Artists and Politics – A Dangerous Liaison

This article originally appeared in Balkan Insight,

I grew up with a deep aversion against socialist realism and the pseudo-culture that it propagated and that surrounded me, demanded by a political system, which openly oppressed the individual in the name of a collective, allegedly higher good.

Ever since I think that artists do have a role to play in society – to provoke. Provoke emotions, provoke thought, provoke dispute. As the maximal impersonation of the individual will to create, the artist puts him or herself in a dialogue with the collective, often in conflict. As a member of the civil society, the artist can offer a corrective to developments within the collective.
I also learned to be suspicious of too much proximity between arts and politics, of state artists and especially of those whose ambition it is to become such a state artist. Politicians have a natural drive to want to make history, to leave marks.
It is these servile artists, who help them realise their dreams. In no case this symbiosis has led to beauty, especially in public spaces. The invasion of politics onto public space has been led to perfection in the 20th century. Especially in the affected, post-totalitarian regions, the de-politicisation of public space would have been a chance for a restart.
Most, if not all societies have missed this opportunity. Communist iconography has been replaced by national symbolics, often in conjunction with religious elements. The imagination of a glorious past, regardless of its real background, has produced quite a number of absurdities. Skopje seems to be no exception, although the national and religious imprints are just about to be created. Monuments – equestrian, of course, and monumental buildings. Neo. Something. Neo-classicist, neo-baroque, neo-renaissance. And the project has a name – Skopje 2014.
So far, so unsurprising. A political caste is using national symbolics to try and create an exclusivist identity, inventing a continuity from the Macedonia of Alexander the Great to today. The ultimate act of hubris would certainly be to portray the own party as the enforcers of Alexander’s dream. The regional competition driven by an unnecessary complex of inferiority, which imposes the perverse logic that you have to be the oldest nation to count, this competition would enter the next round.
The problem with this kind of competition is that it bears an intrinsic totalitarian reflex. The equation is simple. You are one of us, or you are evil. You are with us, or you are against us. Little space for ME, the individual, with all the complex processes, multiple identities and legacies, for the creative inconsistencies and discrepancies defining it. And in this respect it stands in contradiction to what we are desperately trying to defend as European values.
In terms of architecture and urban planning, Skopje is a city of missed chances, of bizarre coincidences and strange ideas. During the 20th century, several waves of modernisation have ultimately been absorbed by the narrow-mindedness of local politicians. Just think how the project for  a recovery and rejuvenation after the earthquake 1963 elaborated by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange was turned into a caricature.
The transition period has brought upon not only a whole series of distinctively unaesthetic buildings, but also an unprecedented level of privatisation and illegal appropriation of public space.

Skopje 2014 threatens to add to this bizarre cabinet. And because it is far too ambitious, the project also threatens to add to the contemporary ruins in the city, of the likes of the former Jugobanka or the Goce Delcev printing house.
Instead of a public discourse on the contents of the project, its opponents are demonised, a parliamentary debate is prevented form happening. At the occasion of a staged discussion, I was surprised and intrigued to hear the following from an artist, who at least until now was identified with contemporary approaches, Aleksandar Stankovski: “In this case the government represents the taste of the citizens, who vote and thus make an aesthetic choice”.
It has been a while since I’ve read such nonsense. It would be funny if it weren’t dangerous. First, it is a carte blanche to the government to do whatever it pleases, because it represents the citizens’ taste. As if aesthetics were part of the electoral process. Second, it implies that people would have given up their right to an opinion by casting their ballot. Third, it implies political supremacy over aesthetics. Fourth, it contains a hardly veiled threat that any opposition to this is illegitimate. It is “us” against “them”, the good old collective, totalitarian reflex. I can’t help being reminded of the repulsion I felt as a child.

1 comment
  1. anthony barilla said:

    nicely said. thank you.

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