First as Yugoslav Revolution, then as Post-Yugoslav Art: History and A(na)estheticization around 1968 and Now

Contributing editor: Jelena Vesić [1]

1. Post-

If postmodernity was, as Fredric Jameson argued, characterized by a global spatialization and flattening out of time,[2] the past decade would have marked a shift towards what could be called a deep temporalization of the globe. Even beyond the prevailing academic imperative of “global (art) history,” the currency in contemporary art and critical theory of concepts such as the anthropocene, capitalocene, coloniality, ancestrality, cosmism, or big history, suggests procedures of temporalization aimed at historicizing (the catastrophe of) the now by identifying its singular, “deep” origin—the human, capital, colonialism, correlationism, death, or even the Big Bang. What such excavatory quests amount to is a return of History, though not a particularly triumphant one, as it may have appeared in 2012, when Alain Badiou declared “a rebirth of history” in “a time of riots.”[3] Rather, in a scattered epistemological pursuit, historical knowledge is summoned as a sort of deus ex machina with which to address a state of urgency or emergency, and from which to potentially derive (and perhaps defer) directions for future struggles.
                It is within this context that I situate the term post-Yugoslav, which has come to denote not just the historical period marked by the destruction of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but a specific aesthetic, epistemological, and political structure of relating to Yugoslav history from positions strongly anchored in the crises of contemporaneity. In line with Walter Benjamin’s anti-historicist postulate of memory “flashing in a moment of danger,”[4] a growing number of contemporary artists, curators, and scholars have actuated the historical and conceptual lightbox of Yugoslav (art) history—the autonomous partisan struggle in WW2, socialist self-management, multinationalism, non-alignment, socialist modernism, non-aligned modernism—as a repository of signposts for exiting the contemporary neoliberal, neocolonial, nationalist, racist, patriarchal, anthropocen(tr)ic, extractivist, add-your-own, capitalist world order.[5] Furthermore, the historical (re)emergence of Yugoslavia has predominantly taken place in the sphere of art. However, as this text will show, the “post-Yugoslav” convergence of crisis, art, and history is not new, but had actually been played out long before Yugoslavia’s official end, in the first major crisis of Yugoslav socialism culminating in the 1968 student rebellions.
                In what follows, I will argue that the Yugoslav 1968 was the inaugural manifestation of the post-Yugoslav, post-historical structure, which mobilized the history of the Yugoslav revolution as a device that exposed the gap between the emancipatory political program of the Yugoslav state and its failed execution. Diagnoses of the failed overcoming of that gap— together with the failure of the student movement—are concomitant with diagnoses of the gradual a(na)estheticization of both the Yugoslav revolution and its 1968 reactivation, which culminated in the 1971 formation of Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center as a way of compensating for political losses by ensuring gains in art.[6] Although this turning of the revolution into history and then into art can be traced to the actual history of 1968 in Belgrade, my aim is to show that the student revolt was rather an explosion of the ongoing post-Yugoslav climate in the late 1960s in which historical and aesthetic distance appeared as ways of dealing with the sense of revolutionary failure, often in an melancholic mode. A number of literary and scholarly texts, as well as exhibition projects produced during this period, go back to the interwar period as a way of reconstructing the (pre)history of the Yugoslav revolution, and tracing the origins not only of the revolutionary movement but also of when and how it went wrong.
                Through analyzing what are arguably the key aesthetic treatises of the time, namely Stanko Lasić’s history of interwar aesthetic debates, Conflict on the Literary Left, 1928-1951 (1970) and Sveta Lukić’s Art and Criteria (1964), which summarized his reflections on aesthetics in general and Yugoslav literary history in particular, I will demonstrate the ways in which art has played a key role in how things are shown to go wrong.[7] Explicitly and implicitly, both Lasić and Lukić use Yugoslav history as a plot in which the emancipatory push of the revolution gives way to the aestheticizing and anaestheticizing pull of art. Although both authors base their texts on the field of literature, their analyses, as I suggest, shed new light on the post-1968 blossoming of Yugoslav neo-avant-garde art, revealing it to be, in fact, already an instance of post-Yugoslav art. My aim is not to claim that the post-Yugoslav era or post-Yugoslav art “began” already in the 1960s and has simply lasted until now. Instead, I am interested in the gains made by analogizing the then and now, in which the “post-” is revealed not as a chronological marker of beginnings and endings, but as an analytical and a(na)esthetic device (or even a defense mechanism) which enables a coming to terms with political failure and crisis while simultaneously proliferating this crisis by remaining stuck in the structure of postness, and in a certain romance with historicization.

2. 1968

The Yugoslav 1968 was itself an instance of historical romance. The peculiarity of the Yugoslav incarnation of this “planetary” event is often noted: rather than opposing the ideological and political core of the Yugoslav state, the rebelling students rallied against the communist leadership’s betrayal of the socialist revolution and identified the oxymoronic Yugoslav reality through notions of the red bourgeoisie, and the princes of communism.[8] However, there is also a peculiar, oxymoronic, temporality that conditions this protestation: the revolutionary call for change could only be instantiated as a summoning of the authenticity of revolutionary origins, to which the state and society were demanded to return in order for transformation to happen in the future. This cyclical temporality—which thus literalized the meaning of “revolution”—implied not only a recall of Yugoslavia’s double origins in 1941 (the anti-fascist struggle and the socialist revolution) and in 1948 ( the anti-Stalinist revision which became the basis of self-management and non-alignment), but also its pre-origins in the ur-event of the French Revolution. These pre-origins emerged in the spontaneous performance during the 1968 protests of Robespierre’s monologue from Georg Büchner’s 1835 play Danton’s Death, performed in front of a mass of Belgrade’s students by actor Stevo Žigon. Robespierre’s lambasting of the aristocrats of the revolution, who once lived in attics and were now riding in carriages, was offered by Žigon as the original sin of revolutionary betrayal, in which his audience immediately recognized the truthful historical judgement of eighteenth-century France as equally relevant to present-day Yugoslavia. This 1968 diagnosis, as I argued in the introduction, enables us to see the regressive temporality of 1968 as a coming to terms with crisis, in which revolution, art, and history converged in a way that revealed Yugoslav revolution dissolving into post-Yugoslav history and post-Yugoslav art.

Branislav Jakovljević’s captivating reconstruction of the merging of revolution and theater in Žigon’s performance crystallizes this slippage of revolution into art. Žigon’s improvisation of the Robespierre monologue, Jakovljević writes, “[drove] the crowd into frenzy,” as the imaginary, hypnotic force of the performance compensated for the imminent failure of 1968, and by implication, of the Yugoslav revolution, whose promise the student rebels had set out to salvage.[9] Let us hear an excerpt from Žigon’s speech, with the clangor of the crowd’s chanting and ovations:

But, not being satisfied with disarming the people of its force, they are also trying to poison the sacred sources of its power with vice. This is the most cunning, the most dangerous, and the most vile attack on freedom! Vice is Cain’s mark of aristocratism! In a republic vice is not simply a moral but also a political crime! A vice-ridden man is a political enemy of freedom! (Ovations).

