Language is one of the most valuable cultural heritage sites

Nov 30, 2020

Good governance

An interview with Vladimir Martinovski, professor at the University of “Ss. Cyril and Methodius” in Skopje, Department of Comparative Literature, interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator.

Vladimir Martinovski is a poet, prose writer, literary critic, translator and musician. He is a professor at the General and Comparative Literature Department of the “Blaze Koneski” Faculty of Philology, “Ss Cyril and Methodius” University, Skopje. He received his Bachelor and Master’s degrees at the Faculty of Philology, and his PhD at the University of the New Sorbonne – Paris III. He has authored the following books: “From Image to Poem – Interference between Contemporary Macedonian Poetry and Fine Arts” (a study, 2003), “Maritime Moon” (haiku and tanka, 2003), “Hidden Poems”
(haiku, 2005), “And Water and Earth and Fire and Air” (haiku, 2006), “Comparative Triptychs” (studies and essays, 2007), “Les Musées imaginaires” or “Imaginary Museums” (a study, 2009), “A Wave Echo” (haibuns, 2009), “Reading Images – Aspects of Ekphrastic Poetry” (a study, 2009) and “Quartets” (poetry, 2010). He co-edited the books: “Ut Pictura Poesis – Poetry in Dialogue with Plastic Arts – a Thematic Selection of Macedonian Poetry” (with Nuhi Vinca, 2006), “Metamorphoses and Metatexts” (with Vesna Tomovska, 2008).

If we are to promote our rich cultural heritage, then the most logical thing to do is to preserve both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage in writing… consequently literature. Literature survives the test of time and is always apprehended. Interviewing Vladimir Martinovski on issues related to ‘shared or contested heritage’ gave us very knowledgeable, tasty and rich context in the research.

Cultural heritage tends to promote the creation of icons, which simultaneously tend to create stereotypes that risk negatively affecting individuals and groups. Such an icon needs to be critically deconstructed. What is your opinion about this discourse?

Vladimir: As the word suggests, cultural heritage is something we have inherited from previous generations. And, as well, we have borrowed it from the future ones, on behalf of whom we have an obligation to protect it. Yet, cultural heritage is something we should earn. Let us enter into living communication and save it from oblivion. Cultural heritage should enrich and ennoble our lives. To help us better understand the people of the past, and better understand each other today. To help us understand that the great achievements in art and culture belong to all mankind as signposts pointing out the best in any human. Andre Malraux said that art is one of the few things that humanity can be proud of. But when the complexity of cultural heritage is neglected, and simplifications are made based on looking through the national dioptre, it is quite easy to fall into the traps of stereotypes such as “we are the cultured ones, the others are the barbarians”. Therefore, the creation of “icons”” has two faces. On one hand, it is good to have examples from people of the past, to know and respect their meaning, and to constantly strive for their achievements and values. But even here a measure is needed. On the other hand, there is the danger of indulging in the temptations of uncritical idealisation, hyperbole, and simplification, which can lead to an idolatrous relationship, emptied of essence.

Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience read the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?

Vladimir: Words are always necessary, so there is a huge responsibility in them. The novelist Michel Butor said that all “”dumb artefacts” (artistic or architectural) are interpreted with the help of verbal discourse, “which surrounds them”, starting from the titles of the works. In other words, material, immovable cultural heritage, among other things, requires to be interpreted, explained through language. The attitude towards cultural heritage could certainly be compared to “reading” and interpreting stories. Some stories go on for millennia, some are forgotten. If the present or future generations are not shown the value, meaning, uniqueness of an object from the past, they could neglect it completely, leaving it to oblivion and the “ravages of time”. Cultural heritage requires care. Although intangible, language is also a cultural heritage site, one of the most valuable. It is through language that we realise that cultural heritage is something alive, in which each of us participates.

When dealing with shared history and heritage, international cooperation has the potential to foster more understanding within and between cultures. Do you agree? What is your personal experience?

Vladimir: International cooperation is crucial for both mutual understanding as well as understanding the concept of cultural heritage. Although there is a tendency to talk about national cultural heritage, which is quite legitimate, in essence no culture exists in isolation from others and all great achievements in culture belong to all mankind. As a phenomenon, culture is a palimpsest and the whole of culture is essentially shared. Understanding many phenomena in art, literature and culture at the national level necessarily leads us to intercultural dialogues, exchanges, as well as facing the fact that there are regional cultural achievements, as well as larger cultural zones. Great art crosses all boundaries. I have participated in many international literary festivals, where literary works are practiced by the authors to be read in the mother tongue, and then read in translation so that the local audience can understand them. It is wonderful to hear the diversity of languages, the different “music” of each language. Poets create in a language they inherited from their ancestors. But every song in the original and when translated, is not only the fruit of a linguistic tradition, it also belongs to world literature. Some of the most beautiful achievements in all segments of art are created precisely because of the mixing of cultures.

