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Writers and Artists

The country's creative intelligentsia played a pivotal role in the nationalist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; their manifestos spoke for the aspirations of Czechs and Slovaks within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their opposition to foreign domination was almost a defining feature of the literature of the period, just as Soviet hegemony and the paralyzing rigidity of party rule have fueled a growing body of dissident literature in recent times.

Intellectual and artistic endeavor flourished during the First Republic. There was, of course, The Good Soldier Svejk, published at the end of World War I. The presence of Czech Karel Capek, Slovak Laco Novomesky, and German Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edmund Husserl, to name only the most prominent writers, gives some sense of how prolific the era was. Sigmund Freud came from the Czech lands, as did Gustav Mahler. Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein taught at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague.

The KSC takeover ushered in the era of Stalinist socialist realism in Czechoslovakia's arts. It was a movement with strong overtones of Russian chauvinism and a deep anti-Western bias evident in a readiness to denounce anything remotely cosmopolitan as bourgeois, decadent, or both. One suspects that the country that had given world literature Svejk was particularly unpromising ground for Socialist Realism. A blind optimism coupled with revolutionary fervor are the key components of this "aesthetic," portraying life as it should be according to Marxist theory, rather than as it actually is.

Soon after taking power, the the KSC at its Ninth Party Congress issued "directives for new socialist culture." The congress declared that "literary and artistic production is an important agent of the ideological and cultural rebirth in our country, and it is destined to play a great role in the socialist education of the masses." Some arts maintained their tradition of excellence throughout the era. Theater productions relied on the classics for their repertoire. Czech filmmakers relied on anti-Nazi, World War II plots to produce works of world renown in the 1960s. This was and has continued to be a safe topic. But writers were a perennial source of consternation for the authorities. Officials of the Novotny regime periodically denounced them for "unprincipled liberalism." Those placed under interdict wrote, as the phrase went, "for the drawer"; some, like Novomesky, were sentenced to long prison terms.

In the 1970s, the regime's policies toward the creative intelligentsia were characterized by a compulsion to control creative activity, coupled with an active paranoia. These policies continued into the 1980s. What motivated censors in ferreting out antisocialist sentiments was sometimes difficult to fathom. Karel Gott, a popular male singer, recorded a song portraying a conversation between a casual lover and his sweetheart that was banned from radio and television. Officialdom found the lyrics "I'll flip a coin when you ask if I'm sincere or not when I say I love you" to be insulting to Czechoslovak currency.

Artists and writers belonged to their own professional organizations. Nonmembers could practice their art as long as they were loyal to the regime, although earning a living outside the major organizations was easier in some fields than others. Actors, as long as they did not aspire to major roles, did not need to join. Artists who were nonmembers effectively limited themselves to ornamental or industrial art. Musicians and singers faced further constraints. In particular, the regime found the personal habits of many members of popular musical groups too divergent from socialist ideals and subjected them to considerable harassment. In fact, it was the arrest and trial of The Plastic People of the Universe, a group active in the musical underground in the 1970s, that precipitated the drafting and signing of Charter 77 (see Popular Political Expression , ch. 4).

Writers endured the greatest repression. For the purged, with limited exceptions, official publishing outlets were closed. In the meantime, the three writers' unions (Czechoslovak, Czech, and Slovak), and especially the Czech Writers' Union, set about grooming a younger generation of writers who, if not overwhelmingly devoted to socialism, were at least assiduously apolitical. In the middle to late 1970s, there was a semithaw: the authorities permitted purged writers to recant and, after a proper measure of self-criticism, publish again. For those who did not avail themselves of this chance, options were indeed limited. By the end of the decade, the government had stepped up efforts to keep Czechoslovak authors from publishing abroad. Those writers who wished to publish successfully at home kept to safe territory--science fiction, World War II novels, fantasy, and children's literature--all noncontroversial, basically apolitical genres that dominated literary output in the 1980s.

A complicated bureaucratic apparatus governed censorship at home. The most critical variable was whether a writer had been expelled from the KSC or simply dropped from its membership lists (see The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia , ch. 4). There were various kinds and degrees of interdiction: some writers could translate but not write, others could write plays but nothing else, and so forth. Banned writers could sometimes publish their work if a "cover person" assumed authorship. The author might lose from one-third to one-half of the contract fee for the work and might have to permit the cover person to make substantial (and often unacceptable) changes in the work. The cover person faced stiff penalties if discovered by the authorities. Because "normalization" was characteristically milder in Slovakia, writers were sometimes able to publish works in Bratislava that the Prague censors found unacceptable. This was also partly due to the fact that the Slovak minister of culture was himself a writer.

Data as of August 1987

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