You will immediately understand my words if you think about the people who once lived in attics and are now riding in carriages and fornicating with former marquises. (Applause). When we watch the lawmakers flaunt their vices and the opulence of former halls, when we see them throw jokes, polish and parade their artistic taste, when we see them gradually adopting the rules of classy behavior; when we observe the marquises and the counts of revolution marry rich women and wear luxurious suits—when we see them, we are right in asking: have they robbed the people?! (Chanting: “Yes, they have, yes, they have…”).[10]

Finally, Žigon concluded, or rather, roared:

There will be no agreement, no truce with men who were only set on robbing the people, hoping this robbery would remain unpunished! (Ovations.) There will be no agreement, no truce with those for whom the republic was speculation and the revolution—a trade!!! (Vociferous ovations and approval).[11]

As Jakovljević argues, it was precisely “the downward turn of the movement that made possible this sublime moment of theater,” while the “carnivalesque atmosphere” in which an actor assumed the captivating role of a missing leader gave students “the illusion that they had found their hero and were united in their approval.”[12] Theater, or more broadly art, is thus identified as an illusion, a compensatory practice making up for the impotence of the living, revolutionary action.
                Jakovljević derives this reading from the diaries of the Belgrade film-maker Živojin Pavlović, whose own description of the 1968 fusing of theater and revolution portrayed Žigon’s performance as a kind of orgasmic coincidence of the actor and the masses, the present and the past: “the splendor of the moment—this extraordinary mystery in which the howls and wild tremors of the mass muddle the actor’s mind, so that he forgets theatrical tricks and, abandoning himself to intoxicating drunkenness, tears from his chest not words but his own flesh, and the eruption of spellbinding recitation drives the masses mad with the coincidence of Robespierre’s late eighteenth-century and contemporary truths.”[13] No wonder, then, that in the days following this art-induced moment reminiscent of a collective LSD séance, a theatrico-hallucinatory trip, “students asked for more performances [and] the actors obliged.”[14] The best performance, however, was perhaps Josip Broz Tito’s televised address in which – to the great surprise of even his closest associates—he affirmed the validity of students’ requests and asked them to return to their studies. By granting the students with the figure of the missing leader, albeit one already in power, this performative approval ended the protests—with many students celebrating with a traditional circle-dance, itself a reenactment of a well-known partisan motif—the Yugoslav people celebrating their WW2 victory.

3. Yugoslav Fanonism

The captivating temporality of revolutionary recall, and its a(na)estheticization, was not unique to the events of 1968. It was also characteristic of a number of publications, films, and exhibitions produced around the time, whose retrospective or Yugospective lens reached beyond the landmark years of 1941 and 1948, and into the contentious prehistory of the revolution during the interwar period. The list of such works would include: Miroslav Krleža’s serial publication of Zastave (Banners), a five-volume Bildungsroman of Yugoslavia published between 1962 and 1967, which, according to Dubravka Juraga, provided “the post-WWII socialist Yugoslavia with a prehistory of its own birth”;[15] Stanko Lasić’s 1970 Sukob na književnoj ljevici 1928-1952 (Conflict on the Literary Left 1928–1952), a landmark text on the Yugoslav interwar aesthetic debates, which identified writer Miroslav Krleža as the carrier of an unrealized, liberatory vision of Yugoslav culture that Lasić likened to that of Frantz Fanon;[16] Mate Relja’s 1976 Vlak u snijegu (The Train in Snow), a children’s film based on Mato Lovrak’s eponymous 1931 novel about rural children who prove the superiority of solidarity, self-organization, and common good, over individualism, hierarchy, and private property—a narrative that could be read in the 1970s as an origin story of Yugoslav self-managed socialism; Želimir Žilnik’s film Early Works, in which a group of 1968 renegade rebels reenact the iconography of the partisan struggle and Marxist classics;[17] the exhibition series Yugoslav Art in the Twentieth Century, initiated in 1967 by the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art as the most ambitious and the most comprehensive, collaborative endeavor to exhibit and write the history of twentieth-century Yugoslav art.[18]

The Museum’s “post-Yugoslav” impulse to reconstruct the history of the crisis-ridden present was most acutely expressed in the 1969 exhibition “Surrealism and Social Art,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Yugoslav Communist Party with an exhibition on the controversial topic of the two conflicting aesthetic paradigms from the 1930s. This is the topic that the Museum and Lasić tackled simultaneously and independently of each other.[19] While I will provide a reflection on the Museum’s exhibitions in the final part of the text, in this section I will focus primarily on the illuminating work that Lasić’s seminal book on the conflict on the literary left can be said to perform with regards to these various instantiations of the post-Yugoslav, Yugospective temporality, to the extent that it offers its historico-philosophical reflection as a diagnosis of the failure of Yugoslav revolution. This decidedly post-1968 work of diagnosis delineates a point of no return, the decisive end of Yugoslavia’s “acute revolution,”[20] including the attempt for a radical synthesis of art and revolution, which Lasić saw to have collapsed into forms of self-serving art.

Stanko Lasić: Sukob na književnoj ljevici
1928-1952, 1970
(Conflict on the Literary Left 1928–1952)

The Yugoslav polemics of the 1930s, and the controversial nature of Lasić’s excavations of their history, are far too extensive for the scope of this analysis.[21] The key point of contention, however, concerns the relationship between writer, essayist, and cultural authority Miroslav Krleža and the Yugoslav Communist Party. Banned in the interwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (since 1929, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), the communist movement operated illegally, and cultural magazines served as important outlets for spreading the revolutionary cause. Krleža’s leftist yet purportedly anti-dogmatic position in the debates, as well as his collaboration with Belgrade surrealists, had led him astray from the Party, which in 1939 denounced Krleža’s journal Pečat (Stamp) for supporting “Trotskyist” tendencies.[22] However, following the WW2 triumph of Yugoslav communists, and despite not having joined the partisan resistance, Krleža was forgiven for his interwar deviations and embraced as a leading cultural figure in the newly founded socialist Yugoslav state. In yet another historical turn, Yugoslavia was expelled from the Stalin-dominated Cominform in 1948, an unexpected event that triggered the development of an idiosyncratic, anti-Stalinist brand of Yugoslav socialism, marked by downplaying the power of the state and developing a system of workers’ self-management. The 1948 Tito-Stalin break had legitimized, implicitly and in retrospect, Krleža’s anti-Stalinist position, which now became the official position of Yugoslav Communists. In a series of famous speeches he made in the early 1950s, Krleža declared the irrelevance of Socialist Realism for the historical moment Yugoslavia found itself, namely “a time of acute revolution in a poor country that only recently managed to liberate itself from foreign rule.”[23] However, he also warned about the uncritical importation of Western trends, and called for an autonomous Yugoslav aesthetics. Although Lasić’s book offered a systematic, dialectical analysis of the contradictions inherent in the positions of both sides in the interwar conflict, it simultaneously framed Krleža’s aesthetic vision as prophetic, making it emblematic of Yugoslavia’s emancipation from the oppressive Cold-War divide, which paved the way for Yugoslavia’s non-aligned position.

Just as in Žigon’s/Robespierre’s denunciations of the “marquises of the revolution” who robbed the people, Lasić’s melancholic history portrays a visionary path turned into a blind street: an unfulfilled promise. Hardly coincidentally, Lasić first presented his reconstruction of this aesthetic failure—and by implication, revolutionary failure—at the 1969 conference University and Revolution, itself a retrospective, commemorative event, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Yugoslav Communist Party and the League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia. The conference took place at the Zagreb Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, which, as the site of the Zagreb 1968 movement still resonated with the disturbing echoes of the most recent conjoining of youth, university, and revolution.[24] Lasić’s presentation, just like the book that grew out of it, was itself a “1968” performance of ambivalent commemoration. Like Žigon’s hypnotic speech, it created its own orgasmic contradiction: the build-up and culmination of a hypnotic vision of an authentic, liberatory Yugoslav aesthetics, followed by an immediate declaration of its illusionary, unrealized and, even, unrealizable character.

