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05.04.2002 | author: Ivaylo Znepolsky
Vision Crisis
Kultura Supplement, 5 April 2002 www.online.bg/kultura/
Ivaylo Znepolsky
is Ph.D. Prof. in Philosophy, specialist in Cultural Studies and Semiotics. June 1993 - January 1995 - Minister of Culture of Bulgaria. He is Dean of the History and Theory of Culture Department to "St. Kliment Ochridski" Sofia University.
Professor Znepolski, we invited you to talk about cultural policies. How would you define a cultural policy?
Cultural policy is something much bigger than financing any given cultural activities. Culture is a vast concept covering both the arts and a system of interrelations, forms and ways of life, an environment with various identification markers, etc. We are focused solely on the effects of the ongoing marginalization and the tough battle for the survival of individual artists or cultural institutes, without really considering the core problems. Nobody is adequately raising the issue of the role of culture for social integrity - as a sphere providing national and social identification, suggesting models for rationalizing the surrounding reality as well as for the education of the sentiments accompanying the rapid changes; culture as an agent for the creation of a community consolidated around shared values. This line of thought should be taken up by the media and the media environment which in different circumstances could cooperate with the political elites to mould adequate civic awareness (in artistic circles as well). In the past decade the Ministry of Culture was unable to assist in this process for a number of reasons (mainly because nobody was expecting it to do so). It was unwisely reduced to a mere distributor of slashed down state subsidies. It was transformed into something between culture's chief accountant and frazzled firefighter, torn between the constantly emerging points of tension. Nothing more. Even if we set aside the shortage of human resources, it still could not generate any outstanding initiatives, innovations or programs to consolidate cultural space, to generate quality, support the formation of artistic personalities and circles, lay down the perspectives before the system of culture. There is no program for culture fit for a country like ours - a country developing forms of modern democracy and seeking a place in the European family. On the other hand, those who work in the cultural sphere have drastically narrowed their horizons to the problems of their own survival - and I can hardly blame them for doing that. Besides, in such situations the fittest prove to be the loudest and the numerous. In a word, our society's idea of culture has been drastically reduced. This tendency is manifested in both the governing elites (characterized by narrow-minded technocratism or ill concealed culturophobia) and the very agents of culture. In this respect we have reached an even lower level of cultural self-awareness and cultural development than that of the post-Liberation period. Back then the builders of the state felt that the establishment of cultural institutions, the concern for the spiritual environment, the setting of identity models and the training of specialists determined our place on the map. Right now nobody in Bulgaria cares about that. Thence, we can say that the crisis of society is a general crisis of culture - a disintegration of identities, disintegration of communities, a lack of unifying models, absence of values which could create a certain social hierarchy, utter neglect of the spiritual and physical environment we live in...

After the Liberation the cultural vision was associated with the building of national identity. In a way, nation formation in Bulgaria starts from the scratch. Don't you think that after 1989 the main problem was the existing institutions, the giant cultural network nobody knew how to handle?
Every radical change starts with a transformation of the existing values and institutions. The problem was that the displacement of everything inconsistent with the new trends of development was not accompanied by propounding a clear alternative and the establishing of adequate institutions and values. The patching of Sofia airport became the universal model of adaptation, which was applied to culture as well. We paid dearly for the assumption that the market will make the necessary selections and will transform and revive national culture. In fact, so far there has been no real market. The survivors were not those who created new values, capable of gaining currency in cultural space. Typically, the survivors were those who clung close to some kind of political power or foreign beneficiary. One of the greatest faults of our time is the lack of people - qualified, honorable and capable of implementing a policy dedicated to the propagation of values and the setting of a new horizon of survival, which wouldn't be so focused on the daily grind. There are no visionaries to defend the cultural factor as an element of our country's evolution and prosperity. During my term I tried to transform the Ministry of Culture in order to integrate it in a greater state strategy. Thence I proposed a new way of presenting the Ministry on the state agenda. Instead of the formerly envisaged functions and tasks of the Ministry of Culture I suggested the adoption of the 'Principles of national cultural policy'. The first of those principles was formulated as 'recognition of culture as a factor of social development'. This change was ratified by the cabinet but never implemented as no individual can stop the inertia of popular thinking. Written texts do not seem to hold any obligation for the Bulgarian society. By the way, the scripts of the 1976 meeting of the Club of Rome contain the following statement: "If economic development does not take into account certain extra-economic values, it will not be able to reach its goals." And also: "Cultural development gives economic growth a qualitative dimension". Meanwhile we are going in vicious circles witnessing the various spheres of the state falling apart without anything to unite them, to create cohesion and propel them forward. This much-needed cohesion between the spheres of activity can be no other than culture, including the equally neglected and marginalized educational sphere.

