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Review of Aesthetics and Civics
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Erich Mistrík, Aesthetics and Civics (HEVI, 1996)

Reviewed by Julie Van Camp

In the wake of the long debate in the United States over government support for the arts, it is instructive to consider the shape of this dialogue in other countries and regions. In a monograph financed by the European Community, Erich Mistrík, a professor of aesthetic education at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, has written an impassioned account of the importance of cultural education, free speech, and government support for artists in Slovakia and the newly democratized states in Eastern Europe. Mistrík’s rationale for the centrality of culture in civic life is worth considering for its insight into political freedoms taken for granted in western nations.

Mistrík has travelled in Europe and America, eagerly absorbing ideas too-often ignored by blasé westerners. He is well-versed in the language of post-modernism, but resists nihilism. Alarmed at the collapse of human values and the worship of science and economics, Mistrík encourages “reemphasized interest in culture, arts and aesthetic values” (p. 10).

Despite analogous concern in the west over moral values, artists in established democracies are enduring government funding cuts due to political pressures for more free-market self-sufficiency. American confidence that the nation could and should support the arts, with generous tolerance of free speech, has waned. The limited government funds that remain come with troubling strings. While Americans come to terms with vague restrictions on free speech, eastern Europeans face newly won freedoms and uncertainties of their own.

In Slovakia, artists once enjoyed significant government support, but with severely restricted content. The arts now must sink or swim with the rest of society in market-based capitalism. Mistrík argues that government subsidies are essential to promote the development of culture and education, as his nation moves “from a closed society with a relatively firmly fixed inner structure to an open, flexible one” (p. 15). He underscores the value of the arts in education and civic life, in language strikingly similar to appeals on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States.

Mistrík’s priorities reflect other similarities with the dialogue in established democracies. He aims to preserve Slovak culture and to show that it is adequate for national needs for self-expression. But these standards, he says, must develop a more inclusive and tolerant multiculturalism that moves beyond Eurocentricism while also resisting Americanization of their culture. Tolerance is insufficient, he says. We must teach “multicultural sight and feeling in order to develop a cultural empathy” (p. 78). The arts are essential in the transition to democracy in the global community: “From an understanding of the connections between culture and human activity comes the acceptance of cultural differences with an attitude of tolerance and respect” (p. 84).

Western readers will not find here breakthrough approaches to aesthetics. What they will find is a reaffirmation of the centrality of the arts and aesthetic understanding in successful national life, whereever those nations happen to be.

 

1999 © Julie Van Camp

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