Predrag Finci (Sarajevo, 1946) was professor at the Sarajevo University until 1993. He lives in London where he waks as a free-lance writer and research fellow at the University College London (UCL). Member of P.E.N. (BiH), and Exile Writers Ink (London).
THE TERRORISM OF THE CULTURAL COLUMN
From the book of Predrag Finci ON SOME SECONDARY MATTERS
Translated by Edward Dennis Goy and Jasna Levinger
In the first sentence I could not immediately express a negative attitude to the 'cultural column' in the daily press, for I am aware of its services in the 'affirmation of spiritual values'; but in the second I can: the so-called cultural column is itself an enemy of culture. The cultural column is a selective daily register of events. In this it does not essentially differ from other newspaper columns, although it falsely advocates 'constant values' in a more explicit manner, values which it must constantly betray, since it promotes 'daily events', and thus the ephemeral as the basic character of all journalism. It is sufficient, if not more than sufficient, to examine just one year of some paper or review of culture and art for the relativism of its values to become clear. Its very selectiveness may be explained by 'cultural policy', which always stands in a definite relationship to politics as the ruling ideology: ideas and works are divided into the 'desirable and undesirable', and accordingly their representatives are praised or belittled. In accordance with the policy of its publisher, financier or political institution, the cultural column not only makes the selection in agreement with the will of its actual master, but is unable even to realize its proclaimed autonomy. It is harnessed to the needs of the day which are defined by its financial patron of the newspaper, irrespective of whether the paper in question is subsidized or depends on its circulation. It is the covert defender of definite interests and, in the final count, is always subject to those interests. Therefore it is no wonder that various commentaries which we meet daily in such columns are redolent of a sacrosanct arrogance and open aggressiveness, for they rely on the 'trusted criteria' of those whose privileges and interests they represent. In totalitarian systems such commissars of sense determined who were desirable and who undesirable authors, so that there grew up a special type of intellectual who, like the party censors and mouthpieces of the media who wreaked the greatest harm on those very people from among whom they took their origin. To paraphrase Adorno, more harm has been done to culture by those who pretended to represent it, than by those who ignored it or belittled it. It is not, then, by chance that various boards of editors of the daily and weekly press are packed with literary bunglers, former activists and 'newly promoted' journalists who have shown an 'affinity for culture'. Stuck in the usual journalistic lack of principle, they 'follow cultural events' with the neutrality and the indifference of devoted clerks, whose caring and favouring, faced with every 'doubtful' phenomenon, at once turns to a violent attack, typical of those who have always hated every spiritual value since they never belonged to it. For such people, culture is a vanity fair, a display of the worthless in which all that is exhibited is for sale. The relativism of the newspapers has reduced the writer and his work to bare news and nothing else. If, however, any overcome the habits of journalistic routine, then they fall into trouble for being good neither to the journalists nor to the writers, for both consider him as only half their man, since such does not represent nor carry out the 'policy' of the editors, nor does he attain the independence of the writer. Hence his good intentions are fettered not by his desire, but by the demands of his profession. He is always writing to order, since he is dependent on him who orders: he trades on his talent of a daily writer, a talent which enables him the more skilfully to sell 'the idea of the day'.