Doesn't this come down to the crisis of authority? Since 1989 our society has kept undermining existing authorities.
We have to admit that old cultural authorities fell down simply because they did not meet the new standards. People were waiting for the wise figures of the founding fathers of the Second Bulgarian Republic to lay down the rules and live up to the values, but they failed to do so. Instead, they voluntarily put themselves in the service of private political strategies and were crushed by the political torrent. On the other hand, we are now suffering from the consequences of bad legacies: five decades of extensive cultural development relying on quantity to compensate for the lack of opportunities, the lack of freedom, etc. Quantity destroyed the hierarchies. Thus started the dismantling of existing authorities. This process gradually affected even those who had earned their reputation by taking a stand against the status quo, by rejecting blind obedience, etc. as they could not transcend their former latent dissent to offer new values and new ideas, adequate to the changing circumstances... Unfortunately, the new generations were brought up with the same mentality. At the beginning of the 20th century culture had many mechanisms for rating and selection; any good writer could live off his work despite the difficult circumstances of living in a small culture with a limited market. Today, when the work of the actor or the university professor is worth much less than the work of a plumber, when unskilled labor and unschooled tastes gain the upper position, the entire hierarchy of society as a whole and the cultural sphere in particular collapse. As a result ridiculous appointments in administration become the norm. We are in a Darwinian situation: we have to devour each other to ensure the survival of those who are best adapted to the environment regulated in such a way. If we go back to the subject of artistic circles, we will see that the hierarchies there are created by the cultural press and art criticism. The state withdrew completely, refusing to support the existence of such filters. Therefore our cultural life became completely unstructured - just a certain amount of loose cultural facts which never fit together in a greater picture. At best there are close circles that do not communicate with one another. It's no surprise then, that we have not seen any cultural phenomena capable of making the national news and engaging people's attention. Even the surviving cultural editions cannot function adequately because only a full-time critic could keep seeking the overall picture in order to analyze and evaluate it. And it is hardly possible to earn one's living as a full-time critic.

Is there an effective idea for a Bulgarian cultural policy that could provoke, stir up the process?
Such ideas require extensive resources. There is a shortage of ideas, but is it due to the shortage of money? According to me, the crux of the matter is the crisis of vision. The National Gallery of Art is going to collapse any minute, the National Museum of History is not properly housed, not only there are no new theatres, but the existing ones are also crumbling... No matter how poor we are, we need to have some highlights, we have to put up symbolic marks of cultural construction. When making financial plans, we should seek the intersection of the economic and the extra-economic to ensure the harmonious development of the national organism. A cultural policy must surface initiatives, which should be meaningful for the whole society. It cannot be reduced to raising funds for the mere survival of several cultural institutions (though this is the minimum requirement). It is something much bigger than that. It is the concern for the general civilizational and spiritual development. Who aids the formation of a public opinion in support of such cultural policies? Who works in the area of cultural statistics, cultural documentation, who maintains a database of cultural spheres, etc.? Those are all distinctive features of the well-organized state...

How can a minister of culture find a way between the Scila of the wide network of cultural institutes in Bulgaria and the Haribda of not being able to ensure its proper financing?
A fundamental problem related to such a network is that cutting any of its parts would be interpreted as a loss. On the other hand, this network can no longer be sustained as professional. I am increasingly confident that things should not be done forcibly, that the cultural administration and the cultural guilds must reach certain consensus on decisions through dialogue and compromise. Alternatives should be outlined and considered. If a certain guild chooses to languish in a semi-amateurish status, it would be a mistake, but the delusion must run its course. I personally would plead for the other alternative - a smaller, more professionalized and better financed set of cultural institutes that could later expand its territory and recover the whole system. Unfortunately, we are late. If we had come to our senses earlier, we would have chosen those roads. Because we see that for 10-12 years the situation has not improved at all.

Why none of the last couple of teams of the Ministry of Culture implemented the arms length principle?
Because they lacked basic political and civic culture. Power is interpreted as control rather than authority. And this control is ensured by loyal figures rather than the legislative system. This is a total replacement of the fundamental principles of democracy. When even the system of culture cannot function democratically, what shall we say about the economic, financial or purely political spheres.

Who could chart the strategy for the development of the Bulgarian culture?
I think that the initiative must come from the state, provided that it has realized the need for such a strategy. This can only be accomplished by a large group of experts from different fields, with proper informational and financial backup. They should lay down the basic working concepts: they should define cultural development, cultural needs, cultural models, cultural dynamics, cultural planning, etc. And, of course, they should take into account the role of media which is one of the fundamental factors contributing to the cultural crisis. They should define the instruments at hand and the relations with the other spheres. People must understand that this not an insignificant sphere comprising nothing more than individual institutes. To this moment there is no awareness of the need for such a strategy.

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