gordana.novakovic on Fri, 26 Mar 2004 10:12:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Five years ago it was old news, now it is history

May 16 1999


To understand the Serbs, look at their art in Kosovo,
says WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK. These depictions of
war and persecution are the focus of the country's beliefs
Serbia's art and soul

I came across a monk on the Internet last week,
broadcasting from one of the most beautiful of all the
Serbian churches in Kosovo and Metohija - to give the
province its full Serbian nomenclature, for a change - from
Decani, near the Albanian border. Metohija means "land of
the churches". Which is what Kosovo is to the Serbs. They
also call it their Sacred Land. If you look at a map of the
religious sites in the province you will see immediately why.
The landscape is dotted with so many schematic crosses
that you wonder where the cities might be fitted in. And
how could our bombs possibly miss all these churches and
monasteries and convents?

The distressed Internet monk was telling his readers, rather
elegantly I thought, that "history in the Balkans is like
quicksand", and he was urging fellow Serbs not to allow
this quicksand of history to suck them down. "If we cannot
move forward now, we will suffer again," he warned.
Unfortunately, the broadcast was dated to the middle of
1998. This was just another piece of ancient Internet junk,
floating uselessly on the Web.

As it happens, I know the monastery in Decani. I visited it
more than 20 years ago as an eager art student trying to
acquire a wider knowledge of Byzantine art. The old
Orient Express used to go as far as Istanbul, uniting, in
steam and bumps, the art of the West with that of the East,
and I was able to arrange a hop-off as it passed through
Tito's illusionistically coherent Yugoslavia. What an
important service that bandit-attracting train used to
provide as it chugged through the Balkans and made
ignorance more difficult.

It is fair to say, I suppose, that Byzantine art is tough to
admire. It talks down to you like a sentencing judge.
There's an intrinsic sternness to it. You must enter such
dark and inviolately serious churches to encounter it. And
then you must appreciate so much repetition. Nevertheless,
tourists flock to magnificent Ravenna happily enough; and
the delights of ancient Istanbul are always being eagerly
sampled. But the glories of Serbian Kosovo remain
significantly more obscure. Even today - unbelievably -
they appear to us to form a very minor piece of the
Kosovo jigsaw, but to the Serbs they have never been
that. To the Serbs they constitute an indestructible
700-year-old proof of their rightful ownership of the
sacred land.

The monastery of Visoki Decani was founded early in the
14th century, and I wish I could remember it better. I
remember that it is approached along a spectacular
wooded valley and that the outside is striped in soft marble
pinks and whites. The interior, as I recall it, is completely
covered from floor to dome with frescoes, executed, I
read, between 1335 and 1350. These are considered to
be the greatest masterpieces of Serbian religious art. But
are they still there? Is the treasury at Decani still filled with
those curious golden crosses, so absurdly ornate that they
have ceased entirely to be cross-shaped? Are the
hand-painted medieval gospels still glistening in their dusty
glass boxes? And over the crossing, is there still a giant
Christ looking down on you with one of those terrifyingly
accusatory biblical stares that are a Byzantine speciality?
Who knows? It is an ugly irony of this dumb and ever
dumber war that, even though art played such a critical role
in its instigation, nobody appears to have taken the slightest
bit of interest in it since the fighting began. Not on our side,
at least.

It wasn't always so. That gaseous cultural dreamer and
professional Frenchman, André Malraux, looking out
across the beautiful Serbian monasteries of Kosovo, with
their dramatic clusters of grapefruit domes and their huge
expanses of floor-to-ceiling fresco, was moved to write:
"Culture, when it is the most precious possession, is never
the past." God, but he was right. Malraux died in 1976. He
had been a liberal, but he died a Gaullist who loved the
sound of his own conservatism, and certainly wrote too
much. In most modern situations I would rank him as one
of the century's most eminently skippable cultural
commentators. But in his few sad thoughts on Kosovo,
published a quarter of a century ago in one of those
impressively convoluted studies of the Slavs that are a
Gallic speciality, Malraux revealed himself to be an
excellent reader of the Serb mind.

Being French, and of the old school, he understood
perfectly the power not only of culture but also of history.
Today, in new Britain, it seems to me we no longer
understand the power of either. Which is why we have
attempted so childishly, in Tony-talk, to reduce the
complex Balkan scenario into a simple fairy tale about a
nasty dictator leading his people astray. It is why we have
ignored, so fully, the art of Kosovo, and failed, so entirely,
to appreciate the part it has played in shaping these grim
unfoldings. It is why the first battle of Kosovo of 1389 - in
which the Christian Serbs were defeated by the Muslim
Turks, ushering in 500 years of astonishingly stubborn
Serbian cultural resistance to Islam - is written about, in the
few instances that it is written about, as if all that it
provides is some minor proof of chronic Serbian
old-fashionedness. And it is why we have ended up
blundering so violently into a game of space invaders in the
skies above the Balkans. Because real history means so
little to us, we have forgotten how much it continues to
mean to others.