From its opening pages, Lasić’s study is plagued with questions of authenticity: why write about the Yugoslav version of an international polemic on art and revolution, if the purest expressions of the polarized views that it reproduced emerged elsewhere (in the Soviet Union and France, as the clash between the advocates of proletarian art and the surrealists)? Why, if the literature in question, as Lasić claims, is not literature but its periphery? Or more dramatically, with a Hegelian twist Lasić asks;

Why study something that is a simulation of spirit, and not spirit itself? The ‘ostrich’ attitude [i.e., an attitude of pride] usually leads to megalomania and arrogance; it is easy to tell that it has arisen out of a situation of second-ratedness that it wishes to forget at all costs. It would be inappropriate to think that we are the first ones to discover this situation: all our intellectuals have always known it. Even when they desperately rejected it.[25]

The emphasis of pronouns all and always clarify Lasić’s text truly has a Hegelian ambition: despite the concrete historical delineation of its theme, this is an all-historical judgement, made from a place after history’s end. The book asks specific questions while implying many more: Did the creation of the new Yugoslav nation following the First World War—which for the first time liberated the entire region from foreign political domination from both the East (Ottoman Empire) and the West (Austria, Hungary, Italy)—also imply an opportunity for a new Yugoslav culture, free of foreign domination? Was the formation of the post-WW2 socialist Yugoslav state a step further on this path to social and cultural autonomy and justice? Was there a specific Yugoslav contribution that was truly theoretical and spiritual, as Lasić would have it, and not merely anecdotal and anthropological? Could the Yugoslav periphery, perhaps, be the very place where the dilemma of revolutionary art and literature found its resolution, even if its contours had reached their theoretical/spiritual purity in Moscow and Paris? In other words, what is the authentic, singular contribution that the Yugoslav periphery could offer the world?

Lasić leaves these queries, and his own series of analogous questions, unanswered, at least not explicitly answered. Nevertheless, his conclusions suggest that, even if there had not been an authentic Yugoslav contribution, there still could have been one. Just like Žigon’s performance, Lasić’s account evokes the figure of the missing leader—namely Tito—who is here “played” by the figure of the leading writer, Miroslav Krleža, credited with what Lasić calls a “Fanonist vision of Yugoslav culture.”[26] According to Lasić’s historical reconstruction, with the revolutionary struggle in WW2, Yugoslav nations became for the first time the subject and not merely an object of history. The status of subject was confirmed once more in 1948, when the nation resisted the threat of becoming an object, nay, a “colony” even, governed by the Soviet Union. Then came Krleža’s solution, anticipated in his interwar work, and culminating with his 1954 address to the Belgrade plenum of Yugoslav writers.[27] In Lasić’s words, Krleža’s historic message declared that,

To follow Western role models means to disintegrate before death, it means: to exist as IMITATION. This is the question in which both ‘young’ and ‘late’ Krleža is immersed: how to escape from what we are: IMITATION and PERIPHERY? His answer is similar to that of Frantz Fanon: only if we cease to be an object and become a subject, if we cease to be periphery and become center, if we return to ourselves regardless of the gods that formed us. This total negation of Europe and its modern fetishes is in fact a total affirmation of the OPPRESSED and REJECTED: in this coming to oneself the DISPOSSESSED has to live through and through the total rejection of the Other who had, up to that point, relegated one to the state of under-being, to a second-rate being… This is Krleža’s deepest insight and the structure from which stems his negation of modern art and his synthesis of art and revolution.[28]

Lasić’s presentation of Krleža’s Fanonist solution is clearly informed by both Krleža’s speech and Fanon’s concluding words in The Wretched of the Earth, in which he called for the dispossessed and the colonized to finally abandon Europe: “Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else. We can do anything today provided we do not ape Europe, provided we are not obsessed with catching up with Europe.”[29] The comparison of Krleža and Fanon may surprise today’s reader, but could have seemed perfectly logical to Yugoslav readers attuned to Yugoslavia’s ostensibly non-aligned position and its strong political and economic connections with the Third World.[30]

Like Žigon’s improvised performance, Lasić’s cursory articulation of Yugoslav Fanonism appears suddenly, at the end of the book’s introduction (i.e., his symposium speech on which the book’s introduction was based), without much elaboration, and never reoccurs in the text. Its melancholic ending mirrors the simultaneously intoxicating and tragic realization by Belgrade’s students that they were witnessing theater and not real life: while Lasić concluded that Krleža came closest to the solution, he concedes that “there is …no definitive solution to this.”[31] Even the Krležian-Fanonist vision might have been just an intoxicating illusion:

History reveals that thus far no vision of the Krleža-Fanon type has been realized as a concrete artistic practice. I wonder if this is at all possible. Isn’t this really just a beautiful and sad utopia of the wretched of the earth? […] The 1954 plenum, with Krleža’s dramatic intervention, is far behind us. Once again, we have everything that Europe has. In second-rate form.[32]

Lasić must be taken at his word when he warns that by speaking of art and literature, the protagonists of the 1930s literary debate were in fact speaking of politics. Thus, while lamenting the unrealized Krleža-Fanon artistic vision, Lasić himself must be seen to be lamenting an unrealized political vision: that of a socialist, self-managed, autonomous, liberated, and non-aligned Yugoslavia; subject and not object of history, creator and not IMITATOR. If, as scholar and writer Darko Suvin has claimed in his recent “X-ray of Yugoslavia,” all bad choices had indeed already been made by the early 1970s, then Lasić’s book is among the first to take up the only thing left to examine once the stage of “acute revolution” had dissolved—its history.[33] Furthermore, the fact that Lasić’s text was first presented as an address to Zagreb students in 1969, following the 1968 failed student protests, signals an explicit generational transfer—in this case, the transfer of an admission of failure, which must also be seen as Lasić’s personal failure, given his own youthful and partisan commitment to the communist cause.[34]              

               It could, then, be argued that Lasić’s 1970 history is already post-Yugoslav. Not least importantly, this post-Yugoslav declaration of failure is accompanied by the image of the revolution superseded by art. Krleža’s postwar polemical interventions during the 1950s were, Lasić argued, a “desperate attempt to salvage [the interwar claim for] a synthesis of art and revolution” at a time when such synthesis had “disaggregated” and was increasingly reduced to a struggle for “freedom of artistic expression.”[35] In contrast, Krleža’s postulation that “art without revolution is meaningless, while revolution without art is incomplete,” was the kind of synthesis that rejected both art’s autonomy and the socialist-realist synthesis that squarely placed art in the service of revolution.[36] Although Lasić conceded that both socialist-realist and Krleža-like syntheses of art and revolution still existed in 1970 in Yugoslavia, he recognizes that they were marginal—what was once “leftist literature” had been almost fully usurped by “quests” within the autonomous field of “Art,” in the confines of which the only current revolutions were being made. “This does not mean,” Lasić concluded, “that such quests are outside reality, but it does mean that they are inside asingle reality that no longer inquires about the other reality, only about its own reality. And this reality—Art—is one: it is in art that one must participate, one must develop art, one must live art, and go ‘left’ within art.”[37]

Cover of the book
Umetnost i kriterijumi (Art and Criteria) by Sveta Lukić published in 1964

