“IGNORANCE of culture is colossal; society is commercial, consumption-oriented and kitschy, and it seems this trend cannot be stopped,” Rudolf Chmel, literary historian and former Slovak ambassador to Hungary, sighed back in 2004 when he served as culture minister in the second government of Mikuláš Dzurinda. During his term, Chmel proposed that by 2010 the state triple its spending on culture, which then stood at 0.6 percent of GDP, since cultural activities in Slovakia were “in a state of emergency, if not at an historical low”.
Chmel’s statements failed to cause any shockwaves across society partly due to the public perception that governments regard the culture post as a throwaway seat. In fact several political nominees who have sat in that chair over the past two decades have only deepened the chasm between the cultural community and the state, to the detriment of both.
In mid September 2012, yet another culture minister has cried out over the quality of entertainment, which presumably appeals to a considerable segment of Slovak audiences, calling it “barbarisation of the nation”. The third season of a reality show in which women seek to win the heart of a bachelor Slovak farmer, occasionally applying methods of seduction that most parents would probably not want their kids to watch, outraged Culture Minister Marek Maďarič to the point that he summoned a press conference to share his disgust and his determination to fight what he called the dishonouring of human dignity.
Yet, there is a huge difference between the political muscle of Maďarič and Chmel. While Chmel was considered a rather harmless intellectual who at 65 wore the badge of the oldest minister in the Dzurinda cabinet in 2004, Maďarič has a significant position in his party, which now rules the country and is likely to continue doing so for the next three-and-half years without much hindrance by the opposition.
If Maďarič, the father of the country’s much disputed Press Code, which struck a raw nerve with the media under his tenure in the first government of Robert Fico, chooses to introduce limitations, for example a ban on broadcasting programmes judged unsuitable for audiences under 15 years of age until after 20:00, he can rather easily do so. In fact with the political tools and the backing that Maďarič has at his disposal, he could do much more than just introduce a broadcast time limit, and this is what makes his drive to regulate worrisome.
Yet, Maďarič also wants a wider debate over the quality of programming that television stations offer. Of course, such a debate is long overdue in times when the attention span of a whole generation of viewers has shrunk to the point that, without the slightest hesitation, people would pick half-witted shows with one-liners and slaps on faces over a story-telling feature-movie that actually conveys a message. The trend did not start on September 8 when Maďarič tuned his device to the TV JOJ channel and a stream of vulgarisms flashed across his eyes, and thus the minister’s instinct to summon a press conference to make this announcement does not come across as very genuine.
What is the solution then? Pouring even more money into the state-run broadcaster Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) and inspiring the institution to produce more high-quality programming that will put some good intellectual nutrition on people’s plates? But what if the people simply demand junk entertainment, just as they more easily digest populism than any intellectualising approach in politics?
Also, since RTVS is so vulnerable to political influence, which is proven by the public broadcaster’s long roll-call of general directors since 1989, it is hard to genuinely believe that the institution would now turn into an incubator of quality entertainment or the guardian of cultural values. In a post-communist country such a vision will always leave a bad aftertaste.
This is actually happening at a time when on September 13 the country’s teachers, who have been frustrated by their declining status in society and thin purses for some time, went on strike and schools closed their doors for the whole day to emphasise their demand for more funding for the education system and higher pay. A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) release suggested that Slovakia invests only 0.9 percent of GDP in its tertiary, i.e. high school, education which was the second lowest rate after South Africa among OECD countries. Perhaps this is where the government should start educating the nation.