. A number of examples testify to the fact that violence and demolition has been known to serve certain goals, driven by market and party interests: from the exhibition „Odstupanje“ (Retreat), which was organized in Belgrade in the Kontekst gallery, in the Stari Grad Cultural Centre in 2008, to the demolition that took place in Savamala in 2016. Shortly after the closure of the exhibition „Odstupanje“, market pressures to close down the Stari Grad Cultural Center intensified, and in 2010 this indeed happened through official closing of the institution and the launch of a new centre called the „Parobrod“ Cultural Institution, run by a completely changed, party-set administration. We can spot a similar matrix of behaviour in the case of the “state crime”, as some analysts call the demolition in Hercegovacka Street, where people with masks were also present, committing violence against the present residents.

Translation from Serbian:  Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Oct 19, 2020.

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