4. Yugoslav Aesthetics: from “Sports” to “Art”

The founding of the Belgrade Student Cultural Center as a direct aftermath of the 1968 movement—where art emerged as a form of damage-control and a palliative measure that prolongs the death of revolution as it invigorates the life of art—can be used as a case-study for proving the sociological and not simply the theoretical purchase of Lasić’s proposition.[38] There would be much irony in this, since it is exactly the New Artistic Practices—the Neo-avantgarde, Conceptual, Performance art of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which thrived in both the Zagreb and the Belgrade Student Centers—that are usually presented as a politicized alternative to the disengaged art of the so-called “socialist aestheticism,” a term that originated with literary critic Sveta Lukić and was more recently reinterpreted as “socialist modernism.”[39] I wish to illuminate Lukić’s contribution beyond the coinage of this oft-cited term, and provide an insight into his general aesthetic theory, which he presented in his 1964 book Umetnost i kriterijumi (Art and Criteria). The aim of this presentation is to reveal in this book another “1968” performance, in which the acute Yugoslav revolution collapses into history and art.
                Inspired, as many Yugoslav thinkers were in this period, by early Marx and the idea of the “total human,” Lukić approached the realm of the aesthetic as a space of “anticipation,” presaging the future in which man would overcome the alienation from life and achieve “the integral.”[40] Until then, art is understood as a negative or reverse integral; in a merger of Plato and Adorno, art is presented as “a false history and false theory, or at least a deceptive one,” but this deception provides an insight into the desired future of disalienation, or the total integration with life.[41] Lukić, however, understands the aesthetic as a realm that is not limited to art, and includes other forms of human sensorial experience, among which he singles out sports and oral poetry. All these forms of the aesthetic are then judged according to the disalienating ideal of total integration with life. Sports, according to Lukić’s uncanny definition, “oscillates from a sensory enjoyment in movement all the way until it comes close to a form of competition with life,” the crucial aspect of that “competition” being movement and contingency: sports is a “lightning response to a new circumstance.”[42] A similar potential of merging with life is found inoral poetry, another ephemeral, communal and embodied form of sensory experience that enables a glimpse into totality. Unlike sports and oral poetry, art is “not indifferent to immortality,” and while it ultimately seeks to cancel the alienation of man from his essence and from objects, it simultaneously points to the “necessity of objectification,” and to human immersion in reality and the world of objects.[43] However, this is at the same time a fictitious, compensatory reality. In a move reminiscent of Žigon’s hypnotic 1968 performance, Lukić foregrounds the ability of art to stage an encounter with “catharsis,” with “essences,” so that—Lukić strangely and dramatically concludes—“[a]fter art, it is hard to live actively.”[44] And this is true despite art’s internal differentiation, i.e., despite the fact that after Gorky it is easier to join a revolution than after Dostoyevsky.[45]

Much like Lasić’s post-1968 history of interwar aesthetic debates, Lukić’s 1964 treatise speaks from a position that seems to be already located outside history, and this outside is equivalent to the position of “art” as situated “after life.” As if it were a highly addictive drug, once art is experienced there is no returning to life. Lukić’s juxtaposition of sports, oral poetry, and art is theoretical, that is, intended to classify different but simultaneously existing forms of aesthetic experience. But, what if we read Lukić’s theory as historical, or rather: what if the diachronic relation were revealed as the historical unconscious of his synchronic analysis, so that sports, oral poetry, and art represent codes for different stages of Yugoslav history? Sports, that “sensory enjoyment in movement,” “a form of competition with life,” and a “lightning response to a new circumstance,” is the aesthetic practice of the Yugoslav partisan struggle and the socialist revolution—it is Yugoslav history itself, as the always unavoidably contingent overcoming of reality, to which a Yugoslav revolutionary responds with remarkable intelligence, bravery, and improvisation. Oral poetry, still within the expanded realm of the aesthetic, still in partial contact with life, is the Yugoslav ritualized, living historiography which, like Krleža’s novel Banners, the film The Train in Snow, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s historical exhibitions, WW2 memorials, Lasić’s story of the interwar debates, and not least the 1968 student rebellions, addresses the people in order to tell them the story of “sports,” i.e., the revolution, and to give meaning to the “lightning response” that these same people had already demonstrated in the arena of revolution. Art, as a narrow form of the aesthetic, a sensory experience removed from life, is but a glimpse of the “competition to life” enacted by “sports,” and can access history only by means of a set of reified objects, scattered as traces, or allegories of this revolutionary competition.[46]

What reaffirms such a reading is the actual historical part of Lukić’s book, in which the author develops the concept of socialist aestheticism, and anchors his own perspective in a specific generational position, which he calls “reserve generation.” This is a generation of those who were too young to fight in WW2 but were too old to forget it, which made them become (again, uncannily) “eavesdroppers of their time, instead of heroes.”[47] Moreover, they proved themselves in art, and not in some “more important, bigger stories.” Art itself is here theorized as  a form of “reserve,” a reserve of revolution, that which is left of it—revolutionary eavesdropping (different than “oral poetry,” which assumes the right to speak of the revolution, and not merely eavesdrop). A reserve generation is alienated from the revolutionary instantiation of the new social order, from both its heroic and its dark side (war, conflict, violence, and trauma), yet is too close to it to forget it.

The art aligned with that position is also ambivalent—socialist aestheticism of the 1950s as a depoliticized compromise between the socialist-realist dogma and the idea of free artistic expression.[48] Although Lukić claimed that this produced works of mediocre value, or rather, the “golden mean” situated between master-pieces and kitsch, Lukić viewed socialist aestheticism as a truly original Yugoslav contribution, since it created for the first time in history a direct yet immanent opposition to socialist realism.[49] This oxymoronic phenomenon was also the result of the revised, post-1948 program of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (known until 1952 as the Yugoslav Communist Party), which, in an “unspoken agreement,” left politics to politicians and art to artists: while the Soviet bureaucracy orders the writers to do something, the Yugoslav one agrees or even recommends that they not do anything.[50] The depoliticized attitude also stemmed from the fact that socialism places a critical artist in an awkward position: “for the first time in history of mankind has in front of him a society to which he can, in principle, say “yes.”[51]

However, even when yet another generation, that of 1968, attempted to seize the right to say yes by also saying no, and to speak in the name of the revolution by no longer just “eavesdropping” but by itself engaging in revolutionary “sports,” the “elders” would not allow it, guarding their own revolutionary copyright, so to speak. As historical analyses have shown, the generational factor was an important element in the aggressive/manipulative response of the Yugoslav leadership towards the student protesters.[52] Despite the fact that they showed allegiance to the partisan struggle and the ideological foundations of the Yugoslav state, the veterans saw their revolt as ungratefulness for the sacrifices made in WW2 and the social gains and benefits provided by the socialist state. It could then also be said that the 1968-ers—who “ungratefully” complained about their material situation, as well as that of Yugoslav workers —were paradoxically banned from inheriting the revolution, a prohibition that left them with the compensatory realm of catharsis, i.e., art.

Although Lukić claims that socialist aestheticism had already done its work by 1964, when his book was published, more recent interpreters have taken socialist modernism, or socialist aestheticism to represent not one particular tendency, but rather the new “political economy” (in Jakovljević’s reading) or a “cultural logic” (in Karla Lebhaft’s reading) of Yugoslav self-management.[53] It could perhaps be said that socialist aestheticism is best representative of the moment when the book was written, the unwinding of the social and economic crisis that culminated with the 1968 failed attempt to reverse the downward spin of Yugoslav socialism; the moment when Yugoslav history was itself transposed into the realm of art, as a new arena for a different kind of “sports,” or as Lukić would say, the “geopolitics of artistic competition.”[54]

5. Post- / (Post) / (Post-)

Indeed, not least as a result of the intense work of the Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center, formed in the aftermath of 1968, and the Zagreb Student Center (formed already in the 1950s), but also that of a number of Yugoslav contemporary art museums and gallery institutions, the late 1960s and 1970s was a period of the blossoming of Yugoslav contemporary art and its growing internationalization.[55] After “sports” and “oral poetry,” there was again movement and interaction, there was life—of the artistic kind. And while artists such as Marina Abramović, Sanja Iveković, Mladen Stilinović, Tomislav Gotovac, etc., did not make the kind of depoliticized “socialist aestheticism” that Lukić had in mind, and while their work very much addressed contradictions of the Yugoslav society, it did so from a place of alienation, from an already “post-Yugoslav” perspective of (bodily) masochism, anarchy, irony, and reflection, a stance far removed from pre-1968 art movements such as Exat 51 and the New Tendencies, which embraced a “constructive approach” that aligned with the collective work on advancing socialist self-management.[56]

