On 3th March in Belgrade died Momčilo Momo Kapor famous Serbian writer, painter and a journalist. He was known as a “writer in jeans” and creator of urban Serbian literature. He was also known as a war reporter for famous Belgrade daily Politika during the 90’s and a hard core nationalist very active during and after Milošević era. I was thinking a lot should I post something on this occasion or not because it seemed to me that now, when he is not among us anymore; we forgot many other things besides his artistic work. First of all, we forgot when and how he was a journalist. That he also was not just a member of the Committee for Protection of Radovan Karadžić but he also illustrated Karadžić’s children’s book. Even more, Kapor compared Karadžić’s book (published while he was still at large) “The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night” with Joyce’s “Dubliners” and added that Karadzic belongs to the tradition of brilliant authors who were condemned in their time such as Ezra Pound or Oscar Wilde. I am wondering how he found that comparison? Anyway, this post will not be mainly dedicated to Kapor but to an idea which crossed my mind while I was reading comments on forums and news about Kapor’s dead. People were mentioning how they grew up with Kapor’s books, how magnificent artist and writer he was, and witty bohemian and unique chronicler of Belgrade… And I was wondering, whether the political engagement of artists can degrade their work? How can someone who writes about beauty, youth, love, freedom, emotions etc. to negate all those things in a way by his/her political acts?
These and similar things are very important because nationalism in Serbia started as a specific cultural project before 1990 and Matica Srpska as well as Writers’ Association played an important role in that process of ethno –nationalistic revival. One of the “cult” books from that time was Danko Popović’s book “The book about Milutin”.
I know that some of my friends from elementary and high school are going to criticize me for the attempt to destroy Serbian literary work about whose values we studied together in school. Some other will say that about dead people we should speak all the best and that I have to stop criticizing the great artists only because they, in those terrible times, were patriots. Or, as Vasa Pavković, a writer and a critic, said that we have to separate Kapor’s political engagement in the past from his artistic work that left important mark on Serbian art. But, can we do that? And more important, should we do that? Because, some of those artists, who once took a part in the “patriotic” defense, decided to use that same art in non artistic purposes. They used their popularity and the fact that people were trusting them as sensitive artistic souls who would not trample an ant, to propagate conspiracy theories and noble cause of the war. So, can we separate a poet or a writer from an actual person? Can we in a same manner make a separation between Radovan Karadžić who also wrote some children’s books and Radovan Karadžić who, on the other side, was responsible for killing some other children? Are we speaking about one or two persons?
Of course, Momo Kapor is not the only one. Allow me to remind you on some great names who, in the hard times for Serbian state, stood up and defend their country with a lot of passion. With the same passion, some of them also praised and gloried Tito, Yugoslavia and communism. In the Tito’s time artists like those were known as political workers deeply in love in idea of brotherhood and unity and the Great, charismatic comrade Tito to whom they wrote and sang the songs. During the 90’s they became (with all due respect to some honorable exceptions) , everyone in their own field of course, passionate patriots and fighters for “the Serbian cause”, Don Quixotes who were fighting against the world of conspiracy and injustices done to poor and tormented Serbs. Serbs who, as one of them once said “were Europe even before the Europe”. For this occasion I picked up some children’s writers and poets.
Among them we can find even Milovan Danojlić who wrote one of the famous children poems “How the trams sleep” (“Kako spavaju tramvaji”). In the same group is Milovan Vitezović, former childeren’s poet and writer. I remember Vitezović, actually I remember his name from the ending scene for children’s programs, cartoons and well known (at least to us, who were still watching cartoons during the nineties) puppet show “Good night kids” (“Laku noć deco”) that replaced the regular cartoons at 7.15. I remember how at first I was disappointed when the regular cartoon was replaced with boring puppet show with a fox, a wolf, a rabbit, a raven & Co. And I also remember that my disappointment increased when somehow the famous Dnevnik 2 became extended to much and everyone were worried and my parents wanted to watch news on some other channel and we couldn’t watch our cartoon before Dnevnik. Sometimes, instead of a cartoon they would even play some political add for one of many elections or some political TV show. And in those occasions, my sister and I used to say: “Please Milovan Vitezović, play some cartoon. If nothing else, play at least boring “Good night kids”…”. That’s how I remember Vitezović….only as a name of the guy who controls cartoons on the TV. Later, when I grew up a bit, I saw his picture too and heard that he wasn’t just a person responsible for playing cartoons for children like me. No, he was more than that – the main guilty for “the happening of the people” in Ušće. After 2000, and I remember that quite well, he also gave his modest patriotic contribution to the artistic part of celebration of Takovo uprising in 2004 during the mandate of Koštunica’s government.