And for such, the artist is a public fact. The journalist considers that he can dispose not only of the author's work, but that even his private life is merely information, usable news which may be employed to amuse the interested public. Hence in the cultural column we frequently come across sophisticated salon intrigues, scandals and frivolous gossip which, unlike the old exclusive whisperings, now become 'democratised' in the broadly circularised press, which simply shows that the position of the author is completely revealed, that is, completely exposed and defenceless. The artist, as the press confirms, is merely a public entertainer who has no means of defending his integrity. Indeed, he agrees to such a position by the very nature of his activity, though with the hope that his work may defend him from all manner of intrusions that touch on his private life. His hope is that a public personality is responsible exclusively for his public action and forgets that that very action makes him of interest as a private persona. Hence it is no rarity for cultural columns to be full of posthumously disclosed letters, diaries with an ulterior motive, memories of and interviews with well-known artists, which, all taken together, is supposed to shed light on certain artistic individualities, but in fact tends to push their work into the background: instead of a thorough insight into his opus, what is offered is a superficial confession on the basis of which the reader may make superficial judgements both of the author and of his work. Although occasionally interviews and similar texts may serve as a partial supplement or additional information concerning the author's opus, he has, nonetheless, said what he had to say in his works, and not in his public appearances. Such texts seek for frivolities and the bizarre, arbitrary assessments and generalised conclusions. The author of such texts hopes in this way to offer his readers a sensational novelty. Searching through medical reports, memories of superficial acquaintances and mislaid papers of famous authors is the speciality of the provincial mind, which, under the pretext of engagement with cultural and historical truth or with the biographical method of study of somebody's work, lays everything bare, since nothing is sacred, not even that for which it apparently stands, because, in this struggle, the author is exposed to the public view against his will and all for the sake of its own vague success. Hence it is a real trouble for the writers of articles when an author avoids the eye of publicity: think only of the excitement caused by the pseudonym B. Traven, or of the continuous disquiet and acrimony caused by the inaccessibility of J.D. Salinger … But interest in the author's personality is not the result of a newspaper column, but rather due to the encouragement of its sponsor and, most of all, of the author himself as his own manager, all in the hope that interest in the author's personality will result in interest in his work. And so it happens that the author becomes more famous than his work or that he is never so famous because of his work as because of what he said about his work.
Aware of this fact, the author himself begins to appear as a contributor to the cultural column, which is more a sign of his need for a fast buck and for publicity than for the need for the intellectual engagement in whose name he is writing. Becoming the voice of authoritative publicity, he becomes dependent on the very publicity which he addresses. From that moment, the writer expects that his point of view, even when apparently surprising, will be welcomed, which drives him to a simplified expression and an acceptable view, to a compromise disguised in a pleasing literary form. Entering into the pursuit of ephemeral approval, the writer accepts being himself ephemeral, which does not have to be disastrous for his work, in so far as it is not exhausted by this type of activity. Those more cautious (or more cowardly?) peep into the cultural column looking to see whether they are mentioned. Various newspaper reviews, spiced with familiarity or personal intolerance, are scarcely more convincing than the commercial blurb of the publisher concerning the same work, at which the innocent reader cannot free himself from thinking of the paid introductions and reviews in the periodical press of the early twentieth century, be it of unrestrained panegyrics or, what for the publisher is still more welcome, of purposeful scandal-mongering and the creation of affaires which become the talk of the town. By constantly emphasising some name and work, it pressurises public opinion, propagandising in particular those whom it considers its finest local and national representatives. Such terrorising by dominant opinion always gives priority to those authors and subjects which it considers as its true representatives, and, in so doing, does not hesitate to promote some provincial scribbler into an admittedly insufficiently recognised, yet indeed truly world eminence. Although such arrogance, usually accompanied by empty blurb and by a flashy edition, for the sophisticated reader evokes disgust and pity, every editor takes pride in it, since he considers that in this way he has pleased his sponsors and bosses and, at the same time, carried out a worthy educational mission, contributing to the understanding of true values. For him, the true value is what may be used in momentary cultural pragmatism, by which critical opinion definitely gives way to the following of fashionable trends, and every well-founded insight vanishes before the onset of attractive and desirable information. For this latter, the loss of the parameter in these days of relativism is of assistance: while tradition frequently and lightly rejected many an innovation, our age, for fear of failure, precipitately embraces every form of eccentric madness. The factor of fashion is paralleled by the desire for sales. And for the cultural column, all culture is a consumers' commodity. The imposition of an attitude and the suggestion of choice shows that the main aim of the cultural column is, by means of art, to assert a mode of thinking by which the privileged cultural and social values are glorified. Thus, all that it says regarding culture is as nothing to what it does not say, be this hidden values, be it the violence and barbarity from which it has arisen and which it seeks, unskilfully, to conceal. That which such a daily column favours must evoke suspicion, not because everything in it is false, but because everything in it is reduced to the level of only apparent value and truth. At the same time it imposes on all culture the undesirable status of an isolated territory, due to its attempt to place itself above culture, as a reliable witness, judge and director. The fact that art itself cares not a jot for such direction, disproving it by its free development, can do little harm to the cultural column. It can easily absorb even things that negate it. For that matter wouldn't this text suit it very well?