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East: Arts Establishment Fails To Respond To Transition

By Ben Patridge

London, 9 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Festival of Central European Culture in London has heard that the arts and cultural life of the region is in crisis, largely caused by the failure of the arts establishment to respond adequately to the challenges of transition.

Dragan Klaic, a former professor of theater studies at the University of Arts in Belgrade, said the cultural and artistic infrastructure of the region is gripped by "institutional fatigue", reflecting a failure to adapt to the collapse of communism.

He says the cultural infrastructure -- theaters, ballets, operas, arts centers -- that existed pre-1989 is still largely in place and displays "an obstinate resentment and resistance to change."

He contrasted the dynamism of the new independent arts sector -- theater groups, festivals, galleries (all largely catering for younger audiences) -- with the communist-era arts establishment which still behaves as "anachronistic passive clients" of subsidies.

Part of the problem is the ''old fashioned trade union attitudes" displayed by employees of state-backed arts enterprises who are determined to hang onto their salaries, however small or symbolic.

What is to be done? Klaic says it is wrong to suppose that the "market" will provide a solution -- that market mechanisms will provide the support for the arts hitherto provided by the state.

Klaic says market forces, alone, will never support innovative, risky and controversial work, of the kind that is so vital if cultures are to reflect what he called "the dramatic transition of society."

Governments should still invest in culture at all levels, but should avoid politicization and excessive control. One way forward is the creation as "quangos" -- quasi-autonomous non-government organizations, or largely independent bodies, often voluntary, that could take government money, and distribute it according to merit.

Quangos are common in western Europe (the British Council and the Swedish Institute are examples), and have been introduced in Hungary and Estonia. They depend on the "arm's length principle" -- keeping government at a distance from funding decisions.

Klaic says the CEEC countries also have to overcome the problems of cultural insecurity caused by the import of cultural products from abroad. The post-1989 indiscriminate import of products from the globalized cultural industry -- say, Hollywood films or TV soap operas -- has created "a lot of resentment and xenophobia".

This sense of cultural insecurity is particularly prevalent among the smaller nations -- Slovenes, Estonians, Latvians -- who feel that their culture has turned into nothing more than a market-place.

Many cultural operators in the CEEC countries "see themselves as somehow forced into a role of recipient imitator, followers than genuine creators." The consequence of this cultural insecurity is a simplistic anti-Americanism, even an anti-European resentment. But Klaic says the arts world is curiously ambiguous in its reaction.

"I talk to colleagues in some of the Baltic republics, who say, 'we're now having all this kitsch, this avalanche of terrible American culture, and it is ruining our national cultural heritage and specificity. And I say, well, you just told me how happy you are to drive a western car, to have your mobile phones, to have your passports, to be able to buy foreign currency. So you are enjoying capitalism, but you are getting disgusted about the cultural consequences of capitalism. Don't you see there's some kind of inter-connectedness? And they look at me with a blank stare."

How to resolve the problem? Klaic says the commercial cultural industry is "a fact, that it won't go away." But it does not have to be seen as "an enemy creation", as long as there is a separate cultural world, parallel to it, and supported from different sources, and treated as a "cultural good", not only as a market commodity.

He says cultural enterprises in the CEEC countries need to reach outwards, to join international cultural networks and exchanges, to be ready to introduce good practices from abroad. The need is for more small, dynamic and lean artistic organizations, with an original creative output and new ways of self-organization. The goal is the expansion of a vital independent sector that breaks with professional state cultural organizations and old-fashioned trade unions that were, in the past, agencies for the transmission of communist party control.