At the same time, while the country was steadily moving on the path of economic and political decline, followed by increased tensions between the Yugoslav republics and representatives of the six Yugoslav “nations” (narodi), the contemporary art scene was a rare arena in which the idea of a common, multinational Yugoslavia truly lived.[57] I again use the vitalistic term, and not randomly. In addition to the grounding of his aesthetic theory on the ideal of disalienated life, Lukić based the sociological approach of his 1968 survey of Yugoslav literature on the concept of “literary life.”[58] More recently, art critic Ješa Denegri has placed the notion of “artistic life” at the center of his idea of the “Yugoslav art space,” which he describes as “an extremely intense and stimulating collaborative atmosphere,” in which “the polycentric and decentralised, yet at the same time unified, and shared, art life of the ‘Second Yugoslavia’ (1945–1991) was maintained.”[59] Denegri speaks both as historian and witness, who was very much an active part of that “atmosphere” of intense collaboration, as an art critic and curator at the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art, which, in turn, contributed greatly to the “polycentric yet unified” artistic life, by initiating a series of exhibitions that historicized twentieth-century “Yugoslav art” in 1967.[60]

Photo-documentation of the opening of the exhibition The beginnings of Yugoslav modern painting, 1900-1920
Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, 1972.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade.

The attribute Yugoslav was by no means a neutral term, despite the fact that the country’s name, Yugoslavia, was generally accepted. The federal composition of the country guaranteed the right of cultural autonomy for the South Slavic nations (narodi), and a number of polemics were initiated during the 1950s and 1960s in response to literary critics who advanced terms such as “Yugoslav literature,” which was seen to be threatening, as it recalled the compulsory national unitarism of the first Yugoslav state.[61] In fact, Lasić’s 1968 survey book on “contemporary Yugoslav literature” was to a great extent shaped by one such debate, and the decision by the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art to launch a project on “Yugoslav art” could, as Denegri wrote, “in the extremely sensitivecultural and political circumstances at the time when these exhibitions were made (1967–1986) cause (and occasionally did cause) controversies.”[62]

Photo-documentation of the exhibition Surrealism and social art 1929-1950, 
Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, 1969.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade.

Potentially controversial was also the second exhibition, Surrealism – Social Art 1929-1950, organized in 1969 and dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Yugoslav Communist Party. As I noted in the beginning of this essay, this exhibition had no connection with Lasić’s speech at the 1969 Zagreb University and Revolution conference, which became the basis for his book on interwar aesthetic debates, but both projects offered to reflect on the long history of the communist revolution in Yugoslavia by historicizing its contentious, interwar period marked by internal conflict and the now undesirable subordination to Stalinist leadership. Far removed from Lasić’s polemical-melancholic tone, the exhibition catalogue reflected a careful and reconciliatory approach taken by the chief exhibition curator and Museum director Miodrag B. Protić. Acknowledging the 1930s division on the political and artistic left as one of the “greatest polemics of the century in our context,” in his contribution Protić notes that the exhibition is focused to reconstructing facts as it is hard to give “assessment” to what even today remains “a sensitive matter.”[63] At the same time, he hints at the pioneering, and by implication, brave gesture of the Museum in broaching this sensitive subject, by stating that some of the movements presented in the exhibition are not only studied and exhibited for the first time, but are studied together as a “dialectical unity.” Despite the fact that the exhibition title juxtaposed Surrealism and social art, Protić insists on their common basis, describing them as “two existentially, socially, and politically organized movements,” which take historical materialism as their common ground, and socialist revolution as their goal. He also notes the great number of surrealists who “converted” to social art and to realist, engaged portraiture. The decision to include in the exhibition the art of the Peoples’ Liberation Struggle made during WW2 gave an additional, reconciliatory note to the polemics, as it signaled that the declared common aim of the two opposed sides—socialist revolution—was achieved. Finally, the exhibition reflected on the brief history of Socialist Realism, from 1945 to 1950, when it lost dominance following Yugoslavia’s split with the Cominform.

Typical of all the other exhibitions in the “Yugoslav Art in the Twentieth Century” series, the exhibition catalog featured essays commissioned from critics and art historians with expertise in specific national/republic art histories. In this case, individual essays tackled “social art” in Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia, while Protić’s text dealt with “Serbian Surrealism.”[64] This was another evidence of the cross-republic and all-Yugoslav “artistic life” that the Museum promoted, but it simultaneously indicated an epistemological and also perhaps tactful acknowledgement of the specificities of national/republic artistic and cultural histories, replicating the federal make-up of the state in the form of an exhibition catalog. The exhibitions themselves, however, did not necessarily follow this divide, so that it could be said that “Yugoslav art” truly “lived” in the three-dimensional, dynamic, and visitor-activated exhibition space, while its “dead,” written record, kept it within bounds of national(ist) histioriography. 

Following the wars in which Yugoslavia was finally destroyed in the 1990s, the Yugoslav “artistic life” was radically chopped up according to the newly claimed borders of the new nation states, and no art historians or curators spoke any longer of “Yugoslav” art. When it wasn’t described as “Croatian,” “Serbian,” “Bosnian,” etc., Yugoslav art was grouped according to post-socialist transition-speak as “Balkan,” “West-Balkan,” “Central European,” or (South)Eastern European,” depending on whether the exhibitions or publications foregrounded the exotic medley of “blood and honey” in the Balkans, affirmed by the recent bloodshed, or the suffering of artists in totalitarian communist regimes. In the past decade, however, there has been a return of the term “Yugoslav,” together with a reevaluation and intense historicization of the socialist past. As I argued in the introduction, this is not a local phenomenon but one defined by a constellation in which the state of global or planetary crisis aligns with an urge to historicize ourselves out of it, by creating new “grand narratives” about the past, and reevaluating the grand narratives rejected by the postmodern turn. The 1989 gospel about the end of history, promising to unite the globe in the ecstasy of a singular-capitalist-now, has been losing currency at least since the 2008 financial crisis, which has reactivated the potentials of both Marxist economic theory and socialist political practice.

Cover of the exhibition catalogue Nadrealizam – socijalna umetnost 1929–1950
(Surrealism – Social Art, 1929-1950)

Belgrade, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1969

Occurring early in a world-wide series of anti-capitalist “occupy-type” uprisings at the time, the 2008 student protests against the commodification of knowledge in Zagreb were marked by a renewed interest in the history of Yugoslav self-managed socialism, which presented an inspiration for current struggles. In the context of art, the exhibition Political Practices of (Post-)Yugoslav Art: Retrospective 01, curated by Jelena Vesić (as member of Prelom kolektiv) in 2009 in Belgrade, was the first large-scale manifesto to challenge the proliferation of the end-of-history “post-s”: post-politics, post-Marxism, post-socialism, post-modernism, post-theory, post-Yugoslav. The bracketing of this prefix in the exhibition title (turning post-Yugoslav into (post-)Yugoslav) signaled a nonacceptance of Yugoslavia’s postness, and encapsulated the exhibition’s overall goal to present a “counter-attitude to dominant [i.e., anticommunist, neoliberal, and nationalist] historical representations of Yugoslav art and culture, and of the socialist socio-political system in general.”[65] Although the bracketing declared a porous boundary between the present and the past, the prefix could not be completely eradicated. This is not because such a move would be historically counter-factual (e.g., a denial of the historical fact of Yugoslavia’s destruction), but because the exhibition’s gambit was historical par excellence. Explicitly defined as a “retrospective,” the project’s counter-hegemonic act could affirm a transhistorical proximity of the then and now only by asserting historical distance, and embracing historical consciousness as both an aesthetic and political tool.

