Pitanje modernosti (The Modernity Issue), Oris 14, Zagreb 2002., str.112-122.
Living in the countries of the East, countries of transition, or the Western Balkans, may not always be as frustrating or as dull as it seems. The nineties saw the publication of several important studies and proceedings dealing with the socialist culture which is now being disowned by these contemporary societies through the process of transition. Most of this output includes cultural or historical essays or serious scientific papers addressing certain cultural segments of one-party systems from the perspective of the author or Western institutions. It is worth noting that most of the argumentation which backs up their theses relies on architecture, art or, in the broadest sense of the term, design.
Some of the interesting titles on "the culture of socialist countries" include the book of proceedings Style and Socialism - Modernity and Material Culture In Post-War Eastern Europe, edited by Susan E. Reid and David Crowley (Berg, Oxford, New York, 2000) and Political Posters in Central and Eastern Europe 1945-1995 by James Aulich and Marta Sylvestrova (Manchester University Press, Manchester/New York 1999). The reader may wish to note that this trend of the West dealing with the East rests for the best part on the foundations laid by Jeremy Aynsley in his book Nationalism and Internationalism - Design in the 20th Century (Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1993). I have mentioned just a few, perhaps the most popular titles on this subject, but each offers a considerable number of references for anyone who wants to study further.
Most contributions - essays, social, historical, or cultural studies focus on the notion of modernity. The subject is viewed as a hybrid of facts from a variety of social aspects, from politics and political theory/speech to the economy and material production, to culture in the narrowest sense of the term. The theses proposed are largely founded on the premise that the countries of the ex-socialist bloc were repressive and that they practised modernity as utopia, that is, as a social project in which individuals forsook their personal identity for the collective. Yet, it is inevitable that the urge for individual expression is stronger than any social project; in the former socialist countries this individual expression would take place on the margins of society, in relatively informal groups, following the pattern of international modern (pop) culture. These marginal phenomena served various authors seeking full-scale definitions of modernity, which even included the party-proclaimed ideological meaning of the term.
As I pointed out earlier, it is curious to note that these theses are basically argued through architectural design and projects, visual arts, industrial design, fashion design, or through the informal practice of sub-cultural groups which, inspired by Western youth movements, made their own space for their expression of identity.
All this suggests that, from a Western perspective, modernity in the former socialist countries is a complex, multi-layered construct which has not been fully exploited as the subject of scientific research or even more popular projects, and which has the potential to become a global trend.
As the majority of publications deal with the formative period of socialist culture in the fifties, it is worth noting that this phenomenon has received masterful treatment by Ivan Rogić in his book Tehnika i samostalnost (Technology and Independence), published by Hrvatska Sveučilišna Naklada, Zagreb, in the year 2000. Using an exhaustive sociological analysis of the fifties, this book provides a comprehensive "framework for the third wave of Croatian modernisation", for the present time at least.
According to Rogić, the fifties saw the political and economic establishment of the socialist administrative model within the framework of "the second wave of modernisation". Bearing in mind the political shift towards the socialist Yugoslavia and the heterogeneous structure of the society, one of the major functions of modernisation was to create a homogenous social entity, as much in the political/electoral sense as in the sense of cultural identification. Rogić makes an important point in saying that "the second wave of modernisation", which can be identified with industrialisation and the urban development of what had been an agrarian country, that is, a country that had not found its profile in "the first wave of modernisation" before World War 2, was in fact characterised by the search for "the subject of modernisation", that is, for the real and symbolical motor of this process.
With nationalisation, this position became vacant, and the bourgeoisie was to be replaced by a new social group which would share its interest to modernise. The working class became the motor, reinforced by peasants and more often than not by fair-minded intellectuals, to use the jargon of the times.
