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 That comfortable, coddled existence has been
replaced by cutthroat competition, just when deepening recessions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. …