Exhibition ‘Political Practices of (Post-)Yugoslav Art’: RETROSPECTIVE 01,
Museum 25th of May, Belgrade, 2009
View into Chapter 2, complied by What, How and for Whom Collective, in the front sculpture of Vojin Bakic
Photo: Vladimir Jeric

Exhibition ‘Political Practices of (Post-)Yugoslav Art’: RETROSPECTIVE 01,
Museum 25th of May, Belgrade, 2009
View into the chapter The Case of SKC in the 1970s, compiled by prelom kolektiv
Photo: Vladimir Jeric

This tool was shared by all involved in the project: artists whose works took on topics relating to cultural or political phenomena of the Yugoslav past; curators-researchers who examined specific subjects of Yugoslav art history: partisan art, socialist modernism, neo-avant-garde art collectives of the 1960s and 1970s, neo-avant-garde practices in the context of student cultural centers, public television as a medium of contemporary art in the 1980s; and the chief curator, who orchestrated all these micro-histories—which were also mostly limited to local and national, i.e., Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian-Herzegovinian, phenomena—into the exhibition’s all-encompassing, Yugoslav historical composition. It is, then, only through this historicizing procedure, only through mobilizing the retrospective agency of the “post-”, that the “Yugoslav” could emerge in its own right, as a historical subject in distinction and in opposition to “Eastern European,” “Balkan,” “Croatian,” “Serbian,” etc., which had earlier been employed to erase it. Not least importantly, the historical (re)emergence of this subject took place in the sphere of art.

In the time that has passed since this exhibition until today, such (post)Yugoslav and (post-)Yugoslav historicizations have proliferated exponentially, and their carrier should also be connected to a specific generation. As I argued elsewhere, this generation—to which I, too, declare belonging—is also a kind of “reserve generation.”[66] Born during the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the last decade of Yugoslavia’s existence, members of this generation were too young to be true historical protagonists of Yugoslav history and its destruction, but they were too old to forget it. This “childish” memory created a “reserve” of Yugoslav history that eventually stood up to the overwhelming attempts by the “elders” to erase it. This opposition has again taken the most recognizable shape in the sphere of art, and has found its place in the global contemporary art scene obsessed with archives, reenactments, historicizations, and excavations.[67] If, in the first post-socialist decades, the artist’s performing body, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, was a sign of “art under socialism,” Yugoslav art now displaces that image with the futurist-socialist-modernist partisan monuments, whose photogenic status was confirmed even by National Geographic.[68] If the 1968 temporality was one that attempted to conjoin revolution and historicization, but could not get passed the ultimately pacifying and hypnotic power of art, what is the future direction of the present invocations and commemorations of Yugoslav art in yet another series of political and economic crises? In other words, the question is: can we historicize ourselves out of this?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this question, as well as the business-of-usual of contemporary art and its written histories, somewhat redundant. For better or worse, this most recent global crisis has coincided in Croatia with the first-time election into parliament of a red-green coalition, whose members—many of whom belong to the generation carrying the “reserve” of Yugoslav history—are openly inspired by the ideals of Yugoslav self-managed socialism. Maybe art does turn into sports, after all.

[1] This text would not be developed or published without Jelena Vesić’s comradely advice, encouragement, and support. I cannot thank her enough for this! I am also grateful to Dóra Hegyi’s and Eszter Szakács’s generous editorial support and their critical suggestions, which greatly improved the first draft. I also thank Kaitlyn Tucker for convening the panel “Refracted Revolutions: 1968 in Yugoslavia” at the 2018 ASEEES Annual Convention in Boston, where the initial version of this text was first presented, and Branislav Jakovljević for his comments given at that occasion. The title of the text riffs off of Frank Ruda, “First as ‘Politics,’ Then as ‘Art,’” Stasis 4, no. 2 (2016): 8-21. I thank another unrelenting comradess, Antonia Majaca, for directing me to this text.  

[2] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1992).

[3] Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History (London: Verso, 2012), 5.

[4]  Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” (1940)

[5] For some examples, see Pavle Levi, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Jelena Vesić and Zorana Dojić, eds. Political Practices of (post-)Yugoslav Art: Retrospective 01 (Belgrade: Prelom, 2010), Marina Antić, “(Post)yugoslav Identities and East-West Paradigm: Empires and Imperialism on the Margins of Europe,” diss., University of Wisconsin – Madison, 2013; Vlad Beronja and Stijn Vervaet, eds. Post-Yugoslav Constellations: Archive, Memory, and Trauma in Contemporary Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian Literature and Culture (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2016); Stijn Verwaert, Holocaust, War and Transnational Memory: Testimony From Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Literature (London: Routledge, 2017), Đorđe Tomić, “Na putu ka ‘(post)jugoslovenskim studijama’ Pristupi, metode, perspektive istraživanja socijalističke Jugoslavije.” Berlin: Forschungsprojekt  “Repräsentationen des sozialistischen Jugoslawien im Umbruch” (Working Papers 3, 1, 2015); Jovana Đurovic,“How ‘Post’ Can We Go? Shifting Paradigms in Researching Post-Yugoslavia.” Literary History. Journal of Literary Studies 158 (2016): 329–34; Gal Kirn, Partisan Counter Archive: Retracing the Ruptures of Art and Memory in the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Struggle (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020); Bojana Videkanic, Nonaligned Modernism: Socialist Postcolonial Aesthetics in Yugoslavia, 1945–1985 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

[6] Miško Šuvaković, for example, referred to the Student Cultural Center as a form of “reservation,” where subversion was allowed but confined within the bounds of an “organized margin.” See ”Student Cultural Centers as Reservations, Prelom kolektiv in conversation with Miško Šuvaković,” in The Case of SKC in the 1970s – Exhibition notebook, edited by Prelom kolektiv (Ljubljana–Zagreb–Beograd, 2008), 85–90, For an excellent reading of the Student Cultural Center as a performative “institution-movement” whose “ambivalent combination of horizontal and vertical forms of organization” challenged the distinction between official and alternative culture, see Jelena Vesić, “SKC (Student Cultural Centre) as a Site of Performative (Self-)Production: October 75 – Institution, Self-Organization, First-Person Speech, Collectivization,” Život umjetnosti 91 (2012): 30–53. Vesić reads the position of SKC, expressed especially by projects such as the exhibition October 75, as a continuation of student protests by other means, and a translation of the protests’ general social demands into art-specific demands (35).

[7] Stanko Lasić, Sukob na književnoj ljevici 1928-1952 (Zagreb: Liber, 1970); Sveta Lukić, Umetnost i kriterijumi (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1964).

[8] For the most comprehensive overview of 1968 in Yugoslavia, see Hrvoje Klasić, Jugoslavija i svijet 1968 (Zagreb: Ljevak, 2012). See also Branislav Jakovljević, Alienation Effects: Performance and Self-Management in Yugoslavia, 1945-91 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), whose central chapter is dedicated to the events of 1968 and its aftermath, in particular, the analysis of artistic performances in the Student Cultural Center in Belgrade in the early 1970s.

[9] Jakovljević, Alienation Effects, 136.

[10] The excerpt of the transcript from Žigon’s performance, cited according to: Nebojša Popov, “Robespjer pod lipama,” Novosti, June 17, 2008, available at A video recording of Žigon’s speech exists as part of Želimir Žilnik’s short film on the June 1968 uprising in Belgrade, Lipanjska gibanja (The June Movements), available at:          

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jakovljević, 136.

[13] Živojin Pavlović, cited in Jakovljević, 136.

[14] Jakovljević, 136.

[15] Dubravka. “Miroslav Krleza’s ‘Zastave’: Socialism, Yugoslavia, and the Historical Novel.” South Atlantic Review 62, no. 4 (1997): 37.

[16] Lasić, Sukob na književnoj ljevici 1928–1952.

