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Academic Zoran Knežević, President of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU)

Radical Change to the Dominant Model of Culture Required

It could probably be stated that SANU’s raison d’etre, at least to a certain extent, is identified with its permanent active participation in the ambitious endeavour of creating a modern, more humane and more tolerant society, within that framework of social and political awareness, and many view this as a natural and implied obligation of the Academy ~ academic Zoran Knežević

There is no guarantee that we will succeed in this endeavour, at least not in the foreseeable future, especially when it comes to breaking the SANU Gallery’s impressive attendance record that has stood since 1984. However, we could at least state with a clear conscience that we have exerted efforts to leave behind a better world for our children than the one we inherited from our parents – adds SANU President Zoran Knežević in this interview for CorD Magazine.

Mr Knežević, SANU is currently commemorating the centenary of the birth of great painter, writer, filmmaker and Academy member Miodrag ‘Mića’ Popović. Apart from the two exhibitions that have already been unveiled – a smaller one at the SANU Library and a larger retrospective exhibition at the SANU Gallery – how else is the Academy celebrating the legacy of this distinguished former member?

– Permit me to remind your readers that the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts is this year commemorating the centenary of the births of two important academics and painters: Miodrag ‘Mića’ Popović and Milorad ‘Bata’ Mihailović. To mark this exceptionally special occasion, large retrospective exhibitions have been arranged at the SANU Gallery to present the works of these two great artists and friends, rebels against the dogma of socialist realism in art, who were connected, among other ways, by havreing both belonged to the famous “Zadar Group”, which they co-founded with a group of their fellow students.

The exhibitions are accompanied by outstanding catalogues that have been published by the Academy, with the one representing Popović’s work having been prepared by art historian Dr Vesna Kruljac, assistant professor at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Applied Arts. Throughout the exhibition’s run, visitors are able to watch excerpts from Popović’s films, while lectures by Dr Kruljac and other experts have also been organised, dedicated to researching and interpreting Popović’s creative work. Apart from the exhibitions, the central event with which SANU is commemorating the legacy of its prominent members is a scientific conference under the working title “Polemic Aspects of Post-1945 Serbian Modernism With A Particular Focus on the Actions of Zadar Group Members”, which will take place at the Academy on 17th and 18th October and will focus on shedding light on Serbian modernism from a new perspective and re-evaluating the Zadar Group’s contribution to our fine art scene. You have already mentioned the smaller, chamber exhibition dedicated to Mića Popović at the Library of the Academy, while SANU has also used the Popović works preserved in its collection to participate in exhibitions at other galleries in Belgrade, Kikinda and elsewhere.

The title of the Popović retrospective exhibition includes the wording “The Art of Permanent Rebellion”. In the case of this academic and painter, that rebellion wasn’t merely artistic, but rather also implied an engaged, critical perspective on events occurring in society. This brings us neatly on to the unavoidable and eternal question of determining the correct relationship between the Academy and politics?

— I think this question needs to be observed in the context of the position of the Academy, as defined by the Law on SANU and the Statute of the Academy, as “the highest scientific and artistic institution of the Republic of Serbia”, and then for such a designation to determine its appropriate role in society. In a broader sense, this position is also determined by the dual nature of the Academy, i.e., its operational and honorary roles.

It could be stated that SANU’s authority is unquestionable in our scientific and artistic milieu, that what the Academy does and says is highly reingspected; beyond its own framework, in the political sphere, the Academy – in accordance with the aforementioned definition – rarely speaks out, and particularly not with regard to daily political issues, because it isn’t organisationally structured like a political party that formulates an opinion or common stance that it then promotes publicly.

I would remind your readers that SANU is this year commemorating the centenary of the births of two important academics and painters: Miodrag ‘Mića’ Popović and Milorad ‘Bata’ Mihailović

In accordance with its structure, the Academy is an assemblage of independent individuals, intellectuals who can, and often do, have completely contradictory political views and opinions, with which they appear in public of their own accord, independent of the Academy, individually or in groups, on the basis of their own feelings and needs. In this regard, a question arises as to the extent to which decisionmakers in society are prepared to listen to the well-intentioned and science-based assessments and advice of their own top scientists that have been formed through, among other things, national academies, but also the responsibility of academies for the advice that they offer.

The Academy maintains its relations with the state and its executive bodies primarily via an open and constructive dialogue, but also through collaboration with every opportunity for the competences of the Academy to be beneficial to the state and society. In so doing, the Academy acknowledges and appreciates the various social frameworks in which we operate, with the essential political distancing that results from the requirement for the Academy to be independent and to operate primarily in the service of the general good, and not any particular interest.

You were elected SANU president this March. In accepting to take on the position, you promised continuity and to direct SANU “towards safe harbours”. What would you single out as your priorities?

– The leadership of the Academy is confronted by many obligations and responsibilities, alongside the performing of daily tasks. I would use this opportunity to single out just a few of the most important activities that marked the first months of my mandate to a large extent.

