Twenty years ago, the American essayist, Lawrence Weschler, visited The Hague. He travelled there to sit in on the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes tribunal, specifically those related to the trial of Duško Tadić, the Bosnian Serb who was the first man to be tried by an international criminal court of war since the Nuremberg Trials in 1947. Tadić faced 12 counts of crimes against humanity, 12 counts of breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and ten counts of violations of ‘the customs of war’. After a lengthy trial, during the course of which the jury was subjected to harrowing evidence of Tadić’s unimaginable cruelty to his fellow human beings, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Weschler spoke to the President of the court, Antonio Cassese. ‘I asked Judge Cassese how, regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss, he had kept from going mad himself. His face brightened. “Ah,” he said with a smile, “You see, as often as possible, I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the centre of town, so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers”.’
In the essay that resulted from his experience in The Hague, ‘Vermeer in Bosnia’ (1995), Weschler discusses how, when the Dutch artist was conjuring his sublime images – the embodiment of calm and introspection – ‘all Europe was Bosnia’. Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632, into a Europe battered by vicious religious and nationalist wars, a place Weschler describes as ‘replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation’. Yet, in the midst of those terrible times, Vermeer decided to focus upon the grace and the individuality of each of his subjects. As Weschler puts it: ‘Vermeer was not a painter in the epic tradition: on the contrary, his life’s work can be seen, within its historical moment, as a heroic, extended attempt to steer his (and his viewers’) way clear of such a depersonalizing approach to experiencing one’s fellow human beings.’
Going on the evidence of his paintings, I think Vermeer would have approved of Haris Pašović. In 1993, the second summer of the Sarajevo siege (it ran until 1995), the 31-year-old Sarajevan helped Susan Sontag stage a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) in a small theatre in his hometown. Directed by Sontag, its cast members included Muslims, Croats and Serbians, while the costume and set designer was Jewish. The event was a defiant rejection of the claim by the Bosnian Serbian leader, Radovan Karadźić, who had declared to a group of journalists: ‘Serbs and Muslims are like cats and dogs. They cannot live together in peace. It is impossible.’ (The verdict of Karadźić’s four-year trial at The Hague – he was accused of crimes against humanity – is expected this year.) In an article written by John F. Burns for The New York Times in 1993, Pašović makes clear that such gestures were important to counter the ‘barbarism and fascism’ of the war.
Writing in The New York Review of Books in 1993, Sontag explained why she felt that Beckett might help in a war zone: ‘No longer can a writer consider that the imperative task is to bring the news to the outside world. The news is out […] I was not under the illusion that going to Sarajevo to direct a play would make me useful in the way I could be if I were a doctor or a water-systems engineer. It would be a small contribution. But it was the only one of the three things I do – write, make films and direct in the theatre – which yields something that would exist only in Sarajevo, and that would be made and consumed there.’
The reason I bring up these events of more than 20 years ago is because I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a sense of misery at the news of the past few months. The extraordinary levels of cruelty, horror and devastation from around the globe seem unparalleled: from the beheading of aid workers to the imprisonment, flogging and murder of journalists and human-rights activists; from the mass kidnap, rape and murder of girls and women who simply want an education, to the slaughter of cartoonists in an editorial meeting. At times, I despair of our planet and, in darker moments, it’s a struggle to understand what the role of art might be in the face of such barbarism. It’s easy to think that art should be more useful, that it should somehow matter more. However, looking back on our troubled past is one way of making sense of our troubled present, and history is a great supporter of the idea that art is never more necessary than in times of extreme brutality. Totalitarianism, fascism and fundamentalism may differ but, ultimately, they share a common aim: to negate complexity, individuality and diversity in order to create a single, violent ideology that is intent on destroying anyone or anything which might oppose its monolithic logic.
Art, by contrast, invites multiple possible readings; at its best, it embraces contradiction, dissent, ambiguity and idiosyncrasy. It could be said that all art – all non-propagandist art – is a form of resistance to the idea that the shape, the meaning, the myriad ways of living in and moving through the world should – or even could – ever be one thing. The greatest paintings, performances, sculptures, installations and films refuse to represent anyone as a type: this is, perhaps, art’s finest attribute.
When I look at the range of artists and writers who are represented in this issue of frieze, I feel a strong sense of comradeship; of an isolation lessened. The following pages are concrete proof that the world is full of people who are as confused and inspired by our strange and wonderful planet as I am – and, I’m sure, as many of you are – and who have responded to it in endlessly creative ways. The most resonant works of art are as inexhaustible and singular as human beings themselves. If that isn’t something that is worth reiterating – and celebrating and supporting – then I don’t know what is.