And please do not deny that our appreciation of history
has shrunk into dumbness. This year was the 350th
anniversary of the beheading of Charles I. All year long I
have been staggered by the so-what? responses this
anniversary has encouraged in New Britain. The Queen's
Gallery put on a half-hearted display of royal portraits. A
show of Stuart prints popped up at the British Museum.
And that's it. A nation that found its rightful monarch guilty
of crimes against the state, then somehow found the black
determination to try him and behead him, can no longer be
bothered to remember why. It couldn't happen in Serbia,
believe me. In fact, I do not think it could have happened
anywhere east of Dover. Yet, over here, the national
memory of the execution of a king has been discarded as
easily as last year's flares.

I have been remembering Malraux a lot recently, as I sit
here worrying about what has happened to the great
storehouses of Byzantine art that are the Serbian
monasteries of Kosovo and Metohija, about the fate of
which I have been unable to find a single informed word
among the millions of others that have been pouring out of
reporters and opinion-formers since our bombing began.
That extraordinary three-in-one church, The patriarchate of
Pec, for six centuries the headquarters of the Serbian
Orthodox faith, set in another spectacular gorge, close to
Decani, close to Albania - is it still intact? During those 500
years of Muslim rule by the Turks, Pec and the other
monasteries of the Sacred Land provided an obvious and
reliable focus for Serb nationalist dreams.

And what about Gracinica? A strange church, as I
remember it, with too many domes crowded above too
small a nave, located a few miles outside Pristina, and
started in 1313. The Turks burnt it down a few decades
later. So the Serbs rebuilt it. Burnt down and rebuilt, burnt
down and rebuilt - the famous ecclesiastical sites of
Kosovo kept the Serbian embers glowing, for century after
century, with remarkable success.

So. When the Bosnians converted to Islam, the Serbs
didn't. When the Albanians converted to Islam, the Serbs
didn't. For 500 years they believed themselves to be
fighting a Christian jihad on behalf of the civilised West
against the invading eastern Muslims. When the Turks
were finally expelled, in the false dawn that preceded the
Great War, in came the Bulgarians. And the Austrians.
And the Italians. Then the Nazis. Even more clearly than
my people, the Poles, the Serbs have had to define
themselves through their opposition to their neighbours.
And their churches, packed to the rafters with so much
stern and rousing and ancient religious propaganda, have
been the chief artistic focus of that opposition.

So. When the Croats sided with Hitler, the Serbs didn't.
When the Albanians sided with Hitler, the Serbs didn't.
Until, finally, in about 1960, under the wonky tarpaulin of
Tito's communism, the Muslim population of Kosovo,
swollen by wholesale illegal immigration from the mightily
poor and pseudo-Maoist Albania, and fattened by the
strict Muslim forbidding of birth control, finally overtook
and outnumbered the indigenous Serb population. And 40
years of recent history began the process of attempting to
outweigh 700 years of historic struggle. Monasteries had
stones thrown through their windows (many had already
been converted into mosques). Graves were desecrated.
Churches were torched. It is to the defence of those
churches that the Serbs clearly believed they were rushing
when they invaded, so brutally and quickly, Kosovo and

The coverage of the Kosovo conflict has, time after time,
struck me with its high-tech ignorance of these powerful
lo-tech causes. Not a word is ever uttered about the great
church art of Serbia. Not enough has been devoted to the
deep historical roots of the war. A few brief references
have been made to the historic Battle of Kosovo of 1389,
but not with any deep ambition to take it seriously. Not a
line, that I have read, has been quoted from the marvellous
cycle of epic Kosovo poems with which the Serbs, "a
nation of bards", have been indoctrinating their children,
from birth, since the victory of the Turks. I suppose, in new
Britain, you feel like something of a berk reciting the
famous curse of Stefan Musich:

If any Serb, or man of Serbian birth,Or any man of
Serbian kith or kin,If any such a man comes not with
meTo battle on the field of Kosovo -Never shall he
know a son or daughter.Whatsoever he may touch
shall wither:Vineyard, field of wheat - his sweatand
labourFruitless, and his generation barren!

Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd. This service is provided on Times
Newspapers' standard terms and conditions. To inquire about a licence to
reproduce material from The Sunday Times, visit the Syndication website.

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