[17] See the upcoming volume Feminist Takes on Early Works by Želimir Žilnik, edited by Antonia Majača, with Rachel O’Reilly and Jelena Vesić (Berlin: Sternberg Press, forthcoming in 2020).

[18] For an overview, see Ješa Denegri, “Decenijske izložbe jugoslovenske umetnosti XX. veka, in Prilozi za istoriju muzeja savremene umetnosti, edited by Dejan Sretenović (Belgrade: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2016), 135-171.

[19] The exhibition Surrealism – Social Art, 1929-1950 took place between April and June 1969 and juxtaposed, as much as it reconciled, the two aesthetic movements that defined the debates of the 1930s: Surrealism and social art, in addition to art made during the WW2 Peoples’ Liberation Struggle, and the post-war socialist realism. See the exhibition catalogue, Nadrealizam – socijalna umetnost 1929–1950 (Belgrade: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1969). Although Sveta Lukić’s Savremena jugoslovenska literatura, 1945–1965 (Contemporary Yugoslav Literature, 1945­–1965), published in 1968,does not go beyond 1945, it should also be noted among the post-Yugoslav, comprehensive historicizations around 1968, not least due to its judgements on the mediocre and depoliticized nature of Yugoslav post-war literature. Sveta Lukić, Savremena jugoslovenska literatura (1945­1965): rasprava o književnom životu i književnim merilima kod nas (Beograd: Prosveta, 1968)., translated as Sveta Lukić, Contemporary Yugoslav Literature; a Sociopolitical Approach (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972).

[20] The term “acute revolution” comes from Miroslav Krleža’s 1954 speech, which will be referenced in the central section of this text.

[21] The Yugoslav polemics of the 1930s ran parallel to similar international debates around the nature and goals of Marxist aesthetics during the 1920s and the 1930s. On the one hand were radical, modernist, and avant-garde aesthetic experiments, and on the other were the various attempts by the Soviet intellectual and political vanguard to define an aesthetics in line with revolutionary principles. In the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918–1941)—where the Communist Party was banned in 1921 and where the persecution of political opponents was particularly grave following the introduction of royal dictatorship in 1929—the journals in which the polemics were published represented a crucial outlet in which Party members and sympathizers, working in exile or illegally, could discuss and propagate the leftist cause, at least on the level of literary and cultural concerns.

[22] Initially, before the 1934 introduction of the notion of “Socialist Realism,” the broad concept of “social literature” or “social art” represented the aesthetic in line with the communist revolutionary politics, which became somewhat more defined at the 1930 Kharkov conference (the second International Conference of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers), where dialectical materialism was identified as the method of artistic creation. Krleža was himself a proponent of social literature during the 1920s but eventually stood against what he saw as the formulaic, imitative and dogmatic approach of its advocates in Yugoslavia, especially following the so-called “Aragon affair,” the split among the French surrealists, which exploded in the aftermath of the Kharkov conference. Against Louis Aragon, the Belgrade surrealists sided with André Breton and his defense of metaphorical, associative and not purely referential function of poetic language. This, in turn, antagonized local supporters of “social literature,” and although Krleža was not a proponent of surrealism, he found himself on the same side with surrealists in the conflict, a solidarity strengthened in 1939 by his editorial collaboration with the Belgrade surrealist Marko Ristić on the Pečat (Stamp) magazine.

[23] Miroslav Krleža, “Govor na kongresu književnika u Ljubljani,” reproduced in Miroslav Krleža, Svjedočanstva vremena: književno-estetske varijacije (Sarajevo: Oslobođenje, 1988), 7. The speech was made in 1952 at the Third Congress of the Association of Yugoslav Writers in Ljubljana in 1952.

[24] Indeed, Lasić refers to the student protests when he states that while all protagonists in the debate advocated one version or the other of the synthesis of art and revolution, it had never occurred to them that “in this civilization” culture and revolution are perhaps irreconcilable,” which is why they do not bring this civilization into question; unlike the “contemporary student movement [which]posed the question on the ultimate sense of existing culture.” Lasić, Sukob na književnoj ljevici, 17.

[25] Lasić, 9,

[original emphasis]


[26] Lasić, 67. The literal translation of “Fanonovom vizijom jugoslavenske kulture” would be “Fanon’s vision of Yugoslav culture,” but I translate it using the word Fanonist, as the original misleadingly implies an attribution of this vision to Fanon.

[27] Miroslav Krleža, “Referat na Plenumu Saveza književnika, 1954,” reproduced in Krleža, Svjedočanstva vremena, pp. 49–67. The speech was given at the Plenum of the Association of Yugoslav Writers in Belgrade in 1954.

[28] Lasić, 57. Original emphasis.

[29] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004),  236.

[30] Lasić’s analysis evidently builds on the French 1961 original of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which was translated in Yugoslavia only in 1973. Frantz Fanon, Prezreni na svijetu, trans. Vera Frangeš (Zagreb: Stvarnost, 1973). According to Kathryn Batchelor, in Yugoslavia “Fanon’s work attracted interest in the 1970s, being introduced by progressive Marxist-humanist circles [while] the embrace of Fanon’s thought by the academic and political elite was facilitated by Yugoslavia’s specific international position and by its role in the Non-Aligned Movement.” Kathryn Batchelor, Translating Frantz Fanon Across Continents and Languages (New York: Routledge, 2017). Whether Krleža read Fanon is uncertain, but his own obsession with “aping,” a term he also used when referring to the imitation of both “Rome and Byzantium,” was characteristic of his work already in the early 20th century. I write more on Lasić’s idea of Yugoslav Fanonism and connect it with the 1951 Paris exhibition Yugoslav Medieval Art, which Krleža helped organize, in Ivana Bago, Yugoslav Fanonism and a Failed Exit from the Cultural Cold War.” In Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War, edited by Anselm Franke, Nida Ghouse, Paz Guevara, and Antonia Majaca (Berlin: Sternberg Press, forthcoming).

[31] Lasić, 9.

[32] Lasić, 58. Again, this must be seen in relation to the student 1968 protests that accused the government of importing capitalism from the West; like Lasić, the students were also demanding Yugoslav political authenticity.

[33] Suvin suggests that after the early 1970s, Yugoslavia entered what he calls “Yugoslav ‘Brezhnevism,’” or “the phase of full degeneration before break-down,” when Yugoslavia “increasingly became a stale periphery of the capitalist world-system.” Darko Suvin, Samo jednom se ljubi. Radiografija SFR Jugoslavije 1945.-72., uz hipoteze o početku, kraju i suštini (Belgrade: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2014), 61. Literary scholar and theorist Darko Suvin was a protagonist of the WW2 partisan struggle, and then a willing emigrant to Canada. His 2014 “x-ray of socialist Yugoslavia” was, as he writes in the introduction, to a great extent motivated by the interest and research of post-socialist generations in Yugoslav history. Suvin, Samo jednom se ljubi, 22. The book was translated in English as Darko Suvin, Splendour, Misery, and Possibilities: An X-Ray of Socialist Yugoslavia (London: Brill, 2016).

[34] In a memoir published after his death, Lasić narrates the sense of failure, anxiety and disillusionment, which began already in 1945, and had become acute by 1948, with the paranoid persecution of supporters of the Cominform in Yugoslavia, Stanko Lasić, Autobiografski zapisi (Zagreb: Globus, 2000). In such crises, and before his decision to leave Yugoslavia in 1972 and relocate to Paris, Lasić professes to have solved his ideological dilemmas by looking at the bigger picture, and finding ways to be useful for improving the social and cultural situation. This must have been very difficult for someone who was as attached as he was to the Hegelian idea of spiritual purity and the absolute, despite the fact that he at the same time revealed the attachment to the “absolute” as the key illusion that marked both sides in the literary debates.

[35] Lasić, 53–54.

