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Central Europe: Culture Reflects Shift To Market Economy

London, 3 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recent survey found that 70 percent of Romanians have not picked up a book in the past eight years because they are so preoccupied with the need to earn a living in the transitional chaos following the fall of communism.

Romanian Minister of Culture Ion Caramitru told an arts conference in London yesterday that the "sad and scaring" decline in book reading habits reflects profound changes in the cultural life of the East and Central European countries.

Caramitru deplored what he called the "Californiaization" of cultures that has accompanied the shift to a market economy-- a preference for TV soap operas, pop music, and magazines full of juicy stories about violence, scandal and private lives.

Caramitru, an acclaimed actor who is president of the Theaters Union of Romania, recalled that the arts and artists -- writers, poets, intellectuals -- used to be at the "forefront of resistance against totalitarianism" during half a century of communism."

Others speakers said the arts and culture used to play a political role as means of protest against an alien ideology, a way of preserving the national heritage and passing on a sense of memory.

Since 1989, that has changed. Caramitru spoke of a "fantastic loss" of official interest and financial backing for the arts as governments focused on economic issues. And the sudden liberty of expression has sparked an explosion of popular culture, much of it from the U.S.:

"The commercial system of the media, mostly the television programs, invaded Europe with violence and stupid stories. So Europe lost a competition in this exchange, the commercial aspect. I call this 'California-ization' because I am afraid this very deep and serious interest in culture will be confiscated by the surface."

But is the explosion of popular culture just to be dismissed in negative terms? Anne Applebaum, an American journalist and intellectual who is a respected commentator on Central Europe, is encouraged by the emergence of a local popular culture across the region. This is not always attractive and "not always what people of high culture think is very tasteful," but is "a great development".

"A very good example is the phenomenon of "Disco Polo" in Poland which is very loud, cheap pop music played in clubs which are very brightly colored, and sung by women with long dark hair and short skirts. It was very popular in Poland, very exciting to hear pop music in Polish, to dance to pop music in a Polish club. It was a phenomenon of ordinary working class Poles rediscovering and recreating their own form of pop music. I think it's an absolutely positive phenomenon and a great development."

Applebaum is not worried, either, by the evidence that people are reading fewer books than in the past. She said people read a lot under communism precisely because there was nothing else to do.

"So they read a lot of books. We are now in a period in those countries' history when people are terribly busy. They are starting new jobs, they are reinventing themselves, they are retraining themselves. So there isn't the kind of endless free time that people once had. So I am not sure that I would take the fact that they don't read so many books or go to the theater as meaning very much."

Applebaum says it is important to keep a time scale in mind when judging the new culture emerging in central Europe. She says the region is still in a period of change and confusion. People who grew up under one set of rules, and were educated in a certain way, suddenly find themselves "in a completely different space in which a university degree doesn't matter in the same way as it used to."

She also compares the predicament of the East/Central Europeans with the immediate post-war period in Germany. For 10 years, Germans did not talk about the war and it wasn't until the 1960s that a younger generation began to analyze the Nazi experience.

Similarly, Applebaum predicts that it may take another decade before the Central/East Europeans are able to explain and describe what happened under communism. This work is likely to be done by a younger generation, by those now in their 20s, rather than the current "generation of reigning intellectuals", now in their 40s or 50s. She says these older intellectuals have lost their role.

"The time of intellectuals as a class with a special influence in politics is probably over, yes. Politics is more the realm of politicians. Intellectuals are working in the media or universities. They no longer have a special role of carrying out and protecting the national culture. So, yes, I do think it's over. Both the former dissidents and those who collaborated don't have the same kind of impact they had even five or 10 years ago."

Applebaum and Caramitru spoke at a seminar, "arts and society in the new democracies of East Central Europe," organized by the Austrian Cultural Institute in London.