How Yugoslavia’s “Self-managed” Socialism Made the Labor of Art Invisible

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Yugoslav art practices involving performance, video and amateur arts enabled an invisible class stratification to emerge within the independent socialist society, with many of the problems class divisions exert in Western, capitalist systems.

In 1958, the Montenegrin film director Branislav Bastać made a short documentary film entitled Grad Od Deset Ljeta (literally, “The City of Ten Summers”). It was a gentle piece about the building of Novi Travnik, a planned city in central Bosnia, from the late 1940s onwards. One of its key themes it opened out was that, in these early years, it was a city of men- construction workers and the labor force of the Bratstvo (Brotherhood) factory. There is humor in the film when it depicts the incompetence of men at domestic tasks such as making coffee, keeping house, and when the arrival of mothers, wives and daughters to fulfill these tasks are welcomed. The absence of the women’s gendered skills in these early years is noted.

The invisible and unpaid aspects of domestic labor are one of the two fault lines that Katja Praznik examines in her remarkable book Art Work: Invisible Labour and the Legacy of Yugoslav Socialism. In a fascinating overview of the complex currents of cultural policy from socialist Yugoslavia in the period 1945-91, Praznik, uniquely, links the invisible, unpaid domestic labor of women with the invisible, unpaid labor of artists, carefully differentiating between these two spheres of economic understanding, but drawing valuable lessons from their intersections. It will come as a surprise to many as Pražnik charts the emergence of a proto-neoliberal model for art work in Yugoslavia in the late 1970s, and the acceleration of that in the 1980s as economic and inflationary crises intensified.

“Attempts to build a nebulously defined and identitarian ‘civil society’ foundered through a lack of class analysis and a sufficient separation from the system that it critiqued.”

In the opening two chapters, the author runs through a valuable history of the theory of how artistic and domestic labor have been conceptualized, and with what consequences. Essentially, this can be presented as a binary between the private selflessness of unremunerated domestic labor versus the very public reward of admiration and favorable comment for (male) artists, with this being presented as an intangible reward masking the lack of appropriate financial reward for the labor undertaken in making an exhibition. 

Following the Informbiro period of 1948-56—during which Yugoslavia was expelled from the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties (COMINFORM) and cold-shouldered by the Soviet Union until a later rapprochement with Khruschev—the country aimed to build its own brand of “self-managed” socialism in which workers participated alongside management in determining the strategic direction of their workplace. This shift required a number of complex and nuanced debates within the League of Yugoslav Communists and wider society, both at federal and republican level. Such debates profoundly shaped the ways in which cultural production was consumed, discussed and displayed, and the ways in which artists were treated.

Quite properly, Praznik identifies the period 1974-91 as a period of growth for a new definition of the artist as “socialist entrepreneur,” and explains the economic and theoretical underpinnings of this new role in late Yugoslavia. This period was characterized by the drafting and implementation of the final socialist Yugoslav constitution in 1974—which increased the potential for autonomous action at the level of the constituent republics—and the gradual altering of the principles of self-managed socialism in the 1980s that allowed for individual ‘entrepreneurialism’ and the emergence of small private businesses. Praznik deftly outlines the 

These geopolitical pressures also helped to shape the “independent art practices” of performance, video and amateur arts performed at student and other cultural centers around the Yugoslav Federation. This enabled a class stratification in late socialism between those artists supported by the main government cultural institutions and those obliged to exhibit only in much less well-resourced independent cultural centers- the so-called druge linje or “second line” artists identified by Ješa Denegri when speaking of the Yugoslav Dokumenta exhibitions in Sarajevo in 1987-89. 

Not only that, but also, as the author argues,

The implications of this are quite profound, not only for an understanding of the marketized “radical” practices from Yugoslavia, now well-represented in global art histories, but for a grasp of the precarity experienced globally by contemporary artists today. It moves our understanding of contemporary art practices in Yugoslavia beyond mere aesthetics and cultural history, carefully navigating the very particular narratives from this space. It also offers valuable breadth and depth to established theorizing around the value of culture and thinking on of contemporary art in Marxian terms by writers such as Dave Beech, Dani Child, and Gregory Sholette as the product of a vast under-employed reserve army of labor- treated elsewhere by writers such as Dave Beech, Dani Child, and Gregory Sholette.

This book is not just for those who know and care about art and cultural politics in Yugoslavia, a country whose memory, beyond the region, is now fading rapidly, other than in the minds of a dispersed global diaspora.”

Praznik concludes her study with a focus on the independent artist Goran Djordjević (“the Kazimir Malevich of Belgrade”) and para-institutions in the context of Slovenia in the 1980s. These case studies are really valuable in that they delineate differing reasons for the lack of success that Djordjević had for his call for a global artist’s strike in 1979,  and the growing Slovenian calls for greater autonomy, and later, independence, within the loosening framework of the Yugoslav federation in the 1980s. Only forty artists worldwide responded to Djordjević’s call, with many others expressing sympathy but finding themselves, as Mel Ramsden put it, lacking the financial flexibility to boycott the art system.” Meanwhile attempts to build a nebulously defined and identitarian “civil society” foundered through a lack of class analysis and insufficient separation from the system that it critiqued.

This book is not just for those who know and care about art and cultural politics in Yugoslavia, a country whose memory, beyond those tied to the region, is now fading rapidly, other than in the minds of a dispersed global diaspora. The real value in the book is the explicit analysis of the western bourgeois conception of art, it’s supposed counter in actually existing socialism, and the gradual erosion of the pay and conditions of art workers according to national political imperatives and rapidly shifting geopolitical trends. As such, it deserves a large and diverse audience and seems set to have a long shelf-life and value beyond the current systemic polycrisis.