[36] Krleža’s proposition, Lasić concludes, seeks an “authentic aesthetical socialist engagement.” Ibid., p54.

[37] Ibid.

[38] See Jelena Vesić, “SKC (Student Cultural Centre) as a Site of Performative (Self-)Production.”

[39] The most widely quoted text on socialist modernism is Ješa Denegri, “Inside or Outside ‘Socialist Modernism’? Radical Attitudes on the Yugoslav Art Scene, 1950-1970,” in Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), 170-209, which places the neo-avant-garde practices within the tradition of the alternative, “other line,” beyond the officially condoned socialist modernism/socialist aestheticism. Although Denegri’s text speaks of “socialist aestheticism” as a term introduced in the mid-1950s to denote a pacification of “socialist modernism,” it should be noted that the term “socialist modernism” had not been used at the time. In an interpretation that greatly complicates Denegri’s idea of the existence of the two “lines” (socialist modernism as the mainstream, and the other line as alternative), Branislav Jakovljević sees “socialist aestheticism” not as a style, but as a political economy of Yugoslav socialist self-management, which was to supplant the political economy of “socialist realism” that predominated in the first five years of Yugoslavia’s existence from 1945 to 1950 (although its residues survived long after this period). See Jakovljević, Alienation Effects, 82. For an overview of the various uses and interpretations of the terms “socialist aestheticism” and “socialist modernism,” see Karla Lebhaft. “Humanističko-modernistička paradigma umjetnosti u kontekstu samoupravnog socijalizma.” CASCA 1, no. 5 (2016): 69-97.

[40] Sveta Lukić, Umetnost i kriterijumi (Belgrade, Prosveta, 1964), 59.

[41] Lukić, 56.

[42] Ibid., 29.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 63.

[45] Ibid., 71.

[46] The annual Youth Day ceremonies, staged in president Tito’s honor, could then be seen as the performative analogue of Lukić’s theoretical (and unconsciously historical) conjunction of “sports,” “oral poetry” and “art.” See Jakovljević, Alienation Effects, for an illuminating reading of the Youth Day as a performance of Yugoslav self-management.

[47] Lukić was born in 1931, and was 10 when WW2 started. It should be noted that Lasić is only two years older, but he joined the partisan struggle, which did involve many children.

[48] Lukić, 205.

[49] Lukić, 192.

[50] Lukić, 192.

[51] Lukić, 190.

[52] See Klasić, Jugoslavija i svijet 1968.

[53] Jakovljević, Alienation Effects. Karla Lebhaft, “Vraćanje duga ‘socijalističkom modernizmu’,” Ars Adriatica 4 (2014).

[54] Lukić, Umetnost i kriterijumi, 215.

[55] Yugoslav modern and contemporary institutions were connected with the international, and especially West European, art scene, already since the mid-1950s. See Denegri, “Inside or Outside ‘Socialist Modernism,’” 172–174. In addition to frequent exhibitions of individual artists and art movements, such as the exhibition of pop art at the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art in 1966, the international Biennial of Graphic Arts was founded in Ljubljana in 1955, and in 1961 the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb launched a series of biennial exhibitions and conferences under the title New Tendencies, presenting international neo-constructivist, and later, computer art. The late 1960s and 1970s saw an intensification of that process, as well as a large number of internationally active artists, curators, and critics of the new generation that promoted conceptual and performance-based art, which came to form what has become known as the New Artistic Practice. For an early overview, see the exhibition catalogue Marijan Susovski, ed. The New Art Practice in Yugoslavia 1968–1978 (Zagreb: Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1978).

[56] Ješa Denegri introduced the term “constructive approach” to describe such practices. See Jerko Denegri, Constructive Approach Art: Exat 51 and New Tendencies (Zagreb: Horetzky, 2004). On New Tendencies, see also Armin Medosch, New Tendencies: Art At the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961–1978) (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016).

[57] Among other events that signaled the growing inter-ethnic and inter-republic tensions, the 1968 student revolts were followed in 1971 by the nationalist student movement in Croatia, which arose in support of Croatian republican communist leadership’s demand for more economic autonomy. The 1974 constitution brought further decentralization of the country, bringing it closer to a confederal model.

[58] Lukić, Savremena jugoslovenska literatura.

[59] Denegri, “Inside or Outside ‘Socialist Modernism,’” 171.

[60] From 1967 to 1985 eight exhibitions were organized, mostly by focusing on specific decades. The exhibitions were initiated by the museum director Miodrag B. Protić, but they involved a wide collaboration between curators and art critics from all Yugoslav republics. See Denegri, “Decenijske izložbe jugoslovenske umetnosti XX. veka.”

[61] In fact, while the first South Slavic state was formed in 1918, Yugoslavism was made a compulsory identification only in 1929, following the introduction of dictatorship by King Aleksandar Karađorđević. See Christian Axbode Nielsen, Making Yugoslavs: Identity in King Aleksandar’s Yugoslavia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014). Given that the ruling dynasty of the first Yugoslavia was Serbian, Yugoslavism was often identified as a veiled form of Serbian imperialism.

[62] Denegri, 166. This was true especially since the Museum was an institution funded not by federal funds but by the Socialist Republic of Serbia. The debate that involved Lukić was instigated by a text by writer Antun Šoljan published in the Zagreb magazine Telegram in January 1967.

[63] Miodrag B. Protić, “Srpski nadrealizam, 1929-1932,“ in Nadrealizam – socijalna umetnost.

[64] See the full list of articles in the exhibition catalogue, and in Denegri, “Decenijske izložbe,” ft. 4, 143.

[65] Prelom kolektiv / Jelena Vesić and Dušan Grlja, ”Political Practices of (Post-)Yugoslav Art,” in Political Practices of (post-)Yugoslav Art: Retrospective 01, edited by Jelena Vesić and Zorana Dojić (Belgrade: Prelom, 2010), 8. See also the interview with Vesić for a further elaboration of the project’s articulations of the term “post-“. Nikola Dedić, Aneta Stojnić, Artmargins Online, “Interview with Jelena Vesić About her Show Political Practices of (post-) Yugoslav Art: Retrospective 01,”, 28 September, 2012, Accessed August 18, 2020.

[66] Ivana Bago, “Surviving Generation: Yugoslavism, Failure, and the Reserve of Yugoslav History,” in Persistent Traces from Heritage to Come, edited by Anastasija Pandilovska & Marjoca de Greef (Amsterdam: Suns and Stars, 2020), 23-31.

[67] See, for example, Okwui Enwezor, ed. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York: Steidl/ICP, 2008); Dieter Roelstraete, The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013); Christine Ross, The Past is Present It’s the Future Too. The Temporal Turn in Contemporary Art (New York: Continuum, 2012); Mark Godfrey, “The Artist as Historian,” October 120 (2007): 140–172.

[68] Christine Blau, “Haunting Relics of a Country That No Longer Exists,”,28 August, 2017,

Ivana Bago is an independent scholar and writer based in  Zagreb. She recently earned her PhD at Duke University, with a dissertation titled Inheriting the Yugoslav Century: Art, History, and Generation. She is the co-founder (with Antonija Majaca) of Delve | Institute for Duration, Location and Variables, dedicated to the intersections of academic, artistic, and curatorial practice. She has published extensively – in academic journals, exhibition catalogues, artist monographs, and art magazines such as Artforum – on contemporary art, including conceptual art, history of exhibitions and curating, performance, feminism, (post)Yugoslav art, and post-1989 art historiographies, and is a member of the editorial board of ARTMargins. Her curatorial projects include: Moving Forwards, Counting Backwards, MUAC, Mexico City, 2012; Where Everything is Yet to Happen, Spaport Biennale, Banja Luka, 2009/10; The Orange Dog and Other Tales, Zagreb, 2009; Stalking with Stories, Apexart, New York, 2007. 

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