We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey these different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?

Vladimir: Unfortunately, just as material heritage (from fields to old family homes) can be a kind of “apple of discord”, likewise is the nationality of important personalities, artists or works of art from the past get bitterly disputed. Instead of critically perceiving the importance, value, and worth of those individuals or works, the discourse of belonging and possession is sometimes forced and absolutised. Some authors belong to more cultures and I do not see anything wrong with that. On the contrary. There are authors who have created in multiple languages, in multiple environments, under the influence of multiple cultures and poetics. Instead of stubbornly arguing over their belonging to a single culture, it is far better to look at them as bridges between cultures or as a common, shared value.

“The attitude towards cultural heritage could certainly be compared to “reading” and interpreting stories”

Do you think that being more polyvocal, engaging, diverse, (self-)reflective and participatory may solve some of the obstacles on the way of presenting cultural heritage (shared or contested)? 

Vladimir: The epithets you enumerate are beautiful: diversity and pluralism and self-reflection and criticism are needed, as well as scientific acrimony and readiness for different opinions, arguments and interpretations. Cultural heritage should be preserved, nurtured, to be a part of our lives.

Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation? 

Vladimir: As an example for shared heritage I could point to the poem “Ο Αρματωλός” / “The Serdar” (1860) by Gligor Prlichev (1830-1893), a work written in Greek, in which thematic patterns and stylistic features from Homer’s epics, the Byzantine epic tradition, the Renaissance epic and the Macedonian folklore are intertwined in a masterful way, all through the talent of an exceptional poet, who received the epithet “the Second Homer”. This poetic masterpiece dedicated to the death of the hero Kuzman Kapidan has been translated many times in both Bulgarian and Macedonian, and with its value certainly enters among the most important literary works created not only in the Balkans, but also in Europe in the XIX century. As an example of shared heritage, I would like to point out the Old Slavic language, Old Slavic literacy and literature, as a common root of all Slavic languages, including, of course, Macedonian. Challenging the authenticity of the Macedonian language due to daily political agendas which we are witnessing these days is extremely problematic, as it could translate as a challenge or dispute of the Macedonian literature, art and culture.

In a context of uncertainties and dystopias, what is the role of cultural heritage?

Vladimir: In these pandemic circumstances, we have all become convinced of the fragility, vulnerability and insecurity of today’s humanity. Due to insatiable consumerism and greed for profit, we have become a threat to other forms of existence, as well as to our cultural heritage. In a short time, our everyday life began to look like a dystopian novel. We have seen that war conflicts in the last decade in different parts of the world have irreversibly damaged significant cultural treasures. The economic crisis that is inseparable from the pandemic crisis can also affect the neglect of cultural heritage. However, let us not give in to pessimism. Just as Boccaccio’s Decameron was created during a plague epidemic, these difficult months on our planet are sure to create works of art that will grow into a significant cultural heritage site. We learn to appreciate some things only when we realise that we can easily lose them.

One of the challenges for researchers and practitioners in the field of cultural heritage is to develop more inclusive approaches to share heritage in order to transgress social and national boundaries. Any ideas on how this approach could be implemented into your particular field of interest?

Vladimir: We live in a digital age, in which inclusiveness and accessibility to different forms of cultural heritage is also realised through the Internet: from digitised manuscripts and books to accessible sound libraries and virtual visits to buildings and museums. These “digital versions” of cultural heritage are important both for archiving, as well as for new ways of presentation, close to contemporary and future generations. However, this does not exonerate us from the responsibility for permanent protection of the existing cultural heritage.

Another method of challenging the national narrative, regarding shared or contested heritage, would be to go from the particular to the universal. Cornelius Holtorf writes: “(…) the new cultural heritage can transcend cultural particularism by promoting values and virtues derived from humanism and a commitment to global solidarity.” What do you think about this?

Vladimir: I agree with Holtorf. It is in these times of crisis that we see how much these values are needed, and to what extent the values and virtues of humanism and global solidarity have been forgotten. We are all connected and we can all help each other in many areas, with the care for cultural heritage being one of them.

When we discuss shared or contested heritage, the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?

Vladimir: We can learn a lot from the past. Among other things, that we should not allow ourselves to sacrifice the present and the future for the sake of the past. As difficult and arduous as they are, mutual reconciliation, acceptance and cooperation are the real tasks of today’s generations, to leave a better world for future generations.


The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.