Culture as Ressource

Nenad Popović

The irresponsibility of elites towards culture is today not that dangerous as it was at the end of the eighties and in the first half of the nineties. At least it is not dangerous in a direct way. Back then these elites were co-responsible or direct responsible for killings, tortures and destruction. Today they have restructured themselves. However, the priority national task of culture in each of these countries and nations should be to stop this strategy of mental and cultural crippling.


1. Total Culture War


For Europe the Yugoslav war was a cultural shock. The events in Yugoslavia, and later in former Yugoslavia were seen as a deviation and were followed with disbelief. After two world wars which took the lives of almost 20 million people, made even more of that homeless and turned the continent twice in a row in huge cemeteries leaving nothing but ruins, the senselessness of war in Europe was considered as something that goes without saying. Same goes for civil wars - the Spanish from 1936 to 1939 and the Russian from 1917 until the mid twenties brought for these countries nothing but huge and long lasting damages.


The first shock and the disbelief after the breakout of the Yugoslav war were soon accompanied by horror. The Yugoslav war immediately took shape of a total war, the worst aspect of World War II, which in its second stage, after the Wannsee conference, turned into a hallucinatory torture and killing of human beings. In the Yugoslav this stage was achieved tight after the break out of the war when the siege and total destruction of Vukovar took place, followed by a mass exodus of its inhabitants and summary executions, despite or better to say against all laws of war and human rights.


To a certain extent the war in Yugoslavia did not only cause horror and astonishment, but also an identity crisis in Europe. The war has set in motion serious revision of the understanding of pacifism, neutrality, and the out of area usage of armed forces. There were debates about new terms such as military interventions for humanitarian reasons or about which side in such a war should one country take. But not only questions about big cultural implicitness were raised. Also illusions have been smashed. Since 1993 it became obvious and known that Auschwitz can be repeated.


However, the Yugoslav war was not only a repetition of the total war from 1942 to 1945. It was moreover a broadened and modernized version. What World War II in its last stage with the extermination of human beings has only started, what Mao Tse-tung with his Cultural revolution intended, but then stopped - that was from the beginning a part of the concept of the Yugoslav war. What I mean by saying this is what is called “culturcid”.


The demolition of cultural assets was in the Yugoslav war not a collateral damage of a conquest anymore. This was confirmed by the purposeful artillery actions against highly symbolical buildings like the national library in Sarajevo, the historical center of Dubrovnik, the demolition of the Old Bridge in Mostar or the mining of the mosque in Banja Luka – all buildings which we could compare with significant big European cathedrals. Even the waterfall in Jajce was mined, a famous monument of nature. But, I am only mentioning eminent demolitions. We all know that in the background hundreds of old villages and little towns, sacral and secular monuments were demolished. It was that particular demolition of these cultural micro-biotopes that we shall identify as the main content and aim of this hypermodern total war.


Since from the military standpoint the attack of cathedrals and libraries is completely trivial, it became very soon obvious that these attacks go back to strategical political and cultural directives. By putting them into effect, culture in the middle of Europe was functionalized in the most negative sense that one can imagine. The previous culturcid, like the demolition of the synagogues, the book burning by the German Nazis or the demotion of churches to storehouses and stables in the Soviet Union, seemed in comparison, at least quantitatively, almost symbolically.

Right after the break out of the war, the phenomenon of culturcid and urbancid was described by the architect and writer Bogdan Bogdanović. And only a few years later his colleague Ivan Lovrenović was forced to note in his book on cultural history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that a major part of the cultural monuments which where shown in his book, do not exist anymore.


The Twofold Misuse of Culture

The cooperation of people working in the sphere of culture with the Yugoslav rulers, who were responsible for the war in Yugoslavia, is notorious. The masters of politics had true palaces in which they gathered around themselves philosophers, painters, writers, journalists, theologians, scientists, university professors, members of academies. For fairly petty privileges these intellectuals have delivered ideas and tools for the catastrophe to come. They were active propagandists. They fabricated and choreographed celebrations, activated old myths and rites, inaugurated chauvinism and racism in journalism, theater, literature, mass media and science. It was them who also delivered the most previous tool, the hate speech to the masters of politics. With the help of this tool they succeeded in lighting the masses.


