Troubles with the throwaway seat

WHENEVER new governments were formed in Slovakia in the past, the culture portfolio was never among the ministerial seats hotly contested by ruling coalition parties. Instead, culture has often been a makeweight to satisfy the quota of cabinet seats to which a coalition partner was formally entitled.

WHENEVER new governments were formed in Slovakia in the past, the culture portfolio was never among the ministerial seats hotly contested by ruling coalition parties. Instead, culture has often been a makeweight to satisfy the quota of cabinet seats to which a coalition partner was formally entitled.

Thus it was that in 2002, when the Culture Ministry fell into the hands of the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO), then-Culture Minister Rudolf Chmel explained that the other coalition parties had not been interested - hardly the best means of building trust between the ministry's political leadership and Slovakia's cultural community.

Slovakia has never had a culture minister that the cultural community was fond of, and this is probably not merely because artists and actors are exceptionally difficult to please. Some might say that artists, no friends of numbers and charts, are naturally resistant to ministerial leadership; but given the historic indifference of culture ministers to artists, the latter have clearly not been wholly to blame.

Now the cultural community is calling for the head of Culture Minister František Tóth, with many saying he should never have been nominated to the post.

The artistic community was unhappy from the outset with the idea of a mechanical engineer serving as culture minister. Tóth's former political master, Pavol Rusko, had transferred his "universal soldier" from the Education Ministry, apparently under the impression that education and culture were two peas in a pod, or insufficiently important to warrant qualified leadership.

Well-known cultural perso-nalities now say they have had enough of Tóth's experiments as culture minister.

"In a gesture of good will, the cultural community accepted the nomination of engineer Tóth... realizing his lack of expertise, but hoping he would use his proclaimed managerial skills to lead the sector," states a recent appeal for Tóth's dismissal, which was signed by about 150 renowned names in Slovak culture.

The other parties in the ruling coalition, preoccupied with more lucrative portfolios, have reserved judgement or at least sentence on Toth's performance, just as they were silent when Rusko installed his man in the post.

The general feeling among politicians seems to be that an "incompetent" minister, as the artists have dubbed Tóth, can do less harm in culture than a similarly inept minister might cause in the Finance Ministry, for example.

The harm done by culture sector decision-makers who have neither understanding nor sympathy for art is not immediately apparent, which is precisely what makes it politically acceptable. But over the longer term, especially when the decisions taken are consistently the wrong ones, the impact is considerably more grave than, say, the loss of a foreign investment.

Tóth defends his performance with the claim that whatever else he lacks, he is a good manager, which is precisely what the culture sector needs - to be subjected to the same rules as any other line of business.

The flaw in that reasoning is that the transformation of Slovakia's economy has seriously damaged Slovakia's fragile culture. The economic salves and business methods that the government has used in the past have amply demonstrated that the less commercial forms of art, especially given the tiny size and spending power of the Slovak market, need public subsidies if they are not to become extinct. This is not a business decision - it's about what expressions of nationhood and the unique Slovak experience Slovaks want to be able to pass on to their children.

The commoditization of culture is an unpleasant by-product of economic transformation, and is by far not a pain troubling only Slovakia. Many argue that the massive financing of culture is a luxury that post-communist countries cannot afford, and that the cultural community simply must come to terms with the ubiquity and supremacy of pop-culture.

And yet there's no reason a healthy balance can't be found between opening doors to the more lucrative pop-culture and investing in institutions and cultural activities that do not always fill the purse. To find this balance, those making decisions on culture must see further than a dictionary definition of the term.

Practice in running a firm does not automatically qualify anyone to manage a complex whole comprising the beliefs, art, morals, laws, and customs of an entire society.

The cultural community says that Tóth has not demonstrated a grasp of this complex whole.

Certainly, putting an intellectual or an artist in charge of the department is an equally poor solution. The tragedy of Tóth's predecessor, Rudolf Chmel, was that, like many other intellectuals who have entered politics, he failed to live up to the ideals that he had so fiercely propagated, and left with a whimper against commercialism rather than a bang in support of sustainable support.

Today what the public most remembers of Chmel's tenure as culture minister is his statement: "Ignorance of culture is colossal; society is commercial, consumer-oriented and kitschy, and it seems that this trend cannot be stopped."

Admittedly, it's not easy to find a culture minister who has both managerial skills and deep understanding of the sector. But as long as the government regards the culture portfolio as a throwaway seat, political nominees will continue to deepen the mistrust between the cultural community and the state, to the detriment of both, and especially of Slovakia's cultural heritage.

Beata Balogová

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