Are We Able to Dance on the European Dance Floor?

It has been 30 years since the stellar moments of 1989, which wafted upon us with long desired freedom. We thought that the profession of ideological censors who forbid beautiful books, good scripts, exceptional paintings, because they did not understand tham and found them suspicious. Censors quietly disappeared from the ministry, only some of its actors remind us today to keep looking, because they may return at any time: Always ready!

We waited impatiently for the opening of drawers, suitcases from under beds, and buried treasures of illicit production, and for our culture to fly across Europe like that mythical Phoenix. Everyone would stand in awe, realising: how is it possible that we had not known anything about how talented our nation was? Where are the Nobel Prizes for literature, book awards, best showrooms, Berlin, Cannes, let us wreathe them, for they would be an integral part of the European culture. Beautiful dreams of all the things we could be if …

We hoped at least that something would happen, similar to what we nostalgically remember from the late 1960s. New magazines, full of critical articles by educated journalists, a new wave in the cinema that has picked up people from their seats worldwide, new book writers who started using a new vocabulary, quite a “Freedom / Free”, new music dropping any hints of folk songs, and especially new audiences that have arisen from the non-being of the haunted fifties. New ideas of our, then younger generation, flooded the culture with life-giving energy that had been so dangerous in the red zone, in which we were imprisoned, that it had to be choked up by the tanks in 1968.

30 years have passed and we grudgingly observe that we are still just being upset about having no new modern library, we still resists the idea of those who think that Slovak culture is only about the long axe and singing dressed in folk costumes, we eagerly await the law on sponsorship to refresh financing of culture as we have sponsorship in sports, and we will peer into the advanced statistics and finally will know how much money we spend on culture and whether it is enough. Although there are some voices getting stronger that criticise the split in the perception of the the Slovak society’s culture in two parts that can not find a common ground, as if there was an uncrossable barrier between us, but this is what Alexander Matuška said 70 years ago. In culture, nothing new and European has happened so far.

So far, none of the ministers of culture implemented any significant cultural infrastructure funding from the Structural Funds like our neighbours did. Poland used European funds to build a modern community library in every regional capital, and the exceptional Philharmonic halls in Katowice and Szczecin, which are world-class. What we can admire in Slovakia is just an excessively high number of strategic documents and action plans of the Ministry of Culture, but we will never know how much they were accomplished and what the results are. The Creative Europe page was last updated in May 2014 and Creative Industries, which was supposed to become our most dynamic sector with a great future, in January 2016, which is not indicative of any excessive efforts to convince us of the usefulness of the activities done by ministerial officials.

The year 2018 was declared the Year of the European cultural heritage. A year ahead, the ministries of culture of Slovakia’s neighbouring states asked selected agencies to submit special programmes to fill the whole year with events that would present the cultural heritage of the countries abroad on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to bring the modern approach to the selection and preservation the cultural heritage closer to domestic populations. Our Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic invited all those who organise events to apply for the possibility to use the international European cultural heritage logo in their scheduled events without having to define at least the fundamental priorities. So there besides a few conferences on various topics, including the “non-heritage” ones, there was some tasting of traditional handicrafts, theatre performance “Wen whamen wanna rool”, and a organ concert in a church.

We can see our idea of presenting Slovakia’s culture on the European soil is best documented by comparing the Europeana portal with Slovakiana. Financially, ours certainly was at a European level with the costs, but the results after three years do not correspond to a regional level. That is also why our presentation is more comparable with the Albanian, but certainly not with the Hungarian or Czech. The fundamental problem is that not even the cultural community in Slovakia demands an improvement and does not create the pressure to investigate the escape of funds from this project, and is not interested in the fate of our digitised collections of our repository institutions led by the Slovak National Library, and of the funds we were given for that by all Europeans. Millions of euros in both projects.

With rare exceptions, our Ministers of Culture have not travelled anywhere, have not held any important positions at the European level and usually they could not have, because their communication skills being limited to chatting with Czech delegates. And yet the first European Commissioner at a new post in the European Commission was Ján Figeľ, in 2004-2009 . His portfolio included Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism. The choice of activities makes it apparent that was really a mixed bag, as it happens, when everyone knows that something should be started, but nobody knows exactly how. However, if we wanted to read what the work of J. Figeľ meant not only for the EU but also for Slovakia, then we will find nothing. Although Mr. Commissioner worked hard, we do not know and are not interested in what was left of it. I remember only one traditional conference on multiculturalism in Ljubljana, but it was not yet an explosive topic of new European nationalists. Today, multiculturalism is a bad word, not used by decent people.

To this day we do not know how big the modernisation debt is in our culture. Not that anyone has not described it, but nobody has ever quantified the dizzying sum or produced a true twenty-year action plan to eliminate it. Three decades have passed and we do not know how much effort and years the next debt of cultural reforms that we have created because the Ministry of Culture and its subordinate institutions have not undergone fundamental reform of the structure, financing and activities like other sectors and the entire society. Just walk into the building of the former Tatra Banka and breathe the stale air and dust sticking on the walls. Not to mention the desperate attempts of some modern-thinking directors of cultural institutions, who could talk for hours about the obstacles in their efforts to modernise the stereotypical practices.

And finally – does Slovakia have its European cultural policy? The idea, based on the evaluation of the effects of individual programmes of Creative Europe, regional programmes, should be culturally awakened by our regions along the lines of those of France or Austria. A vision, planned at least for the new EU financial period, supported by financial plans of projects that we will have to co-finance. Resolutions to cooperate at least with the ministries of the neighbouring European Union Member States and relevant non-governmental organisations in order to participate in the cultural pulse of the times around us. Or, have we decided to continue in cultural isolation and then lament that no one knows us? How to achieve the “leap” cultural investments without financial assistance from abroad?

The past experience of cultural management in Slovakia can not be assessed by any positive and empty phrases. The two treasury boxes, called Funds, developed by one minister over the 12 years while he was in office, will not stop us from a critical attitude. Nevertheless, like in other areas of our lives, without becoming aware of the latest trends of cultural policy abroad, we will just still keep creating pathetic and tearful variations on notorious topics of why we lag behind. We all have the latest mobile phones, post modern statuses on global social networks, dress to the latest fashion trends, listen to world pop music, so why would we obstinately keep wearing the old shabby pants and nourish the small-town wives’ dreams of the last century? The Tatra banka building finally needs a new generation, which should go from the squares right in the door next to the Astorka theatre.

Magda Vášáryová