But, in the next, the hot stage, the political rulers turned from master of politics into masters of life and death, and their assistants from the sphere of culture became ideologists of physical supremacy and aggression, reaching the gloomiest aspect of total war, ethnical mass persecution and genocide. They have named that ethnical engineering.


They had been given freedom of action to totally organize the media and mental war. Without them, this war would have not been possible. Only people from the sphere of culture were able to create and carry it out, since it required a sophisticated knowledge of certain technologies. At this point the usage of culture as a resource reached its peak. The media war was the biggest war within the war. But that’s not all. Intellectuals and artists were promoted to the highest political functions as advisors, ministers, commanders, even as presidents. Not a small number of them were even direct executors of war operations. Among them we find theater and film directors, writers and university professors.


The defeating specificum was however that to a great extent, the usage of culture was initiated by its own protagonists. Their will and activity made it possible that the classical war of disinformation, discovered in the 20th century, developed into the mentioned media war. Thanks to them, during the conflict, it was impossible, either in the region or abroad, to find out something from media coverage and presentations and to properly identify and define what is going on. For example, who is the aggressor, and who the victim. The hypermodern media war went that far, that same reports and pictures were used by both sides, only with a modified or changed text. So, with the help of educated elites truly media dictatorships were established, and at large that led to what Bogdan Bogdanović and the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić called an overall culture of lies.


This exceeds by far the patriotic euphoria of intellectuals during World War I and the cultural totalitarianism of the Nazis in Germany and Stalinists in the Soviet Union. During the nineties in Yugoslavia there were not only ministries of propaganda and commissars in action, nor was it just about a so called “Gleichschaltung” from above. No, the total war in Yugoslavia was moreover produced by producers of culture: by actors, editors, journalists, screenwriters, choreographers, technicians working in broadcast studios. The misuse of cultural resources was hence, to a great extent self-generated. Namely, it should be kept in mind that in 13 years, from 1987 the moment when Milošević came to power, until 2000, on the territory of Yugoslavia, except in Republika Srpska and in Kosovo, we cannot speak of the existence of totalitarian dictatorships with a corresponding censorship. Intellectual resistance was neither punished with prison nor with a commitment into an isolated psychiatric department.


The later complaints by intellectuals, their shift of the blame on politicians like Tuđman i Milošević, is only one more, subsequent lie of the cultural elites which try to justify themselves. For example, in Croatia during the rule of Tuđman, the regime was not the one who published lists of unwanted writers, journalists, actors stigmatizing them as national traitors. That was voluntarily and spontaneously done by their colleagues writers, journalists, theater artists. The internal, not to say incestuoidal misuse of culture was a matter of free choice. And not to forget: the basic document upon which the break-up of Yugoslavia was carried out and the wars 1991-1999 was a study conducted by the Serbian Academy of Science and Art, and not a strategy paper of a political party or political movement.


But there are counterexamples as well. First and foremost in Kosovo, where we witnessed a total repression, which lasted almost two decades. In Kosovo people were illegally founding schools and secretly exchanging books, but they did not give up on cultural dignity and basic values. At least I cannot remember that the leading writer and speaker of the Albanian people, Ibrahim Rugova, has ever said one aggressive sentence against Serbs. Neither can I remember such disturbances by the writer Alija Podrimija or the journalist Veton Surroi. A more striking example is the one of the besieged Sarajevo. In the besieged city without running water, electricity and food, culture was flourishing: free radio stations were founded, theater plays and concerts were organized, independent newspapers and magazines were published. Even the so called “multiculturalism” of that city remained all the time untouched/intact.


