Culture in Crisis in Prague

By Benn, Piers | Contemporary Review, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Culture in Crisis in Prague


Benn, Piers, Contemporary Review


THE aura of romance which hovers around the new Czech Republic, and especially its beautiful capital, has not yet lost its pulling power for Westerners. At least, if it has lost its appeal for those for whom it had snob value during the communist period, it has amply made up for it among the hoards of back-packers who now haunt it.

The Czechs, however, like to remind us that their infant Czech Republic is a country born to confusion and chaos. They will tell you that President Havel commands far less respect than he did in his previous office as Czechoslovak President; that 'velvet' is now a dirty word. The traditional shabbiness of yesteryear, when dissidents sported all the awful clothes, beards and pony-tails usual among western left-wingers, has given way to a new kind of tat. On Charles Bridge, back-packing Americans are to be seen, gathered in groups and strumming Simon and Garfunkel songs, 'reliving' a period they cannot possibly have known. At a large metro station, drunken Czech imitators of English football hooligans chant menacing, Nazi-sounding slogans. Just off the station concourse, a Sex Kino has sprung up, showing German and American hard-core videos. Censorship was abolished with the fall of the old regime and there are few coherent laws to control this kind of thing, or for that matter the vast invasion of German satellite porn -- already highly popular. The main recent case of censorship, and among the first of the post-communist period, concerns a pop video which has been banned because its lyrics proclaim that 'boys will love girls and boys will love boys'.

But if such things reflect the changes in popular mentality since the revolution, then what of the official culture? In the present confused mixture of liberalism and reaction, inconsistently spread over the social and cultural life of the Czechs, the mainstream arts face a grave crisis. Under the old system, great lip-service was paid to high culture. Theatre and opera received huge state subsidies (though the fact that many of the best seats were reserved for the nomenklatura compromised the ideal of bringing art to the people). Shows such as the one at the Magic Lantern visual theatre were world famous. The Spring Music Festival was similarly renowned. Good quality cabaret flourished, one of its attractions being that the performers used it to bait the regime by innuendo and dissident in-jokes, without saying anything explicitly subversive. But the Prague cultural establishment is now gripped by uncertainty and panic.

One of the greatest difficulties faced by the smaller, non state-sponsored theatres is the steep increase in rent. This mirrors the recent increase in property prices in general, which has caused resentment among Czechs, being partly brought about by the large numbers of Westerners who decided that Prague was an elegant and cheap place to live in. For theatres in central and fashionable locations, rent increases spell disaster: three theatres under the direction of the chief economist for the City Theatres of Prague, Jaroslav Capanda, are now paying two and a half million crowns a year (about |pounds~61,000) -- two and a half times the amount they were paying before the revolution. Those theatres owned by the city are spared the worst of these rapid changes. Yet even they are not safe. The Czech state reduced its contribution to Prague's budget this year by three billion crowns. This has made many officials ask themselves why theatres should enjoy the aid to which they have so long been accustomed. The new free market ideology, together with the pressing nature of Prague's other problems, such as housing, have pulled the carpet from under the arts: culture must either sink, or swim unaided.

Gary Mason, culture editor of the Prague Post (the English language weekly newspaper), expressed to me his despair at the cluelessness of those in charge of the administration of the arts. 'They have no idea how to market themselves', he explained. …

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