Culture Shock in Eastern Europe Free Czech, Polish, and Hungarian Writers and Artists Face Fierce Open-Market Competition. NO SUPPRESSION, BUT NO SUBSIDY

Article excerpt

NOT long ago, Karel Srp languished in jail for the "crime" of publishing banned writers and promoting banned music. Today, he is deputy culture minister of Czechoslovakia and has opened an uncensored bookstore and music cafe - in the disbanded Institute of Marxism and Leninism.

But all is not well for Mr. Srp and his exciting new venture.

"We're close to bankruptcy," he says. "Czech culture is finally free and we haven't any money."

Throughout Eastern Europe, artists are struggling to adapt to their newfound freedom. Even if their art used to be suppressed, it also was subsidized. That comfortable, coddled existence has been replaced by cutthroat competition, just when deepening recessions are forcing cash-strapped consumers and governments to cut back spending on culture.

In Hungary, opera singers went on strike this summer after the minister of culture refused to grant them pay raises. In Poland, hundreds of underground publishers who flourished under martial law as a reaction to all-encompassing censorship have gone out of business since the installation of press freedom. And in Czechoslovakia, which suffered a serious loss of talented filmmakers such as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer after the 1968 Soviet invasion, filmmakers again worry that they will be driven into exile, this time for financial - not political - reasons.

"You just can't make money on a Czech film," complains Jiri Menzel, the Academy Award-winning director of "Closely Watched Trains." "We may have to begin making our films in English."

This rude economic shock has been accompanied by the sharp transition from courageous dissidents to jaded office holders. Under communism, the artist - whether a writer, painter, or musician - was charged with a sacred mission of guarding and treasuring the national conscience. When the revolution came, men such as Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, Polish historian Branislaw Geremek, and Hungarian writer Miklos Haraszti led the charge to the barricades.

Mr. Havel now is Czechoslovakia's president, and many of his fellow artists have become ministers or ambassadors. Those who have continued to work as writers or musicians have lost their prestigious positions within society to the political elite, and in a certain sense, their freedom to criticize. Many of their former colleagues don't appreciate close scrutiny. Even Havel, the former imprisoned playwright, has demanded retractions from the newspaper Lidove Noviny, which he helped found as a clandestine publication.

"There was a cartoon mocking Havel and he called up furious that he was being criticized," says Klara Jiraskova, whose father penned the drawing. "It's just like in the bad old days."

Artists also worry that freedom has cost them their best subjects. Adversity, they say, taught fundamental moral lessons, forcing artists to deal with deep questions of existence. Havel himself has joked that he might ask the new government, which he leads, to send him back to jail two days a week so he can write.

"When conditions of life were difficult, when there was persecution, it was the time that artists could find glory," says Czech novelist Ivan Klima, one of the few leading writers who have refused to take an official post. "Life now is boring. That doesn't make for great books."

It also doesn't make for voracious readers.

East Europeans used to analyze books for the flavor that they injected into an otherwise drab life. All classes in society read, from the lowest of manual workers to the most rarefied of specialists. Before the revolution, publishers in Prague used to sell more copies of William Faulkner in their country of 13.6 million than were sold in the entire United States. Even volumes of esoteric poetry regularly enjoyed first printings of 10,000 throughout the region.

Despite those large print runs, demand outstripped supply. …