Intellectuals became victims of the nationalistic regimes only if they directly interfered with the political interests of the rulers. In Serbia the economist Ivan Stambolić was killed after he announced to run against Milošević, and for the same reason, when he ran for president in Croatia, an assassination attempt on the poet and essayist Vlada Gotvac was carried out, luckily unsuccessfully. Journalists have been murdered and beaten - that has not changed until today – whenever they have, most probably not even knowing, crossed the tiny red line behind which they started to encroach on large political and economic interests: Slavko Ćuruvija was executed in Belgrade, in Banja Luka Dragan Jerinić was crippled, in Zagrebu recently Ivo Pukanić was killed, and Dušan Miljuš beaten to an extent that he became disabled. The most compelling evidence is the death of Zoran Đinđić. This doctor of philosophy and eminent intellectual had to die after he got involved into politics. Their mistake was that they did not stick to the rules of the refined cultural elites, which exactly know the limits until which you get off without harm and which assure social and material benefit.


But let me be clear: I do no think of nationalists and regime intellectuals only. Even in the good guys camp there were a lot of those who as critical voices knew very well and still know how to survive and how to not cross the line after which rhetoric and comfort stops – including of course a clear conscience. The problem of an unbelievable clean conscience in the good guys camp, the righteousness of people from the sphere of culture in any moment and under all circumstances is of course not comparable with the crimes and sins of someone who preaches ethnic cleansing. However, partially the milieu of people with an astounding conscience belongs to some extent to the circle of the corrupt Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav cultural elites. Across from them there are those who crossed that line. Personalities like the writers Mirko Kovač and Bora Ćosić who demonstrative left Serbia and went into exile, or Vlado Gotovac, who after the assassination attempt walked through Zagreb blindfolded.



2. The Occupation of Memory, the Occupation of the Future


In 1995 the war was over – except in Kosovo, where it continued as a civil war until 1999. The borders were drawn. One part of the intellectuals where prosecuted in Den Haag, others remained in bars and their offices. Now the second, the soft stage of the usage of cultural resources starts. What we now have on the agenda is internal reshaping and new stylization of the identity. That period lasts until today. I will describe of what it consists by using a couple of examples.


Cities are being marked. In Belgrade the construction of a monumental Christian orthodox cathedral is just about to be finished. This building completely changes the visual impression of this traditionally cosmopolitan metropolis on a European crossroad. Now Belgrade is visually marked as the center of orthodoxy, as its powerful antemurale against Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. In Vukovar the tragedy of its defenders is not commemorated by a suitable monument, but on the bank of the Danube – with Serbia just across the other side – a heavy stone cross with medieval motifs was erected. It stands ostentatious in opposite to the orthodox world. It leaves on impression of borders and landmarks, as if the fight for Vukovar was a religious war. Vukovar, a traditional haven at the Danube and a vivid place of the region has been redesigned into a border town of cultures, nations and states. And the latter is considered to be the only truth, everything else is forgery. But, at the beginning of the 20th century, Vukovar was the hometown of over twenty nations and religions, and even today Croats and Serbs are living there. In the center of Banja Luka, in a park surrounded by government buildings, an orthodox cathedral was erected, symbolizing the center of Republika Srpska. In Skopje right now a monumental government block of buildings in a pseudo-classical style is being constructed, which is suppose to show the ancient roots of the state and nation. In Mostar, in his suddenly created “Catholic”, “Croatian” western part, an enormous and the whole town dominating bell tower in historical Venetian style was built. Today every tourist would think that this town has been divided forever into a Christian western and an Eastern, Muslim part.


The renaming of main streets and squares turned also into a voluminous operation, with the aim to unconsciously create a different, “more national” picture of the past. That way in Zagreb the name of the street 8th of May disappeared, the day when the city was in 1945 liberated from the German occupiers. During the nineties, also in Zagreb, there has been a real battle of citizens taking place regarding the name of one square dedicated to the victims of fascist terror. In addition, commemorative plaques for the antifascist and the workers movement are being taken down overall and in general, while new, “more national” monuments and sculptures are being implemented into the historical centers of cities.


Whole landscapes are being marked and culturally revalued. In the hinterland of Dubrovnik, that until recently also had a distinct oriental architecture, an Christian-orthodox monastery complex has been erected, with the aim to rewrite history. The French cultural historian and ethnologist, Veronique Nahoum-Grappe was dumbfounded after a trip she made: the new monastery really seems like a traditional one. For those, who few years ago did not get to see what was there before, it looks like this monastery has been there forever. On a hill close to Mostar, a huge cross has been erected which dominates the Neretva valley. In Bosnia and Sarajevo big and striking mosques are being build, which have nothing in common with traditional sacral construction, but with other styles, so they are called „vehabian“.


