Sava Stepanov, an art critic and art historian from Novi Sad, started his career at Matica Srpska in 1973. His first texts on art were published in the beginning of 1980s. Sava Stepanov has co-operated with a large number of artists – for many years as an editor and director of the Centre for Visual Art Golden Eye, he has written prefaces for catalogues, used to have a regular art review column in the magazine ‘Misao’, has co-operate with the magazines ‘Polja’ from Novi Sad (in the latest edition of which his text titled Danube Dialogues: Quo Vadis Homo?’ was published), ‘Dometi’ from Sombor, ‘Oko’ from Zagreb, ‘Odjek’ from Sarajevo… He is the winner of several valuable recognitions among which we could single out the ‘Lazar Trifunović’ Award fro critical review of contemporary visual art awarded to him for the study on Branko Filipović Fila’s creative work and ‘Teodor Pavlović’ Award for the life’s work (2019). During 2019 he donated his art collection to the Matica Srpska Gallery.

Sava Stepanov
Photo: Courtesy of the Festival

SSt: As an art critic, I have always striven to keep track of whatever the latest happenings and events are in art in this country and see how they match up to international trends. It’s a pretty reasonable effort because today, as a society but also as individuals, we are most directly involved in the actuality of the global system with all its inevitability. These globalist tendencies, based on the domination of rampant capitalism and the philosophy of the single market, deliberately neglect the importance of the distinct identities of individual cultures. In this state of affairs, an important question is: to what extent can local art be part of the international scene without diminishing its own authenticity? By contemporary art I don’t just mean a calendar definition of art emerging at the moment; it’s a matter of mapping the artistic efforts that are most directly focused on the phenomena of our times, through which artists manage to translate fragments of reality into clearly formulated, metaphorical and philosophical visual representations that reflect, interpret and criticize the world we live in. At the same time, Bonami tells us that these achievements “must be able to draw the observer into the field of the meaning of art.”

After the huge geopolitical upheavals set off by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two Germanys, the collapse of the USSR, the division of Czechoslovakia and the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, when the owner of the Bel Art Gallery, Vesna Latinović and I initiated the Danube Dialogues Festival of Contemporary Art, our idea was that the geography of the Danube river provided the exciting spiritual and intellectual space that Magris wrote about so lucidly.  It also offered a panorama of worthwhile artistic events from the European aspect, ranging from developed Mitteleuropa through the transition countries of the former Eastern Bloc and the newly created states of the Balkan powder keg, all the way to the less developed regions of the Black Sea. And in that space, the drama of modern man plays out in different ways, his destiny stretching over all the years following the new millennium of 2000. So the Danube Dialogues are dedicated to that drama of everyday life and all our destinies.

DD: The atmosphere surrounding this year’s Danube Dialogues, “Quo Vadis, Homo?” as you say in your text published in the Novi Sad “Polja”, is one where “man truly needs art that will care for his being and existence; he needs an art directed towards nourishing humane, aesthetic, spiritual and moral principles”. How will you remember the latest edition of the Danube Dialogues and to what extent does the art presented at the Festival respond to “all the stronger and more multiplied impulses of the world”?

SSt:  I remember back at the beginning of September, in the middle of setting up the exhibition for the Danube Dialogues 2020, there was a bizarre coincidence.  At that point, the multimillionaire, Elon Musk, came out with a statement about the inevitable integration of the human brain and the computer. As he believes, this synthesis is necessary in order for us to reach digital speed in solving problems, so that we can keep pace with the development of artificial intelligence, because otherwise man becomes unnecessary! This way, liberal capitalism manifests its casual use of man by treating him as a mere resource, an impersonal element, absorbing him into a world environment that is rushing towards an automated, pre-robotic and dehumanized society. Musk’s announcement only confirmed me in my belief that in an era of reckless manifestations of capitalism, we need art very much in order, at least spiritually, to overcome feelings of fear, danger, alienation, or complete anaesthesia. That is why I derived real satisfaction from the artists at the “Quo Vadis Homo? exhibition, because their works comprised ethical discourse and an approach to man in today’s world, as they try, clearly and suggestively, to form their own aesthetic systems. And these may serve as models for the functioning of society in times of on-going crisis.  I am also very pleased that the curators and critics involved in the Danube Dialogues were all of a similar cast of mind: Parisian critic Ami Barak, co-responsible with me for setting up the central exhibition Quo Vadis Homo?; Sorina Jecza Ianovici, Romanian gallery owner and critic, selector of the Art Dialogue: Novi Sad-Timisoara exhibition; and Sunčica Lambić Fenjčev and Slavica Popov, two art historians and critics from the Zrenjanin Contemporary Art Gallery. Each in his or her own way contributed to upholding art that stood out for its clear attitudes, effective thinking and cultivated visual-plastic communication with the world and times in which we live.

DD: The dialogues between local and foreign artists and curators are a special segment of the Danube Dialogues. How important is that co-operation in relation to the local art scene and your own practice as a curator?

SSt: For me, working on these exhibitions was truly challenging, demanding and interesting, like an exciting adventure that led me to new knowledge and experiences in all segments of my engagement – establishing the conceptual level, harmonizing the content, plastic and poetical-metaphorical features and setting up explanatory presentations.

Previous Danube-dialogue exhibitions (Serbian-Hungarian, Serbian-Austrian, Slovaks from Serbia-Slovaks from Slovakia, Serbian-Montenegrin, Serbian-Romanian) have shown that the international art scene is governed by a certain unison, that the universal way of communicating along the line of artist-work-observer predominates. The globalist world has imposed its own rules. However, at the Danube Dialogues, we try to present the works of artists who have clear identity-specific properties and who are committed to criticizing the world of today. In these dual exhibitions, thanks to the possibility of direct comparison, the diferentia specifica of each individual artistic idea is more noticeable. That is what makes them exciting and effective.

DD: In one interview you quoted the American art theorist, Karolina Ristova-Bakargiev, and her question of whether “the field of art in its current form will exist in the coming decades of the 21st century?” You continuously follow up our art scene – despite the ubiquitous eclecticism, and a series of determinants that contain the prefix “post“, such as post postmodernism, post-colonialism, post-feminism, etc. Can we assume the direction in which contemporary art will develop?

SSt: I don’t have a good answer to that question. However, I think that art will constantly change, forever in search of adequate answers to the impulses of the world, just as artistic methods and models of artistic care for the destiny of suffering man will constantly change. The world and the world of art are in a state of eternal flux and that process should be accepted as a dialectical inevitability. My generation has witnessed numerous transformations following one upon the other almost without cease during the second half of the twentieth century. One of the most significant was certainly the neglect of “The Gutenberg Galaxy” and the emergence of a new visuality. Thanks to technological and digital media, this new visuality represents a significant backbone of our living. In such circumstances, the contemporary artist strives to socially contextualize his/her art and find an existential meaning in the particular circumstances of the world at the beginning of the 21st century. In a media-run society, however, it is not only media art that is referential, because at the moment there are strong tendencies towards mental and manual opposition to the general technological take-over, an opposition that is one of the ways to preserve human dignity and art. After all, one of the constant states of art is constant change, a constant search for meaning. I am convinced that contemporary art will manage to preserve its aesthetic and ethical individuality, its homocentric orientation, just as it has succeeded throughout the history of art … After all, if things go the other way – will it be possible to talk about art at all?

Interviewer: Ljiljana Maletin Vojvodić