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The East: Do Free Markets Debase Culture?

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 29 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- At an international conference in Vienna last weekend devoted to "Culture and Capitalism," artists and intellectuals from both East and West took part in a panel discussion entitled "Culture after the Fall of Communism: Do Markets Debase Culture?"

Under the chairmanship of the British contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash, the panelists largely agreed that the answer to that question is "no." While asserting that a crisis of cultural identity, funding and self-confidence is evident in Eastern Europe following the demise of communism, most of the panelists were optimistic about the prospects for culture in the region. It was also asserted that in both East and West contemporary culture not only faces the same problems but, owing to modern technology, has the same opportunities.

The renowned Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who is currently a visiting professor at Warsaw University, expressed his view that culture has not been destroyed by capitalism but, on the contrary, is flourishing. He pointed out that historically, it was capitalism that paved the way to universal education and that it therefore has a direct link to culture. Kolakowski warned against making generalizations, noting that, just as under communism, television offered generous helpings of propaganda interspersed with independent, high-quality films, so today there is a large amount of what he termed "trash" alongside the very same films. "I accept the market with all its shortcomings and some cultural discomforts," he said.

Norman Manea, a novelist who fled Ceausescu's Romania in the 1980s and settled in New York, posed the question of whether what he described as the capitalist "culture of money" is harder to overcome than the communist "culture of lies." The latter, he argued, either honored the artist with special privileges or persecuted him with punishments and censorship.

The "culture of money" is more fair, according to Manea, but at the same time, it introduces what he called "economic censorship," which artists unaccustomed to the market may find difficult to accept. But he stressed that there is no alternative to the market in modern-day life. And he urged artists and intellectuals to maintain their tradition role of criticizing society: "We must attack the market if the market attacks us," Manea argued.

Slovak-born independent film director and producer Katya Krausova was the most ardent advocate among the panelists of Western support for artists and intellectuals in the East. She argued that the loss of subsidies for the arts --one of the main side-effects of the new free market-- has contributed significantly to the lack of self-confidence among artists in the East and that the West can play a major role in restoring that confidence.

By way of example, Krausova cited a Western-sponsored project, in which she herself was involved, to launch a soap opera in Kazakhstan using local actors, script writers and television crews. The project began at a time when the local film industry was closed due to lack of funds and morale among the film workers was at a low ebb. The soap opera proved a huge success, playing to large audiences in Kazakhstan three times a week and providing local film-makers with what Krausova called "a grammar and confidence" that is the envy of the country's neighbors.

Elemer Hankiss, a sociologist and the chairman of Hungarian Television from 1990 to 1993, downplayed the impact of communism's demise on culture. He said that, with the emergence of what he termed the "new consumer civilization," artists and intellectuals are faced with the same problems, regardless of whether they are from the East or the West. Hankiss identified a universal problem of the modern age to be what he called the "vacuum" that has been left by the erosion of the old civilization.

Unlike its predecessor, Hankiss said, the "new order" is unable to offer answers to the essential questions of human life. In the absence of such answers, a "trivial consumer culture" --meaning advertising-- offers surrogate, shallow alternatives, which, according to Hankiss, people will "buy" as long as no others are offered by churches, the state or other institutions.

A more optimistic view of modern-day civilization --and of its impact on contemporary culture-- was offered by Hubert Burda, the publisher and president of the Association of German Journal Publishers. Burda hailed what he called the "return of the power of imaging" and today's "text-driven culture," which he identified as stemming from the innovations of Gutenberg.

Pointing to the infinite opportunities offered by the Internet and the concomitant "global industrialization of media and culture," Burda stressed that everyone can now communicate with everyone else, and thus the struggle of the individual against the masses no longer exists. In this way, Burda highlighted the equal opportunities for artists and intellectuals worldwide, regardless of the economic and political systems in which they live and work. In conclusion, Burda professed himself not to be anxious about the market's impact on culture because, he said, today's "market place is the Internet."