Fidelity is a tricky issue

Boris Buden

In a remark about the historian and art collector Eduard Fuchs, Walter Benjamin critically reflects on the idea and practice of the so-called cultural history: this history, so he claims, enlarges the burden of wealth being amassed on the shoulders of humanity, without giving the latter the strength to throw it off and take it in it's own hands. Echoing Benjamin's thought we can today state that Vesna Pisarović’s The Great Yugoslav Songbook does not enlarge the burden of cultural wealth which we carry on our shoulders, nor does it turn a new page in our cultural history. To the contrary, this Songbook seizes the cultural legacy of the past in its own hands, in order to turn it into a new artwork, breathing new life into it. Not in some general, abstract sense, but in a very concrete historical, political and cultural context.

The context in question is today's enormous interest for the cultural legacy of the former Yugoslavia, which is all the more understandable the stronger the consciousness of the epochal failure of the so-called post-communist transition – or, to put this clearly, of the failed promises of democracy and capitalism. In this context, Vesna Pisarović’s Songbook stands out in a double sense. First, it doesn’t at all share the nostalgic attitude of the mainstream. That is, The Great Yugoslav Songbook steps out entirely from the frames of today's absolutely dominant form of the relationship towards the Yugoslav past, or towards the past in general – which concretely means that it does not belong to the genre of the so-called cultural memory. The songs of Yugoslav popular music from the fifties and early sixties which Vesna Pisarović covers here do not at all commemorate this era of the Yugoslav cultural past. In fact, they do not commemorate anything, or better, commemoration is not their way of relating to the past. And this is how this Songbook does not really belong to its time, precisely to the degree to which the historian Pierre Nora had named our time the era of commemoration, a historical epoch where different forms of memory have entirely come to dominate – replacing, for instance, historiographical knowledge – our relationship to the past.

Connected to this, another feature of the Songbook even more decisively extrudes it from the dominant paradigm. In its totality, this artwork does not at all follow a logic of identity. And this is precisely what characterises the epoch of commemoration in its specificity: an intrinsic bond between forms of memory and the reproduction of collective identity, in a cultural as well as a political sense. This is a methodical difference, which has far reaching normative consequences. Once again, Vesna Pisarović and her group do not make music in order to remember the past times, or, if you want, according to that kitschy saying, to snatch the glorious works of their predecessors away from the ease of forgetting.

The past, as L.P. Hartley wrote already in the early fifties in his novel The Go-Between, is «another country», that is, a foreign culture, as we would say today, which means that we cannot even approach it without translation. And this is precisely what is at stake in Vesna Pisarović’s Songbook. For this “songbook”, as its title already ironically announces, is a translation of songs from the past of Yugoslavia and not their repetitive memory. This difference is essential. Artworks of the past are not simply given, left as they are in the moment of their nascence to future generations in order that these could consume in permanence. Quite the contrary, in order to be able to persist at all, artworks necessitate a labour of translation, their constant creative transformation. Translation, Walter Benjamin wrote again, is the form in which an artwork can find its Fortleben, its “life after death”, that is, it is the only way in which it can survive. With the proviso, so he claims, that not every artwork is destined to survival, but only those which are translatable. This is how Benjamin dispels all naive illusions about the relationship between an original and the copy, of that dramatic effort of translation to resemble the original as best it can. This is not necessary. In fact, it is often superfluous.

Let's take as an example precisely this Songbook. Clearly, in its jazz interpretation this work hybridises the original songs of the Yugoslav past. But these so-called originals, as anyone who knows even little about them should be aware, are themselves hybrid versions of various musical genres and cultural codes. Their originality was nothing else but the result of innumerable borrowings and mixtures from the reservoir of popular music of that time: from twist, the ballade, chansons, or even swing or Latin rhythms, to Italian canzone, jazz or even the local ethnic tradition. Even then, there was no place for homogeneity on which the identitary discourse insists. Why should there be today, when the radical transformation of all forms of contemporary life, not only of the cultural sphere but also the sphere of work, or the economy, of social relations and of politics, has become the elementary and even an imperceptible element of our reality, in a local as much as in a global sense? And herein lies the interpretational key for The Great Yugoslav Songbook of Vesna Pisarović, which nota bene, is not so easily decipherable: how to simultaneously go against the current and be this current itself? Only those works which succeed in doing so deserve to be called artworks. As is the case here.