Partly due to circumstance, in the first few months of its mandate, alongside its regular work related to providing the institution with the conditions required to operate and function, the new SANU leadership devoted the greatest attention to advancing our Academy’s international cooperation with academies across the region, but also in a broader European and global context, as well as improving SANU’s cooperation with international academic associations, universities and the like. Numerous contacts were established, multiple meetings were held, and we had several visits and encounters. So, it could be said that we renewed some important collaborations and improved some others, and – together with what we inherited from the previous period on this front – SANU can now boast of having very wide international cooperation and visibility.

Numerous activities that are in the focus of the attention and engagement of the leadership unfold constantly at the Academy, including the holding of numerous scientific gatherings, lectures, panel debates and roundtable events, exhibitions and concerts. All these activities are progressing at full steam, and let me note with satisfaction that they are also prepared in a very high-quality way and are well attended.

We are awaited in the year ahead by elections for new regular, correspondent and foreign members, so at this moment the Academy and its leadership are already somewhat turning – through a series of preparatory activities – towards that challenge and the important work that lies ahead of us.

Work is also continuing on capital national projects, such as the compiling of the SANU Dictionary and the Serbian Encyclopaedia, which require the constant attention and engagement of the SANU leadership and members. New volumes and books are expected soon, constant care of the Serbian language and script is taken etc.

SANU has responded to numerous existing challenges over the previous period. Its scientific summits have contributed to discussions regarding healthcare (during the Covid-19 pandemic) and energy sources (with reference to smallscale hydro power plants and mining practises), as well as declaring its position on Kosovo. Should the Academy continue down that path?

— I am able to state unreservedly that SANU has – with the work and activities it has carried out over the previous period, coupled with the values it promotes and the standards it applies – achieved significant results and become an exemplary, well-organised, functional institution and a centre of cultural, scientific, artistic and intellectual life generally in our neighbourhood. It is thus completely self-evident that the central pillar of the work programme of the new SANU leadership is “rational and realistically achievable continuity in the work and activities of the Academy, or in the managing of its affairs in accordance with the highest standards appropriate to our house”.

We are awaited in the year ahead by elections for new regular, correspondent and foreign members, so at this moment the Academy and its leadership are already somewhat turning – through a series of preparatory activities – towards that challenge and the important work that lies ahead of us

The answer to your question is therefore a simple ‘yes’: the Academy should, and is, continuing along the same path and responding to current challenges, with an additional essential clarification: that it does so wherever it possesses the required competences to address a given problem and wherever it is able to contribute realistically and constructively to resolving said problem.

The tragic shooting at Belgrade’s Vladislav Ribnikar Primary School has led to talk across Serbia about a crisis of education and the disruption of the system of values that largely develops during the school education process. What would you say about the current state of Serbia’s education system?

— The Academy devotes a lot of attention to education, as evidenced – among other things – by the fact that operating actively under its auspices are the SANU Board for Education and the SANU Board for Higher Education. In the context of your question, the best answer – to which I have nothing to add personally – was provided two years ago, when a large scientific conference was held at SANU under the title “Education: status, perspectives and role in the development of Serbia”.

This conference included the presentation of a voluminous publication containing key data points on the state of education in Serbia, as well as the defining of recommendations for improving education in Serbia, which were then submitted to the public and all relevant state bodies and national educational organisations and institutions, while the conference ‘Proceedings’, representing a collection of works presenting transcripts of authorised discussions from the conference, were also published. I would also mention the fact that multiple lectures and panel debates held at SANU in recent times have also addressed various relevant topics related to education, while several exhibitions covering the topic of education have been organised at the SANU Gallery of Science and Technology.

Returning to the exhibition of Popović’s paintings, it has been stated that half a million people saw his 1984 exhibition, which set a SANU Gallery record. At this time when there is plenty of talk of the need to redefine the model of culture, particularly among young people, what needs to be done to break that 1984 exhibition attendance record?

— It could probably be stated that SANU’s raison d’etre, at least to a certain extent, is identified with its permanent active participation in the ambitious endeavour of creating a modern, more humane and more tolerant society, within that framework of social and political awareness, and many view this as a natural and implied obligation of the Academy. Many people will probably also agree with the ascertain that our society needs a radical change to the predominant model of culture, if not “conceptualising a completely new world” – to paraphrase the words of my esteemed predecessor as SANU president, academic Vladimir S. Kostić.

I couldn’t say that I know for certain what needs to be done and how in this sense, but I am certain that this must be the goal, at least in principle, that we all strive to achieve, including the Academy. There is no guarantee that we will succeed in this endeavour, at least not in the foreseeable future, especially when it comes to breaking the SANU Gallery’s impressive attendance record that you mention. However, we could then at least state with a clear conscience that we have exerted efforts to leave behind a better world for our children than the one we inherited from our parents.

POLITICAL VIEWS

In a broader sense, SANU’s political position is also determined by the dual nature of the Academy, i.e., by its operational and honorary roles

COLLABORATION

In the first few months of its mandate, the new SANU leadership devoted the greatest attention to advancing our Academy’s international cooperation with academies across the region, Europe and worldwide

CHALLENGES

The Academy should respond to current challenges, wherever it possesses the required competences to address a given problem and is able to contribute to resolving it realistically and constructively

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