Also new ahistorical and unnatural regions, such as the „županije“ (commitats) in Croatia, are being established in order to erase the truly historical regions. It was even tried to rename some of them – the historical region of Dalmatia should had been renamed into South Croatia. In addition to that historical atlases are being published, that are suppose to illustrate selectively the space and the development of the national state. Especially in Bosnia, in its part which is called Republika Srpska, a whole range of places and towns was renamed. Traditional names disappeared from direction signs, and were replaced with names which sound significantly “Serbian”.


With this in line, textbooks for school are being written, which incorrect or arbitrary valorize historical periods, while in the school readings some writers, who do not match the projected picture of “national” literature, are simply being minimized or left out. In Croatia, religious instruction, which is dominantly Catholic, has been introduced already in pre-school.


On the highest level a legal, political and cultural reformulation of big ethnic groups into “minorities” is taking place. This is carried out by the dominant nations, with the acceptance of the ethnic groups, since they expect to receive a privileged legal status on the basis of positive discrimination. In Croatia that is the case with Serbs and Orthodox people respectively. In Serbia, in the province of Vojvodina, that is the case with Hungarians, who have been always a big national and cultural group there. In a near future it might happen that Hungarians will be considered as a minority on a Serbian territory, and traditional Hungarian towns like Subotica as isolated exceptions. The destiny of the Hungarians in Vojvodina is interesting for a specific reason. After the loss of political autonomy and the legal defining of one part of its inhabitants as a minority, a chapter about an important central European region has been closed. Ironically, on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, Vojvodina was genuine by far the most multicultural one. Great writers originating from this, like Danilo Kiš and Aleksandar Tišma, who have written an important part of their literary work about this region, will in a few years become practically not understandable for young people, and maybe to some extent that’s the case already now.


In total, now we are witnessing an integral project of redesigning of memory and hence the formation of a completely different consciousness of the future. The small example of the exchange of a plaque over a building entrance can illustrate the long lasting effect of such a project. The Yugoslav Academy of Science and Arts was founded in Zagreb in 1860. Its promoter and patron was the catholic bishop Josip Juraj Strossamayer. After the realization of Croatia’s independence in 1991, this institution was renamed into the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts. That is, of course, legitimate since its members have voted for it. However, the historical identity and the national symbolical value of the Academy were forged. Not just that the history of that institution is being erased from the memory, but also an important monument of the Croat idea of Yugoslavism is being neglected - an idea that in the mid 19th century aimed and longed for the emancipation of all small South Slav people. As we all know, the Yugoslav idea is much older than the Yugoslav state, which was not founded until 1918 and which as a repressive state has discredited and destroyed that idea. Hence future generations of Croats will maybe not be able to comprehend some of the major political tendencies in the political history of their own country. They will not understand the appearance of Yugoslavia in 1918, which was created as a federation of South Slav people and states.


One of the biggest and most important areas today in which culture is softly (mis)used is the redesign of the consciousness through language policies. This is, to a greater or smaller extent and more or less justified, taking place everywhere. The most striking and most radical undertaking in this regard is the peculiar “croatization” of the Croat language. This project however does not aim to enrich the Croat language, but rather to introduce different words, expressions and orthography rules, while prohibiting others, in order to distance the Croatian language as much as possible from the Serbian, but also from the Bosnian language. This is most striking happening in schools, but also in state institutions there are special editing departments, which are in charge of editing texts: all words and phrases that remind on Serbian or are used in both languages are being expelled. – But, language policies and issues are a too wide and too complex area and go far beyond the scope of my topic today.


