A Culture of Disgruntled Subjects
Author: Nebojša Šerić Shoba, artist (New York, 1 April 2012)
The occupation of Bosnia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1907 brought something good aside from the unfortunate fact that the country had been occupied once more. That event was preceded by a period after the Berlin Congress (1878) during which the future of Bosnia had been seriously considered, and certain things happened for which we cannot be completely sure as to what exactly they were. There were considerations that Bosnia (later re-named Bosnia and Herzegovina after one of the Bosnian provinces was added to the country’s name for easier subsequent annexation) should, much like Serbia and Montenegro, gain sovereign statehood—independence form both Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, this did not occur due to various factors (first of all due to the lack of internal sense of statehood, which was undeveloped), but there were indications that such options were considered.
One such attempt, in a beautiful and grand manner, introduced the wish to establish Bosnia as an independent state with all its diversity. It happened at the renowned Paris Expo 1900, where Bosnia participated with the “Bosnian” pavilion under its own flag.
Of course, all the discussion about Bosnian independence was terminated by the Austro-Hungarian annexation, which lasted all the way until the Serbian occupation of Bosnia in 1918, when Serbian troops marched into the territory that they had laid claim to from 1840s, under the influence of “national awakenings” in Europe and formation of national states after the French Revolution.
The first museums in Bosnia were built by the Austro-Hungarians who knew that a local identity had to be formed (under Austrian control) in order to give the local population a sense of belonging to the Empire, and to ensure that local populations would be equally represented through their cultural achievements. Those same institutions that were built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today, for the first time in many years, are being forced to close their doors to visitors. In a strange way, the mentality of subjecthood which is still present in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to fortify the belief amongst the population that it is the foreigners who should take care of our culture (in a way they have been doing with our country for a long time). The Soros Foundation, Pro Helvetia, the Goethe Institute and other foreign cultural foundations have been accepted as something that will remain here forever, providing us with a possibility to reach into their money sacks whenever we need to repair ceilings in galleries or finance an artistic production. The nonexistence of a functioning state, whose hands were tied by the Dayton Peace Agreement, has done its work – the funding of institutions of national importance has been extremely humble, even insignificant. We could say that this had been done consciously, in order for Bosnia and Herzegovina to remain of a “questionable identity” and with the intention to divide its cultural heritage into three ethno-national parts, according to the criteria set up in 1992, where “each people on its own territory” is responsible for “its own culture”. In such a scenario, all joint cultural institutions are destined to die, faced with the lack of funding and a slow demise.
To make things worse, the attitude of the public towards its own culture is catastrophic. The citizens of Sarajevo (and of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well) continue to think that these institutions should take care of themselves, as if they weren’t in any way connected to the citizens of B&H, who wash their hands of this shame, yet which none the less continues to gnaw at everyone somewhere deep inside. In a situation where the whole society is morally corrupt, when seizing the possession of everything has become the main ideology, it can hardly be expected that anyone should take into consideration museums and their survival.
In B&H there are no people who would without any encouragement and of their own free will donate any amount of money to national galleries and museums, which is considered normal in the western countries where the awareness of the importance of one’s culture is of a much higher level. An average Bosnian rich person would always say that he/she doesn’t have enough money, while stepping into a brand new Mercedes-Benz, and it never crosses his/her mind that instead of buying one more Mercedes-Benz (which he/she doesn’t need in the first place) he/she could donate that money to a national gallery, securing for himself/herself a respected place in the society, improving the quality of the gallery and events that would follow. People in B&H always wonder “why all famous foreign exhibitions always bypass B&H” without ever trying to do anything to change that. Nothing will ever happen by itself, especially if there are no funds provided for as much.
Therefore, a lack of individual initiative is currently the most significant problem. How can we persuade citizens that in the event that the state does not want (or misleadingly “is not capable of”) to financially support cultural institutions, that they themselves should do that, bypassing the predetermined process in which the funds are first taken from the budget and only then directed towards the aforementioned institutions? How can we activate a public fund for museums and galleries without politics interfering and wanting, like gangsters, to control all financial aspects in society? The answer is, we can’t…
Many ways exist in which quality fundraising for work and functioning of cultural institutions could be accomplished. Unfortunately, the majority of them (auctions, donations etc) are doomed exactly because of the lack of awareness among average citizens. Admission charges should also provide a source of revenue; however, people in B&H rarely visit museums saying “nothing ever happens there,” forgetting that it is exactly them who should by paying for their entrance tickets to ensure better programs. Instead, attacks aimed at galleries and museums are becoming more frequent, as it is expected of them to do business and be competitive on the market in an environment where no one buys art and no one wants to donate a single penny for as much. Schools, which should be the constant visitors to all galleries and museums, barely ever do as much, while children are not being acquainted with their own identity, they are not being taught to visit these institutions – it is much easier to sit in a the classroom showing only images which in the end do not represent anything.
A comprehensive transformation of the whole society is necessary in order to improve the current situation, raising the awareness of citizens concerning the importance of one’s culture (not that of an instant-festival character which is abundant). All print and electronic media should participate in such an action, as well as all educational institutions, academies, citizen’s associations, bypassing the state and all other retrograde assemblies which continue to corrupt and destroy what little that has remained of cultural significance. The staff employed in museums and galleries should likewise be a little more agile, and individuals whose main profession is economic management rather than art should also be employed. We need to encourage foreign experts on culture to come to B&H, and at the same time send our curators and managers to be educated and trained in renowned global cultural institutions. Internationalization is necessary in order to connect with a world which keeps advancing day by day, while our society keeps stagnating. Isolationism always was and remains the greatest enemy of our society, which continues to look at its own feet while walking instead of holding its head high to see what is happening on the horizon.
The situation is indeed difficult and a long-term strategy is needed in order to exit this crisis. To make the best moves we need competent people with international experience, alongside with financial analyses, strong efforts in promotion and a transformation of a (currently) indifferent public, while working on linking all cultural institutions in the country and networking all positive forces which have the capability to make a difference in this mire which keeps swallowing everything around it.