The next one is Dobrica Erić, well-known poet who had many school tours within Serbia. He came in mine elementary school too. I remember that I even bought a book that he was promoting in that time – that’s why he done those tours in the first place – a book of poems for children. His songs were about Fairy’s Valley (Vilina dolina), Kalipolje, Gruža, butterflies and flowers. That was in 1991. Soon after, he replaced Fairy’s Valley with “A song of Defiance” (Prkosna pesma) which has been passionately presented during the years by Ivana Žigon (with Matija Beckovic one of the greatest defenders of orthodoxy and Serbianhood) – another artist who stood up to “defend” her/his country from” the foreign invaders and enemies”, yesterday’s brothers, sisters and friends from other republics. In the same time, in an attempt to defend their country, those artists even labeled their fellow citizens who were against the war, as traitors and as foreign mercenaries ….To bad that they didn’t think about protecting their country from themselves.
Rajko Petrov Nogo, children’s poet, the editor of the Anthology of Serbian’s heroic songs and the man whose work was the mandatory reading for small school children during the years. In the same time, he was a senator of Republika Srpska and on one occasion during July 1994 asked how that “our enemies do not fear of our unpaid blood. We must try our portion of blood” (“Zar se naši neprijatelji ne boje naše krvi neizmirene. Mi moramo pokusati svoju porciju krvi”). As Marko Vešović in his text once said: “In Nogo Chetnik ate poet, and Serb (ate –author’s comment) man” (“U Nogi je četnik pojeo pesnika, a Srbin čoveka”). After the democratic changes, as a famous poet and the author of a poem “Nedremano oko”, Nogo also took part in the ceremony held in Marića’s trench on the occasion of 200 years of modern Serbian state. As an excellent poet, he found appropriate words for that occasion too: speaking about the revison of Serbian history done by the ICTY, Nogo said that Serbian people are not a hostage but concealer (jatak) of two Serbian princes who are hiding from the tribunal.
In that group of actively involved artists are also Dobrica Ćosić the father of the nation and a former president of the smaller Yugoslavia, Matija Bećković, Emir Kusturica, Milorad Pavić, Ljiljana Habjanović Đurović; Milić od Mačve, Siniša Kovačević with his famous play Đeneral Milan Nedić that was played 250 times in Zvezdara teatar, Đogo Gojko ex-dissident poet, Branislav Brana Crnčević whose name appeared several times during the Hague trials… They all (and some other too) gave their modest contributions in the time “without cartoons”. They all with their hammers minted Serbian ethno nationalism on the anvil of love for their country. Hammer blow by hammer blow…Some of them were only humble artistic creators of the war backgrounds ( tv shows as an anesthetic for enormous inflation and degradation of human dignity and quality of life), some of them were just praising the beloved presidential couple (like Ljiljana Habjanović did) some of them were even directly involved while others “just reported about the war and how Croats killed Serbian children”. They were using the same pens with which they wrote those magnificent master works. Those words of hatred were made in the same heads that produced children’s poems, stories etc.
So should we try to separate their political engagement from their artistic work? I don’t want to make any list, but should we forget all that? Should we say well it is ok, those were hard times, people were lost in the reality etc… Yes, but someone created that atmosphere? Publicly spoken words demand responsibility and no matter how good, talented or famous artist one is, that doesn’t relieve him/her of responsibility. Or I am terrible wrong?