The crisis in Serbian society is bringing about a rising volume of violence against cultural workers and artists. And it isn’t just some isolated incidents.
This is confirmed by the latest events in Belgrade, from destroying artwork at the “MOMCI: They had this glow around them!” exhibition at the Stara Kapetanija Gallery, to the intrusion of the Srpska Desnica leader Miša Vacić into the Center for Cultural Decontamination’s exhibition “The Gate — even when it hurts, it’s a cure,” followed by attacks on the play “Srebrenica. When We, the Killed, Rise Up” and director Zlatko Pavković, or habitual protests of the right-wing groups Zavetnici and Srpska Desnica aimed at the “Miredita, dobar dan” festival.
There is a feeling that public life in Serbia has established a kind of censorship culture supported by state institutions and parastate factions that do not shy away from violence in order to prevent critical voices from appearing in public. At the same time, the state is formally rejecting its role in the violence, although it is seen from its numerous actions that it actually incentivizes the ongoing censorship culture.
A pattern of violence
In modern day Serbia, the semblance of a multiparty system has evaporated and various democratic principles have been suspended, with no functional opposition in place against the Serbian Progressive Party’s regime. The rise of extreme right-wing groups is tolerated, such as Srpska Desnica and the notorious Levijatan; they don’t hesitate to conduct campaigns against migrants and minorities, the civil sector and workers in the media and cultural sectors.
We get the impression that these factions have become even stronger since the pandemic exacerbated the global crisis of capitalism. Their rise is also visible in countries at the edge of Europe.
While the crisis only intensified authoritarianism in society, as part of the censorship culture, art and culture workers are already recognizing the pattern of violence perpetrated against the freedom of artistic expression, cultural workers, artists and their work.
As part of the precarious, unstable and difficult work conditions during the pandemic, we could say that Serbia is now on its way to normalize the endangerment of fundamental freedoms of speech and action when it comes to certain topics.
Censorship is applied to areas related to crimes from the 1990s wars and in relation to Kosovo’s independence. Because of this, Kosovo’s artists are almost completely prevented from presenting their work and performing in Serbia if they attempt to officially state their country of origin.
Recently, the October Salon organizer left out the name of contemporary artist Petrit Halilaj’s country of origin. Halilaj was then offered to present his work alongside the word Kosovo with an asterisk on top, and only after the artist’s justified indignation. When the negotiation process was terminated, Halilaj no longer felt welcome and gave up his presentation at this important international exhibition.
Haliliaj himself was a refugee from Kosovo during the 1990s. He reflects his refugee experience in his artistic work.
Thus, state institutions don’t support the work of artists who don’t correspond to the dominant state strategy for culture, known for intertwining ethnic and nationalist branding and creative industries.
The state also supported endeavors such as the megalomaniac statute of the medieval ruler Stefan Nemanja and other works promoting national and city branding projects.
The hegemony of a culture of censorship
Thematizing crimes from the Bosnia and Herzegovina wars in the 1990s within Serbia’s media and cultural fields serves as a trigger for the right-wing. By applying violent actions, they are attempting to silence the few voices trying to keep it a relevant topic in the Serbian public consciousness.
If some artists dare to thematize war crimes in a manner contrary to the dominant opinion, they risk becoming targets of public attacks that are primarily carried out via social media, in accord with specific tabloids — as part of a parastate media apparatus.
In this past year, websites were created, such as prismotra.net, that maintain the hegemony of the censorship culture and name traitors among workers from culture, the civil society sector, as well as artists. Prismotra subscribes to an idea that denies 1990s war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, practically targeting all artists who focus on those topics. They also closely inspect civil society activists and artists, labeling them “Serbophobes,” “western agents,” “false genocide lobbyists,” “separatists,” and so on.
Tabloids, or so-called patriotic websites, such as Srbin.info or the aforementioned Prismotra, have their own information activist base in social media groups, where they are one click away from commenting on or judging their dissidents.
Additionally, during the pandemic, the rise in online communication affected the spread of social media and right-wing podcasts. Conspiracy theories, a Trumpist manner of communication, and hate speech have been encouraged in a particularly perverse way on social media. In the globalized arena of conflicting attitudes in the digital space, where every debating norm has been revoked, instant solutions to accumulated problems are multiplying, following the example of alt-right models from around the world.
The greater the national frustration and problems in Serbia get, the easier it is to trivialize them via media and social networks, without trying to find rational solutions.
A public attack on social media sometimes ends in a cathartic resolution, where an attack on the culprits is carried out in the physical space.
The condemnation of the caricature titled “Kenjkavac,” a drawing of a baby with an ax stuck in its head, has also recently begun on social media. The intrusion into the Stara Kapetanija Gallery in the city of Zemun occurred via an act of destruction where fifteen masked people burst in and tore down everything from the gallery walls. The violent intrusion was carried out in an organized fashion, using tear gas.
The issue of the freedom of expression
The aforementioned drawing of the baby was pointed to as the reason for demolishing the artwork, mostly original illustrations and comics. The drawing’s authors, the artistic group “Momci,” which was even active during the 1990s, tried to employ black humor, illustrations and comics to offer an alternative and critical view of the gloomy events Serbian society faced back then.
The intrusion of bullies was preceded by accusations of satanism on social media and many other inaccurate slanders. It is still strange how a caricature from the 1990s could be so disturbing and how organized violence erupted in one of the most peripheral gallery spaces in Zemun.
The violence in the Stara Kapetanija Gallery should further be placed in the context of permanent pressure being applied to transform cultural spaces into commercial ones, which had already happened with the Graphic Collective in downtown Belgrade. The Stara Kapetanija Gallery is located in an attractive tourist and catering place on the Zemun quay.
After the violent acts were perpetrated, Serbia’s Ministry of Culture and Information published surprising statements written in a style notably inspired by the social media discourse.
In the first statement, they equated the perpetrators with the authors of the drawings, leading to justified outraged reactions from the united cultural scene. It is particularly important that the independent cultural scene in Serbia and accompanying professional associations, such as the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia, have come together, prompting additional reactions from the general public.
The protest that took place on this occasion, in front of the Art Pavilion Cvijeta Zuzorić, raised the question of the lack of the freedom of artistic expression in Serbia. The protest also served to strengthen the alliance of the actors in resisting and fighting for a better status and position for cultural workers in Serbia.
Although specific struggles within the cultural sector were discussed, the protest still accentuated that the issues must be open for resolution to all partners, since freedom of expression is a matter of the whole society, not only artists and their professional associations.
Feature photo: Vladan Jeremić.