Non-Aligned Modernism: Yugoslavian Modernist Art and Cold War Cultural Diplomacy

    • IMG_7703
    • Presentation speakers
      • BojanaVidekanic, Department of Fine Arts, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo, Canada


    This paper examines aspects of the history of modernism in the socialist Yugoslavia by studying the influence of Cold War cultural diplomacy in Yugoslavian culture and politics of the 1950s and 1960s. More specifically, it does this by looking at the 1956 MoMa exhibition of Abstract Expressionism which legitimized modernist ethos as an accepted political, social, and cultural form during Yugoslavia’s transition from a hard-line Soviet-style state, to a more open, humanist-socialist one. During this transition, Yugoslavia’s elites searched for alternative political, social, and cultural models which were found in idiosyncratic social forms: ideas of non-align movement in its international policies, theories of self-management in internal organization of the state, and non-aligned, socialist modernism in its cultural forms. I argue that the Yugoslavian modernist art developed between socialist political influences and Western cultural hegemony evidenced most clearly by Western cultural diplomacy. A crucial moment in the development of non-aligned Yugoslavian modernism was the arrival of various modernist influences on Yugoslavian cultural scene culminating in the 1956 MoMa exhibition of Abstract Expressionist artwork. The history of this circulating exhibition and its arrival to Yugoslavia is a testament to the efficacy of ‘soft power’ as a political tool in the tense Cold War climate. Yugoslavia’s political establishment gave the final blessing for the country’s cultural transformation towards post-war modernism. This modernism, however, retained specific qualities –– most important of which was its emphasis on maintaining Yugoslavia’s political position of neutrality. My reading of Yugoslavian modernism is therefore one that considers aesthetic and formal shifts, as well as, diplomatic, political, and social influences that formed what I term non-aligned modernism. Soft power of art played a key role in establishing this idiosyncratic art form in a country that used its culture as a way to maintain Cold War neutrality and flex its diplomatic and political muscles on the post-WWII international cultural scene.