Cafe Serves as Witness to Cultural Slide

Article excerpt

FOR decades, Cafe Slavia was a center of Prague cultural life, a place brimming with painters, playwrights, and poets.

In 1989, dissident intellectuals jammed the lively space overlooking the Vlatka River during the Velvet Revolution that won Czechs their freedom from Communism. But today the cafe is closed - a metaphor for a recent decline of expression and artistic spirit in the free-market Czech Republic.

Leased in 1992 for 50 years by American real estate firm HN Gorin, Slavia got lost in a legal and commercial limbo. Sources say the historic cafe would have become a glitzy tourist site, and powerful forces, including President Vaclav Havel, helped halt planned renovations. With no side giving in, the cafe today sits in stalemated emptiness - no life stirring behind dust-streaked windows.

The city of Franz Kafka has long defined its identity through intellectuals and artists; for 40 years Prague's special blend of brooding ennui and absurdist humor made it the only Left Bank in the former East Bloc.

"Under communism we didn't have money, we had culture," one Prague-born emigre put it.

YET today, priorities seem reversed. Battered by high costs and hesitant about mass-market approaches, many Czech artists have not hit stride. Intellectuals complain that as rents go up, the quality of art goes down. Writers such as Vaclav Havel, Milan Uhde, and Eva Kantorkova, who used to fill small magazines with electrifying essays, are now in public service.

"I haven't read the book or seen the play that is about everything I'm living in," says Sasha Neumann, publisher of Respekt magazine. Mr. Neumann, a rock music critic in the 1980s, adds, "I haven't seen or heard or touched the art that is really it, something we all agree is on new ground."

With Czechs newly concerned about jobs and making ends meet, audiences have dried up. Magazines, plays, books, and film are no longer subsidized by the state. Painter Milan Knizak, now director of the Czech Academy of Arts, this year began to include courses on entrepreneurship for his students.

Vaclav Marhoul, head of the Barrandov Film Company, says his problem today is finding scripts that appeal to a broad audience. "My first question is not about art. It's about whether a film will sell," he says. Mr. Marhoul doesn't want films about "post-communist realism. …