Art and politics: the role of art in US-Yugoslav relations during the Cold War (1948-1970)
This thesis explores the role of art in US-Yugoslav relations during the early Cold War period. It focuses on the instrumentalisation of art as a tool of cultural diplomacy by both the Yugoslav regime and the US government between ca. 1948 and 1970, a particularly dynamic period of political, cultural, and artistic exchanges. Yugoslavia occupied a unique geographical and socio-political frontier position between East and West: it was the only communist country that actively cooperated with both sides. As a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, from 1961 onwards Yugoslavia aimed for an independent path in world politics, but was often “swinging on the fence” between the two blocs. According to existing scholarship, the rise of US art went hand-in-hand with Cold War politics, as the US government strategically used art exhibitions as diplomatic “weapons” that propagated the US idea(l) of freedom. Most scholarship on the European reception of US art focuses on Western Europe, but neglects Eastern European countries, such as former Yugoslavia. This thesis addresses this gap. The analysis is informed by insights gained from translation theory, postcolonial theories, and Balkanism. The research findings are based on extensive archival research in depositories in Belgrade, Ljubljana, and Zagreb, as well as Washington and New York. The thesis is divided into two parts. The first part evaluates US attempts to gain influence in Yugoslavia, not only through military and economic aid, but also through an extensive cultural exchange programme. Chapters 1-3 analyse the writings on US Abstract Expressionism, NeoDada, and Pop art by leading Yugoslav art historians and critics (such as Lazar Trifunović, Miodrag B. Protić and Dragoslav Djordjević), who are largely unknown in English-language scholarship. To reveal the motivations and strategies by which Yugoslav cultural commentators presented US art to their audiences, the thesis analyses the underpinning inflections, such as ideology, national identity, aesthetics, class, and gender. By highlighting the differences between how US art was intended to be shown in Yugoslavia and its actual reception, the success of US Cultural Cold War efforts in Yugoslavia is called into question. This part also charts how Yugoslav artists (such as Edo Murtić, Olja Ivanjicki, and Dušan Otašević), appropriated US art and re-contextualised it for cultural self-determination. The analysis reveals how some Yugoslav artists successfully operated within the sphere of official art, while others, who aligned directly or indirectly with Western or US art, were often subjected to criticism and censorship. It also asks whether art could function as a site for cross-cultural dialogue beyond ideology, as suggested by the little-known connections between Robert Rauschenberg and the Croatian neo-avant-garde group Gorgona. Going beyond the concept of a one-sided US cultural imperialism, the second part of the thesis demonstrates that Yugoslavia was not merely a passive recipient of US art, but also mobilised modern art for projecting a public image of Yugoslavia in cultural diplomacy. Chapters 4 and 5 argue that the Yugoslav government engaged with art and exhibitions to construct its national image as distinct from other communist countries. These chapters address the US reception of Yugoslav art, which has never been examined before. Chapter 6 analyses the remarkable success of the Yugoslav naïve painter Jovan Običan in the US, further demonstrating to what extent US criticism of Yugoslav art was politicised, ideological, and mediated by cultural prejudice. This part thus makes important contributions to widening the narrative of twentieth-century art, as well as to the field of Balkanism, which aims to deconstruct representations of the Balkan region. The last chapter of the thesis also treads new ground by examining the commercial aspirations of Yugoslav artists and their attempts at conquering the US art market, an endeavour that once again set Yugoslavia apart from other Eastern European countries. The US-Yugoslav relationship was characterised by distrust, prejudices, and tensions due to the two countries’ opposing ideologies. Paradoxically, art was responsible for both sharpening and blurring these differences, and at times played a crucial role in cultivating Yugoslavia’s relations with both the US and USSR. Although Yugoslavia constructed a Westernised image of the country through art exhibitions on the international stage, the Yugoslav political establishment also attacked modern art in the national context during key moments of political debate and Yugoslav-Soviet reconciliation. The decisions made by artistic and political apparatuses at the time saw Yugoslavia become the first communist country to exhibit modern US art in 1956, to stimulate debates around it, to award and recognise the achievements of US artists at exhibitions staged in Yugoslavia, and to tap into the US art market. These were means of signalling Yugoslavia’s shared values with the West. Arguably, Yugoslavia pursued its own “third” way and mobilised art as a means to define and consolidate its independent path in world politics. The outcome of the presented research broadens the current understanding of the diverse and complex relations between the US and Eastern European artworlds, challenges the well-worn Cold War narratives in terms of a simple East-West binary, and makes novel and valuable contributions to a global understanding of the history of twentieth-century art.