Needless to say, there was no real working class in the post-.war years (???)/forties (???) ) in the former Yugoslavia; instead, one of the dominating processes was the intensive migration of peasants to cities in order for them to become workers. The most effective decision in that direction was the introduction of workers' self-management, the goal of which was, in the words of the author, to remove "the embarrassment of legitimacy". This means that this concept of self-management had to compensate for the lack of "the subject of modernisation", whereas the concept of common property was viewed and applied as a kind of practical utopia or the promise of constant improvement towards the perfect socialist society through the imperfect stages of its development. That utopian practice worked towards the sustained production of workers in order to generate a base and obtain legitimacy. Hence, the term itself was not limited to a person who “participates” through his work in a “body collective”, but became the synonym of man, a kind of anthropological homo faber, or the Marxist “liberated man”. People who worked in culture were therefore called “cultural workers”, there were “healthcare workers”, and so on. Every field of social activity had the worker as its champion, and this was not only to give subsistence to the ruling party, which would often stress that it was the “avant-garde of the working class", but also to provide the basis for “the second wave of modernisation”. The fifties were entirely dedicated to the preparation of this process, which was continued and upgraded in the sixties and in later years.
Rogić’s understanding of the term modernisation is somewhat compatible with the term modernity which is used in Western studies of socialist culture. Assuming, of course, that, semantically, modernisationis a process, and that therefore modernity, as a designator, is its content. Is it possible to identify elements which would help define the semantic structure of this modernity at the level of language?
In all republics and provinces of the former federation (most of which are independent states now) modernity played an important role as a social category in the entire gamut of its interpretations, that is, from the “avant-gardism” of the ruling party, which was the central designator of political power, to “modernism, fashion or modernity”, which were the designators of everything that the same avant-garde party held undesirable in society and culture. This practice is quite likely a form of ignorant utopia, as it reflects the fragmentary insight into social reality characteristic of one-party systems tolerating only a single model of thinking. In other words, this coexistence of opposing linguistic/social levels of interpretation - where avant-garde is the major feature of a group which conserves the state of society and at the same time designates certain models of cultural production and behaviour as an undesirable expression of modernity – was a notable feature in the former socialist community. Considering that avant-garde and modernity have had a virtually identical semantic and historical position in figurative speech and social behaviour in developing Western societies, it is interesting to observe their dichotomising in terms of politically correct and culturally undesirable phenomena, that is, their duality as a kind of mainstream and alternative in the use of language and social practice in former Yugoslavia.
It is true, though, that avant-garde and modernity, as utopian figures, bear the promise of change and improvement as the major qualities of the scientific, technological and cultural progress of society. This concept was embraced by all the one-party systems of the Eastern bloc and other poor agrarian countries, whose peoples readily accepted the proclamations about progress being the way to a better life. The utopia of the southern Slavic union had its roots in the collective unconscious, which counted on future generations to reap the benefit of their fathers’ undertaking, that is, on communism as the reward for hard work in the socialist system, through absolute and equal participation in reality, from power to material welfare. This concept underlies the much proclaimed avant-gardism, or to be more exact, the modernising role of the ruling political subject. National emblems bear witness to the modernisation of society, particularly at its beginnings in the late forties and the fifties; the flag, the federal coat of arms and the coats of arms of every republic and province were in fact traditional emblems re-designed with the addition of modern, non-ethnic symbols of industrial progress. In this context, modernity had a clear political meaning, as a programme aiming towards the creation of real social conditions and relationships.
On the other hand, much of the modern quality was attributed to all those cultural phenomena which stemmed from the other side of official ideology and programmes, and which were often denounced by that same ideology as "modernist, fashionable or modern". This description applied to architecture, design, pop music, visual arts, literature and a lifestyle which had little to do with the concept of the avant-garde and much more with that of modernity. In other words, if the avant-garde quality referred to the urbanisation of the rural population which moved to the cities in order to reinforce the electoral body of workers, then modernity referred to the expression of the common awareness of urban life in big cities, which was more open to influences from across the border, particularly after its relative opening up in the sixties.
This attempt to distinguish the two terms has, above all, a conceptual value for a future, comprehensive study of the former socialist country, as both terms often applied to their protagonists, as well as to certain projects and events, particularly after the second half of the seventies when the country was swept by a wave of democratisation. Until then, the ruling party had been implementing its rigid strategy of ignorant utopia, as it had persistently refused to see the changing trends in real life, as much at the level of the protagonists of modernisation whose avant-garde it proclaimed to be, as at the level of the creators of culture, whom it denounced as modern.
