I feel honoured that I am here and I almost feel a bit shameless in this part of the country. Why? Because I think this is important. It is not just about art. We must start from the beginning, and the beginning is the unbelievable moral fiasco related to the siege of Sarajevo during the 1990s. When I read commentaries in the West, I see that, even today, people are not aware of what was happening: that this normal, developed, European city with a high level of pop-culture, music, and film festivals was suddenly surrounded and besieged for four years, like in the Middle Ages.

I find the reactions of the enlightened West – so eager to preach human rights – utterly unacceptable. And this is true of the right and the left alike. What shocked me about their reaction – if, as a philosopher, I try to put into order all the different kinds of reactions – is the series of moral compromises and moral fiascos that were masked behind a sublime moral position. You know, starting with the insistence on depoliticization and humanitarization, here in Sarajevo you were all suddenly depicted as helpless children who were suffering and in need of help. I think this was the first moral fiasco: to be treated as victims. The developed West likes victims, but only when they behave like victims. If a victim is too well self-organized, then it suddenly becomes dangerous, fundamentalist.

Therefore, for me this was an entire variety of that which I ironically call post-modern racism. On one side, of course, is the Balkans; on the other side, that false, quasi-cynical elevation. A journalist from London once told me, “In London food is artificial, sex is performed with the help of Viagra, while here, even if there is rape, it is genuine passion!” Obviously, this is open racism. All kinds of compromises. All kinds of cowardice – and what I found most abhorrent was that it was masked as moral superiority. Primarily as a kind of equidistance saying, “let us not lay all the blame on one side.” – as if this were not a question of people, but of tribal wars, etc.

What can art do here, then?

I think it can do something very simple. Let me take the French philosopher Henri Bergson as a point of departure, who developed a beautiful paradox: how do people react when they see a catastrophe coming? We know it is coming, but we still do not believe that it will happen. We did not believe it either. But when the catastrophe happened here, people organized themselves immediately. As you can see, life goes on. I think that something equally horrible happened here. You knew what was about to happen. I remember. At home, I have a Slovenian newspaper that copied the exact siege plan of the then Yugoslav Army from a Sarajevo newspaper, indicating the positions of the guns. This shows that everything was known, but somehow, because of our dignity, nobody was prepared to accept this as a possibility. We did not believe it could actually happen. And then, when all of a sudden it really did happen, it was unbelievable, in five or ten days. Not in your eyes, you were at the point of the tragedy, but in the eyes of the people around you – it became normal to them. As if it was all simply the normal course of events: “there was the Berlin Wall, and now there is the siege of Sarajevo, such things last a while.” All of you here served as a model.

Isn’t something similar happening today, for example, with the torture and abuse of prisoners? Some ten or fifteen years ago, if somebody were to publicly state that, under special circumstances, we could torture prisoners, he would immediately be discarded and eliminated as a fool. It would have been like saying that, under special circumstances, we can rape women and the like. Today, as you know – and in my opinion this constitutes the real tragedy – even those who oppose torture, in highly developed countries, beginning with the USA, accept this as a serious topic. I do not want to live in a society that debates the issue of whether we should torture or not. I want to live in a society where, if someone advocates and supports torture, he is considered a fool and is ridiculed. [. . .] It is terrible how quickly we adapt to catastrophe.

The function of art is not cheap propaganda. Art is the kind of sensitivity that, when a catastrophe happens, remains as a testimony that something horrible has actually happened, something that must not be accepted as normal. When you look at Edo Murtić’s paintings, the point is not in saying, “Oh, crimes, atrocities . . .,” but to feel that fundamental shock: how was this at all possible, how could we tolerate all this? For this reason, precisely here, in Edo Murtić’s outstanding works, painting is the most adequate medium. Why? Because on the one hand, the painting is frozen movement, and on the other, the painting is mute – there is no sound. The best medium for a shock. Even in horror films, if there is a shock, there is a freeze. This is an image as well. People who have children know this as well. If a child suffers a severe bump, when it starts crying, the danger is already over. We are terrified when the child just stares straight ahead. This can be contained only in a painting.

The point is not in interpreting pictures – that is cheap art. That would mean trying to figure out what the artist really meant. Artists are no fools. If an artist wanted to say something, he would use a computer and say it. I think this is the way to understand these paintings: Imagine being a citizen of Sarajevo who has experienced the city’s tragedy; a well-meaning fool, a tourist, comes along and asks you to tell him what it was like. Anything you say would probably be ridiculously pathetic; it would certainly not correspond to the horror and would not be true. You would run out of words. At that point, you might come here and just say, “this is it.” A real work of art intervenes at that point when we run out of words. When there are no more words, you can only show a painting.

In that sense, my beloved philosopher Hegel said, very paradoxically, that a good portrait resembles a man more than he resembles himself. We can also see that in a good caricature. If a caricature really strikes the point, then it makes you understand a characteristic of a real person. These paintings are far from being caricatures, but there is an element of caricature in the noblest meaning of captured reality. I am not saying it is only here that you (in the event that you are the victims) can see what you went through. In a way, these paintings probably depict the horrible dimension of the events more effectively than documentary films. How was it actually possible? This is what these paintings are about. I think that we should juxtapose paintings to poetry, about which I am very cynical – and not only because of your fellow-citizen Mr. Karadžić. . . We have all had our bigger or smaller Karadžićes. I think that we will have to speak about this some day as well, about the fiasco of literature where words, even those of poetry, failed, at least in the case of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

Where words are missing, the painting intervenes. Not an interpretative painting, a symbol. On the contrary, it is a picture of pure horror – and because of that I am honoured and proud to be in Sarajevo now.

Slavoj Žižek

(Speech given at the opening of the exhibition EDO MURTIĆ’S WAR CYCLE 1992-2004 in the City Hall of Sarajevo, Aug. 20th, 2008, at midnight)