Jan Macháček

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Czech Business Weekly

A sage deal for the churches, a bum deal for art

05. 05. 2008
Even though the parliamentary vote on the restitution of church property has been postponed, it is very probable that a large-scale restitution will finally materialize. A big settlement between the state and 16 churches will soon, within a few months at the latest, become a reality.

The deal, including financial compensation, has been prepared and pre-negotiated for many years and even the opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD) are not entirely against the idea of it (they only demand the compensation covers a shorter period of time).

For those who think the settlement is immoral because it stems from a secret deal between the Civic Democrats (ODS) and the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) that became the basis for re-electing President Václav Klaus to the Castle, there is one response: there might have been a deal for some individuals, but we know that the KDU-ČSL did not follow it because half of the party went on to support Klaus opponent Jan Švejnar. So it makes the dirt, for those who want to see it as dirt, slightly less ugly. And it should anyway be noted that the other side (ČSSD and Švejnar) were promising the Christian Democrats something similar.

The deal is good even for those who happen to be nonbelievers or non-Christians. After all, it is always good when the state limits its power and size. It gives more power and autonomy to the most important layer of any society, the layer lying between the citizen and the state consisting of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and any social groups that on a voluntary basis help to make citizens active members of society. The agreement will make society more multilayered and colorful, and will certainly provide it with some more lively dimensions.

We know that churches have their social roles, that they care about “their” (and of course “our”) elderly and disabled, that they have their schools and education systems. All these things will now become more important. They will make society more open to different opinions and educational approaches. Therefore anyone who is afraid of the ever-expanding role of the state in modern society should welcome the deal that is finally on horizon.

Red-neck libertarians

Being head of state in this country is not only about stepping up for presidential duties. The post also brings a lot of informal power especially in the case where the president has a personality cult as strong as that of Klaus within the ranks of the ODS.

Many indirect results thus materialize from presidential elections. Such is the situation where the national library proposal, put together by Czech native international architect Jan Kaplický and his London-based Future Systems team, is concerned. Originally, his “octopus” design was welcomed by the Prague branch of the ODS, but after Klaus declared that he would publicly demonstrate against it, the Prague City Hall administration headed by Mayor Pavel Bém started to back off and then maneuver against it. Now the chances of the octopus ever being constructed in Prague are close to zero. We can imagine, however, that if Švejnar was resident at the Castle, he would, being rather more open to world trends and fashions, try to impact on the public library debate in the opposite direction.

A similar scenario presents itself in the controversy over financing the capital’s cultural scene, above all its theaters. Klaus and his people are the most important ideological representatives of a strange and peculiar ideological mix of libertarianism and red neck philosophy. While the libertarian approach dictates that the state should not support any art, the red-neck approach says that doing art is “business just like with selling rolls or bagels" (Prague City Councilor for Culture Milan Richter), with no differentiation made between art and public entertainment. And then comes a stupid “cult of success”: only those that are commercially successful are worthy of survival.

We can imagine that a head of state other than Klaus would try to moderate in this public debate. We are now not so far from the beginning of the Czech presidency of the European Union, and a big shame is on the horizon: the local world of art could witness painful scenes such as the closure of historic Prague theater Divadlo Na zábradlí and one of the city’s most lively art spots Divadlo Archa, a venue that also brings in a lot of international stars of experimental and progressive art. Prague, it seems, is actually busy killing off all kinds of experimental art and festivals, meaning it could soon be merely a “skansen,” or an open air museum for tourists only.

But history, don’t they know, shows that investing into art is the best imaginable asset on a long-term perspective. Prague is awash with tourist money because “crazy emperors” like Charles IV and Rudolph II invested “crazy amounts of money” into art and architecture.

Nobody is obliged to hand out municipal or taxpayers’ money for endeavors of art. But in recent years, Prague has successfully built up a standard grant system for supporting experimental art forms, only to see the ODS now successfully destroy it in line with a behind-the-scenes orchestration conducted from the Castle. So while up on the world stage during its EU presidency next year, Prague may only be rolling out a succession of musicals and soap operas. Congratulations all round!

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