During the past weeks we have witnessed a continuity of possibly thoroughly premeditated attacks on artists in Serbia, provoked not exclusively by artwork, but also by the artists’ efforts to break the deadlock of problems concerning their social and labour status.
Targeting contemporary artists is not a new phenomenon in Serbia or elsewhere. Alternative media sources close to the former US president have for years been spreading a bunch of conspiracy theories, most of which converge in an umbrella theory about the “deep state“, i.e. a complex network of secret organizations and members of the American liberal elite, which allegedly sabotages the president in achieving his political goals. Among these conspiracy theories are narratives about “Satanism”, cannibalism and paedophile tendencies allegedly present in the part of the elite that is in fact not fond of the Republican president, fabricated to prove their decadence, that is, immorality.
Artist Marina Abramović was among the victims of the attacks because of her use of occult symbolism for creative purposes, which in the eyes of conspiracy theorists is just proving the liberal elite to be “Satanists”. Such narratives have inspired a significant number of terrorist attacks perpetrated by the alternative right – as in the case of “Pizzagate”, when members of alt-right movement attacked pizzerias in an attempt to expose alleged human trafficking and child molesters among the leading Democrats and their acquaintances and friends.
These conspiracy theories, naturally, spilled over into Serbia, partly through the Internet, and partly through tabloid journalism, which follows the trends originating in USA, the ideological source of the latest form of international right. However, after years of spreading these narratives, a physical attack on contemporary art happened again, reminding of the early 2000s, when the far right attacked cultural events that touched on the “Kosovo problem”.
Vandalization of the exhibition held by the comic drawers group “the Boys” surprised the general public. However, what was an even bigger surprise than the attack itself was the inappropriate reaction of the Ministry of Culture and Information, which, in a Trumpian manner, equated a physical attack on an exhibition with artistic creation. With this serious assault on freedom of speech and creative expression, the state opened the door to hate speech, which was welcomed with open arms by the far-right “Leviathan” movement and website “Prismotra”, registered to anonymous authors from Panama (the website is, btw, a likeminded successor of a similarly named and designed website called “Investigation”, brought into connection with a parliament representative of the Serbian Progressive Party, Lav Pajkić) and several other Facebook pages and groups with thousands of followers and members.
Shortly afterwards, attacks also came from the pro-regime Pink television, where art historian Nikola Kusovac, who used to be a curator in the National Museum in Belgrade during the 1990s, and painter Zoran Čalija, one of ULUS’s previous board members, spiced their guest appearances with video content from the Leviathan’s Facebook page. While the coordination of media and Facebook posts is evident, what is less obvious is that the attack is entirely focused on either ULUS or its individual members, which begs the question why this particular association was chosen as a target between all other possible options.
Who has a problem with ULUS?
The Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS) has been founded immediately after the First World War as the Association of Fine Artists (ULU) with the aim of gathering artists for the purpose of joint work on improving their professional status, influencing the wider cultural environment and helping the audience develop “taste” for art. The history of ULU will have been connected with another cultural association “Society of Art Friends – Cvijeta Zuzorić”, which will have built an exhibition space known as the “Art Pavilion Cvijeta Zuzorić” in Kalemegdan, which will have then become the home of ULU.
In the interwar period, “Cvijeta” was a space filled with contemporary ideas: from the participation of a large number of women in the association’s creation and work (which would open the door for the inclusion of women in the public life of Serbian society)1, to anti-capitalist ideas expressed by artists- Communists who went into a clash with “Cvijeta”, criticizing it as an elitist space of the bourgeoisie. The pavilion was closed due to the Nazi occupation, but after the liberation it will have continued with regular work as ULUS – a professional association of artists working in the territory of the Republic of Serbia, all until the collapse of socialism, after which it failed to be spared from the corruption of the ruling political parties and the neoliberal logic of “austerity” in the cultural sector.
ULUS has thus been used by corrupt administrations for private purposes for years, losing any relevance in the art system of Serbia. In recent years, it has only come into the public spotlight thanks to an affair which involved granting the status of a honorary member to Dragica Nikolić, the wife of the former president of Serbia. At that occasion Belgrade artist Arion Aslani did a performance in front of the “Pavilion”, defecating as a form of protest, to become a target of attacks in recent weeks, when a recording of that performance was used without any explanation as to why the act was performed in the first place.
Although younger generations of artists self-organized and continued to navigate through public cultural institutions, and in, recent years, private ones, ULUS has a special significance as a platform through which independent artists collect their health and pension insurance benefits. However, partly due to the personnel organization of the association, but also due to legal changes, insurance has not been regulated for years for a part of members who meet all conditions, which caused great dissatisfaction among artists who are already in a precarious position. The accumulated dissatisfaction forced the members of the association to democratically change the previous leadership at a session held at the end of last year, and vote for a new, younger generation of active artists to take leading positions.
A reform of ULUS has, thus, been going on for a year, with the help of the new administration that set democratic principles for the association, ending the negligence and corruption of the previous administration.
Standing up to party and private interests
The announcements the “Ministry” issued on the occasion of the attack on the “Boys” exhibition, prompted a sharp reaction of the cultural public; the reformed ULUS organized a protest in sign of solidarity, which will later turn out to be a turning point after which the attacks will follow.
Even before the protest, and after the change of administration, ULUS had begun to suffer pressures on the part of the city administration, which had only then begun to submit invoices for rent, electricity, gas and other communal expenses that had accumulated for years, amounting to dozens of thousands of euros; that is, the costs made by the previous administrations, who had hid them, falsely presenting a positive business record to the association’s membership. Because of that, the association currently works with no heating, under threat of bailiffs, in a moist historic building with whose roof is leaking.
At the same time, the city took slow steps to renovate the part of Kalemegdan fortress around the “Pavilion”, first adding rows of palm trees, followed by billboards illustrating major construction projects in Belgrade done in recent years. The city administration’s intentions regarding Kalemegdan were presented to the general public a few years ago, when the former city secretary for culture, and current director of the Nikola Tesla Museum, presented an idea of charging entrance fee to the inner part of the citadel, the so-called Kalemegdan “Upper Town”. It is easy to imagine how the advisers of the city leaders present projects that will “unlock the potential” of Kalemegdan as a huge space in the very centre of the city, which can attract large investments.
Some ten years ago, residential-commercial projects such as the complex designed by Zaha Hadid’s studio appeared in public. To such a project the “pavilion” would represent a very attractive building with historically significant architecture, and an exceptional position at the very entrance to Kalemegdan from the city centre. One only needs to think of a masterpiece of Serbian architecture − the Geozavod building in Savamala − which is illegally used as a commercial space. It is therefore not surprising that the city plans to renovate the building of the Cvijeta Zuzorić Pavillion, and has been for months refusing to provide ULUS with a guarantee that the association will return to its historic premises after the renovation is completed.
With all this in mind, it becomes clear that the reformed ULUS messed with the interests of the centres of power. It dared to stop party and private interests, set out to organize artists to improve their miserable position, and became an obstacle on the path of devastating investor urbanism. So the next time you see a similar coordinated attack on artists or an art institution, you can very easily assume that someone’s interests are hidden behind the anonymous authors of those portals and Facebook pages.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on Nov 24, 2020.