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Poetics of Entropy: The Post-Suprematist Art of Mladen Stilinović

The modern/contemporary subject tends to react to a “system” with a desire to change it, to undermine its order or escape its control. At the same time, the dominant system seems almost omnipotent, because the technology at its disposal is incommensurate with the forces and capabilities of an individual. Thus, the fight against the system appears lost from the beginning. That is why the modern subject is so often described as the subject of an impossible desire, or rather of a desire for the impossible—a desire doomed to frustration. An individual seems condemned to a state of ontological solitude without any chance for help from the outside: God is dead and the forces of nature are already under technological control. However, all systems, including modern and contemporary systems of control, are subject to forces of entropy. Modern technology is immune to divine intervention, but not to the fatigue of the materials of which it consists. Entropic processes permanently undermine every system, dissolving it into material chaos. The forces of entropy operate mostly underneath the surface of the world. Their workings remain unobserved and they sap energy from the system and render it unstable. Only after the system collapses into chaos does it become clear that it was the forces of entropy that undermined it—and without any conscious, heroic effort by the subject.

The modern/contemporary artist is a collaborator in this entropy. Every genuinely modern/contemporary artwork stages the processes of entropy within itself. Every such artwork operates by deforming and dissolving traditional artistic forms. It is in this way that an artwork gives to its spectator a promise that the system controlling this spectator’s individual fate will also be undermined by entropic forces and will eventually dissolve. However, the collaboration between art and entropy is highly ambiguous. By consciously staging the workings of entropic forces, art gives them a certain form. And by giving them a form, art reinscribes them into the existing system, or at least opens a way to build a new system upon a new foundation. Indeed, it is always hard to say what it is that actually provokes our anger: the stability of the system, or, on the contrary, the slow decline of the system—its loss of vitality, energy, and efficiency. Accordingly, it is hard to say what the modern subject really wants when it starts a revolt against the system: Does he or she want the end, the dissolution of this system and every other system together with it? Or instead the establishment of a new, more vital, energetic, efficient system?

We know that modern artists often protested against dominant artistic forms, accusing them of being old or even dead forms—while at the same time proclaiming their own art as living and vital. The same can be said about the neo-avant-garde artists of the 1960s and 1970s—it is never quite clear what they really want: the breakup of the system or its revitalization. To use the language of Walter Benjamin from his essay on violence, the modern/contemporary subject of artistic as well as political violence hesitates between “divine violence”—or, one can say, entropic violence that has no beginning and no end—and “mythological violence,” i.e., the desire to instrumentalize violence with the goal of establishing a new, revitalized, reinforced order. Form today’s perspective, one can say that only very few artists of the twentieth century resisted the seduction of the “new order” and remained faithful to their union with the forces of entropy and anarchy. One of these very few artists is undoubtedly Mladen Stilinović.

Stilinović’s art has an obvious critical edge. But when, for example, Stilinović reacted critically to the language of the official ideology of Tito’s time, he did not do so in the name of an improved ideology. He did not confront the official ideological message with his own. Rather, the artist demonstrated that this official message had de facto become a zero message. The ritualistic language in which this message was formulated and distributed had already been long subjected to the forces of entropy, and all that remained were words on paper, sounds in the air. Language became a material object that could be fragmented, displaced, reduced to zero. Stilinović operated with the language of the official ideology as the avant-garde artists operated with traditional paintings and sculptures. For them, a painting was simply a canvas covered with paint, sculpture was an object in space, and so forth. Stilinović expanded this strategy to encompass all cultural and ideological phenomena with which he had to deal. The party slogans were simply combinations of words—and words can be combined with other words. Written words are simply combinations of lines—and can be combined with other combinations of lines.

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