This fragmentary view of reality was sustained despite a number of institutions, scientists, and professionals who could have warned their political sponsors that the heirs of the peasants who had become workers preferred Jack Kerouac and Jim Morrison to ( local political heroes) Rade Končar or Vladimir Bakarić. Yet, for reasons we can only speculate on, they chose not to, and it is quite likely that the whole south Slavic political project failed because of this incapability, or unwillingness, to understand the dynamic of real life, that is, to acknowledge the democratisation of society. In other words, it failed by failing to acknowledge individual sensibility – which is the same as to say one’s identity. This was also the reason for the failure of all collectivist totalitarian projects in the West.
While the party gathered at a variety of meetings, congresses and forums which were meant to realise the socialist utopia, there were parallel informal “forums” such as students’ galleries, theatres, cinemas, concert halls and even in flats and houses. These gave birth to a new, modern culture which was aware of world events (???) and was able to identify itself with them.
The terminological and semantic discrepancy between official policy and the reality of cultural production revealed a wide gap between the two concepts of the modernisation of society. By the end of the eighties this gap had become unbridgeable.
To conclude, the utopian, political, and avant-garde modernity was but a component of the wider process of the modernisation of the former south Slavic socialist state. This component contributed to the whole through its political symbols, ideological discourse and concepts which brought industrial development. This, in turn, gave a broader context to modernisation, not only through urbanisation and city development, but also through industrial production and even consumption, and through the design and promotion of everyday material goods.
The modernist cultural concept of artistic production is the other component of the modernisation of the former socialist Yugoslavia. This component contributed to the whole through ideas and realisation which promoted the democratisation of cultural and artistic action as symbols of freedom in general. This idea expressed itself through a variety of artistic media, such as visual arts, film, music, literature, and theatre. An important role was played by new artistic organisation, that is, by a particular social climate which allowed freedom of action beyond ideological limits (artistic colonies, groups, students’ galleries and theatres, festivals of light (????) music, alternative social activity, and so on).
Together, these two components constitute the whole of modernisation as a cultural process in the former federal republic, which is now subject to historical and theoretical review, that is, as a phenomenon that is now historically concluded.
There are many historical facts that need investigation ( research???) before this issue of modernity is completely clarified. First, there were different means which mediated the ideology, such as national emblems (design???) and money (currency design???) both as the most prominent generators of the community’s identity and as the mediators of the idea of modernity. Second, the symbolical communication of ideological messages deserves particular attention, above all posters as the means of mass communication in the community. Third, an important cultural role in the socialist federation was played by the architecture of housing which was the embodiment of the process of modernisation, and particularly by industrial design in the context of the urbanisation of society.
Last, there is a series of strictly cultural phenomena such as the visual arts, music events, film, and the activities of certain cultural institutions which constitute part of the modernisation process and deserve particular attention, from the perspective of production and as a means of communication. The list of potential subjects of study constituting the content of modernisation in the former Yugoslavia is more or less closed, with market communication as the new form of social action .
This issue of modernity is therefore still an uncharted area. Certain attempts have already been made in the form of exhibitions, publications and symposia, largely focusing on the cultural production of the fifties and on cataloguing the symbolical means of getting ideological messages across (a symposium on the fifties held in Zagreb, exhibitions and catalogues of political posters in Croatia between 1940 and 1950 in the Croatian Historical Museum in 1991; the exhibition "The Century of the Political Poster" organised by the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992). The topicality of this issue is well illustrated by the outstanding success of the Slovene exhibition "Vsi na volitve - Plakat kot politični medij na Slovenskem 1945-1999 (All to Elections – The Poster as a Political Medium in Slovenia, 1945-1999)" accompanied by a catalogue published by the Museum of Architecture in Ljubljana in 2000.
This more or less wraps up considerations about the symbolic mediation of modernisation as a process. Further systematic study of material production, architecture and design is necessary to identify all the layers of modernity as the content of this process.