Spin-off, identity entrepreneurship

The strategical project to use cultural resources is not just about the occupation of memory. It obviously targets the consciousness and behavior of today’s born generations. At the beginning, the strategy of using cultural resources is always a political project of political parties, movements and center of powers which are depending on them. Based on the usage of cultural resources these parties and movements strive to attach to them a certain historical legitimacy and to insure their future. Hence, in the beginning the parties in former Yugoslavia took use of the overall enthusiasm after the liberation from communism and from the unitarian Yugoslav state. Today, however, this strategical project is long since directed against the national and cultural interests of its citizens. The own citizens are projected as mental and political idiots.


During two decades, from 1990 until today, this project partially took on a life on its own. The usage of cultural resources is not anymore a matter of state and party institutions only. A downright spin-off took place. Now informal bodies are acting: scientific and pseudo-scientific institutions, civic associations, newspapers, radio stations, publishing houses, magazines, diverse commissions or specific church bodies. In Croatia it has in the sphere of language even got that far that in 2011 nobody can ascertain who exactly and with what kind of authority determines the “official” orthography and the linguistic norms of the Croatian language.


Today we are witnessing an evolution of small industries of identities. On a profit level they serve political parties and state institutions, sell their products on the market, they have their lobbies and pressure groups. Former ideologists, cultural commissars and politicians today operate and cooperate via their bank accounts, mostly as registered companies. They are being financed in a pretty modern way. On one hand they compete for public subventions, on the other they sell their products on the open, commercial market or the public sector. Their products are for example expert opinions, projects, textbooks, exhibitions, concerts, educational programs etc. They are using a whole range of elements of business planning, from lobbying to public relations, marketing and merchandizing. They get support by symbolical authority of academic titles, high-sounding names of scientific and cultural institutions and associations – some of which are even founded by them. The educated elites have withdrawn to entrepreneurship and trade of symbolical goods, undermining in that way the essence and prestige of these goods. However, these elites act in a space between the state and parties on one hand, and the society in the other, in a space that is very complex and often accessible only to them.


On this ground there are heavy competing battles taking place, as the most current case of the book “Jezik i nacionalizam / Language and Nationalism” by linguist Snježane Kordić shows. Since in her book she challenges the language policy and the continuous language standardization in Croatia, she has directly endangered one segment of the monopolized industry of culture, embodied in the constant writing and publishing of new orthographies and grammars, linguistic guidebooks, textbooks – all together processes in which huge governmental offices, media and big companies are involved. So, immediately after her book was released, it has caused most vehement reactions. However, these reactions were not in terms of an in-depth discussion or expert talks about the standardization of the language, but rather in the form of a political campaign and personal attack. Among other things, she was accused for acting against the Croatian constitutional order, that she is against the national language, that she has no ability to write at all about these issues. Interesting enough, all these people who attacked the author, are very successful academic entrepreneurs and freelance businessmen, working in the sphere of culture, namely in the field of language.


But, what is striking is that the protagonists, now as entrepreneurs, are again intellectuals and artists. So, the negative cultural policies and actions are still part of an self generated process. The political purchaser has even disappeared a bit.


The irresponsibility of elites towards culture is today not that dangerous as it was at the end of the eighties and in the first half of the nineties. At least it is not dangerous in a direct way. Back then these elites were co-responsible or direct responsible for killings, tortures and destruction. Today they have restructured themselves. However, the priority national task of culture in each of these countries and nations should be to stop this strategy of mental and cultural crippling. And that is a paradox that we reached. The big striving of the small South Slav people for emancipation ended up in the cultural auto-castration and in the falsification of their own identities. The ethnologist Ivan Čolović named this as a terror through culture. Another paradox is following: this time there cannot be any help from abroad. During the war it was possible to intervene from outside: humanitarian, diplomatic or with armed forces. After the war it was possible to intervene and help with loans and donations. But in this, what is now taking place it is impossible to intervene.


But, this turn is not only a specificum of the former Yugoslavia. The most recent example is Hungary, FIDESZ, a very nationalistic political party in possession of the majority of the parliamentary seats, passed in December 2010 a censorship law that leads to a gleichschaltung of media. The Hungarians, 22 years after the withdrawal of the Soviet occupation troops, are again not allowed to speak free about certain issues, and it is just a question of time when certain words that Hungarians are now using in their daily life will appear on an index as “anti-Hungarian.”



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