[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2016.]
How little we know about the culture of that ‘area of darkness:’ Eastern Europe.
Living within a few hundred kilometres of this region, most of us would be hard pressed to give the names of more than a handful of directors, actors or music groups from somewhere as close as the Czech Republic or even from the former East Germany. Communism blotted out an entire world of creative expression to those who lived in the so-called free West of Europe and tastes in cultural fashion have hardly reclaimed any of it.
Reading Polish writer Agata Pyzik’s recent ironically titled book "Poor But Sexy" helps to uncover some of what she calls the ‘culture clashes’ between the two sides of the continent.
She argues that twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is as divided as ever. Only occasionally using too much post-modernist academic jargon, she makes the highly convincing case that the Western ‘democratic’ world has maintained an arrogant assumption that everybody wants to ‘buy into’ their capitalist belief systems. As well as this, she acknowledges that conservative political failures (including missed opportunities on the left) have meant that market forces and greed have also triumphed over social or collective responsibility in the East, just they clearly have triumphed in the West.
But what Pyzik also does is give the reader a new insight into the arts in a part of the planet when all creative action had a political edge to it. Russian films of the post-war era obviously had a propagandist purpose (very often) but the Sots Art movement also got away with mocking ‘unberaable, ritualised Soviet life’ while simultaneously showing how the average person could attempt a normal existence among the ruins of the old world.
As well as this, writers such as György Lukács used a kind of Brecht-like critical realism to ‘inspire and activate the reader.’ In his earlier book "Man Without Qualities" – a superb title – he largely rejects modernity, seeing ‘the tragedy of the modern artist as someone who lost the ground under their feet.’ Surprisingly, he views this as ‘an advance rather than a difficulty.’
Again and again in Eastern Bloc culture Pyzik points out examples of the contradictions and paradoxes of the kind that seem to me to be a big part of French thinking but are so often overly simplified into the black-and-white certainties of Iberian habits of mind.
Another strength of this book is that it recognises the unheralded contribution of women in the East.
It took the feminist film director Agnieska to accurately predict how female activism in Poland’s Solidarity movement would be wiped from popular memory and when this is combined with how sexuality was restricted and banned in the movies across Communist nations, it is alarming how the idea of feminine purity was so dominant. In a patriarchal Catholic Poland ‘full of open sexism’ precious few women characters of equality got through to be seen.
And in this book there are countless references to the culture from the West so that we are not lost in unfamiliar names. Everyone from David Bowie to Ken Loach to Art of Noise gets a mention. There are plenty of relevant comparisons with contemporary Eastern culture, Pyzik finds. She ends with the disturbing statement that the populace of Eastern Europe "so strongly believe we don’t deserve the normal conditions of a social democracy that we hardly fight for it." Let’s not make that same mistake in other parts of the planet.